by Jarrod Jones. Think of a pre-code EC Comics strip made now, chock-full of decadence, maniacs, sex toys, gasoline and not one iota of shame, and you’ll find yourself coasting on the lane where The Ride does roam.
It’s that sort of comic that will provoke some people enough that they immediately begin scanning for an off-ramp and send others careening blissfully towards nitro-boosted nirvana. There were no seatbelts when The Ride peeled out of the driveway fifteen years ago, and now, with the 12-Gauge Comics sequel series Burning Desire, I’m not even sure its doors are secure. But for all its profane bombast, for all the time that’s passed between its initial launch in 2005 and today, this Ride remains smooth.
There are a couple reasons for that. The first being that 12-Gauge Comics frequently boasts a collection of maverick creators, and secondly The Ride was the vehicle that ultimately drove this Image Comics imprint to prominence. The intitial team for The Ride included writer Doug Wagner and a murderer’s row of artists such as Brian Stelfreeze, Cully Hamner and Adam Hughes, and as The Ride grew, so did its pit crew—with a choice selection of these comics engineers returning alongside artist Daniel Hillyard and colorist Laura Martin to make sure the belts, bolts and bravura of The Ride are well-maintained.
“We consciously avoided the mainstream when we created [The Ride],” Cully Hamner tells me. “Like we were intuitively counterprogramming against the superhero trends of the time. It’s an engine Doug [Wagner], Kev [12-Gauge President Keven Gardner], Brian [Stelfreeze], and I all share, I think, even now. We’ve kept that engine running.”
Burning Desire isn’t just another chance for a group of beyond-talented friends to reunite for a swan song—it’s a chance for Doug Wagner to reflect on a career that exploded onto the comics scene the better part of two decades ago. “After getting over the initial hostility of 15 years having flown by, I was overjoyed to get another chance to return to the series I credit with launching my writing career. Overjoyed and terrified, that is.”
Over-joy and terror and a smooth-running engine. Seems to sum up The Ride pretty damned well to me.
To mark the release of The Ride: Burning Desire trade paperback (which itself celebrates over 15 years of 12-Gauge Comics), DoomRocket spoke with Doug Wagner, Cully Hamner and Tomm Coker about The Ride and how, after all this time, they’ve kept from spinning their own artistic wheels.
1. It’s not often when a creator has the opportunity to revisit a work from over 15 years ago. How does it feel to be able to pull the tarp from ‘The Ride’ after all this time?
Doug Wagner: Well, after getting over the initial hostility of 15 years having flown by, I was overjoyed to get another chance to return to the series I credit with launching my writing career. Overjoyed and terrified, that is. I sooo love The Ride, and I was scared pantsless that I wouldn’t be able to channel the part of me that wrote the original tale. The blank page is horrifying enough as it is, but to add returning to such an integral title was paralyzing at first. How did I come up with that first story? Can I repeat that? What’s wrong with me? Per usual when my fight-or-flight response kicks in, I ignore it for a few days and let things simmer. It finally dawned on me that the fun thing about this opportunity was that I didn’t have to channel the 15-years-younger Doug. I’d grown, become a different writer. It was time to see what happened when I unleashed the more experienced—but not more mature—Doug on The Ride. Two words popped into my head… “fetish noir!” My warped mind couldn’t wait to tackle the story then.
Cully Hamner: Well, it’s like finding a shirt in the closet that still fits. And it never went out of style! And maybe we inadvertently designed it that way, anyway. We consciously avoided the mainstream when we created that first book, like we were intuitively counterprogramming against the superhero trends of the time. It’s an engine Doug, Kev [Keven Gardner], Brian [Stelfreeze], and I all share, I think, even now. We’ve kept that engine running.
Tomm Coker: The great thing about The Ride for me as a creator is the freedom the book and each story allows me. Every time I contributed to The Ride I’ve set out to try something a bit different than before—something that will compliment my previous work while pushing in a new direction, so it never feels like revisiting or dusting off an old project—it’s always a new and unique challenge.
2. Let’s talk about everyone’s contributions to ‘The Ride’ for a moment. To begin with Doug, I wanted to ask about Samantha Vega. Samantha to me feels like she’s a blend of Hopey Glass and Mike Hammer—as the steward of her story, what does Samantha mean to you?
DW: Hopey and Mike Hammer?! Wow, that’s a huge compliment. It would be a dream if Vega somehow resonated as well as those two characters. Sam is the first creator-owned character of mine that has seen print. As strange and weird as this will sound, I love Sam with all my heart. 15 years ago, she changed my life. She helped me realize my dreams. That’s a debt I can never repay. Just think about it. 15 years ago, she allowed me to work with the likes of Cully Hamner, Brian Stelfreeze, Georges Jeanty, Dexter Vines, Jason Pearson, and Adam Hughes. That’s like bucket list material. Now, she’s back and she brought Daniel Hillyard, Laura Martin, Charlie Kirchoff, Adam Hughes, Chris Brunner, Cully Hamner, Tomm Coker, and Doug Dabbs, just to name a few. Lord almighty, Samantha Vega can bring it! So you ask what does Sam mean to me? She’s like my fairy godmother is all.
Did you feel a particular responsibility to see Samantha survive to the end of the series, considering the vast body count in your work?
DW: [Laughs] Absolutely not. You have read my stuff, right? I mean, I kill characters constantly. I love Samantha, but if her story was meant to end here, I’d have killed her in a glorious fireball of death and destruction. But, it didn’t feel like it was her time yet. She morphed into a new, even more interesting character to me during this story; a character I think has more to tell.
Then there’s “Foo”, a short found in ‘The Ride: Burning Desire’ #3. This centers on an Afghanistan veteran who’s become rather squeamish about violence—and for an incredibly good reason. Cully, how did you approach the structured, militarized violence in this strip?
CH: [Bunny Foo Foo] is a creation of my friends Doug Wagner and Daniel Hillyard, a new addition to the mythos. For me, definitely a new toy to play with, but Doug’s script was just searing—especially the last page. It was one of those situations where I admittedly had to carve out some time in my schedule to do it justice and, if I’m being honest, having the clock against me a bit ultimately did Doug’s script a service—in that it forced me to be visceral with it. I couldn’t get cute with the storytelling. It really had to be all about the acting and, therefore, about emotion. Reading back on it now… it works really well.
Considering the material, was there a particular element you wanted to focus on in the art?
CH: Like I said, I had to jettison “want” and focus on “need” just to get it moving and finished. Thankfully, it’s a nighttime story, so lots of compositional blacks and playing with focal points. [Colorist] Nayoung Kim also really ran with the ball in that regard. But aside from that, as I said, it really is all about the emotion, or building to the emotional punch at the end. Doug was clearly depending on me to deliver that, and I hope I did.
Tomm, there’s something about your technique that makes your sequential work feel alive—a sharpness, or awareness, of space, shape, and texture. Your strip in ‘Burning Desire’, titled “Nun”, is punctuated with nails and leather and rubber and flames. I’m curious how you approached “Nun”—was there certain bits of imagery you especially wanted to elaborate on?
TC: My only request of Doug was to write an action-packed story with an awesome female lead that liked to ride motorcycles. Everything else was a surprise.
If I had to point to one thing all three of my Ride stories have in common, artistically, it would be the backwater setting—not a locale I’ve had a chance to draw anywhere else—and a chance for me, as an illustrator, really, to push myself to create an authentic and convincing environment that enhances the story.
3. Doug, you said you have a term for stories like ‘The Ride’—”fetish noir.” There’s elements of bondage, mayhem, police violence, torture, and other such colorful things peppered throughout this series and throughout your work. What’s research like for you? Are you constantly setting fire to hard drives after each issue or what?
DW: [Laughs] I have no doubt my search history is closely eyed by those that do such things. I’ve done deep dives on sex dolls, love paddles, how to crack open a human skull, satanic cults, how to become a nun, how to disable the U.S. electrical grid… all in one day. Well, NSA, have fun following that train of thought.
I actually enjoy research, but I’m not sure I do it like most. Research for me is sorta three-fold. My first, and probably most important, is to simply watch life. See, I’m that weird guy that sits in airports just watching people, studying, observing how we all interact with each other. I’m always fascinated with people that can be 100% themselves unapologetically and how the rest of us respond to that. When I see someone that is particularly interesting, I write down everything I can observe about them on the spot and eventually put them in a story. I’ve got years’ worth of characters built up that I can’t wait to unload on readers.
My second step is studying movies, TV, and comic books. Again, I figure out what characters gain my interest and try to figure out why. Dissect why they make me feel all funny inside and attempt to carry that over into the right story.
The final step is the ol’ internet. Once I figure out a character that interests me, I deep dive into the internet culture around that lifestyle. I love this part of my job.
And just so you know, I back up everything religiously. On multiple hard drives and cloud services. I created it, and I ain’t letting it go nowhere!
4. This is for Tomm and Cully—how would you describe working on a crime book like ‘The Ride’, where all sense of decency and morality is chucked out the window? As an artist, what does that lack of a tether do for your work?
CH: Ah, in the end, we’re all just actors in a play, you know? We’re all just on the playground. It’s not about having a tether, so much as it’s about being tethered to other, more unusual things. There’s always a moral structure in crime stories, even if that structure rests on a different foundation.
TC: It’s fun—I can do whatever I want and not get pushback. That said, as a creator, I need to keep my senses and remain aware of limits and good taste. I don’t want to create something so over the top that it’s repulsive.
5. Doug, each issue of ‘Burning Desire’ featured a back-up illustrated by a murderer’s row of your former ‘Ride’-or-dies—how do you write your scripts for artists as varied as these? Are you throwing a barrage of descriptions for one artist and a “do whatever the hell you want” to the other?
DW: Man, I wish I could change my writing or scripting style depending on the artist I’m working with, but let’s be straight here, I’m simply nowhere near that clever. I’m fairly methodical and OCD in my writing process and scripting, so these jokers had to put up with the Doug style of scripting. Now with that said, I did tailor each story to what I believed was the strength of each artist. It’s important to me that every artist I work with not only enjoys what they’re drawing, but that they feel like a collaborator in every sense of the word. I had multiple meetings with each one, asked what they were really antsy to draw at the moment, and did my best to create a short story that I believed matched their wants and their styles.
For instance, when we first started talking about shorts, my first thought was Cully. Cully and I have been friends since high school, we never seem to get to work together, and I wanted that to change. The great thing about knowing someone for so long is I knew immediately what kind of story I wanted to write for him and that it had to star Bunny Foo Foo. The story came to me immediately. Once Cully agreed to join in, I sent it over to him. Luckily for me, he thought it was perfect for him. That was the easy one. Tomm Coker wasn’t so easy.
Tomm and I sat down beside the pool at SDCC. I walked up all arrogant and brash, an idea all plotted out and ready. I was going to blow Tomm’s mind with what I had in store for him. He burnt that shit to the ground in the first five seconds we started talking. Tomm immediately spurts out, “Hey, I want to draw motorcycles, specifically crotch rockets, and I want our main character to be based on the figure model I’ve used for years.” My story had not one of those things in it. At first, Tomm had me on the ropes. I was about to just run away and hide in the masses. Surely, I could hide from Tomm for the rest of my life, right? Lucky for me, Tomm’s own Ride work started racing through my head—dread, horror, serial killers, the devil. The devil set my mind into motion. I smiled back at him and said, “Can I borrow your Lucifer from your Ride story in this?” He shrugged, I ran with it, and we both created something we loved.
6. Cully, talk to me about escalation in an action scene. When you’re working from a script, those action beats might be laid out for you, but ultimately you’re going to steer this sucker to its destination, right? So, how do you build tension from panel to panel?
CH: It’s a broad question with a hundred different answers. It’s so situational. I’ve always been a big believer in listening to a scene and letting it tell you what it wants or needs, rather than the other way around. So, the tension finds me and I just draw what I need to in order to facilitate the emotional involvement of the reader. Sometimes that requires stretching a moment; sometimes the opposite. But it’s always about character as an emotional proxy for the reader. I’m the conduit for that, and I just try to be reader as much as storyteller.
7. This is for Cully and Tomm: What do you love to draw, above all other things? What makes illustrating a comic a blast for you?
CH: Laying out the basic storytelling is almost always the most fun and interesting for me, as long as the script or plot I have in front of me is cohesive without being constrictive. It’s a solving process. Often a script is a blueprint and you draw what’s there, contributing little except execution—and that’s fine because that’s the job. Sometimes a script is a problem, where you fix what’s wrong—again, sometimes that’s the job. Every now and then, a script is a mystery where you discover things and figure out cool ways to get that across to the reader. That’s the most fun for me, because I’m at my best and have more fun solving a mystery than solving a problem. That’s when it’s more than a job.
TC: I like drawing everything. As a designer I’ve had to create everything from cartoon animal worlds to gritty dystopian futures. What makes a job fun for me is the quality of the people I’m working with. Good people equals good work.
8. Tomm, what graphic artists do you follow? Who would Tomm Coker regard as some of the best there ever was?
TC: Argh, that’s a long list… The best ever is easy, so how about I list a few guys that I think are my current faves…
Lee Weeks—Great traditional approach with all sorts of modern and unique approaches to the work.
Mike Oeming—I think Mice Templar was the last book I read regularly. I just love the way he simplifies.
Cary Nord—Everything this guy draws looks dynamic.
Dani Strips—Simple and elegant style with strong storytelling and a great sense of humor.
And way too many others to list here.
9. To wrap up, Doug, I read through ‘The Ride: Burning Desire’, and this is some gnarly stuff—not as gnarly as ‘Plastic’, maybe, but as far as crime dramas go, ‘Burning Desire’ feels peeled from the same shortbox stashed in the forbidden corners of comic book stores. What attracts you to this kind of material that you seem hellbent on revisiting it?
DW: I write what I want to read. Yes, that indeed means something’s wrong with me. I don’t deny that. I guess there’s just something fascinating to me about what some consider taboo or uncomfortable. I enjoy taking that “forbidden corner” material and creating a story that I hope not only resonates with people but makes them question what they believe to be offensive. I want people to question what’s more important—the look of a person or their heart and soul.
‘The Ride: Burning Desire’ Volume 1 is available now.
To find a comic store that offers shipping or curbside service, head over to comicshoplocator.com.
Check out some of Daniel Hillyard & Laura Martin’s artwork in this 4-page preview of ‘The Ride: Buring Desire’, courtesy of 12-Gauge Comics!
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