Welcome to all of our fans and fellow Zudites! We thought it would be interesting for you to see a little bit of the behind-the-scenes work that went into the development of Night at the Western.
This is a journey that actually started a long time ago, when I was 19 years old and living in a Victorian-era studio apartment above a liquor store in San Jose, attending Foothill Junior College, working full time, and struggling to get my first short stories published. I penned the short story version of Night at the Western in a tiny breakfast nook I had converted to a writing room, sitting in front of a window overlooking a criminal stretch of The Alameda, with a view of a pay phone that hookers used to contact their drug dealers and johns. I was poor, overworked, and almost completely free: in short, it was the perfect time and place to compose crime stories, and that's what I began to do. I wove my own experiences traveling across the country by train and car together with the Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson novels that I had been reading ravenously in-between my classes and my job at a bookstore. The result was A Night at the Western and a handful of other dark tales. They all had different fates: some were scooped up by publishers of small magazines, others never saw the light. Meanwhile I had moved to foggy Santa Cruz and completed a degree in Literature and kept writing, publishing my first novel, American Graveyards, in 2001.
Cut to the present day: after a decade of traveling and working in a number of different professions, as well as continuing to write, I decided to try my hand at a genre that I've loved since I was a kid: the comic book. I'm not ashamed to call them comic books or comics: it's better if we don't get too fancy. I prefer the word "movies" to the word "cinema" and I think all of that highbrow language is just a way to divide people.
Looking for material of my own that I could convert into comics, I began with another story, "The Ride," and started looking for an artist with a style that suited the subject matter. I found the amazing artist Cesar Sebastian Diaz via the boards at Penciljack, and we set to work. Cesar suggested trying to compete at Zuda Comics. I had already finished "The Ride" and the script was far too short, so I began converting "A Night at the Western," probably one of my personal favorites. We teamed up later with Steven Finch from Fonografiks who lent some fantastic lettering skills to the project and rounded out our team.
And so here we are in Zuda's March competition. This blog will be about showing you how we got here as well as how things are going now, so I guess I better start from the beginning -- the original story that I turned into the Night at the Western script. Here it is after the jump -- or at least the portion of it that became these first eight panels -- there's lots more, but if you want to see how it all ends, you'll have to vote for us!
A NIGHT AT THE WESTERN
By Ray Nayler
The motel was a small dim island of light. Coming over a little hill, we saw it slanting along one side of the road. A neon sign shaped like a cactus announced it with burnt out and flickering letters as the WE_TERN MO_E_. Lights were on in the office, and in a little coffee-shop in the gravel parking lot. There was a sick old Oak at the opposite end of the strip of rooms, leaning over the furthest room from the office like a reproachful parent. Two near identical cars in the parking lot near the coffee-shop sat with rust eating their metal, frost and bald tires sagging. The road went on slightly downhill and straight, through a countryside as empty as the motel.
It was the Coke machine that made us stop, and a lonely set of gas pumps, the ancient bubble-head kind, between the office and the coffee-shop. The gas gauge on the Bronco had dipped below the red line, and was approaching the little yellow E on the dashboard. We'd been driving the back roads through the valley to L.A. I had suggested taking the back roads as an interesting alternative to the 101 or the 5. I'd also packed the wrong map, and driven this straight country road, passing the numbered gravel tracks on either side (too lonely for names) until they had approached the forties and then ended abruptly, leaving only the empty straight blacktop and the frostbit fields on either side. I yanked the Bronco across the gravel and brought it to a stop in front of the office. OPEN ALL NITE the sign said. A bug light near the door buzzed blue, victimless. It was January, and there was an unseasonal freeze, a newsworthy one that plunged temperatures to near zero and turned the promise of California to a chill lie. We'd stopped talking, Nick and I, an hour ago. We both got out, our heavy barn coats barely enough to fend off the chill. The air slipped into my lungs and tried to freeze me from the inside.
"I guess we can just stay here tonight." Nick said. "I don't think we should try and drive all the way back. We can leave early, make L.A. in the morning. Couldn't be more than four or five hours away."
I nodded. I wasn't liking him much. He'd bitched me out all day in explosive intervals as we passed increasingly empty white and brown spaces in the valley. He never offered to take the wheel. I would just as soon have driven all night--the hotel was a dump, and I fully expected to see a cockroach crawling in languid circles in the sink when we entered our room. I glanced at my watch. It was 12:45.
"We can get a map here," shot Nick.
The office was a shabby little room, with handwritten notes on the walls about smoking (none in the rooms) and checkout times, and dusty posters of desert island vistas and palm trees on beaches-neither of which were anywhere near this place. There was no-one behind the counter, but we could hear the TV playing in the back room. We rang the bell.
I remember the feeling that hit me when she walked out. Her face was like a painting I had seen once and stared at wondering. Nick started in on her instantly--I recognized that look; his face went a little white, and his smile came out, wolfish, charming.
She smiled at us. She was short, with black hair, pale skin, her face a little round. She had glasses on with thick frames that made her look young, poor, and smart all at the same time. She was pretty, but not in a California way. She was wearing a blue knee-length dress and a black faux-fur coat.
"Hi," Nick drawled. "We need a room and some gas." He leaned over the counter and nudged me in the shin (my signal). I walked out of the little office and over to the Coke machine, which stood near the IN door to the coffee-shop. The freeze was showing no sign of letting up--the night was at least as cold as the night before, if not colder. My breath clouded in the air. Very far off I could hear the hollow sound of a train whistle in the frozen air. The stars were invisible behind a layer of low-lying clouds, and the moon, now clear, now obscured, was a boring ovoid 3/4 full disc in the sky. I pushed a couple quarters in the slot and leaned against the wall sipping my Coke and watching Nick in the office. I could see him still leaning across the counter, and the girl laughing up at him. Now he was taking her hand, and talking about something on her finger. A ring, I supposed. That was a good trick. I hadn't seen him do it before--maybe it was a new one. Inside the coffee shop, there was a jukebox playing at low volume, and the tinny sound of "Mammy!" filtered under the door. Interwoven with the music was another sound which I finally identified as laughter--a woman, probably heavy. A young man's voice answered her. And then another voice could be picked out, a childlike one talking very slowly and deliberately. The woman kept laughing, and her voice, high but with the full sound of weight behind it, gave me chills.
I decided I was going to get the key from Nick before I lost my room rights--I was too tired to put up with his knocking around in the middle of the night tonight.
Nick was walking out of the office toward me. He had a big shit-eating grin on his face, and he was holding up two sets of keys.
"Separate rooms," he said. 'You're in number nine. I'm in number ten. Queen sized beds. Color television. Free HBO."
"Sure . . . for mine."
"And half of mine." I was fishing through my pockets for a cigarette, glaring up at him.
"Pay for half of mine. I need to explain it to you? To spell it out? What?"
He stood there with the keys in his hand, weighing his options. I had the cigarette in my mouth and was trying for a lighter now.
"Fine. Whatever," he said finally. "I'll have enough to pay you back after L.A."
He tossed me my keys and walked with a slow swagger back to the office. I gave him enough money for my whole room, since he was short. I knew I'd never see the half he owed me. But I'd won anyway. It was the principal of the thing that mattered. Not that he wouldn't have enough after L.A.; he'd have plenty. Plenty for the rest of his life.
I went over and took a look into the coffee-shop through the smudged plate glass. They didn't look like they expected much business. There was a man in a chef's hat dancing with a heavy woman. The man looked twenty or so. His black hair came out in greasy curls from under the short order cook hat, and his eyes didn't line up right on anything, like he was looking at two things at once. He had a big white grin on his face, and he could move. He had his greasy hands on the woman's hips and they were dancing something between a twist and a lambada--and he almost made it work. But the woman . . . she just stood there while he moved all over and laughed with her small lipless mouth hanging open. She had a very large pink uniform on, and I could see that her collar was sweat-yellowed even from through the window. She looked like a luckless forty or so, and her knees were being pulled down toward her calves by gravity. But maybe she'd been pretty once--when she was the man's age.
A kid sat in one of the booths, watching them. He was seventeenish, and his head was much too big for his body, so that it lolled always from one side to the other. His eyes were occluded behind glasses that told me he was near blind, but he watched them anyway, with his head lolling back and forth, and a thin line of drool hanging pendulously from his lower lip.
The man growled something at the woman, and sank his fingers into her expansive buttocks, which made her stop laughing long enough to slap at him playfully and say "Oh, sto-op!" This got the kid's attention and he started laughing too, real deep and slow like a steam train chugging up a hill. It was the laugh of a lobotomy case, and as he laughed he nodded his head up and down in time, and his mouth broke into an open-mouthed grin like a jack-o-lantern.
For some reason, the kid's laugh set the man off, and he stopped dancing. "Shaddap!" he yelled. His eyes flashed. "Shaddap, retard!" He turned to the woman. "Emma, Shut up your retard son."
She smiled over at the table. "Go put some more songs on, Frankie. "Her eyes were sad. The man watched the boy get up. You could see in his eyes he hated the kid. The woman was ashamed, but she said, sharp and low to the man "Don't you tell him to shut up. He's a good boy."
They stood there and looked at each other for a while like a couple of wrestlers across a mat. I'd had enough of their show. I went to leaning against the wall again, smoking real slow. I disliked the cook very much. I have a kid brother who spends his time in a class with other kids like him. Some of them are in wheelchairs, or have braces on their legs. My kid brother just can't learn. Kids at school push him around. Once they got him to take a bath in the big sink in the locker room, and brought in the girls and stood around and laughed. Then when he got out crying and swung at one of them, they blacked his eye and busted his lip. The cook reminded me of those kids.