Ninjas vs. Outlaws: Keith Champagne on Death Valley

Keith Champagne on Death Valley

Ninjas versus anyone is good stuff.

But ninjas versus cowboys? Some of the most famous outlaws of the Old West, like Black Bart, Billy the Kid, Sitting Bull and Belle Starr?

Now yer talkin'.

But don't let the "versus" part fool you – Death Valley, the new four-issue series from writer Keith Champagne and Desperado Publishing beginning in November, is a character-based adventure that is rooted in real history and takes a serious approach.

"This is the kind of concept that could be taken as very silly or played very serious. I went the serious route with it," Champagne said. "This is an adventure featuring some of the most infamous men – and one woman – in American history fighting for their lives against a sort of threat they never even knew existed. While there's definitely some gallows humor thrown in there, Death Valley is played pretty straight, hopefully with characters that are relatable in spite of the fact that they're definitely more anti-hero than hero."

In the story, which features art by Shawn Moll, the Onin War of Japanese history collides with the American Old West as ninjas take on some of the toughest cowboys of lore, including Black Bart, Frank James, Doc Holliday, Billy The Kid, Belle Starr, Sitting Bull, and a famous Mexican bandit named Tiburcio Vazquez.

"During the Onin War, something important is smuggled out of Japan to keep it out of the hands of the three great Daimyo of the Sengoku period, who would unite the country under one rule for the first time," Champagne explained. "And that something is buried and lost in Death Valley for hundreds of years. Who knows what it is, but one thing is for sure: these loyalists smuggled a hell of a lot of gold bullion out of the country along with it.

"About four centuries later, Charles Bolles, otherwise known as Black Bart to some, happens across a Native American Timbisha Girl stumbling through the desert near the California border. She's near death, clutching a bar of gold bullion and has a shuriken jutting out of her back.

"It's the gold that really catches Charles' eye. According to the girl, there's an awful lot of it buried out there and Bolles decides to round up a crew of the baddest men he can find, the sort of people that won't care what might be waiting for them, in order to go find it," the writer said. "They find a hell of a lot more than gold in them thar' hills."

The villains in the story are the ninjas, and a man that Champagne describes as "a French asshole named Lambert, who is working with them."

"It's obvious that they've come to Death Valley to find something but you know how ninja are," he said. "They're pretty mysterious folk. So that's really all I know about their motivations at this time."

Champagne, co-writer of the DC Comics series The Mighty, said he came up with the idea for Death Valley from a discussion with his brother about "who would win in this fight?"

"I was watching Chuck Liddell knock out Tito Ortiz for the second time a couple of years back with my brother Kenny and, goofing around, started to come up with scenarios like, who would win in a fight?," Champagne laughed. "Randy Couture or Sakuraba in his prime? Or UFC Fighters versus Shaolin Monks? (Monks for the win!) Or zombies versus vampires, increasingly goofy stuff like that. And when I drove home that night, I started thinking about different famous outlaws, what would happen if they fought ninjas, how the two sides could ever come into conflict, and something about it stuck in my head."

Champagne started doing research in his free time, finding a common year where all the characters in the book could conceivably have mingled, coming up with little character arcs for each of them.

"And next thing I knew, I had enough material put together for at least a mini, if not more," he said, adding that he hopes the four issues could turn into an ongoing series of volumes for Death Valley.

The story centers on Charles "Black Bart" Bolles, although he ends up surrounded by plenty of other famous outlaws. "They all know each other, some by reputation, others from first hand experience," Champagne said. "For instance, there's a connection between Frank James and Belle Starr, they legit knew each other growing up. Billy The Kid is a little curious if he's faster on the draw than Doc Holliday. Frank James is maybe trying to find a way to shine on his own, out of his brother Jesse's shadow, and on and on."

None of the group particularly trusts each other, the writer explained, but their common love of gold is a pretty powerful glue to bind them all together. "It might not be strong enough to keep them all together when the fit hits the shan," he laughed, "but it's a good starting point, at least. And it's fun to play around with anti-heroes and find a situation dire enough that they might actually have to become real heroes...if they even have it in them, which may not be the case."

Champagne said there's also a samurai named Saigo Takamori, who historically was the basis for Ken Watanabe's character in The Last Samurai. "Because you always need a samurai around to fight ninjas, and there was a brief little window of time when he could have actually come to America and gotten involved. And he's here for reasons of his own," he said.

Although Death Valley seems like a Western, Champagne describes it as more of a character-based adventure featuring " featuring some timeless names and an equally timeless menace, told in a pretty modern style. Tonally, I think it comes across more like a modern character/action movie than it does a John Wayne film."

And while Champagne did plenty of research on the characters and time period, along with lucking out that Moll knows a lot about the Old West, they aren't necessarily claiming this fits into history. It's 100 percent fiction. "Not that anyone is suddenly going to be revealed as a mutant who can shoot bullets from his ass while flying in outer space, just that this is a fictional adventure," the writer said. "We're friends with history but we're not bound by it; obviously this story never really happened. But we're starting off in a recognizable place with these people and going from there."

Champagne and Moll are working on the comic while still doing their more mainstream work, although they're all set for a November release after giving themselves "plenty of wiggle room," Champagne said.

"Shawn is one of my beloved Minnesota Wrecking Crew of Mahnke, Gleason, Tom Nguyen and Shawn," he said. "And I believe I'm the only writer in comics who has written for all those guys. Shawn drew some 52, he did a run on She-Hulk, I wrote a Spider-Man story for him last year and he's currently drawing Wildcats while he juggles Death Valley on the side. I'm lucky to have him, his stuff is perfect for this book. And the colors are covered by the great Moose Baumann, who everyone knows and who brings his own inimitable stamp to the work."

As for his more mainstream work, Champagne is not only halfway through The Mighty at DC, but is also working on an upcoming Joker: Year One story for the publisher with artist Doug Mahnke. The writer is also doing the current Nevermore comic series, created by Dean Koontz and published by Dabel Bros., as well as working on video games and a series for Titan Books that hasn't been announced.

As San Diego Comic-Con starts next week, Death Valley will get some heavy promotion during the Wrath of Con party on Friday night, complete with posters and videos. Poynt (www.mypoynt.com), the company sponsoring the party, is also sponsoring a free preview for all attendees.

"And while I'm thinking of it, we also put together an email address for anyone interested in checking out the book or talking about ninjas and outlaws," Champagne said. "Feel free to drop a line at deathvalleycomic@yahoo.com."

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