INDIE SPOTLIGHT: PACKS OF THE LOWCOUNTRY

I was twelve years old in 1990, and while I was an avid reader of comics before then, I don’t think you can compare the impact entertainment has on you during your early teens to any other time in your life.  It is a transformative period in everyone’s life, regardless of sex, race, or religion. It is a time when you come of age and the wall that exists to protect children from the real world starts to become translucent and you start to see things for how they really are, and more importantly, form your own opinions. I remember Wednesday as a mini Christmas as I peddled my bike to the local comic book shop to grab the new titles and disappear into the world of comics on a weekly basis. Now as a disgruntled adult, I often find myself longing to recapture that feeling when I download my digital pull list each hump day, and for the most part, there are a ton of great stuff out there. But I don’t know if even the best of the best strikes the same cord as it did back then. Might be I am officially an old man at the ripe age of thirty-seven. Might be that its impossible to recapture childhood wonder. Regardless, each week I drop more money that I should be spending, chasing that dragon.

Granted there were some bad things in that era. Superman’s Mullet made me cringe and I came close to throwing up when I saw Clark pull it back into a ponytail. The Clone Saga is just as awful today as it was then. There were terrible character redesigns like Cap’s Exoskeleton, Feral Wolverine, Superman Red and Blue, and Knight Quest Batman. There was Adam X, which I can’t look at and not think of Poochie from the Simpsons and the embarrassment that is/was the Marvel Swimsuit Special.

The gimmicks of the era that leave a sour taste in fans mouth, the specialized variant covers, the endless parade of number one comics being pumped out, the crossover comics during the summer event, the death of marquee characters just to resurrect them a year or two later, these marketing tactics can no longer be compartmentalized to the 1990’s. That is just comics at this point.

Yes, there were some bad moments in the 1990’s, but there were some truly GREAT stories as well. The Age of Apocalypse, The Infinity Gauntlet, Morrison’s JLA, Emerald Twilight, The Long Halloween, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Preacher, Marvels, are some of the most iconic storylines in comics. We were introduced to the next generation of DC superheroes with Kyle Rayner, Tim Drake, Conner Kent, and Bart Allen. Companies like Image, Valiant, Oni Press, IDW, Top Shelf, and Vertigo all launched in the 1990’s and gave readers an alternative to the Big Two (well Vertigo sort of IS the Big Two but you get my point).

There was an element to fun to those 90’s comics. Beneath the overdrawn muscles and costumes with a million pockets it seemed like creators were stretching their legs and trying new things. I feel like comic books take themselves too seriously. Sometimes I don’t want to walk away from a comic depressed and disenfranchised with humanity. Sometimes I just want to see Super-Heroes punch Super-Villains in the face.

There are a lot of independent comics out there that pay homage to this era. To a time before the graphic novel became a publisher’s main revenue stream; a time when a story was compressed to tell the tale in one or two issues rather than writing for the trade. These are stories that deserve to be told, even if they might not be the sort of pacing preferred by today’s comic publisher (although Waid’s Daredevil might just change all that).

That is why I decided to create this Indie Spotlight. To help show people on the fence about jumping into the independents, some of the great works available on Comixology Submit. Granted everyone’s taste is different. Some people might not love the things I love. However, these books all share a common theme. They are projects that feature writing and art quality that I feel is on par with the stuff being produced by the bigger publishers, and in many cases exceed those standards.

So without further ado

Our FIFTH Spotlight is on JOHN DUDLEY and DON CARDENAS comic PACKS OF THE LOW COUNTRY

Packs of the Lowcountry tells the story of a post apocalyptic world, where mankind fell to inter-dimensional monsters. The remnants of humanity struggle to survive in this new world behind their gated city, and outside this sanctuary, monsters roam free in the active lands, hunting down the humans that were left behind. Bastion Conroy, a soldier for the free humans, is dispatched to rendezvous in the field with Helena and Sgt. Mark Merrell, two soldiers in the select Unit and both possessing meta-human abilities. The group is then joined by Lyle and Gills, two swamp people sent to be their guides through the Lowcountry on their march towards The Bunker, home to the eccentric Doctor Beach, a mad scientist whose experiments hold the key to defeating the creatures and potentially winning back the planet. But first, the team needs to survive their journey through the Lowcountry, ruled by packs of werewolves, the Baker Pack.

It is a solid concept and the designs of the creatures that invade the world have a very unique look to them, an almost anime like feel that makes them appeal to the imagination. The story moves at a brisk pace, a refreshing departure from the slow burn style of writing that is in vogue with modern day comic creators. The story doesn’t get bogged down in the details, rather seeds plot points as it goes along and fills in the gaps at natural break points, adding to the mystery of the characters and allowing the reader to speculate as to the relationship that exists beneath the surface of the character’s interactions with each other. We always get the feeling that Bastion is being conned, yet the depth of that deception is kept hidden and the story is ultimately richer for it.

The character of Helen stuck out to me as the most interesting. She is meta-human soldier, strong willed and capable, yet brash and vulnerable at times, she is a mix of Sarah Conner and Kitty Pryde with the alpha level superpower of a Jean Grey. The subplot of her powers and how she came to be this living weapon is something I am looking forward to seeing unfold in future issues.

The backstory, told through flashback sequences, contains some great emotional moments. Gills refuses to allow Sgt. Merrell to execute a dog that served as a scout to the Baker Pack because he remembers his life before the invasion and his family pet. Bastion recalls how his mother and father sacrificed themselves protecting him during the invasion, allowing him to escape certain death. These moments tug on our emotions and allow us to connect to the characters.

Don Cardenas does a great job on the art. He has a unique style and great understanding of light and shadows and how to use these elements to dictate mood, giving the story a sort of noir type feel to it. His panel work tells a clear and concise story and his characters all have a distinctive look to them. One of the things I LOVE is how Don uses the environment within the panel to create sound effects.

The great thing is each issue improves upon the previous and builds to something better. Issue 1 and 2 are currently for sale on Comixology and I was fortunate enough to screen issue 3 for this article and really enjoyed it and where the story leaves off. So jump on board and help support John and Don and PACKS OF THE LOW COUNTRY!

Writer JOHN DUDLEY (left) and artist DON CARDENAS (right), two/thirds of the creative team behind PACKS OF THE LOW COUNTRY, were kind enough to answer the questions below on being breaking into the Indie Comics scene, werewolves in South Carolina, and the X-Men.

WHERE DID THE IDEA FOR PACKS OF THE LOWCOUNTRY COME FROM?

JD: Well, I’ve always felt that South Carolina’s lowcountry region was an ideal setting for werewolves. I grew up largely overseas, and have since lived in nine states, but the lowcountry was the constant, not just my ancestral home but also the only locale that has been a presence throughout my life. Until I was 11, I spent every summer on a particularly sparsely populated island in the lowcountry. 

At any given time, there was only a dozen or so comics on the spinner rack at the gas-station/grocery-store/hardware-store. It was just enough to fire up my imagination, but not quite enough to keep me reading at all times. And since I didn’t really know any kids my age on the island, I had no shortage of time to let my mind wander. 

There was something about the moonlight and sprawling live oak trees with dripping Spanish moss. As far as I was concerned, this was werewolf territory. It just was. As a kid, walking alone at night with a very long leash (these were all dirt roads back home, most of them still are), I would actually enjoy pretending to run away from werewolves.

And who knows… 

Maybe I just barely escaped once or twice?

Anyways, just a few years ago I was back home and was reminded of all this storytelling potential inspired by the region. Then I took that initial germ of an idea and built something much larger.

I HAVE READ THAT YOU ARE BOTH X-MEN FANS.  WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE X-MEN AND WHY?

JD: X-Man (from the Age of Apocalypse).

Hear me out! What I’ve always loved about X-Men stories is just how malleable they can be. There is less of a fixed status quo in the X-Men storytelling universe than any of the other ultra-popular superhero books. It’s true that this can make the books inaccessible to new readers. But I love how new mutants can always be brought into the fold. And these new faces are immediately faced with complicated allegiances. They usually serve as the reader’s perspective as they both join the story-in-progress together. When I was 12 years old, X-Man was the ultimate representation of all this potential. Maybe that potential wasn’t realized for that character in the end, but I loved being there for the journey.

DC: Wolverine. Popular answer, I know. I thought the visual of the character was/is fantastic, and his general attitude was always something I wished I could have tapped into myself when I was younger. A take no guff guy despite the odds? What’s not to love?

PACKS OF THE LOWCOUNTRY IS AN ENSEMBLE CAST. DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCES CREATING A STORY AROUND A TEAM, RATHER THAN AN INDIVIDUAL.  WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES THAT YOU’VE FACED BOTH IN WRITING AND ARTISTICALLY DEALING WITH SO MANY CHARACTERS?

JD: It is indeed a challenge to structure a narrative as a team’s journey. The fact that we’re even attempting the feat is something unique about Packs of the Lowcountry

Compressed storytelling, for better or worse, is a must. Each panel, each word, is made that much more vital as we establish characterizations and the character arc for each individual team member. For a minute, we trick the reader into thinking that this is Bastion’s tale. As you know, it’s really a story about becoming a part of a team, the balance between letting go of your ego a bit, weighed against asserting your strengths. It’s a balancing act.

This ‘team-building’ fable is a ton to balance, from a storytelling perspective (especially the visual storytelling). But despite what way too many comics are teaching readers to expect these days, I think this storytelling medium is at its best when stories are compressed. 

We want our book to always be charging forward. We’re not afraid to let the reader sort things out a bit on their own. We want them to have to create some of the space and time between panels, rather than stretching our story across dozens of issues. Fortunately, Bastion is right there with the reader in all this mess. The reader and ‘Bass’ (literally!) jump into this tale together.

DC: As the cast grows and grows with each issue, it is a challenge to give service/respect to each character so that they just don’t “disappear” for an issue. Keeping track of everyone’s emotional responses and general location in scenes is a fun challenge, since our group differs in personality so much.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCE AS AN INDEPENDENT COMIC BOOK CREATOR/ARTIST?  WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS YOU HAVE LEARNED OR PERHAPS A MISTAKE YOU MADE THAT YOU WOULD SUGGEST ANOTHER CREATOR ENTERING INTO INDEPENDENT COMICS DO DIFFERENTLY?

JD: Artists are responsible for the vast majority of the storytelling in comics. 

I had learned just how true this was after completing a number of short-form comics projects, but it’s even more important when developing as intricate a tale as Packs of the Lowcountry. A picture really is worth a thousand words; let the bulk of the prose exist in the imagery. A comic book artist is the Director/Casting Director/Special Effects/Cinematographer and more. At the end of the day, the comic book writer is just the screenwriter. 

Find an artist who is also an amazing visual storyteller in his or her own right and you’ve got yourself a comic.

DC: Imagine how difficult it would be to make a comic around your day job and usual life responsibilities. 

Now triple that difficulty and you’ll be close!

Of the things I would stress most are planning, keeping a schedule, and delegation. Have your layouts tight and make sure you and the writer are both in love with them. Be realistic with your time and even if things pop up, ANY drawing time is still better than none. Don’t take it all on. Find colorist and letterers, you make need to spend some $$ but it will always be worth it. 

And above all, if possible, always be forthright and respectful with your collaborators in all matters. 

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR GOALS IN COMICS?

JD: I want to help make slightly more compressed storytelling fashionable in comics again. Expectations set by TV and film are affecting our expectations from comics a bit too much, in my opinion. I want a comic that can take a reader across the universe and back in just a few pages; but it’s not going to happen if a comic is decompressed and structured like a twelve hour television season’s script.

DC: To make a living! That’s the most honest answer. At the end of the day I have stories I need to tell, and plan on getting them done regardless of what pays the bills. Also, though my heart will always be open to creator owned material, I would love to work at established companies. I love making comics, period. There are so many fun characters to explore.

WHAT IS ON YOUR CURRENT “MUST READ” LIST?

JD: Charles Soule and Jesus Siaz’s recently concluded Swamp Thing run. Ms. Marvel. Southern Bastards. Hickman’s Avengers work.

DC: Southern Bastards, Revival, God Hates Astronauts, Invisible Republic, Autumnlands: Tooth and Claw, TMNT.

IS THERE ANY ADVICE YOU CAN OFFER TO AN CREATOR/ARTIST LOOKING TO BREAK INTO COMICS IN TODAY’S MARKET?

JD: As I mentioned before, it’s vital for writers to work with artists who are visual storytellers first and foremost. A beautiful static image is great, but comics move. Look for that movement. If you can follow the action of a comic without reading any of the words than you’ve found an artist who is a great storyteller. If those images are beautifully illustrated, that’s just a bonus.

Comics are the epicenter of visual storytelling today. And it’s no surprise really. This wacky storytelling medium isn’t restrained by budget or teams of dozens or hundreds of people, as opposed to other visual storytelling mediums (TV/Film/Video Games). The biggest and most creatively rich stories can be told in comics by two, or even one single person; it’s just a matter of how successfully they can channel their story from their brain, through a pen and onto a piece of paper.

TV/Film/Big-budget Video Games are all made by committee and they can’t touch the creative richness independent comics can hit.

If you enjoy creatively visually driven stories: Read comics. 

If you want to create fantastic stories in a visual medium: Make comics.

DC: Make a comic. Give it to people. Maybe sell some. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Nothing is stopping you.  

HOW MANY ISSUES DO YOU HAVE PLANNED FOR PACKS OF THE LOWCOUNTRY?

JD: It’s a six-issue story. We had it all mapped out before we started page one.

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR FAVORITE MOMENT CREATING COMICS SO FAR?

JD: My favorite moment so far was just last week at C2E2. We had people coming to our table just to pick up issue #3. We had no idea who most of these people were, but they had read the first two issues already and were eager for more. We were all too happy to oblige them.

Awesome feeling.

DC: While John’s answer is very close to my #1. I have to say finishing the first issue and having it in my hands. Made everything so real. 

ARE THERE ANY UPCOMING CONVENTIONS OR EVENTS YOU WILL BE ATTENDING YOU WOULD LIKE OUR READERSHIP TO BE AWARE OF?

JD: Unfortunately I have no conventions planned at this time. Our focus is to knock out the last three issues of the story. But we do hope to table at C2E2 and Heroes Con in 2016. Since the book takes place in South Carolina, we’re particularly eager to table at Heroes Con.

DC: Yes! I will be at CincyCon this September and hopefully a smaller show in the Chicago area between now and then.

OUTSIDE OF COMICS, WHAT INFLUENCES YOU?

JD: I love to be inspired by the outside world. Whether it be hiking in Montana or fishing in South Carolina, my mind tends to enter storytelling mode when I’m out and about. Sitting in front of a blank page isn’t where a story starts; at least, not for me.

DC: Most definitely music. I do a lot of layout thinking during my runs with music pumping, though I tend to listen to heavy stuff during the workout, I switch it up to lighter fare while actually drawing. With the occasional soundtrack score thrown in. 

CAN YOU WALK ME THROUGH YOUR PROCESS. HOW DO YOU BREAK AN ISSUE AND HOW DO YOU WRITE THE SCRIPT? IS IT MARVEL STYLE OR FULL SCRIPT?

JD: Full script for the first draft. We keep every issue at exactly 24 pages, so we usually have to cut the script down a few pages in the layouts. So this is when Don and I have a phone call to hash out every last detail. We make sure the action and progression of the first draft is all there. Then, once Don finishes the pencils, I do a complete rewrite of the script, Marvel Style. It’s actually been a great process. We have a ton of plates spinning, and this (essentially 3 draft) process helps us keep on eye on every last detail.

WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE CHARACTER TO WRITE IN PACKS OF THE LOWCOUNTRY?

JD: Dr. Beach. He and ‘Connect’ are the story’s most complicated characters. They’re not as dynamic as Bastion and the rest of the crew. But discovering who Beach (and Connect) ALREADY are, is a fun mystery to craft. Their relationship is fun and, I think, the most interesting mystery in the book.

CAN YOU WALK ME THROUGH YOUR PROCESS? WHAT IS A DAY IN THE LIFE OF DON CARDENAS COMIC BOOK ARTIST LIKE?

DC: Right now my process is layout the book digitally on my tablet/drawing monitor, mainly for figuring out perspective/easily tweaking things. Going over them a bit so they are roughly 1/3 penciled. Then I print them out in blue line and tighten the pencils. After the issue is penciled I will go back and ink it from page 1. This keeps the flow steady and I have enough distance from the penciling that I can spot things to fix much easier. Then scanning/cleanup and off to colors!

A typical day is up at 5 AM, getting ready and heading to the day job, home by 6 PM, workout, eat dinner, and work on comics 2-4 hours depending. Quitting time is at 11pm regardless. I’ve tried working later but I’m so tired at that point I waste time fixing it the next day. Weekends are a crapshoot but typically can get 8 hours of work in then. 

WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE CHARACTER TO DRAW IN PACKS OF THE LOWCOUNTRY?

DC: Tie between Helena and Bastion (as of issue #3). Lyle and Beach are really fun too. 

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