Wild Weird Western in BLACK JACK KETCHUM

"Black Jack Ketchum #1" preview
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Image Comics

If David Lynch did a western, it might be a lot like Black Jack Ketchum.

The upcoming creator-owned series launches in December at Image, with writer Brian Shirmer and artist Claudia Balboni mixing styles to find a story of their own. The book centers on a small time crook named Tom Ketchum who is accused of being the legendary outlaw Black Jack Ketchum. Mixing western drama and a surrealist vibe, the creators describe it as a surrealist mix of The Fugitive and The Prisoner.

Newsarama talked with both Shirmer and Balboni ahead of Black Jack Ketchum's December 2 debut, delving into the odd mix, the two Ketchums (who could be one and the same), and the mysterious antagonists they compare to Lord of the Rings' Nazguls.

Newsarama: Brian, Claudia, tell us about Black Jack Ketchum.

Credit: Image Comics

Brian Schirmer: Petty criminal Tom Ketchum flees a wealthy cabal who are convinced he's a legendary outlaw. As he struggles to clear his name, Tom is joined by a mysterious gambler, a mute girl with a Winchester, and his talking sidearm. With adversaries increasing in both number and strangeness, Tom is compelled to question his identity, his sanity, and his very existence.

Claudia Balboni: Black Jack Ketchum is a story where you can relive the excitement of the Old West, and combine it with the distress and the sense of surrealism you would have reading a story by David Lynch.

Nrama: And just who is the man, Tom Ketchum?

Balboni: Tom Ketchum is a man involved in a case of mistaken identity, unaware of the long and distressing journey that he must face.

Credit: Image Comics

Schirmer: That's actually the mystery at the heart of our story - Just who is Tom Ketchum? In the beginning, he is very much the classic, Hitchcockian "wrong man", looking to clear his name, and quickly realizing that the only way he can do that is by tracking down the true criminal. As the story continues, both Tom and the reader are forced to wonder whether Tom is chasing himself. (That might sound like a spoiler, but it really isn't.)

Nrama: And who is "Black Jack" Ketchum really --- or what kind of man do people think he is?

Balboni: "Black Jack" is an outlaw with a big bounty on his head, an unscrupulous murderer.

Schirmer: He's wanted for a number of heinous crimes. Honestly, the list is so long as to be over-the-top. It's a case of an outlaw's legend being so built up that it bleeds over into the case against him. I doubt that any historical figure of the Old West actually faced as many counts against him as our poor "Black Jack".

Nrama: This isn't the Old West the way I remember it from history books -- how would you describe the world in Black Jack Ketchum?

Credit: Image Comics

Balboni: Dreamlike and surreal.

Schirmer: It's a Wild West that operates on dream logic. Now, that doesn't mean there are no rules. There most certainly are. It's more that traditional Western elements and motifs tend to serve atypical purposes. For example, saloons are not only places one can play cards and grab a drink, but also transportation hubs, allowing one to teleport to other watering holes in other towns.

Nrama: And who is this "Union" that's after Tom and his friends?

Schirmer: We don't know too much about the Union in this first issue. They are certainly present, but at this point they are just a part of the mystery. They're role becomes more apparent as the series progresses. Let's just say that they know more of what's going on than most any other character in the story.

Credit: Image Comics

Nrama: Speaking of friends, who are they and why do they want to stand beside a wanted man?

Balboni: Tom's "friends" - the Gambler and the Mute Girl - look to keep Tom focused and protect him throughout his journey.

Schirmer: But, that's not to say that they don't also have their own ulterior motives. They both choose to get involved with this troubled guy, and yet each seems to step back or disappear right when things get ugly. This is not a coincidence.

Nrama: How did you two connect to do this series?

Balboni: Brian contacted me when he was looking for an artist for his project and told me the story he had conceived. I immediately became bewitched by it!

Credit: Image Comics

Schirmer: The project was already set up at Image, and it needed an artist. Claudia and I shared a mutual friend - Larry Watts (Army of Darkness, Robyn Hood) - who put us in touch. I loved what she'd done on Star Trek and True Blood over at IDW, and when she took a stab at some initial pages for Black Jack Ketchum, I was blown away. I showed those pages to Image’s publisher Eric Stephenson, and we agreed that she was the ideal artist for this book.

Nrama: This has some interesting characters and settings, but what are the themes and big picture feelings you're hoping to express here?

Schirmer: The notion of identity is really at the forefront. From the basest questions that everyone asks - "Who am I?" and "Why am I here?" - we all eventually find that others might see us differently. On the surface, that suggests stories of mistaken identity ranging from The Prince and the Pauper to The Fugitive. You push that further into existentialism and you wind up, as Claudia says, in David Lynch territory, with films like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. What makes us who we are - both as we regard ourselves and as others see us - makes for such fertile storytelling ground. And it's our acceptance or rejection of either perspective that truly defines us. That is the sandbox of Black Jack Ketchum.

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