Who Is Black Jack Ketchum? [Interview]

Image Comics: At first glance, BLACK JACK KETCHUM looks like a Western, but by the time readers hit page two or three, they know the truth: it's a Weird Western, in addition to being a "wrong man" kind of story. BLACK JACK KETCHUM is a blend—what makes the combo of a Weird Western and a crime story interesting for you?

Claudia Balboni: I like the way Brian has managed to break the traditional narrative schemes, combining two genres that are very far apart and making them coexist in a world that appears to be consistent and not forced.

Brian Schirmer: I've certainly been a fan of stories that center around a protagonist who needs to clear his name. Whether the films of Hitchcock or The Fugitive or Kafka's The Trial, there's something so engrossing about a character who needs to reassert their identity, who needs to convince the world of their innocence. That's such a nightmare scenario. And it's one that plays beautifully in any setting.

The world of BLACK JACK KETCHUM, the elements that make it a Weird Western, actually originated in a dream I had years ago. There were these faceless guys who were akin to Nazguls, and they wore long dusters and wide-brimmed hats that kept their faces in perpetual shadow. There was this teleportation network between the various saloons. All of the standard set dressings for a Western were there, but they'd been turned on their ears. I wrote it all down when I awoke, and that world stuck with me. When I knew that I'd be writing a Western, there was no doubt in my mind that this was the universe I wanted to play in, and it soon became a no-brainer that we'd cast a protagonist in a "wrong man" scenario. That combination unlocked so much potential that it couldn't be ignored.

IC: How did you two come to collaborate BLACK JACK KETCHUM? What's Jeremy Saliba's involvement?

BS: Jeremy was on board from the very beginning, helping to mold the world and the story, as well as taking on editorial and cover art duties. Claudia joined the team via our good fortunes.

BLACK JACK KETCHUM had received the green light from Eric Stephenson, and then our interior artist had to bail. It happens. He'd overbooked himself and had to make the tough choice. I panicked for about two hours and then realized that I'd been given this amazing opportunity. I sent up flares to folks I knew in the industry, told them the situation, and asked for the names of artists they'd recommend. We wound up contacting probably two dozen folks. One of them was Claudia. She had such a passion for the project from the start and it poured through onto her pages. Jeremy and I showed some initial work to Stephenson, said we thought she was awesome, and rejoiced when he concurred. Then, we were off and running.

CB: I received an unexpected email from Brian and Jeremy where they asked me to do some test pages for this bizarre story that immediately captured my interest. I gave it my all and had a lot of fun creating Tom Ketchum and this weird world. I did my best to put all of the emotion of Brian's story onto the pages. A few weeks later, they told me that I would be working with them on the project. I was overjoyed.

IC: What do you two appreciate most about each other's work?

CB: First of all, I love the way he writes. Thanks to his descriptive talent, I could see this world, and even more, the mood he wanted to arouse in various situations. It helped me a lot in my work. Second, I really appreciate his ability to think visually and critique my work. It's a very rare gift, and I consider myself very lucky for that. I have improved a lot thanks to Brian and Jeremy's feedback. Without them it would have been a very different experience. BLACK JACK KETCHUM represents an important step in my professional growth.

BS: Two things...First, her style. It's rugged, yet very clear. Plus, she nails everything. There was never a panel that came in that didn't convey a sense of confidence, that seemed weak or uncertain. Never. Second, the absolute trust she showed in me. I'm the first to admit that this is a weird book, but she never expressed any concern, any doubt. Quite the contrary. Having that level of support and faith coming from your collaborator...You can't quantify the value of that.

IC: Brian, you've mentioned that the real Black Jack Ketchum is a distant relative of yours. Was that an important aspect for you while building the story, or was it more just a cool connection?

BS: A little of both. When I knew I'd be crafting a Western, it was an obvious choice for me to cast Ketchum as a character. He was a cousin to my great-grandmother, and I'd heard his name bandied about since I was a kid. I also knew enough about him that intrigued me—possible mental illness, a brief stint in Butch Cassidy's Hole in the Wall gang, a horrifically botched hanging. So, I did more research. The research suggested themes and plot points. And the story blossomed from there. However, I made it a point that we would not be slaves to history, that the Black Jack Ketchum in our book takes plenty of liberties. For one thing, he has conversations with his sidearm. I'm fairly certain that's not historically accurate. Fairly.

IC: Claudia, you do an admirable job of making every cowboy in the series distinct, from clothing to facial hair and body type. How long did it take you to settle on a design for Tom Ketchum and his companion?

CB: I must say that when I started working with them I had some very significant help from Jeremy, who'd supplied some marvelous preparatory sketches of Tom Ketchum and the Dusters. I immediately had a strong harmony with them, so it was easy to complete the work he had brilliantly started. I tried to diversify all the characters to make the story as real as possible. To craft a variety of faces and outfits, I looked at images of crowds of people from various places, as well as pictures from the era to get inspired and avoid the “copy and paste” effect. I also had a lots of reference pics from Brian (I'm still thanking him!).

IC: What kind of person is BLACK JACK KETCHUM's Tom Ketchum?

BS: He's a bit of the Everyman, a bit of the Average Joe. Maybe he's what your run-of-the-mill frontier outlaw was actually like. Not a larger-than-life mythic figure, but a guy who couldn't make it any way other than by committing a few petty crimes here and there. He doesn't glamorize it. He doesn't wear his actions as a badge of honor. He doesn't step into a room with a bunch of swagger, a steely gaze, and a finger on the trigger. As with any story like this, he's a guy who might've led a middle-of-the-road existence, right up until the point when he's staring down the barrels of two pistols, and the guys holding those guns say the words that change his world forever.

BLACK JACK KETCHUM #1 is available now. BLACK JACK KETCHUM #2 arrives 1/13.