Award-winning horror writer Stephen Graham Jones takes on the graphic novel genre in Memorial Ride, a violent road story about an American Indian soldier battling a gang of outlaws.
Memorial Ride (112 pages, $24.95) is the first graphic novel in a publishing partnership between University of New Mexico Press and Red Planet Books & Comics, the world’s only Indigenous-owned comic book store, located in Albuquerque. It’s drawn by Maria Wolf, with lettering by Lee Francis IV (Pueblo of Laguna), the founder of Red Planet. Jones (Blackfeet) got involved in the project as soon as Francis contacted him.
“I already had a script ready that I’d written three years earlier,” he says. “I think I sent it to him the next day. We hit the ground running.”
The story’s protagonist is Cooper Town, a soldier in his mid-20s who returns from the Middle East for his father’s funeral. He meets up with his girlfriend, Sheri Mun, and the two wind up on the bad side of the John Waynes, a notorious gang of drug-dealing stick-up artists. Cooper and Sheri ride a Harley through the Southwest, trying to outrun the danger that’s chasing them.
Jones renders notably authentic characters and dialogue, with excellent use of regional speech patterns in the people Cooper and Sheri encounter in different states. Wolf’s drawings, which appear mostly in black and white, capture specific scenic locales with impressive accuracy, such as the precarious curves of Raton Pass on the interstate between New Mexico and Colorado.
Jones is the author of 27 books, including My Heart is a Chainsaw (2021) and The Only Good Indians (2020), for which he won the Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction. He received the Bram Stoker Award for Long Fiction for Mapping the Interior (2017). He teaches creative writing and literature at University of Colorado-Boulder.
Jones chatted with Pasatiempo about how he developed the story of Memorial Ride and how a graphic novel comes together.
Pasatiempo: What was the inspiration for Memorial Ride? Do you have a military history?
Stephen Graham Jones: My father and grandfather were Air Force, so I grew up around bases and around all the lingo. But the story comes from when, about four or five years ago, I got really fascinated with John Wayne, watching all the movies I could, reading all the interviews I could. It’s not because I like John Wayne. It’s because John Wayne stands for America. He embodies the Old West cowboy, which is at the base of the American myth. I thought if I can understand the prime cowboy, maybe I can understand America. At the end of that process, who knows what I understood, but my head was really full of John Wayne stuff. So, I wrote Memorial Ride with the John Waynes [as the outlaw gang]. In the original script, the John Waynes wore pull-over masks of John Wayne, but I didn’t anticipate how impossible it would be for an artist to draw John Wayne four times in every panel, and differentiate between them. How do you know who’s talking? So, they wear the train-robber bandanna.
Pasa: In interviews, you’ve mentioned the John Wayne cowboy mythos and how you were addressing the treatment of Native people within it.
S.G.J.: There’s a Charlie Daniels song with the lyrics, “It’s a shame ole John Wayne didn’t live to run for president” [in “(What This World Needs Is) A Few More Rednecks”]. I think there’s a whole lot of people who still feel that. I thought it would be wonderful to show John Wayne for what he really is by casting him as a little group of drugstore stick-up artists. It’s fun and probably petty as well on my part.
Pasa: Can you explain some of the conventions of graphic novels for people who aren’t familiar with the genre?
S.G.J.: In comic books, you always stage your splash page — which is one big image — on a page-turn, so you can surprise the reader. You don’t want them to see it coming. And with dialogue balloons, if you have two people in a panel talking with each other, you’ll often put their dialogue balloons so that the lip of one kind of sits on top of another, and that shows the sequence in which to read them. You read left to right, top to bottom. You don’t have motion in these still images, so you do speed lines and motion lines, and you ask the reader to complete the action between the panels. Like, you’ll have a started action in panel A, and a completed action in panel B, and the reader supplies the middle, which isn’t drawn.
Pasa: You have to make leaps in your mind.
S.G.J: Exactly. It’s really fun. Completely different from prose fiction.
Pasa: Have you written other graphic novels?
S.G.J.: My Hero, with Hex Publishers, in 2017. It’s much shorter and very experimental. It’s got words for art, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to people. If you want to have a bestseller, don’t do a comic book with no pictures.
Pasa: Would you call Memorial Ride more mainstream?
Pasa: What was the process of working with the comic book artist, Maria Wolf? Did you start with an outline of the story?
S.G.J.: The comic writer writes a script, notes for a production, not the final shape. When I wrote Memorial Ride, I didn’t have an artist. I thought this wasn’t going to go anywhere, that it was just for my purposes, and the way I made it feel complete was that I over-wrote it. I described everything going on in the panels, which is too much. That’s just using an artist like they’re an arm you have that can draw. You need to give artists their own room. Maria Wolf is a really good artist. Before she did the layouts, we went back and forth with thumbnail sketches of the characters, to figure out what they looked like and differentiate them. Once we had that down, she gave me the whole book in thumbnail form, how each page worked best. Then she did the pencils [drawings], and we went back and forth with a few changes on those, and then she added the inks. Then Lee [Francis] came in and did the lettering.
Pasa: Tell me about Cooper. What are his relationships like?
S.G.J.: He’s very estranged from his father. When Cooper’s father dies, he’s in the brig, as it happens, for punching out his commanding officer. Cooper comes back stateside, nominally to go to his father’s funeral, but it’s really just to see his girlfriend for the weekend. But over the course of the novel, he reconciles with the memory of his father. A lot of grown children wind up reconciling with their parents when it’s too late.
Pasa: Does Cooper regret going into the military and fighting in a war?
S.G.J.: I don’t think he regrets being a soldier, but he probably will in 10 years when he’s haunted by what he had to do over there. Right now, he thinks it’s the only option he had.
Pasa: Is Cooper’s girlfriend, Sheri Mun, a warrior or a woman in need of rescue?
S.G.J.: She gets hurt in the story, so she does need rescue, but she’s pretty badass. She always wants to stand up. She doesn’t want to let an insult go. She’s always wanting to get in somebody’s face about it. I think she gets in a lot of fights that didn’t have to happen. But we need people like that, who are going to push back even when it’s a small offense.
Pasa: What else do you want people to know about Memorial Ride?
S.G.J.: Somebody brought up Memorial Ride for me to sign, and she had started coloring it. I would like people to know that they can color it if they want to. Everybody’s going to color it differently. This woman, she had made Sheri Mun’s hair turquoise, which I thought was wild and beautiful. ◀