Reed Gunther: An interview with Shane and Chris Houghton
Shane and Chris Houghton are pretty excited. Reed Gunther Volume 1 came out last week, and it’s the first graphic novel ever for their hit comic book series about the affable misadventures of the beguiling, bear-riding cowboy of the same name. Created, written and drawn by the Houghtons, this trade paperback from Image Comics collects the first five issues of the lively and delightful western series that USA Today has called “goofy fun.” Today, I have the pleasure of talking with this talented and good-looking brother duo about cowboy games, creating a comic book series, and why “all-ages” doesn’t mean “kids only.”
I heard someone say that once they thought you were twins, but you’re actually brothers who are two years apart. What was your relationship like growing up? Any fun shenanigans from your childhood years that will make us think, “Yup, those are two boys who will definitely create a cowboy comic one day?”
SHANE (writer): Growing up, we would spend a lot of time outdoors using our imaginations to pass the time. We lived in the country with corn fields on all four sides of the house, so we had lots of landscape to play on. Between swimming in our pond, climbing trees, and running through corn stalks in the fall, me, Chris, and our older brother Peter had plenty of locations to set our imaginary wars, expeditions, and adventures. I’m not sure if there was anything that would definitely define us as future cowboy comic creators, but I do remember a really adorable picture of Chris wearing a cowboy hat and his favorite pair of cowboy boots.
CHRIS (artist): I did have quite the obsession with cowboys and Native Americans as a kid. My favorite toy when I was about five was my pair of black cowboy boots, which I still have, but sadly do not fit my feet anymore. Shane, Pete, and I were always using our imaginations and playing outdoors as kids. We didn’t have cable TV or video games and our parents always encouraged music and art. All three of us spent a lot of time drawing together too. Pete was the one who got me into drawing and I’ve just never stopped. We had a very nurturing childhood that definitely set us each up for a life in the creative field.
How did the concept and characters for Reed Gunther develop? Was it a joint-effort?
CHRIS: I initially created the rough idea of Reed and his bear Sterling — named after our noble family dog when we were kids. I did a short comic with Reed and Sterling but they were very much different characters than you see today. Shane was the one who came in and revamped the characters, breathed new life into them, and took over writing duties. I couldn’t be more happy with that!
SHANE: I loved Chris’s idea of a bear-riding cowboy and tweaked the universe and the characters to make them a bit more friendly and adventurous. Chris was ready to ditch the characters and I wouldn’t have been able to re-invent them if they hadn’t already been invented, so the comic that you see today is definitely a joint-effort. As for new characters and concepts, we do both spend a lot of time collaborating on who everyone/everything is, but the bottom line is fun. Whatever is the most fun for our book usually makes the cut.
You both have some interesting thoughts on the distinction between “all-ages comics” and “kids comics”. Can you talk a little bit about that?
SHANE: Reed Gunther is not a “kiddie” book, or specifically a book targeted at children, but rather an adventurous all-ages book in the vein of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Indiana Jones. With all of those properties, I’ve met adults who love the characters as much as kids, and yet, those properties aren’t marketed as “kids” material. Sometimes, comic book retailers will put Reed Gunther in the “kids” section instead of with all the other comics, so it is sometimes overlooked. We urge retailers to place Reed next to all their other books, mature and otherwise, and see how it sells. At conventions, we are constantly surprised at who exactly our audience is. We get men in their mid-forties, kids twelve and under, guys in their mid-twenties like us, high school girls, and middle-aged single women who do not have kids. Our book is truly enjoyed by folks of all ages!
CHRIS: I think we also have an additional hill to overcome because my art style is very cartoony, which has a stigma of being for kids. Whoever thinks our series is for kids should read the comic. I’m sure they’ll change their mind. And while kids may definitely enjoy the series, they are not our sole audience, nor are they our targeted audience. Our targeted audience is Shane and myself. We create stories that we want to read.
Reed Gunther began as a self-published comic and was picked up by Image Comics in June of 2011. Can you tell us about Reed‘s transition from a self-published book to an Image title? Was pitching the book to a larger publisher your ultimate intention from the beginning, or was it a possibility that came up later?
SHANE: We enjoyed creating the book a lot more than the business of getting it printed and available in shops. After we came out with three self-published issues, we decided we should at least try submitting to a few companies and see if we could get some assistance. Image was very receptive to Reed and didn’t want to change anything. Chris and I wanted to see the book in color so we went back and colored our previous issues for the Image release.
CHRIS: Yeah, there really wasn’t too much of a change. Image is perfectly set-up for self-publishers. We are used to doing our own promotions and advertising, so to have Image take over some of that has been icing on the cake! However, getting the book to Image was never our initial intention. Our initial intention was to simply complete one issue. After we did that, we thought we’d try and complete another issue. We’ve still got the same mindset, just on a larger scale now. It’s always been about baby steps. If we would have set out to create an ongoing series with one of the biggest comic publishers in the US, it would have simply been too overwhelming.
There’s a cute story about the unusual Reed Gunther submission parcel you sent to Image Comics. Can you tell us about it?
CHRIS: When it came time to put together a submission package for a few publishers, Shane and I really wanted to do something special. So I went to a craft store and bought a few wooden boxes that would fit a few comic books inside perfectly. I stained up the box, roughed it up, and wood-burned our logo on the outside. We then included our three self-published issues and a pitch bible inside the box and shipped it out. I even used excelsior as the packing material around the box so it was an all around Western theme. Since you usually don’t hear back from publishers right away, Shane and I planned to send out a friendly reminder in the form of an old telegram. However, we never needed to because our first choice publisher, Image, got back to us right away. We were happy to take them up on their offer.
What’s the current plotting process for Reed like? Do you work out storylines and new characters together?
SHANE: Normally, I’ll have one or two really good ideas I want to work into a script. It could be a character, or a moment, or a situation, but there’s usually one thing I really like. Then I build a plot around that and find the backbone or theme to the story. But all this vague general talk is kinda boring so I’ll give you an example. Issue #6 is an origin story of sorts for Reed and Sterling. Reed recalls to Starla the first time he and his bear met, which involves us flashing back in time to the Civil War and when Reed was a youngster. Since Reed is not a superhero and never had something as simple as a radioactive bug bite him to make him who he is, this is a story about character, flaws, and fake mustaches. One day I was thinking about what Reed would look like as a kid and I realized he’d HAVE to have a mustache. Without it, he’s like Mickey Mouse without his ears. So I decided he needed to be wearing a fake mustache. But then the problem became WHY? I thought it might be cool if Reed was imitating someone he admired. And suddenly the story became about how Reed Gunther grows into the man he becomes — which is why we titled the story, “From Cowboy to Cowman!” New characters pop up either to service a specific story or because the character is the first cool thing I’m basing the story around. Usually, the really good characters are villains or obstacles for Reed to overcome, like our John Henry zombie or Special Agent Mundy (an evil version of Uncle Sam. Get it? S.A.M.). Both those characters also have roots in American History or folk lore, which I like to pull from.
CHRIS: Shane definitely takes care of the writing portion of the series while I take care of the art side of things. However, we definitely collaborate on the big ideas. I may have some big idea or scene I’d love to see in an issue, but I have no idea how to make it fit or how to write it into a story. Shane’s a fantastic writer and not just because of the stories he writes, but in the fact that he’s willing to listen to my ideas and concerns and what I’d like to draw. He’s constantly aiming to please. I also show him my artwork and get feedback from him, especially on the designs of new characters or monsters. Again, just like me on his writing, he may have a big idea for a design but it’s my job to do my best to visualize it and make it work.
The first Reed Gunther trade paperback, which collects the first five issues, came out on November 9th. What’s next for the book? Can you give us any sneak peeks into the next story arc?
SHANE: Oh man! There’s a pretty good look into issue #6 in the last question, but after that, there’s a really fun and interesting werewolf story in issue #7 that has a twist I’ve never seen done before. In issue #8, Reed takes a backseat as Starla takes the lead in a story where she has an identity crisis while fighting resurrected mummies! The really cool thing about the next three issues of Reed Gunther is that they are all stand alone, or done-in-one stories, which means they have a complete story in each issue. If you’ve never read an issue of Reed before, you can jump in at 6, 7, or 8 without any confusion!
CHRIS: Readers are going to love our new issues!
You both have interesting creative jobs outside of Reed Gunther as well. Can you tell us about the other work that you do?
SHANE: I work as a freelance filmmaker, and just this year I have directed promotional videos for a video game company, was the cinematographer for a Comedy Central webseries featuring Sarah Silverman, Bob Saget, Fred Willard, and Howie Mandell, and my current gig is editing for two reality TV shows on HDNet. I do it all! Write, direct, shoot, edit, dance… Especially dance.
CHRIS: Besides comics, I draw storyboards for Nickelodeon and do the occasional freelance job for clients like MAD Magazine and BOOM! Studios. I’m very happy to be able to work on a variety of projects with some really fantastic people, including my brother. And that’s not just smiley bullshit, I really mean it!
Last year you also collaborated on the short indie comics “Moon Gloom” and “Blood Brothers”. Any other collaborations or projects in the works right now?
SHANE: I really loved “Moon Gloom” and “Blood Brothers,” but Chris and I have been plenty busy this year with making Reed Gunther come out on time every month. We do have four different mini-comics that we give out for free at conventions and signings! Our newest one debuted in San Diego this year. This year I did get hired to write for a few licensed properties which was very exciting! I have a 16-page story in Casper’s Scare School #3 that comes out in December, and I’ll also have a few adapted stories in the new Peanuts series from BOOM! Studios. But of all the video, film, TV, or comic projects I work on, nothing beats collaborating with Chris!
CHRIS: Agreed! Working with Shane is fantastic. We do have a few ideas for other series, one of which may become a reality sooner than later. But I don’t want to give anything away…
Buy Reed Gunther Volume 1 at your local comic shop or on Amazon.com
Watch an unusual Reed Gunther video interview with Shane and Chris on YouTube
Follow Reed Gunther news and find extras on reedgunther.com
Rosemary Van Deuren is the author of the young adult fantasy novel, Basajaun. View more of her fiction and essays at www.rosemaryvandeuren.com. You can also be Rosemary’s friend on Facebook and follow her on Twitter at @rosemaryvan.