On the August 17, 1995 episode of his TV series, conservative mouthpiece Rush Limbaugh held up a copy of Joe R. Lansdale and Tim Truman’s Lone Ranger and Tonto (Topps, 1995) graphic novel and chided their portrayal of an intelligent, independent Tonto as “political correctness.” In his typical, uninformed manner, Limbaugh didn’t even research the offending material (“I have far more productive things to do than read comic books.”) The creative duo would attract even more controversy in 1996.
For their first collaborative effort, Lansdale and Truman tackled the iconic DC western character Jonah Hex. In 1993, they produced the five issues series Jonah Hex: Two Gun Mojo. The popular and acclaimed storyline veered some in content but not in intent from creator John Albano’s original interpretation of the character.
“I remembered the Hex stories as being somewhat spooky, supernatural. But when I began rereading those written by Hex’s creator, John Albano, I was astonished to discover they were good, tough Western stories, but there weren’t any supernatural elements. Nary a one.”– Joe R. Lansdale from his Introduction to Jonah Hex: Two Gun Mojo
Lansdale infused his story with zombies in the guise of a traveling side show (including the undead Wild Bill Hickok), plenty of action, loads of violence, and a fair treatment of Native Americans that would have clearly offended Limbaugh and his ilk. After garnering a Bram Stoker and an International Horror Guild Award, the entire tale was collected into a singular volume.
The pair returned to the character in 1995 with the five issue series Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such. Instead of undead, the supernatural baddies this time were inspired by the terrors of H. P. Lovecraft. Albino, simple-minded mutants, spawned from the partnering of human women and otherworldly, subterranean dwellers, threaten cattlemen. The twisted half-worm twin brothers, dubbed Edgar and Johnny Autumn and obviously a parody of the Winter Brothers musical duo, lead the attack.
The Winters took offense and in 1996 sued Lansdale, Truman, and DC Comics claiming the comic portrayed them as “vile, depraved, stupid, cowardly, subhuman individuals who engage in wanton acts of violence, murder and bestiality for pleasure and who should be killed.” The suit wend its way through the courts finally coming to a resolution in 2003 when the California Supreme Court rejected the case on First Amendment grounds.
Although the fictional characters Johnny and Edgar Autumn are less-than-subtle evocations of Johnny and Edgar Winter, the books do not depict plaintiffs literally,” the court wrote in its opinion. “Instead, plaintiffs are merely part of the raw materials from which the comic books were synthesized. To the extent the drawings of the Autumn brothers resemble plaintiffs at all, they are distorted for purposes of lampoon, parody or caricature … The characters and their portrayals do not greatly threaten plaintiffs’ right of publicity.
Surprisingly while the case was still in litigation, Lansdale and Truman produced a third series, Jonah Hex: Shadows West (1999). DC recently collected all three storylines in one volume as Jonah Hex: Shadows West.
The creators reconnected once more in 2007 for the five issue series Conan and the Songs of the Dead (Dark Horse). Independently Truman adapted several of Lansdale’s prose pieces to comics including “Dog, Cat and Baby” (Murder by Crowquill, Amazing Montage Press, 1999) and On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert Among Dead Folks (as Joe R. Lansdale And Timothy Truman’s On the Far Side with Dead Folks #1-3, Avatar Press, 2003).
Following the success of the first Lone Ranger and Tonto series, Lansdale returned for another go, though with Truman being replaced by Ted Naifeh. Sadly, Topps stopped producing comics before the book came out. From all accounts, the completed four issue series featured your typically entertaining Lansdale writing, accompanied by some truly amazing artwork. The story will likely never see print.
The largely forgotten Blood & Shadows (DC/Vertigo, 1996) starred Lansdale’s signature horror character The God of the Razor in his only original comic book tale. The four issue series offered some dynamic Mark A. Nelson art and shamefully has never been collected.
Many of Lansdale’s works have been adapted to comics, primarily in two separate series titled By Bizarre Hands (three issues, Dark Horse, 1994, and six issues, Avatar Press, 2004) and anthologies published by Mojo Press.
With this, dear reader, I must lift the veil and discuss Mojo Press and Joe R. Lansdale. In the early 1990s as an editor for Blackbird Comics, I was slowly establishing a reputation with the publication of Shannon Wheeler’s first book Children With Glue and the anthology Modern Perversity, which featured the work of Lewis Shiner, Karlos Castro, my Nexus Graphica cohort Mark London Williams, and others. While promoting my wares at the 1993 Aggiecon, I asked Joe if he’d like to contribute to my next anthology Creature Features. He agreed and thus began our long creative and personal friendship. Over the next year, we spent many hours on the phone discussing ideas. When Joe broached the concept of a horror comics anthology featuring prose writers, I, as I’m apt to do, leapt without looking into the fray, readily agreeing to co-edit the book. I’ve written extensively elsewhere about the formation of Mojo and the evolution of Weird Business (1995), which grew from a 100 page concept to a 420 page, 23 story, 56 creator behemoth that included contributions from Neal Barrett, Jr., Robert Bloch, Poppy Z. Brite, Nancy Collins, Charles de Lint, Pia Guerra, Phil Hester, Michael Lark, Michael Moorcock, Ted Naifeh, Norman Partridge, John Picacio, Howard Waldrop, F. Paul Wilson, and Roger Zelazny. The volume also contained an adaption of Lansdale’s “Steel Valentine” by me and artist Marc Erickson.
Weird Business was actually the second Mojo title. When I left Blackbird, I took Creature Features (1994) and the original Lansdale tale “Grease Trap” (illustrated by Ted Naifeh) with me. The Wild West Show (1996), another Blackbird refugee, offered an adaptation of Lansdale’s “Trains Not Taken” by Neal Barrett, Jr. and artist John Garcia. In 1996, Atomic Chili collected the extant comics adaptations plus “Grease Trap” and an original adaptation of “The Job” by me and artist John Lucas. Lansdale’s final work with Mojo also happened to be my last with the publisher. Red Range (1999), a western graphic novel illustrated by Sam Glanzman, related the violent tale of a black man bent on revenge.
My comics relationship with Joe extended beyond Mojo. I contributed two adaptations for the sixth issue of the Avatar By Bizarre Hands. Sometime in the mid-90s, a Texas comics small press approached us about adapting “Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland” for their upcoming anthology. We recruited Doug Potter to illustrate the tale. The publisher went the way of the dinosaurs before the comic saw print. The story finally appeared online in color at RevolutionSF (2001) and later in print in my collection Geek Confidential (2003). Joe and I co-wrote “The Initiation” (art by Tony Salmons) for the DC/Vertigo series Gangland (#4, 1998).
Alongside their other Lansdale titles, Avatar published Joe R. Lansdale’s The Drive-In (4 issues, 2003-2004 script by Christopher Golden and art by Andres Guinaldo). In 1993 for Dark Horse, the classic zombie western Dead in the West was adapted by Neal Barrett, Jr. and Jack Jackson. IDW got into the act with their adaptation of “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” as envisioned on the Showtime show Masters of Horror (Masters of Horror #1-2, 2005, Don Coscarelli (Television Adaptation); Stephen Romano (Television Adaptation); Chris Ryall (Comic Adaptation); Jeremy Haun (art)). Keith Lansdale, Joe’s son, crafted the script for the comic book version of the Reverend Jedidiah Mercer tale “Crawling Eye” (Crawling Sky, 4 issues, 2013, art by Brian Denham).
Lansdale’s first published comic work was an adaptation of the Andrew Vachss short story “Drive By” (art by Gary Gianni) in Hard Looks #5 (Dark Horse, 1993). Some 15 years later, he returned to crafting adaptations but in somewhat different manner. Dark Horse hired Lansdale to update the classic Robert E. Howard story “Pigeons From Hell” for modern audiences and sensibilities (Pigeons From Hell 4 issues, 2008, art by Nathan Fox). His next adaptations, all for IDW and adhering more to the original tales, were a pair of Robert Bloch’s tales–“Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” (Robert Bloch’s Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper, 3 issues, 2010, with John L. Lansdale and art by Kevin Colden) and “That Hellbound Train” (Robert Bloch’s That Hellbound Train, 3 issues, 2011, with John L. Lansdale and art by Dave Wachter)– and Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” (H. P. Lovecraft’s Dunwich Horror, 4 issues, 2011, art by Peter Bergting).
Amongst his other work for IDW, Lansdale found time to create an original story set in the popular 30 Days of Night mythos. With the singular art stylings of Sam Keith, 30 Days of Night: Night, Again ran for four issues in 2011.
Lansdale scripted the first three issues of Zombie Tales: The Series for Boom in 2008. Acclaimed South American artist Eduardo Barreto illustrated the stories.
Beginning with the publication of “Grease Trap” in Creature Features, Lansdale has regularly produced shorter originals. His stories appeared in Supergirl Annual #1 (DC, 1996, with Neal Barrett, Jr.), Weird War Tales #2 (DC/Vertigo, 1997), The Spirit: The New Adventures #8 (Kitchen Sink, 1998), Finch #5, 11, and 13 (DC/Vertigo, 1999), Strange Adventures #3 (DC/Vertigo, 1999), Weird Western Tales #2 (DC/Vertigo, 2001), Amazing Fantasy #20 (Marvel, 2006), Marvel Romance Redux: Love Is a Four-Letter Word (Marvel, 2006), Marvel Westerns: Strange Westerns Starring the Black Rider #1 (Marvel, 2006), Tales from the Crypt #6-8 (Papercutz, 2008, with John L. Lansdale) , Marvel Adventures: Fantastic Four #32 (Marvel, 2008), Creepy #2, 6, and 7 (Dark Horse, 2011), and Rocketeer Adventures #3 (IDW, 2011, with Bruce Timm).
Ironically, Lansdale is most associated with a comic book character that he never actually produced for comics. He wrote four episodes (“Critters,” “Read My Lips,” “Showdown,” and “Perchance to Dream”) for the legendary Batman: The Animated Series and the script for the forthcoming direct-to-video animated feature Son of Batman. “Showdown” and “Perchance” rank among the finest episodes of the show. He also wrote the acclaimed and much sought after original Batman novel Batman: Captured by the Engines (1991), the junior novel Batman: Terror on the High Seas (1992), and the short stories “Belly Laugh, or The Joker’s Trick or Treat” (The Further Adventures of The Joker, ed. Martin H. Greenberg, 1989) and “Subway, Jack” (featuring The God of the Razor; The Further Adventures of Batman, ed. Greenberg, 1989).
After a nearly four decade career that has seen the publication of 43 novels, some 300 shorter pieces, and numerous other projects, Joe R. Lansdale seems to always find time to write comics. Let’s hope that never changes.