Val Mayerik is a veteran comic and commercial artist best known for pencilling and inking various fantasy and horror comics and for co-creating the satirical Marvel character Howard the Duck. While Mayerik left the comic industry to pursue a successful career in commercial art, he and writer Jim Berry are collaborating on a new graphic novel called Of Dust and Blood. The 90 page comic chronicles the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn, the 1876 conflict between a 700 man US calvary unit led by General George Custer and a much larger Lakota force led by famed leaders Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. The pair are funding the graphic novel via a $30,000 Kickstarter campaign, which met its goal yesterday with just two days remaining.
I spoke to Berry and Mayerik via email about their new project and their decision to pursue crowdfunding.
Christian Hoffer: How did the two of you meet and decide to collaborate on this project?
Jim Berry: We met about 5 years ago at a comic show in Portland. I commissioned Val to do a painting for the cover of a comic that is still in the works. We became friends and ended up making a short film that was successfully funded on Kickstarter. I’d wanted to get Val drawing a comic but I knew he wasn’t big on superheroes – what he does love is western art. He has an incredible series of modern western scenes in oil on canvas that he’s done. He loves that stuff. So he was very interested in this idea from the jump.
Val Mayerik: When I met Jim I could see he wasn't just a fan and collector but had created and produced his own projects- small films and a graphic novel- so collaborating with a guy like that had possibilities.
Hoffer: What are your goals in making Of Dust and Blood?
Berry: Our first goal is to make a compelling story. Everyone knows what happened that day. So the real challenge is to make it dramatic and suspenseful. We also want to pack it full of history. History on every page has been my mantra.
Mayerik: Right. There can never be too much history. New things are being revealed and discovered every day about events that were previously thought to be completely known and understood.
Hoffer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn has a certain infamy in American history books. Do you feel that it's deserved?
Berry: Absolutely. Everyone now understands the tragic nature of how native people everywhere were treated as this country came into being and expanded west. For the plains Indians, there was a treaty signed and broken by the United States. At the time of The Battle of the Little Bighorn, the U.S. forces were, technically, invading a sovereign country. Their only real reason for this incursion was that they wanted the gold from The Black Hills. Greed.
Hoffer: General Custer, the American general defeated at Little Bighorn, is a controversial figure that's been seen alternatively as a tragic war hero and a vain commander whose arrogance led to the death of him and his men. What are your thoughts about General Custer?
Berry: He’s certainly a polarizing figure, as much a hero as a villain. At the time, he was one of the biggest celebrities in the country and was considering a run for president. I think that after his Civil War experiences where he led two-dozen major cavalry charges, and had a bunch of horses shot out from under him – without taking any significant damage - he may have felt indestructible.
Also, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull were on the other side of the fight. I consider them to be equal in terms of historical importance . . . So there were all of these iconic historical figures.
Mayerik: Of course hindsight is always 20/20. Custer's actual place in American history is ambiguous at best. The plains Indian wars were chaotic and policy toward native peoples was always changing and usually never in their favor. Many tribes shifted alliances hoping to garner favor and advantage. This had been going on since the first Europeans set foot in the Americas and unfortunately the final stages of these cultural clashes did not end well for the Native Peoples.
Hoffer: What sort of research went into making Of Dust and Blood?
Berry: Ah, research. The fun part. I have notes from 27 books that have to do with the battle. And I I just scratched the surface. I came up with a personal rule that I’d consider a detail usable if I found it in, at least, three different texts. There’s so much written about it that it quickly became a matter of picking and choosing and tweaking details that would best serve the story. I actually have a new handful of books to read. Val and I are definitely going to do one last draft.
Mayerik: One of the driving elements for me in my interest in the West is the Horse. Especially the horse in warfare and work. The mastery of light cavalry warfare by the Indians and US cavalry alike and masterful horsemanship in every day work: for the indians, the buffalo hunt and for the Americans and Mexicans, the expert working of cattle. In simply pursuing my interest in horses of the West, the rest of history opened up to me. What kind of weapons were used in battle by both sides, how were horses bred and acquired, what kind of men became cavalry soldiers, were all Indian tribes great horsemen or just some. These questions lead to other questions and before you know it you you have a historical picture of an era.
Hoffer: What separates Of Dust and Blood from the hundreds of other pieces of literature about The Battle of Little Bighorn?
Berry: It hasn’t been done as a graphic novel with art by Val and – Landscape format!
Hoffer: I noticed that several of the promotional pieces for this project used oil, acrylics or watercolor. Are you planning on incorporating any of those mediums into Of Dust and Blood?
Berry: Right now, it’s pen and ink. But if we hit our stretch goal of $33K (we’re at $30935 with 32 hours to go) Val is going to color the book using watercolor. There’s been an outcry from our backers for color so we’re crossing our fingers.
Mayerik: It would be interesting to attempt to fully paint the entire book but I really want to exploit all my abilities at pen and ink rendering which I think befits this kind of story stylistically and also because I think pen and ink illustration is the classic choice for comics and graphic novels. There will be watercolor tinting if we hit our stretch goals but I want to draw in a style that also holds up in only black and white.
Hoffer: Val, how is illustrating a Western comic like Of Dust and Blood different from illustrating your earlier fantasy and horror comics?
Mayerik: There really won't be too much of a difference in illustrating this book from my fantasy work. As always I will try to create images that are dynamic with varied texturing and a well designed page layout.
Hoffer: Why did you decide to fund Of Dust and Blood via Kickstarter? What are the funds being used for?
Berry: It was because we were successful on Kickstarter once before, at a micro level compared to this . . . All of the money is going into the book. To Val because he’s going to spend the next six months making the art, to our letterer, Tom Orzechowski, to the publisher, and then in fees from Kickstarter and Amazon, and then postage to send out our rewards.
Personally, I’ve backed the project financially and will continue to do so plus I’ve got a couple hundred hours invested so I’m not getting any money out of it until the book is optioned for a movie. Ha-ha. I just want to make the damn book.
Hoffer: Did you feel that asking for $30,000 via a Kickstarter campaign was a daunting request? Were you worried that you weren't going to meet your Kickstarter goals?
Berry: Sure. $30K for a book is an awful lot of money. I had confidence because I’m such a fan of Val’s work and I knew that he had an untapped audience, largely because he hasn’t been on a big book in a long time. And the support we’ve seen from creators and fans has been humbling. It’s literally a dream list of comic writers and artists that have supported us as backers and through reposting and tweeting.
Hoffer: Is there anything that you would have done differently with this project?
Berry: I put quite a few hours in before the campaign launched. But I didn’t really have a blue print so I spent a lot of wasted time on things that didn’t end up applying to the project.
Live and learn.
Hoffer: Why did you decide to end the Kickstarter on June 25?
Berry: That’s the anniversary of the battle. 25 June, 1876.
Hoffer: Do you have any future collaborations planned?
Berry: I think we’re doing a road movie next.
Mayerik: I don't know about a road trip movie but some kind of film project.
Of Dust and Blood's Kickstarter, which ends today, can be found here. Mayerik's website can be found here. Berry's photography website can be found here. A 2010 Smithsonian Magazine article on the Battle of Little Bighorn can be found here, and a Wikipedia page on the conflict can be found here.