Comics can be a fickle business. Even if a series starts to be published, that doesn’t always mean it’ll keep going. It might fall into the graveyard of failed ideas or maybe it’ll just be put into storage for a few years, but it’s happened to many creators.
Case in point is Jeremy Holt’s comic “Southern Dog”. Issue 1 was originally published back in 2012, but then it sort of died away, only to be revived a couple years later. With new life, “Southern Dog” is making its home at Action Lab: Danger Zone, and publishing not only the first issue, but the other three issues that complete the miniseries.
“Southern Dog” takes place in Fort Payne, AL, and focuses on the teenaged Jasper Dixon and his family. Puberty is rough, but it only gets worse as Jasper suddenly begins turning into a werewolf and the Ku Klux Klan makes a big comeback in his hometown. The first issue hits shelves today, 8/13!
Read as we chat with Jeremy about small Southern towns, racism, a werewolf book that isn’t really about werewolves, and Ted Nugent. Seriously.
As a preface to this interview, I’m from Alabama originally. “Southern Dog” is set in Fort Payne, AL, and I was raised about an hour south in a similar sized town. It doesn’t seem like the kind of setting for a comic. So, why that sort of small Alabama town? Why set it there?
Jeremy Holt: Honestly, I wanted to set it in Alabama because when I think of the “Deep South”, I think of Alabama. So, I did a google maps search and I was just looking at different towns. Some of the names didn’t really strike me and Fort Payne, it seemed unique enough. It wasn’t just picking the capital of the state. I just really liked the name.
I remember when I was developing the story really early on, I found out a friend of mine has relatives up in Fort Payne. I mentioned what the story was about and he told me, I don’t know if this is still true, but he told me that the KKK is still active in Fort Payne. That it’s not something they try to hide, it’s out in the open and everyone is aware of it. That made me feel more comfortable exploring the topic. Obviously, I do take some liberties with how aggressive the racism is. In the most parts of the country, I don’t think it’s that aggressive. If you go to the KKK website, it doesn’t spout hate. Their website is about certain equalities, but it’s phrased in ways that it’s not quite what I would agree with.
What I wanted to was talk about racism where it’s in your face, because growing up for me as an Asian American it was in my face. It’s still in my face. I live in a small Vermont town and I still get that small town mentality. It’s not cross burnings, granted, but there are some things. For my day job, I’m a computer technician. There was a customer who called in, who I’d helped, he didn’t realize he was talking me. He said, “I was being helped by this little Chinese boy.” I get that he might think that I’m chinese, that’s fine. But he kept calling me little. I don’t understand why he keeps me referring to me as little. I’m not little, I’m an averaged sized person! He wasn’t being malicious, it’s just that small town mentality. It exists.
My point with this series is that I wanted to push it in people’s faces and remind them that racism is not dead.
I know you went to SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), so did you ever experience any racism personally while you were down South?
JH: Actually, no. When I was living in Texas, which I think of as the Southwest more than the South, I felt it hardcore. I finished my last two years of high school in a very small town, Montgomery, Texas. My parents decided to relocate us there as we were relocating to Texas from Europe. My mom thought it would be an easier transition for me and my brothers to go to a small high school. The smallest high school near Houston was an hour north in Montgomery. Really, that was the worst thing she could’ve done for us. Everyone in this high school had grown up from kindergarten to 12th grade, so they all knew each other.Continued below
One of the three Asian kids in the high school, Carl Louie, who was Chinese, grew up with all these people. They all knew him from kindergarten. Now, suddenly 3 Korean students (I’m a triplet) move to his high school and suddenly everyone thinks Carl has brothers. That’s a problem. You’ve grown up with Carl, why would you think he suddenly has brothers in 11th grade? It’s kinda weird. My experience with racism was pretty hardcore there, but I experienced it when I was living overseas. I experienced it when I was living in New York City. It’s still around. People still are closed off in certain ways.
It’s safe to say those experiences helped in the development of “Southern Dog” when you started to tackle the issue?
JH: Very much so. I don’t think I set out to write a werewolf story. I’ve been asked this a couple times, but the idea for “Southern Dog” came to me in a dream. I had this really vivid dream of a werewolf fighting off a bunch of Klansmen. I remember thinking that the imagery was ripe for story. When you take the South and you take hunting culture, which is almost like a religion, you put a wild animal like a werewolf, it’s perfect. I thought, “why hasn’t this ever been done before?” It took me a little bit to figure out where I wanted go with it and the themes I wanted to explore.
It’s interesting that you compare hunting almost to a religion, but I can agree with that.
JH: Yeah, the hunting thing came about because I was in a relationship several years ago. My girlfriend then, her parents owned quite a bit of land in Texas. They had a lot of wild game on their land that they hunted for sport. One of the family friends of my ex-girlfriend is Ted Nugent. Which is weird.
When we were dating, she had these hunting videos. I asked, “What are these?” She said, “Oh, it’s just our family friend making a hunting video.” I watched one of them and it’s Ted Nugent doing a hunting video. That in itself is kinda weird, but watching his videos about hunting, he treated it like a religion. The animal was sacred and you had to do it for specific reasons and I was really impressed with the mentality. It wasn’t just “let’s shoot guns at wild animals”. It was something that they believed it. That stuck with me for a really long time. When I was still trying to figure out “Southern Dog” and how I wanted to tell it, I really thought that was an interesting avenue to explore.
“Southern Dog” begins right around the time Obama is elected and inaugurated. Now, that’s several years ago, but I imagine when you were developing it, it was very current.
JH: Yeah, when I was doing research I came across some really interesting factoids that supported my initial ideas of the story. The Klan has gone through, I believe, three major movements in the last century. Currently, their numbers are very low. At the turn of the century, they were high numbers, in major cities. Now there are specific divisions splintered throughout the country, but they’re relatively small. They’ve incorporated other white supremacy groups to boost their numbers, so they’re sort of diluted their message and imagery, like the hoods and night rides.
One fact that I thought was interesting was that when Obama was elected, every single state saw activity. Which made me say, “Why not focus on another character who’s trying to revive a certain sect of the Klan?” So it’s his redemption with the idea that he believes in at a time when they’re basically non-existent. People’s motivations to do things are very subjective. Obviously, from an objective standpoint, there’s good and there’s bad. But, when you’re in it and have your own ideals, everything gets blurred.
You originally started “Southern Dog” at 215 Ink, what 2, 3 years ago?
So, two years ago. How did you end up at Action Lab?Continued below
JH: I pitched it to you a bunch of people. Alex Diotto is the one who eventually did all the art in the book, but I had, I think, three false starts with different artists. One artist in particular had great art, but I don’t think he understood the creator-owned model. When we got the pitch done, I said, “Hey, I’m going to pitch this to publishers. If it gets picked up, are you ready to jump on board?” He said, “No, no. I did that and I have to do my other stuff. If you find another artist, good luck!” I couldn’t send that to anyone!
I started over and sent the book out to all the publishers it might get picked up by. Nobody was interested. One in particular thought that the content and the themes being explored were heavy handed. Which I thought was interesting considering that the person reviewing it was a white male. Yeah, I guess from his perspective, it was heavy handed. It seems like an awkward thing to explore. When I sent it 215 Ink, they loved it. They loved the art, they loved the story and we ended up getting the first issue done. At the time 215 wasn’t printing any of their books, it was purely digital, and because of that the art team didn’t know if they could commit because they needed some sort of incentive to work on it.
After the first issue debuted, the first book sat for about a year and a half. Alex had gotten other work, which was to be expected. I think the first issue is great and showcases his art really well. When I decided to just send it out to a few other publishers who I hadn’t considered teh first time around, Action Lab was interested. I asked if they were interested in printing the book because I thought that’d be enough to get the team back together. They said, “Absolutely.” I sent out emails and before I knew it we were finishing “Southern Dog”, which is interesting because I’ve basically been sitting the first three issues for two years. I’d written most of it two years ago and I thought maybe this story will just exist in this pitch graveyard and I’d have to move on to something else. It’s nice to see that something I’d really did believe in several years ago is coming to the surface and people can read it.
Like you said, you sat on it for two years. Do you see anything with the first issue or two that you would have done differently now that you’re a couple years on and have a couple more books under your belt?
JH: I think that some of the plot devices in the first issue were rookie mistakes. I don’t know why, but a lot of my stories take place in classrooms. Maybe it’s because I feel like some of the teachers I loved growing up really influenced me and played a really important role in my life and as a reflex I wanted to explore that.
There’s one particular scene where I see after reading a couple reviews is that the teacher in the first issue is talking about the Civil War. Which is pretty “in your face” and relevant to the plot. Those are the things that I think I could’ve been more subtle about and I think that I probably should’ve gone back into the scripts when Action Lab was interested just to see if there were any mistakes.
As a comic, I think it reads fine. obviously, with anything I write, even right now, there are things that I always want to change. At the time, I think it worked well and I was confident about it, and I still feel confident about it, so I didn’t think it was really necessary have Alex redraw pages and everybody else redo their work.
This is apropos of nothing, but the fact that you chose Fort Payne is interesting because way back when it was actually a Native American village, but just prior to the Trial of Tears, they built a fort there and shipped everybody out. That’s why it’s named Fort Payne. So there’s a very long history of racism in Fort Payne.Continued below
JH: That’s kind of amazing. I don’t think I came across that.
Like I said, apropos of nothing, but that’s how a lot of that area of the state is.
JH: It’s interesting that the book’s finally coming out two years after the book originally debuted. There’s a lot of things that have happened pop culturally. We’ve all seen True Detective and it really showcased the South. In comics, Jason Aaron and Jason Latour have “Southern Bastards”. I read that first issue and was like, “Damn.”
“I have to give up now!”
JH: I have to give up now, but I can’t because the book is coming out! I feel like my book is like a cartoon version, but I think that there are aspects to it that I still feel pretty good about. I didn’t spend my entire life in the South, but I’ve experienced it first hand.
A friend of mine is a huge fan of the book and he has seen one of his friends post a review for another website. He read the review and he was so upset by it. I was like, “People can have their opinions about stuff?” and he said, “No, but my friend is talking as if he’s from the South or he’s spent time in the South. He’s never been to the South. It makes me angry that he’s bashing a book about the South when he’s never experienced the South!” If it was purely from my imagination, then, yeah, I think there would be a bunch of bull. I still think there are some holes to the story as is. Racism is real and I’ve experienced it firsthand and not everybody has. I think that telling it from a perspective where it’s damaging, not just from the standpoint “racism is bad”, but to the point where it affects you personally. That’s a perspective that not everybody has. I just hope that that rings true in the story.
The South is a weird place, I think, to capture in a comic. It’s almost foreign to a lot of people.
On a different note, you have Riley Rossmo on covers. How did you manage that?
JH: I met Riley at Fan Expo in 2011. One of my closest friends in comics is Kurtis Wiebe, who wrote “Green Wake”. I met Kurtis because I was doing my own reviews for an entertainment website years ago and I came across “Green Wake” and I wanted to review it. We just became friends after that.
I decided to go to Fan Expo to meet Kurtis in person and Riley happened to be there. We met and he was really nice, but that that was about it. I think it was the following year in Seattle that I had put together a pitch and gave it to Riley. He really liked it and contacted me and said, “Hey, I really like that pitch you sent me. If you’re working on anything, I’d love to discuss some ideas.” We were discussing working on a book, but in the meantime, I mentioned that I was doing this Deep South werewolf book. He just sort of said, “Oh, I’ll do a cover for it!”
I was at a wedding that summer and he emailed me a preliminary cover and I felt so bad because I’m at this wedding where I’m supposed to be focused on my friends getting married, but I’m focused on my phone because Riley Rossmo sent me original art! He sends me the initial concept and it was amazing. The characters looked a little different on the cover. I think they looked more like one of his characters in Cowboy Ninja Viking, which I would’ve been fine with, but then he redid it. The cover on issue 1 is the cover he sent me. It’s crazy that I’ve been sitting on that cover for 3 years.
There have been more werewolf books recently, like Curse from Boom! by Michael Moreci, Tim Daniel, the above mentioned Riley Rossmo, and Colin Lorimer. Obviously it’s different, but what do you think will make your werewolf book stand out above the other books from recent years?
JH: That’s a good question. Honestly, it’s not really about werewolves. I gave up and trashed and ignored most of the traditional folklore with werewolves. There’s no curse, there’s no full moon. My idea with the transformation is through panic attacks. Now, I’ve been a person who has suffered from panic attacks for several years. When you’re having a panic attack, you want to die. You can’t breathe. It’s excruciating, everything is disorienting. It’s just figuring out what triggers the panic attack. For a teenager who’s gone through a pretty traumatic event, I thought that was enough, coupled with the fact that he’s going with the painful transition of adolescence.Those two things are the foundation for my werewolf story.Continued below
It’s not really about werewolves, it’s about what the werewolf represents. That transformation of going from high school to adult life is rough. Entering into the world is also rough. Obviously, there are parallels there that are more obvious than they are subtle. It’s a coming of age story of a young boy realizing that his own moral compass conflicts with the compass of his town and it’s him trying to navigate through that. There are complications, like going through high school or hiding the fact that you turn into something else when you freak out. If someone is looking for a werewolf book, they might be a little bit disappointed because it’s not 1000% werewolf, but I think it adds a nice complexity to this story.
As you’ve said, the Klan is obviously involved. How much research did you do?
JH: My fiance is an art professor, so started dating and she figured out that I was doing comics, I said, “Oh, I did research about so and so.” and she said, “Did you go to the library?” At the time we were living in New York, living in Brooklyn. I said, “No, I just found these articles.” When you’re an academic, citation is very important. Where you get your source material is very important. There are very trusted sources. The internet is not one of them. Whenever I say I do research, she kind of rolls her eyes and says “internet research”.
“Oh, you read Wikipedia for an hour!”
JH: There’s a lot of interesting stuff on the internet! Yeah, maybe some of it I threw out because it wasn’t relevant. I will admit I have not stepped into a library to look up the KKK. I’ve been doing a lot of research online.
Everyone has this preconceived notion of what the KKK is, and I don’t think my job was to reeducate people. I wanted people to be exposed of aspects, like different positions of the KKK, clan meetings, or how they recruit. There are discreet ways that they figure out who’s involved and who’s not. A lot of the iconic imagery of the KKK has gone away. We don’t see the hoods and the night rides and the cross burnings. I wanted to have a character who wanted to a revive that, which is crazy in a lot of ways, but it’s just another character’s journey that they’ll take to get to their goal. I feel like I did a fair amount of research.
With “Southern Dog” and “Southern Bastards” and probably another book or two, it seems like small towns in the South are starting to be a setting for comics more often. What about those sort of towns, you think, might make them good settings?
JH: I think there is more that happens in small towns than people realize. There’s a community and that community is what defines the town. Whichever way that community lays as far as political or personal views can really make for interesting settings for a character. The thing about New York City is that there’s anonymity to living in a big city. You can say whatever you want, do whatever you want. You’re probably not going to see that person again. In small towns this is not the same. Where I live in Vermont, I run into people constantly, so you have to be more mindful. Small towns have more secrets. That’s what is so compelling, to me, about small towns. A lot of small towns have more secrets than people realize and when those secrets come out, everyone knows about it. I think that there’s more at stake when it comes to that sort of thing.
I’m glad that you mentioned someone going against the grain in small town, as Jasper is attracted to an African-American girl in school. Obviously that plays into things, but why did you want to set him up as not just someone who is different, but someone who thinks differently and acts differently?
JH: Someone’s decisions that they make in their life out of reflex says more about them than a calculated decision. The fact that Jasper finds Zoe to be the most attractive girl in school, regardless, speaks to his character. For me, it was an easy way to show his character without all these very wordy captions about his inner thoughts. I didn’t want it to be like “Dear Diary…” He lives his life and he reacts to his surroundings out of reflex. That he sees a girl that he thinks is attractive, and who happens to be African American, speaks to his characters. When readers read subsequent issues, you’ll see where the mentality comes from. when it comes to raising kids, it’s nurture versus nature and there are some things the he picks up from his mom, and you can clearly see there is a divide in his family regarding certain issues. When it comes to the South, not everyone talks about their feelings, so people keep things behind closed doors a lot.Continued below
Like you said, you’ve been sitting on this for a while, so how far along are you and Alex on this book as #1 is coming out?
JH: We wrapped on the last issue in February.
JH: Yeah, when we got the go ahead from Action Lab last fall, they wanted to debut it in the spring, but because of scheduling conflicts Alex needed more time. So, they said we’d do it summer/late summer. Action Lab likes to make sure they have most of their books in the can before they solicit, which is genius because you’re never late. That lit a fire under all of our asses, so we wrapped the last issue in February and the letterer Adam Wollet, who’s lettered the second, third, and fourth issue, he and I have gone back because I’ve tweaked a lot of stuff throughout the series. Just a couple of dialogue tweaks here and there. He’s been awesome.
Riley sent me the last cover in late March. Since then, I’ve been collecting pinups. I wanted to have at least one or two pinups in each issue and I’ve been inviting people, once they read the first issue, to submit email love/hate/whatever they want to an email address I’ve set up to maybe set up a letters column. I’ll definitely need to start writing the second, third, and fourth letter columns in the next couple weeks. It’s completely done, which feels really great.
With a lot of ongoing and miniseries when the first issue comes out, you’re still working on issue 3 or 4 or 5 or whatever, so how will it feel to see reactions to a wholly finished product and have no expectation play in to the final results?
JH: I just have to distance myself. I think that overall the story can be a hard sell for some people, so when the series actually comes it’ll be nice to see how people respond to it. They’ll have a month to digest it and then the second issue. The second issue is probably the roughest of all of them, in the sense that I really pushed the envelope with the graphic nature of racism, and I’m very interested to see how people react to that. People are going to have their opinions and I just hope some people will have it resonate with them and think about racism for two seconds.
It does seem to be that more creators are trying to tackle real issues, like you with “Southern Dog” and Matt Miner and Black Mask Studios tackling animal rights with “Liberator”. It seems like with more freedom in creating comics, people are starting to deal more with real issues. Is that something you set out to do initially?
JH: I think I just want to write the comics that I would want to read. That’s my litmus test for coming up with new ideas: would I actually want to read this? I think that “Southern Dog” is probably the most personal comic as far as my view points and I wouldn’t say that I have an agenda with this book, I just want to explore what I’ve thought about most of my life. If I was in the middle of a heated racist war, how would I react? Honestly, Jasper has more courage than I have. In his situation, I don’t think I would’ve handled it the same way, but the nice thing about writing fictional characters is that you can live vicariously through them.
I think he’s still very naive throughout most of the story because he’s still very young, but he does make some pretty important decisions and he’s very aware, which I think is the most important aspect of his character, is that he’s very aware of what’s going on. At first he wants to fly under the radar, which is what I would do, but then he steps out of his shell and realizes that there are consequences to his actions and he’s seen what his family, more specifically what his father and brother, are doing and he’s not going to stand for it. He has that guise of being this super strong werewolf, which is nice.Continued below
I think “Southern Dog” is probably the only book that I really set out to explore some very personal experiences that were difficult to go through. There’s another book that I’m doing for Monkeybrain Comics, “Art Monster” which is my personal account of going to art school, which is less traumatic I’d say.
That’s also something I’d like to ask you about. Monkeybrain is digital first right now whereas Action Lab is print. Do you write differently for print versus digital or is just a matter of presentation?
JH: I don’t. There is one instance with Monkeybrain, because when Monkeybrain originally launched they had shorter issues, which is something I was very aware of. I don’t think that they adhere to it so much now, I think most of the titles coming out are 16 to 22 pages, but “Art Monster” and any book I write, I structure for print – 20-22 pages per issue. With “Art Monster”, when I wanted to adhere to their shorter format, I had to revise every issue and break it in half, more or less into a 10/12 page split for each issue. I don’t really think about the delivery. I just want to write a story that an artist is excited about and wants to work on.
You have several things going on right now. “Southern Dog”, “Art Monster”, “Skinned”. What else do you have coming down the pipe that you can talk about, or can you talk about anything?
JH: I guess those are the major ones. I have a couple of projects that I’m working on. I just wrapped on a pitch that is making submission rounds with different publishers. There are some exciting developments with Skinned that I can’t really talk about. There’s one pitch in particular that I just finished that I’m really excited about. It’s a historical fiction series that I really hope it finds a home.
Nice! I love historical fiction!
JH: Yeah? I do another historical fiction series, “After Houdini”, which is still in production. That actually has some interest with a publisher which is kind of exciting. This new one is probably the most history-based that I’ve ever written. I’m really excited about it. I just finished it like two weeks ago, so it’s still pretty early, but we’ll see.
Is there anything else that you want to say “Southern Dog”?
JH: It will be a monthly series through Action Lab Danger Zone. I believe it’s their first monthly through the imprint, so that’s pretty exciting. I think we’re on schedule for the fourth issue dropping in November and the trade out in December or January. It’s really exciting.
“Southern Dog” will be your first full series and trade, won’t it?
JH: Yes it will!
That’s got to be pretty cool, right?
JH: Yeah! The fact that I finished the story, and I was able to get a creative team to finish a story. It feels pretty great. Action Lab is really awesome to work with. I’m hoping to do more work with them, so we’ll see.