Ex-Vertigo Editor Creates Jamaican Mob Magic with DUPPY ‘78
If you’re looking for a happy story, editor-turned-writer Casey Seijas says his upcoming graphic novel Duppy ’78 isn’t the book for you.
“I'll be so bold as to say that fans of Nicholas Sparks’ books probably won't like Duppy '78,” Seijas tells Newsarama.
The Notebook it’s not. But it was never meant to be. Duppy ’78, which is illustrated by the Amancay Nahuelpan-Bustamante, started life after the former Vertigo editor became engrossed in the world of Jamaica after reading revealing biography of Bob Marley. The biography pulled back the curtain on the happy-go-lucky image some people have for Marley and Jamaican culture, and set Seijas down a path that led him to learn about the island’s bloody history, it’s culture and the spiritual movement known as Rastafari.
The end result, Duppy ’78, is a 100 page Jamaican crime fiction graphic novel telling the story of three warring crime lords in Kingston, Jamaican’s capital, and how these criminal impressarios relay on child mystics with power over ghosts, known as Duppy. Seijas describes the high concept for Duppy ’78 as a mixture of the 1970s film The Harder They Come with modern Japanese horror films and “a little bit of Akira.” And as we learn, it’s inspired much by his own time as an editor of Vertigo on titles like 100 Bullets, Scalped and Sentences.
Newsarama: Casey, what can you tell us about Duppy ’78?
Casey Seijas: The high concept here is The Harder They Come, mixed with Ju-on, Ringu and other J-horror classics, with a little bit of Akira thrown in.
Duppy '78 follows the story of three crime lords -- I'm calling them Dons -- who are in a stalemate battle for control of the underworld of Kingston, Jamaica during the summer of 1978. Each Don has a loyal army at their control, an equal share of the black market, and most importantly, an Obeahman, a.k.a. the Duppy Conqueror. More on that in a bit.
Anyway, during an agreed upon ceasefire, one of the Dons is assassinated, and it sets off a nightmarish combination of violent gangland retaliation and supernatural horrors caused by the now-deceased Don's Obeahman, rumored to be the most powerful of the three.
That's the short and long of it -- hopefully it's enough to get folks interested enough to read the book.
Nrama: It’s a start, but let’s go deeper – what exactly is a duppy?
Seijas: Duppies are ghosts, more or less. Some are known to be benevolent, but others can do physical harm, play tricks, or rob people of their shadows. An Obeahman has the ability to control or repel the Duppy.
Nrama: This story has strong ties to Jamaican history and Rastafarianism. How did you become familiar with them?
Seijas: Several years back, I was on this kick where I was reading a lot of biographies on a completely random assortment of famous people throughout history -- Keith Haring, Abraham Lincoln, Edith Piaf, Babe Ruth, Andy Warhol, and so on. Anyway, a friend of mine recommended I should check out a book called Catch a Fire which was a biography about Bob Marley written by Timothy White. So I did, and to this day, it ranks as one of my all-time favorite books, mostly because it kind of debunks the whole blazed out One Love picture most people have in their minds of Marley -- which, granted, he certainly was to an extent -- but it more so focused on his upbringing in Trenchtown.
Long story short, Bob was quite the badass -- you didn't step to him.
Anyway, the book also delved into Rastafarian culture, and naturally, spent a considerable amount of space on the belief in the Duppy and Obeah, which I found fascinating. So from there on out I was obsessed -- not to the point where I was growing dreads and acting all "Ras Trent," but hitting up Amazon and random bookshops in Crown Heights to find any books or documentaries on the subject I could get my hands on, spending hours online doing research, and of course listening to a lot of dancehall, dub and old school reggae. All told, I think I spent a solid two or three years just doing research before I even began plotting out Duppy '78, and if I may say so, it took a bit of dedication because Rastafarians are understandably a very secretive culture, so there's not a whole lot of info out there, but anything I could find on the subject I ate up like pancakes.
Nrama: Getting back to the book itself, can you tell us about the three crimelords, the Dons as you call them, in the book?
Seijas: Sure, there's Johnny "Too Bad" Bustamante -- which, side note, I called him that well before I met Duppy ’78 artist Amancay, whose full name is Amancay Nicolas Nahuelpan Bustamante -- who's essentially the "old guard." He looks like a bulldog with the disposition to match. Basically he controls his corner of the underworld in a very old school manner -- with fear and non-negotiable brutality. Dude is just plain mean.
Next there's Mr. Mansfield, who is the legitimate businessman of the three. He doesn't like to get his hands dirty, but has a keen interest in the goings-on in Kingston and, naturally, has plenty of influence despite focusing more on the prettier sides of Jamaica that the tourists see -- in other words, where the money comes in.
Finally there's Martin Isaac, who's the up-and-comer. Young, handsome, generous, powerful and loved by all. The writing is on the wall that he'll one day take over Kingston completely -- something Too Bad and Mansfield are all too aware of and don't necessarily appreciate -- but it's hard to really hate the guy, even if he is a sworn enemy and clearly after your piece of the pie.
Nrama: Earlier you mentioned people called Obeahman, who can control the ghosts – the duppy.
Seijas: Yeah. The Obeahmen are three kids from vastly different backgrounds who, when the story begins, don't know who each other are or that there are even other Obeahmen out there. For the sake of this story, I wanted to keep them kids and somewhat impressionable; they know they have unique and rare gifts, but they don't know how truly powerful those gifts are.
Anyway, there's Santa, who is Isaac's Obeahman and younger brother, so they have a very close, familial bond. The two truly love each other and look out for one another. Santa is the oldest of the three, so he's a bit wiser and becoming aware of his powers more than the others, which will have ramifications as the story develops.
On the completely opposite end of that spectrum is Judah, who is Too Bad's Obeahman. You discover in Judah's origin story that he was forcibly taken from home and is now a prisoner-slash-weapon used by Too Bad. Because of all the blood on Too Bad's hands, Judah's world is a living nightmare, where he's constantly haunted by all of the souls Too Bad has killed over the years. In a sad effort to combat this, he wears a bag over his head so he doesn't have to see the Duppies who are always surrounding him.
Last there's Elena, who is Mansfield's daughter. Elena is her father's daughter, in a sense that on the surface, she's a sweet, innocent little girl, but just beneath that veneer, she's very headstrong and quite dangerous. That said, she has a very strained relationship with her father, and there's a lot of tension there since Mansfield knows she plays a vital role in his criminal influence, but she's still his daughter, and he feels remorse for using her in this brutal world.
Nrama: The catalyst that strikes the match here is the assassination of one of the Dons, but can you set the stage for us here in Kingston?
Seijas: Without giving too much away, 1978 was a very important year in Jamaican history -- it was the year of the One Love Peace Concert where Jamaica was attempting to heal from a political civil war -- won't go too into it and bore anyone, that's what Wikipedia is for.
Anyway -- back to the story -- the three Dons agree to a ceasefire in order to keep the peace during a week-long celebratory festival, but it's soon broken when one of the Dons is murdered, and his now orphaned Obeahman unleashes a literal hell on earth out of blind rage and as a form of protection from the chaos surrounding him.
It's not a very happy story, needless to say. I'll be so bold as to say that fans of Nicholas Sparks books probably won't like Duppy '78.
Nrama: As mentioned earlier, the artist on this goes by the name of Amancay Nahuelpan-Bustamante– how’d you connect with him, and what made him right for this series?
Seijas:I first saw Amancay's work when he was doing Clandestino for the now-defunct Zuda line at DC Comics. I've always been a fan of the South American style of comic art -- guys like Eduardo Risso, Marcelo Frusin, Enrique Breccia, Leonardo Manco, Leonardo Fernandez...I could go on and on -- and I knew going into this project that that was the style I wanted for Duppy '78. Anyway, I reached out to Amancay cold and, for reasons I'm still trying to understand, he agreed to draw a 100 page graphic novel for no money. What were you thinking, Amancay?!
But seriously, more than anything with Duppy '78, I'm really hoping the right people at the right publishers see his work -- you'll see in the book that he gets better and better with every panel, and he's got a love for the medium that really shines through in his work. Editors, take note -- there's a real talent here.
Fun fact: Amancay and I have been working on Duppy '78 going on five years now, and we have yet to actually meet each other IRL. I can't wait to see the look on his face when we finally meet and he realizes that I'm a 7-foot tall, 500 pound Japanese woman.
I'd be an real a-hole if I also didn't mention Dan Warner's contributions on the book as well. We were looking for a colorist for the book for quite some time, and Dan -- who I've known for years now going back to my days at Wizard and consider a good friend even though he roots for the Red Sox -- agreed to come on board and did an incredible job. The last few pages were done while he was recovering from a major back injury too, so I owe him a lot for his outstanding work. Dude is a true professional and solid citizen.
Nrama: Although it’s been years, you’re still best known in comics for your run as editor at Vertigo. Can you explain how you went from that to this?
Seijas: Let me preface this by saying that everyone in comics has their own unique background story, but when I was coming up at Wizard and then Vertigo, there were some unwritten rules you were expected to follow, and one of the top ones was you didn't use your connections within the industry to pitch your comic ideas. In other words, if you were a reporter, you didn't do an interview with an editor and then turn around and pitch your idea for a graphic novel. The same held true at Vertigo -- you were there to be an editor, not try and use that position to become a writer or an artist or whatever. Did some people manage to do both while I was there? Sure, but I always got the distinct feeling -- and in some ways it was made quite obvious -- that it was kinda frowned upon, for better and for worse. It seems like times may have changed nowadays though -- just relaying my own experiences here.
All that said, it's next to impossible to work in this industry as an editor or reporter and not have at least one idea for a graphic novel or story-arc for an established series, and I certainly wasn't exempt from that mentality. And as mentioned earlier, my obsession with Rastafarian culture, mixed with my love of J-horror, the idea for Duppy '78 was a no-brainer, but yet I was at Vertigo and had to just sit on it until the time was right. So after I left Vertigo to help start MTV Splash Page, and then after I was let go from there in a mass layoff, I decided, "Well, I guess now's as good a time as any to actually write this script." So that's how the transition happened more or less, and Com.X was literally the first publisher I thought to pitch to, and I somehow convinced them to publish Duppy '78.
Nrama: How did working at Vertigo inspire your Duppy ’78 story?
Seijas: At the risk of sounding like I'm bragging here, if you look at the list of books I worked on at Vertigo as either an editor or assistant editor -- 100 Bullets, Y: The Last Man, Scalped, Hellblazer, and of course Sentences just to name a few -- it goes without saying that I was fortunate to work with some of the best writers in comics.
As an editor, you're reading scripts on a daily basis, and I learned a lot just by doing that. For instance, I remember Jason Aaron did tons of research for Scalped and The Other Side and included notes and excerpts from books he'd read in his scripts, which not only made them just as interesting to read as the finished comics, but I'm sure it also helped R.M. Guéra when it came time to draw the pages.
On the flipside of that, Brian Azzarello -- because he knew his 100 Bullets scripts were going to be translated for Risso to draw -- kept his scripts really basic, I'm sure mostly because he trusted Risso to work his magic, but it was also good practice to make sure his word balloons and captions didn't take up half the page when it came time to letter.
Brian K. Vaughan was a master in terms of leaving readers wanting more once they reached page 22 of an issue of Y: The Last Man, but more than that, he was, and I'm sure still is, a consummate pro in terms of hitting deadlines and respecting the creative team, which is a huge part of being successful when it comes to creating comics.
Finally, working with Percy Carey/MF Grimm on Sentences was a massive learning experience for me personally, because not only was it my first time editing a graphic novel solo, but it was also Percy's first time being published as a book writer, so man, that was a true labor of love -- and needless to say, that's a book I'm ridiculously proud of to this day.
Wow, that's a whole lot of name dropping -- sorry!
So yeah, to answer your question, in terms of inspiration, it's next to impossible to work at a place where you're hands-on with these types of projects and that level of talent and not be inspired to at least try to create your own work. That being said, I'm well aware that I'm not even close to these guy's level -- all I'm saying is they were big influences for me, as I'm sure they are for a lot of writers out there trying to break into comics. Regardless of what happens with Duppy '78 -- whether people truly dig it or flat-out hate it -- I had a lot of fun seeing my story come to life, and I'm positive none of it would've happened had it not been for my time at Vertigo.