Pug, T. Runt!, and More: A Derek McCulloch Primer

A Derek McCulloch Primer: Pug and

T. Runt!

Derek McCulloch is a name you'll be hearing a lot from in the near future. The writer, who made a splash with the acclaimed Stagger Lee, has two new projects coming out from Image this June – Pug, a tale a boxer on the ropes, and the kid-oriented T. Runt!. He's also got a number of gestating projects gathering buzz, including the long-awaited Displaced Persons with Rantz Hoseley and Gone to Amerikay with Colleen Doran at Vertigo. We chatted with McCulloch about his two vastly different books, and what we can expect from him in the future.

Newsarama: Derek, first off, give us the low-down on Pug.

Derek Mc Culloch: Pug is the story of Jake Mahoney, a boxer who was an up-and-comer in 1956 but a down-and-outer when we meet him in 1962. He’s lost his wife, his family, and his career, and is living on the kindness of his girlfriend, a burlesque dancer with probably my favorite name I’ve ever come up with for a character: Kitten KaBoodle.

Kitten’s dreaming of white picket fences with Jake, but he’s too hopelessly damaged by his past to think more than one day at a time. In a misguided effort to salvage a little of his self-respect, he starts working for a small-time loan shark, unwittingly putting himself on a collision course with the past he can’t stand to face.

NRAMA: How did this project come about, and what kind of research did it require?

DMcC: Along with Stagger Lee and Displaced Persons, Pug is a story I started thinking about in 1999 when I first decided I wanted to get back into comics. I call it the last of my cold-storage projects.

My original concept for it was less noir-inflected, more of a minimalist Raymond Carver-type character drama, but when Greg Espinoza came on as the artist, my thinking started to go in other directions. Greg and I share an enthusiasm for hardboiled b-movies, and I began to think of Pug as a b-programmer from the late ‘50s or early ‘60s, something that would have starred somebody like Sterling Hayden.

Once we had that in mind, it became a whole other thing – less Raymond Carver, more Budd Boetticher.

Compared with Stagger Lee or even Displaced Persons, I did practically no research. My dad was an amateur boxer in the ‘50s, and I used little bits of things he’s said to me about boxing. I did some specific research into boxing and horseracing in the city and period where the story’s set. I never name the city, but there are clues, so I’ll be curious if anybody bothers to guess.

Greg did a lot of visual research. He dug up old copies of Ring Magazine, and I found him a bunch of Sears catalogs and things from the years in question. That sort of stuff gets easier and easier every year. What used to take you a couple of months in the library can now be accomplished in a few minutes on the Internet.

NRAMA: It looks like the art is done in a widescreen style, a la Matt Fraction and Keiron Dwyer’s Last of the Independents. Why did you go this route?

DMcC: I thought of making it a square book, to reflect the shape of a boxing ring…but Displaced Persons is square, and I’d worked on Comic Book Tattoo, which is square (as is This is a Souvenir, which I’m also in), and I figured I’d be asking to be known as the guy who does square books if I did another one.

I was in the Image office one day and saw this French edition of Liberty Meadows that was rectangular, oriented horizontally, with dimensions kind of like one of those old Garfield books from the ‘70s and ‘80s. I can’t say why, but it just looked like the right shape to me. I showed it to Greg, he agreed, and off we went.

NRAMA: Moving to other things on your plate, tell us a bit about T. Runt!.

DMcC: T. Runt! -- the exclamation mark is very important to me – is an old-fashioned children’s book about a baby T. Rex who’s the runt of his litter and always being picked on by his bigger siblings. It takes him a while to understand that while he feels small and puny and put upon within his family, pretty much every other creature in the world is terrified of him because he’s so big and scary.

The art is by the astonishingly talented, versatile, and prolific Jimmie Robinson. I’ve known Jimmie for somewhere between 10 and 15 years and have wanted to work with him the whole time. Now we finally have two projects together in the same year – he also drew my story in This is a Souvenir, Image’s Spearmint anthology, which I hope to see very soon.

NRAMA: T. Runt! is more of a straight-up picture book. Why did you want to do a story in this format?

DMcC: I have a four-year-old daughter, and I’ve been itching to have some published work that was suitable for her to read. I actually wrote the script for T. Runt! on spec, hoping to shop it around to some established kid’s book publishers. That didn’t work out, and I stuck the thing away in a drawer, chalking it up to experience…then I saw that Shadowline had started up a new imprint, doing what looked suspiciously like children’s books.

I contacted Kris Simon at Silverline and asked her if she wanted to see my kid’s scripts. She liked the script from T. Runt!, and said all I had to do was line up a suitable artist, and they’d do it. I knew Jimmie also has a jones for all-ages material, so I said, “I believe you know Mr. Robinson’s work?” Kris is Jimmie’s editor, so it wasn’t a very tough sell from that point.


NRAMA: What are the advantages and challenges in working in so many different genres with different tones?

DMcC: I write about what interests me, and I’m interested in a lot of different stuff. I’m just naturally going to go where my curiosity leads me.

My work for Popgun is a nice example. In the first issue, I had “Jenny Greenteeth” with Shepherd Hendrix, which was a Twilight Zone kind of thing. In the second issue, I had “Nixon’s the One” with Ron Turner, a historical docudrama. In the third issue, just out now, I have “Cuffs” with Peter Krause, a really nasty hard-boiled crime drama.

The one I have in for the fourth issue, my favorite script of the bunch, is a new genre of my own devising, which I call “stoner Kafka,” something I think the world has really been missing up until now. The story’s called “Harshing the Mellow,” and it was drawn by a wonderful talent by the name of Anthony Peruzzo. I didn’t set out with any big agenda of diversity, but Popgun has turned out to be this great platform to explore a bunch of different stuff that I wouldn’t have the chance to do elsewhere.

But as to your actual question – advantages? It keeps me interested. Challenges? Trying to live up to the subjects I take on. If there are disadvantages, I haven’t come across them yet.

NRAMA: For that matter, what are the advantages and disadvantages of working in the OGN format?

DMcC: I haven’t done any serial comics work since the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. When I started nudging myself back toward comics in 1999, I was thinking in terms of mini-series, and everybody was telling me that floppies are dead and I should concentrate on GNs. I was really resistant to that idea, because I came of age in comics in a time when comics meant floppies.

But when I started writing Stagger Lee, the structure I worked out for it was so clearly a novelistic structure that I couldn’t see any way to break it down serially. The deeper I got into it, the more I embraced the novelistic approach. Now I find I can’t seem to think of writing comics – at least not long-form comics – any other way.

The idea of having to shoehorn in some artificial climax every 22 pages just depresses me. I love the freedom of letting the story be what it needs to be.

NRAMA: You have several other upcoming projects that are generating some buzz – tell us about them.

DMcC: Well, I mentioned Displaced Persons, which has been “coming soon” for quite a while now. I’m hoping to have some more definitive news on its future soon, but shouldn’t really comment further until I do.

Right now, I’m deep in the script of Gone to Amerikay, the OGN I’m doing for Vertigo with Colleen Doran. It’s too early to say anything specific about that book, other than that I think it’s going to be really good. I’m very happy with what I’ve written so far and Colleen’s layouts are really beautiful.

I’ve also just had a green light for another project at Image. It’s a bit of a departure from everything else I’ve done, but it’s something really dear to my heart. It’s anthological – I’ll be working with a bunch of different artists – and it’s a license on an existing literary property – but until we’re ready to officially announce, I’ll say no more.

NRAMA: What is most exciting for you about working in the medium of comics?

Displaced Persons

DMcC: This is going to sound flippant, but it’s true. I’ve been working a day job for the last 12 or more years that gets me up every morning before 6:30. I’m not by nature an early riser. The single greatest attraction for me in writing for a living – be it in comics or whatever – is the thought that someday I’ll be able to wake up in the morning when I feel like waking up, not when the alarm tells me to.

But where comics specifically are concerned, the single most exciting aspect is seeing the finished pages for the first time. There’s something very mysterious and thrilling about seeing your panel descriptions, these little vapors from inside your head, get translated into something so concrete and specific, and always surprising.

NRAMA: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

DMcC: Yeah, one thing. This past weekend, Greg Espinoza and I spent a morning signing and sorting these promo postcards for Pug. They’re going to go out to a cross-section of retailers any moment now.

The production of the cards involved a lot of hard work from some of the too-often unsung heroes at Image – fantastic production and design work by Drew Gill, logistical and marketing support from Joe Keatinge and Tracy Hui and Allen Hui (no relation), indispensable plain-old grunt work from Tyler Shainline, and the overall good stewardship of Eric Stephenson.

These folks and others at their Image office quietly leave their fingerprints on every book that goes out, every piece of promo that goes out, and they don’t get thanked often enough. So thanks to them.

And… Cry me a river, but I have chronic lower back problems, and I was having a bad week in that regard when these cards had to be put together. Every step of the project, it turns out, was bad for my back. Shifting boxes, hunching over a computer compiling a mailing list, signing cards, shuffling around bundling sets, and on and on.

By the time Greg and I were signing, I was aware that my back was hurting and that I should probably take it easy, but a deadline’s a deadline. I worked through the pain and then the next day I realized I couldn’t stand up straight anymore. I ended up mostly on my back for four days and am just now starting to be mobile again.

So retailers…when you get those cards, give a moment’s thought to the sheer amount of effort and even pain on the part of so many people to get this silly promo thing to you. I wouldn’t put myself out of commission for four days if I didn’t so strongly believe this book was worth your attention.

Make sure Derek McCulloch’s back problems weren’t for nothing by checking out Pug and T. Runt! From Image Comics this June.

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