BY JENNIFER M. CONTINO
I'm a child of the '70s and music is very important to my parents. When I was little, and gas wasn't an arm and a leg per gallon, the whole family would just take drives in the country, so mom and dad could listen to the "oldies" on the radio. So I'd heard the lyrical story of Stagger Lee many, many times. But it took the work of Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix to really give me an appreciation of the man behind the legend. I thoroughly enjoyed their original graphic novel, that weaved together the many different versions of what happened between Lee Sheldon and Bill Lyons. I was lucky enough to get both creators for some liner notes for their critically-acclaimed work.


THE PULSE: When I heard the title “Stagger Lee” I wondered if your original graphic novel were about the story behind the song so to speak, or if that was just a happy coincidence. What inspired you to take the story behind the various Stagger Lee songs and weave it into one “complete” tale?

DEREK MCCULLOCH: My inability to make a decision, I guess. What first drew me to the material was the idea of a man seeing his own history transformed into myth in his lifetime. As I did my reading on the subject and learned more and more about it, I kept getting torn between approaches. Is it a true crime story? Is it about the creation of folklore? Is it a drama about the intersection of race and politics? When I hit on the structural means of making it all those things without giving any one short shrift, it was a happy day for me.

THE PULSE: When did you first hear about Stagger Lee? I remember being little in the ‘70s and on the “oldies” radio hearing the Lloyd Price version of the song. I had no clue it was about a real murder in 1895 ....

DEREK MCCULLOCH: It always embarrasses me to admit it, but my first exposure to Stagger Lee was on “More American Graffiti” – not the 1979 movie sequel but the 1975 soundtrack sequel. The soundtrack to American Graffiti was such a monster hit that they issued a second one. The only difficulty was that both soundtracks were double albums with about 80 tracks combined between them, and there weren’t actually that many songs in the movie. They rounded the sequel out with songs from the right period that didn’t appear in the movie, and one of those was Lloyd Price’s version of Stagger Lee.
I think there might even have been a third one, but I’m not positive.

SHEPHERD HENDRIX: When I was a kid, I heard the name and wondered about its origin—what does “Stagger Lee” mean? With a name like that I figured maybe he was a drunk. I didn’t hear the Lloyd Price song until my adulthood. With that “go Stagger Lee” chant, that song seemed cheerfully sadistic to me. It wasn’t until Derek handed me his script that I learned the full story behind the song.


THE PULSE: How did you learn about Lee Sheldon, Bill Lyons, and what really happened at Bill Curtis’ Saloon?

DEREK MCCULLOCH: My initial exposure to the true story was from Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train. We came very nicely full circle when Greil wrote the book’s first review, for Interview magazine, and was kind enough to allow us to quote his comments on the back cover.

THE PULSE: Why do you think his story is one that many people did sing about in song and became kind of the stuff of legend?

DEREK MCCULLOCH: Stagger Lee is first and foremost an African-American folk hero and particularly in the first half century of the song’s existence, he played a very important cultural role: a symbol of uncompromising manhood. Interestingly, the myth translated very readily across racial and cultural lines, proving elastic enough to suit the needs of different singers and different audiences. When Woody Guthrie sings about Stackolee, it’s not the same guy John Hurt’s singing about in Stack-O-Lee, but they’re both still—somehow—singing about Stagger Lee.

THE PULSE: The way you told this story was so intriguing, taking lyrics from some of the versions of the Stagger Lee songs and facts from the newspaper. What inspired you to craft your tale in that fashion?

DEREK MCCULLOCH: Again, indecision. It’s a big, big subject, and I wanted to learn as much as I could about it, and pass as much of that on as I could to the reader. The hardest thing was figuring out what to leave out.

THE PULSE: How did you flesh out the rest of it with the side stories and supporting players who weren’t mentioned in any versions of the song?


DEREK MCCULLOCH: Fairly early on, I had the idea to create a fictional lead who would compose an early version of Stagger Lee. That became the Hercules Moffatt character. I didn’t really know how to work him in with the rest of the story, though. At some point I told my wife, Tara, about the various elements of the story – Lee Shelton, the crooked politicians, Billy’s family, and the piano player – and she said “There aren’t really any women in it, are there?” I’d been deliberately avoiding adding a love interest anywhere because I felt I’d be shoehorning in something that didn’t naturally fit, but Tara’s comment got me thinking about the role that women play in the different versions of Stagger Lee. Stag and Billy are always the main characters, but there’s often a woman figuring into it somehow.

As I said, when the story crosses cultural lines, the singers adapt it to suit their needs and those of their audience…it occurred to me that a lot of the elements that we find in different versions of the song probably came directly from the lives of the people who wrote them. So I figured maybe my piano player could incorporate his own romantic dilemmas into his version of the song. I kept coming back to a line that shows up in, among other versions, the prison toast that both Nick Cave and R.L. Burnside adapted: ”You got to be gone before my man gets home.” And I went from there.

THE PULSE: What were some of the biggest challenges with getting this created?


DEREK MCCULLOCH: Finding the time to get the work done. I started working on Stagger Lee in 1999, and Shep came on board in I think 2001 or 2002. The book wasn’t completed until 2005, largely because we could rarely do more than work on it in our spare time. I had a full-time job and Shep always had this or that long-term freelance gig. Since we were self-publishing and not answerable to anyone to get the job done, it was easy to let things slide. Until we were connected with Image, Stagger Lee always took a back seat to paying work.

SHEPHERD HENDRIX: For me, the real challenge came when Image agreed to publish Stagger Lee. Until then, I’d taken my time about getting pages done but with Image at the helm, there was a deadline to deal with. At the end of it all, I finished the book on one lung. I’d had a major lung collapse a few years before but this one was so mild in comparison that I thought I’d had just a nagging cough. I dropped the final pages off then went to the hospital later that night.

THE PULSE: Then, how tough was it to sell a publisher on this tale?


DEREK MCCULLOCH: In a way, I never even tried. As I said, we’d been developing Stagger Lee as a self-published project for years before we connected with Image. During that time I talked about Stagger Lee quite a bit with my great good friend, CBLDF Director Charles Brownstein. During my years in the wilderness, Charles was one of the only people I spoke with regularly who had any connection to the comics industry, so he’d have ideas about who might be interested in this or that, and I was so out of touch with the industry that I rarely even knew who he was talking about. It occurred to Charles that the music aspect of the Stagger Lee project would appeal to Eric Stephenson at Image.


Charles introduced me to Eric, I banged out a short proposal based on the work that I’d already completed, Shep showed some art samples, and away we went. It’s funny—part of the reason I was planning on self-publishing in the first place is that I considered myself incompetent at pitching projects. I took it for granted that I wouldn’t be able to sell anyone else on Stagger Lee, as much as I believed in it. We were very lucky that Charles was there to sneak us in the back door.

THE PULSE: Why did you choose the sepia tones instead of black and white or shades of gray?

SHEPHERD HENDRIX: Actually, a couple of friends made that suggestion. As the artist, you’d think the idea should have been a no-brainer for me but I suppose I was too busy drawing to think about it. I’m glad someone did.

DEREK MCCULLOCH: I think Charles was the first person to suggest sepia to me. Somebody else suggested it to Shep. We both kind of nodded politely and went on with what we were doing. It wasn’t until our letterer, Rich Starkings, showed us a copy of a book he’d published that was in sepia on off-white paper that we really got how it could look. As Stagger Lee was going to press, once it was too late to do anything about it, I started to have second thoughts. The art in the book that Rich showed us was completely different from Shep’s art—Rich’s book was all washes and gradations of tone, Shep’s art was stark pen and ink. The translation to sepia wasn’t going to be the same thing at all. We were debuting the book at Book Expo in DC that year. I was meeting Jim Demonakos, then Image’s marketing director at the show, and he was going to crack open the first box of Stagger Lees to show me. As I got to the convention center, I literally started to feel nauseous. This little doubt had just built and built, and I was sure the book was going to look like crap. I got to the Image booth, Jim handed me a book, and I looked at it and went, “Oh, that looks pretty good.”

Kind of anticlimactic.

THE PULSE: Once you had Stagger Lee in your hands and saw how it all came out, how satisfied were you with the final product?

SHEPHERD HENDRIX: Overall, I’m very satisfied with it. However, I wouldn’t mind making a few minor art corrections if ever the book goes for reprint. That, and a couple of dialogue typos that, annoyingly, weren’t discovered by us until after the book saw print.

DEREK MCCULLOCH: I think it’s a great looking book. Shep did a wonderful job evoking time and place, and got wonderfully nuanced performances out of all the characters. ComicraftRich Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt on the lettering and John Roshell doing interior and jacket design – gave added all sorts of special little touches to the book. I do really want to go to a second printing someday, though, so we can shift the balloons on page 110 back where they’re supposed to be (up and to the right).

THE PULSE: Would you like to take another song based on a true story and create a story all around it or was that the only piece that moved you to put pen to paper?


DEREK MCCULLOCH: I’ve had stray thoughts about doing things based on different songs, but I think Stagger Lee is pretty singular. There are a lot of old folk songs with great stories that would translate well to our medium. There are probably “true” stories behind them, but they’re lost to history now. I wrote a story for the Tori Amos anthology, Comic Book Tattoo, and that’s probably the closest I’ll come for a while. Colleen Doran’s drawing that one.

THE PULSE: What was the collaboration on Stagger Lee like? Were there any areas that you really argued about how it should play out on the page?

SHEPHERD HENDRIX: Things ran very smoothly. As he was writing, Derek did extensive internet research for many of the locations and characters I’d need to draw. He emailed his script to me as a Word document. The script had hyperlinks to all the images I’d need so I could grab them off the browser and save them to my reference folder. The script was very descriptive and I had no problem following it. If I needed to make any changes, I’d call him and we talk it over. This method worked out well for the both of us.

DEREK MCCULLOCH: We had one protracted discussion about whether or not a white southern politician would remove his hat when entering the home of a black lawyer. I called my stepfather-in-law in on that; he’s a professor at UCSB whose specialty is race relations in the post-reconstruction south. We figured he’d have an expert opinion. His short answer was no. Ironically, after all the back and forth between us on the subject, the page got overlooked during the last-minute fixes, and it went to press with the hat off.

Other than that, I’d call it a near-perfect collaboration. It was always clear that Shep really “got” the material, really understood the characters and the significance of any particular situation. The art realized the script as well as I would ever have any right to hope.

THE PULSE: What did you enjoy the most about the experience of making this work?

DEREK MCCULLOCH: The opportunity to tell a story that has some real cultural weight to it. The response has been wonderful; people who have reason to be protective of the legend of Stagger Lee have responded to it very kindly.

SHEPHERD HENDRIX: Getting it done on time. Before Stagger Lee I’d never done anything over 200 pages.

THE PULSE: What other projects are you both working on?


SHEPHERD HENDRIX: I have a personal project called Prospect that I’ve been writing and drawing for far too long. It’s my spare time project I turn to between paying gigs. Prospect is a science fiction/fantasy story about a young woman who takes to the stars in hopes of discovering a New World like her hero, Christopher Columbus. In the end, she makes discoveries that far outdo her wildest dreams.

When I’m not working on Prospect, I’m drawing storyboards for various clients.

DEREK MCCULLOCH: My second graphic novel, Displaced Persons, is coming out from Image in June, with art by Rantz Hoseley. It’s a 1930s detective story, a 1960s drugs and crime story, a 1990s drama about real estate and domestic abuse, a time travel story that isn’t a time travel story, and, to swipe a phrase from Greil Marcus, a secret history of the 20th century. It’s not too complicated, though.

I’ve just finished writing the first draft of my third Image GN, Pug, which will be drawn by another old friend, Greg Espinoza.

Other than that, I’ll have scattered short pieces here and there – the story with Colleen Doran in Comic Book Tattoo, a story about Richard Nixon in PopGun #2 (art by Ron Turner), and a nasty little crime story that Peter Krause is drawing for PopGun #3.





Anyone who wants to get his or her own copy of Stagger Lee can do so and learn a lot more about the creators here: http://staggerlee.typepad.com/