Coyotes Interview: A Chat With Sean Lewis and Caitlin Yarsky
Recently, I wrote a review for the newest Image series Coyotes, a violent tale of girls and women getting revenge on the ravenous beasts that terrorize them. The miniseries is brought to us by Sean Lewis and Caitlin Yarsky, two amazing creators working in perfect sync with each other. They took time from their busy schedules to talk to me about the series, the inspiration for it, themes, art, and a wee bit of nerding over other comics which I’m always down for.
Ben Howard: Let’s start at the beginning. Well, not the beginning beginning because that would take too long. Let’s talk about the beginning of Coyotes. How did this idea develop and when did you guys meet up to execute it?
Caitlin Yarsky: Well, Sean came to me with the idea and script already pretty fleshed out. I had submitted a couple sample pages of my personal comic to a company’s Facebook page, and that’s how Sean found my work. He sent me an email asking if I’d like to collaborate, and I jumped at it because the story was amazing and I was able to imagine the world and characters right away.
Sean Lewis: I had written the first issue sometime around the run of Saints. It was before I had written The Few. Most of the time if an idea starts in my head as an image I know it is a comic book, if it starts as dialogue I usually turn it into a play. I just had an image of Red, this teen girl with a Katana blade. I had done some research for a play commission about women going missing in different parts of the world and the way the information was formulating itself in my head was very metaphorical. The big one was looking at Mexico and “Coyotes” who smuggle people across borders (and who often times can be menacing and predatory). I started to think what if the Coyotes in this book were coyotes. Werewolves. But with a Southwestern spin. I did research on werewolves after that and realized that men had been tried in the past for being werewolves and hunting women and other victims. They often claimed to be werewolves. Typically, a pelt is what transformed them. Once all that info got in my head I was off and running. I wrote the first issue and then needed an artist who could bring a story book quality to the book. Who would be able to really deconstruct some of the form of a comic book and could offer a feminine perspective, counterpoint and eye to the proceedings. I spend a lot of time going through Behance and Facebook and Twitter looking for undiscovered artists or artists interested in comics but from other fields. Caitlin was from video game design but I found some sequential art samples on a Facebook page and then wrote the entirely awkward “I found your art online and this is for real” email. This all happened about two years ago. We immediately started talking design and world and building the book from there. It’s actually been very cool and organic and we both have seen each others’ abilities grow so much since we first started the day dream part of this book.
BH: Nice! It’s interesting to me how both of you came from non-comics fields. Sean, you’re originally a playwright. And, Caitlin, you came from illustration and game design. What is it about comics that attracts you both?
CY: I think illustration inherently works so well with storytelling and can bleed into a lot of other fields, like animation, film, game design, comics, etc. I’ve made comics on my own since I was a kid but never did anything with them, and never knew it could a viable career path. But once it clicked a few years ago that it was possible, I focused all my energy into that field. I’ve always loved imagining what characters and worlds from my favorite books would look like, and often imagine “shots” or “panels” when reading a fantasy or sci-fi book. It’s just a really thrilling challenge to try and create a visual world for a story that resonates with me.
SL: I’ve always just loved comics. I mean, I never knew how you actually got a job writing them. I remember writing the obligatory letter to Marvel in my early twenties while living on my uncle’s couch. You know, the one that says “I’ve been a life long fan, I’d love to write/how do I write comics?” Needless to say I still haven’t heard back. I wouldn’t have been ready at that point, anyway. I think comics are really important. I really love them as a form and I am really curious how the form can be pushed and what new things can happen. I mean, they’re still this tactile entertainment. You hold it in your hands (unless it’s digital, I know, I know) and there is this fascinating magic that happens as you turn each page. It really still does hold that sense of joy that flip books did when I was a kid. And you can literally create myth and metaphor. In theater you can really create reflections– all you have is dialogue to create a context and a world– so the default is realism. Because we live in realism we can accept it in the theater more easily. Comic books, man, you can go anywhere. You can make a story that is truly larger than life in the hopes that the story will help you understand the world a little more. You can say, “I feel so isolated and alone. I want to talk about depression but in a universal way. So… what if a boy lived on the moon?” And suddenly people understand you and others better. The metaphor brings us in. I mean, for me, all my writing comes from me trying to understand what I believe in. What I feel? I have a lot of surface opinions–if you ask me a social or political question I’ll give you an answer from my gut. But there are times where I sit back and I say “what do I actually believe or think about this?” Stories let me discover that. And I think we need myth now. Because there is a lot of noise. So much noise. So much anger and rage. So many people digging in their heels and yelling, refusing to interact, listen, progress. But we all like myth. We all like zombies and werewolves and space stations and human beings trying to survive and trying to be better. I feel really lucky to be doing comics. It’s really connected me with the kid who devoured Preacher and Sandman in 8th grade. It’s reminded me how much I needed those books. I think I need these books again.
BH: What about Image– especially you Sean since this is your third project with them– made them the ideal publisher of the book?
SL: Well, Image is the only place I’ve worked at this point. They’ve just always shown such faith in what I was doing. I think Eric Stephenson and his staff really love comics in general but they also really believe in taking risks, in trying to push the form forward and seeing what a comic and a creator can do. I’m obsessed with slow burn novels, old horror movies, surreal foreign films… I mean Coyotes itself has influences as wide ranging as Kurosawa and Tarantino to the Brothers Grimm and Susan Sontag. Image is the kind of place you can say all of that and then add: “there are werewolves!” And they get excited. I think that trust also works well for me because I’m really focused on the arc of a book– the full journey and not the month by month sales. They get that and support that. The freedom they offer is just unbelievable.
BH: Let’s get into the actual story. I remember in reading previous interviews you did Sean is that a lot of what inspired Coyotes are women that have disappeared, either never being found or later found and meeting devastating fates. It feels like this story is coming from a place of anger, of a need for cathartic relief and rebellious hope. I know that you said the coyotes are inspired by human traffickers, but for me while reading they represented violence against women as a whole, particularly patriarchal violence. But that’s just me. What do you think you and Caitlin are saying with Coyotes and contextualizing it through both story and art?
SL: I think that’s incredibly astute. The intellectual start was research I had done for a play and stories my wife had told me. But the emotional drive of the book has been angry. And I don’t know why. I mean, recently Weinstein and other current news make it seem obvious, but Caitlin and I started this book two years ago. I think I’ve felt anger around me in general. Anger about gender. Anger about guns. Anger about race. About poverty. About beliefs. The Few started from an intellectual look at that anger but it became about belief. This twisted in a different way. Once I had the primal image of the coyotes/werewolves, I think that did something. It made me think of the minor ways that boys are taught to be aggressive– How many movies tell boys if a girl says no to a date they should keep trying until the girl realizes how special he is? It’s a lesson in self value but can go awry and become all about getting what you want, not giving up. I fell in love with Red while writing it because she’s like a new day. Post-post-everything in a world where political correctness and the illusion of safety are eroded. How does she make her world? The wolves are angry at a world they lost, the women at one they’ve had to endure. Something new has to come out of it and sadly rarely does anyone get what they want.
CY: I definitely tried to convey Sean’s idea that these coyotes represent violence against women, often drawing the coyotes as a sort of wave when they come into the story. It is meant to feel like a flood of unstoppable aggression coming from all sides, an inescapable force of nature. I also tried to push the characters’ feelings of helplessness, shame and anger after the attacks, which I think is something that will resonate with readers.
BH: That part about them coming in waves is a great artistic quality I didn’t even think about. It also reminds me how much I love the narrative style of Coyotes. Visually, it reminds me of a fairy tale but mixed with horror and hardcore action films like Kill Bill. It’s interesting how much these real world issues are being filtered through genre. They’re disturbing, yes, but somehow makes it easier to swallow. Do you think that fantasy and fiction was the best way to face these issues head on? Perhaps something with a much more satisfying outcome than realism could provide?
SL: Oh, absolutely. And all of the things you mentioned are direct influences on the comic. As a writer, genre for me is kind of like a dress. The theme, the philosophy, the politics, the relationships: those are the body of the story. They are the arms, the legs, the beating heart. In the end, they will be what grabs you, what makes the story run, what lets the audience care. Genre is what I dress it in. The Few was about belief, how and why human beings believe in what they do but that was dressed in sci-fi. Coyotes is about how we define and degrade human beings- how we demand value in the face of that- dressed in horror. Genre, it kind of gives the audience a loophole. I mean, we see it. It’s hard to talk about anything of actual social importance anymore. We are angry. We are divided. Saying this is a meditation on politics of any sort gives no entry way to the reader, right now. They say: “I know what I believe and fuck you.” Genre, diffuses it. “I love horror but I hate politics, so maybe I’ll try it.” And then when you read it (hopefully) you get interested in the people. Politics are just people. We forget that. We’ve let politicians and mouth pieces and networks turn it into some larger than life abstraction, a catch all– politics as a villainous other. The Latin of ‘politics’ basically means “as relating to the citizens.” Or, as I like to think it, “how does this effect the people?” I love people even though they scare me. And most political issues confuse me. They are very complicated. Each book for me is an exploration of what I believe. And hopefully for the readers too. And even for myself, I need it dressed up. I need a werewolf to let me engage with it in an honest way, right now.
CY: It’s a little ironic, but wrapping up real world issues in fantastic settings helps people see those issues more clearly and objectively. We carry around so much baggage and bias when faced with social and political rhetoric that looking through another lens can cause you to empathize and think differently. That’s one of my favorite things about sci-fi and fantasy.
BH: It’s a good thing that you talk about how people are politics. I certainly see this in the cast. Red, Eyepatch, Duchess, all these women are uniquely designed and detailed, each with their own unique voice and style. And I find it funny how women like Duchess and the Victorians dress so proper yet curse like sailors. What was the creative process for you and Caitlin in bringing these women to life?
SL: Hahaha. It was pretty great. Caitlin and I are close in age and we have a lot of the same touchstones: Sandman and Tank Girl are two of the biggest ones. Is it weird to say we just wanted to go “a little bananas”? I had this idea that the women in the train station dressed in Victorian garb. That was in the initial document. Most of my first drafts are very gut. I usually have no idea what’s going on, but it’s all images and characters and chaos that I’m excited by. And then as I get into plotting the rest of the arc/story, I use those initial reactions to dictate what threads I need to follow. Caitlin is amazing. I mean, at this point people have seen her art, but as a collaborator too, I knew from her work that if I gave her space with these gut ideas I had that she would turn them into something really amazing. The Duchess was the first Victoria I saw. I had wanted a parasol, that’s all I remember. And when I saw her in this full garb I was in love. There was something weirdly punk rock in my mind about this stark violent world and a group of warrior women dressed so proper, so covered, so formal. I always loved that juxtaposition. Collaboration wise, we talk a lot. We’ve been working on the book for awhile now. Lots of emails, lots of Skype, lots of messenger. But we really are on the same page and trust each other. We show each other the early work in our discipline and we listen to each other. I think that’s been my experience on creator-owned books. It’s like raising a child. You both are invested and so you have to both be on the same page, trust and get excited by what the other is doing.
CY: I think Sean’s description of the Victorias actually informed the design aesthetic of the rest of the world, which seems backwards but worked well for us. It freed us to design everything in a surreal and anachronistic way, not totally tied to reality. We went back and forth discussing comics, films and books that inspire us until we landed on this steampunk/vintage feel for the characters that became ubiquitous throughout the world.
BH: Red is our protagonist yet also the most elusive person. She sometimes seems to be plotting her own course, other times just a shell to act out the Victorians commands. Why did you decide to choose a child as a protagonist and how would you define her?
SL: I think her being a child is part of her contradictions. I wanted someone who is at the beginning of their individual thought. As the book unfolds, characters will be revealed as different arms of feminist and capitalistic thought. And they will all want to influence Red. The Victoria’s are one militant wave of thought. They’ve been hunted enough and want retribution now. They will force change. They will not be victims. We will meet characters in conflict with this and then we will have Red. Red is discovering– in a fucked up and violent world that has taken so much from her– who she really is. I think that’s what I want from comics though it might make me an outlier. I don’t believe in fully formed heroes. I want to see people become the best version of themselves. I want to see that struggle because I live that struggle.
BH: I definitely agree with you on preferring half-formed characters that evolve, Sean. Protagonists that already have everything just seem boring to me. And the greatest impediment on Red, on all the girls and women in this story, are the coyotes. Fairy tales and horror stories (both similar types of stories if you really think about it) often feature beastly antagonists, often male-coded, which can offer great commentary on gender such as you’re doing right now. My personal theory is that they’re a commentary on toxic masculinity. What is your thought on the type of commentary the coyotes represent?
SL: I think toxic masculinity for sure. Predatory behavior. I had a weird moment a few months ago. I was in a hotel and I was flipping through channels looking for something mindless and fun and I saw Wedding Crashers was on TBS. And I was like well this should do it…and it kind of hit me just how toxic that movie is. Guys go to weddings and prey on the emotions of women there, they lie to them and then have sex. One of them eventually feels bad about it. It made me think about other films I grew up with. I love 80s movies. Like old school B-movies but also lots of John Hughes. And so many of those movies are about guys who have crushes on girls who aren’t interested in them. And the people around them keep saying: “Don’t worry about her saying no. Don’t stop at that. Try again. Win her.” And we root for that. We have been taught that. It’s complicated because it’s a cultural thing– and if it’s cultural it means everyone is either to blame or there is something innate in us and how we live that demands it. I’d hope it was more choice than nature. But I also think there is a lot of inward looking. There was a time in my life where I loved Wedding Crashers and howled and laughed mindlessly at its premise. Now I don’t at all. So what does that mean? These men in Coyotes putting on the pelts– is it solely that they want power or is there something deep within them it brings out that they know is there? To me, that is the real horror in the book.
CY: Toxic masculinity is a spot-on description. The coyotes evoke a sense of dread that makes the characters afraid to go out at night, to go anywhere alone. They are that ever present threat of violence women face around the world. And the Victorias are a visceral reaction to this threat; they offer a simple solution to a complex problem (the one that exists in the real world I mean), and hopefully that brings some catharsis to readers.
BH: Let’s talk about the setting. In your previous books, Sean, you captured the American landscape through two separate but equally relevant lenses. With Saints, it was religion. With The Few, it felt like modern political tensions. But here we have a setting that’s south of the border. Aside from the ties to coyotes, what else about the setting did you feel fit the story?
SL: I was really interested in places where we allow bad things to happen. Where we know that violence, murder, and chaos happens but we willingly turn a blind eye. It could be Central and South America or any third world country on the planet. I did a theater project in Rwanda. And I was amazed at all the international businesses there. My friend, who was Rwandan, said “they came after the genocide. They can do whatever they want here and they can do it cheap.” That idea stayed with me. We accept some places are dangerous. We accept that people disappear in some places. I obviously wanted to explore gender and I wanted it to be in a desert. An empty canvas. A place that can be bought and sold. A place abandoned by law and decency. A place where we are left to our own devices to become as good or as bad as we are.
BH: I haven’t even mentioned Detective Coffey yet, and he was the character that took me most by surprise. At first, I thought he would be just another obstacle for Red, another patriarchal unit of control. However, the backstory you guys wrote about him after the main story revealed more about him. How do you see him fitting into this narrative about women fighting monstrous men?
SL: I wanted a Frank Miller character who would be utterly useless in this world. I grew up reading hard-nosed detectives who were uber-masculine and took control of a room, broke some rules and everything would be solved by them. I liked a character like that, who we would assume we knew what to expect from, who is then thrown out of joint by the world he finds himself in. I think he is my dad and my uncles and sometimes even me in our current landscape. He is an idea of manliness in a world that rejects their need for him. I thought that would be interesting. What do you do when everything you grew up with– all the reinforcement, all the lessons, all the things that have told you how you are supposed to behave– suddenly disappears from underneath you. It’s a necessity but it’s jarring.
BH: Excellent. I can’t wait to see how this series unfolds. Let’s wrap things up with two final questions. What do you hope for in the future for the series?
SL: I hope we can do it for some extended period. Indie comics are hard. Books about the world are hard. A book about women hunting male werewolves with samurai swords is also hard. The people who found Saints are amazing. The people who found The Few are amazing. I feel really beholden to them. And to this form. I think comic books can really do some amazing things. They can let us deal with real world issues in metaphor– so we might actually deal with things we feel uncomfortable with. Clearly, I am proud of Coyotes. Caitlin’s work is amazing. We have a lot planned but like all indie books you cross your fingers that you’ll get the chance to play them out.
CY: Working with Sean has been incredible– his writing fires up my imagination so easily. I feel kind of spoiled by working with him because our process is so collaborative and open, and I have a lot more control over the direction of the art than I ever have in the past. The fans have also been really amazing and seem excited about what we’re doing, which makes me more excited to keep going. I hope we get the chance to take this story as far as possible.
BH: Final question, what comics do you two recommend, both for pleasure reading and for aspiring creators to learn from?
SL: Oh, man. It’s such a well spring right now. I’m in love with Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire. I am also digging Kyle Starks’ work (Kill Them All). Rosenberg’s 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank. For aspiring creators, I’ve learned a lot looking at how Brian Vaughan lays out Saga. Just his page counts and the general rhythm of each issue. Y: The Last Man has really nice structure to it as well. Lemire I think is as good as anyone if not better at showing just how far a comic can go. He breaks a lot of so called rules in paneling and layout (I do too) but his books really are imaginative in new ways. He has found a way to really bring existentialism and loneliness into comic books in a way I love. Hence, I like the straight up humor employed by Starks as a counter balance. Also, read some damn books and some plays. Comics kind of marry every writing genre into one. So don’t read just comics. Check out Junot Diaz for character. David Mitchell for world building. August Wilson, Caryl Churchill, and Tony Kushner for dialogue.
CY: Most of my recommendations are established staples in the genre, but they definitely had the most influence for me and taught me a lot. The Sandman got me into comics when I was in college. His (Neil Gaiman’s) storytelling was so different than anything I’d seen before, and he builds worlds like nobody else. Hewlett’s Tank Girl is amazing, he knows exactly how and when to break rules and go more stylized with his characters. Mignola’s Hellboy is brilliant, and his use of negative space to create a mood is unparalleled. He lays out the art not panel-by-panel, but designs with the whole page in mind. And like Sean, I’m a fan of Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’ Saga, as well as Paper Girls and Y: the Last Man.
Coyotes is available at Image Comics.
Follow Sean Lewis on Twitter.