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Interview: Charles Santino

The late, great Louis L’Amour is synonymous with the Western novel. Now, writer and graphic novel packager Charles Santino is working with L’Amour’s son Beau, as well as writer Katherine Nolan and illustator Thomas Yeates on a new graphic novel release of an old L’Amour short story, Law of the Desert Born. We talked to Santino about what it means to be a graphic novel packager and how the L’Amour project came about.

How did you get involved with this project? And what were your job duties in shaping this graphic novel? 

I contacted Beau L’Amour, Louis L’Amour’s son, with the idea of doing a graphic novel based on his father’s work. Beau was already in discussion with Bantam Books (Random House) about doing just that. We considered a number of stories, including some of L’Amour’s non-Western stories.

My duties were two-fold: adapt the screenplay into a graphic novel script and act as production consultant. The short story “The Law of the Desert Born” was first published in the 1940s in a pulp magazine. Later, Beau and Kathy Nolan expanded it into an audio drama, and, later, into a screenplay. I worked from their screenplay. As a production consultant, I helped Beau with --- as he described it in his acknowledgments --- “the craft and lore of comics.”

Tell us a little bit about what it means to be a graphic novel packager. How did you get started doing this? What does a GN packager do? And what are some of your other projects in the works?

The packager is an independent contractor handling most of the editorial duties that a publisher usually takes care of in-house. With a comic book or a graphic novel, this means hiring writers, artists, colorists, inkers, lettering, and handling the production of the electronic file containing the book that the publisher ultimately sends to the printer. So far, I’ve handled the writing on everything I’ve packaged, but it’s possible that I might hire a writer for some project in the future. I didn’t package Law of the Desert Born;Beau acted as producer on this project. Because of the consultation hat that I wore, my role was somewhere in between a hired hand and a packager. At one point during the production of the graphic novel, Beau described my function as that of a “director,” but there’s really no accurate film equivalent for what I did.

I got started as a packager in the early 1990s. When I wrote Conan the Barbarianfor Marvel in the late 1980s, I was so disappointed with the coloring and especially the hideous Flexographic printing on the book that I decided to try to take more control over the process of producing the comics I was working on. I pitched an irreverent (but G-rated) adaptation of Aesop’s Fablesto Fantagraphics, which they agreed to let me package. The artists on that one included Peter Kuper and Rick Geary. I also sold a creator-owned graphic novel to DC Comics around this time, Captain Stone and the Dinosaurs, which was canceled just before it went to the printer, in the comic book crash of 1994, when DC canceled everything that wasn’t part of their DC Universe. That book is still in DC’s vaults. More recently, I packaged Ayn Rand’s Anthem: The Graphic Novel, for NAL (Penguin), with art by Joe Staton.

My next project is for the British publisher Markosia. It hasn’t been announced, but this one will be nonfiction, based on the published memoir of an American advertising executive who had a very strange, very rare disease as a child and how he dealt with it. It’s one of the most interesting and unique autobiographies I’ve ever read. After that, there are other adaptations of fiction planned and some original material based on existing characters.

Do you remember your first time reading Louis L’Amour?

In the late 1970s, I read Hondo and that was my first experience with Louis L’Amour’s work. I was particularly impressed with how L’Amour handled the romantic aspect of the story. About a decade later I read Last of the Breed, a contemporary adventure. I enjoyed both books. That was all I’d read before meeting up with Beau. Since then I’ve read a few of the stories that Beau has adapted into either audio plays or screenplays, some of which we considered before settling on Law of the Desert Born. I don’t really have a favorite based on such a small sampling of L’Amour huge output.

Although many L’Amour fans may be familiar with the short story, this graphic novel version of Law of the Desert Bornexpands the tale in many ways. What surprises can readers expect in the graphic novel, even if they think they know the story well already?

Well, without spoiling the surprises, the graphic novel stays true to the essence of the story while fleshing it out in interesting and logical ways. The graphic novel explores how the conflict started and how it spun wildly out of control. One of the things that attracted me to the story is how unconventional and unpredictable it is. This is not a “good guys vs. bad guys” story.

There was a time when Western comics were some of the most popular books around. Does this book recapture some of that Golden Age of Comics magic?

I think it goes beyond what was done decades ago because none of those stories had the complexity, and certainly not the length, of this story. Thomas Yeates’ art stands up well against the best of the classic Western comics and any other genre, for that matter.

I’d agree on that; Yeates’ artwork is incredible. How did you get him onboard for the book? What did you tell him about creating these illustrations?

When I suggested Thomas for the book, no one had any doubt that he was perfect for this story. I don’t remember exactly who reached out to him, but when he found out that Random House was publishing a graphic novel based on the work of Louis L’Amour, I would imagine that was all he needed to hear. We gave him very little direction beyond the script and some reference material for historical accuracy. We knew what we were getting with Thomas and he needed no hand-holding at all.

With so many creative people involved in making this book, how did the creative process work? How did you all collaborate?

I had conversations and emails with Beau pretty much daily over the course of the production. Beau dealt with Thomas. Kathy and Beau spoke occasionally but I didn’t have any contact with Kathy until we met at the San Diego Comic-Con this year. I had some contact with Random House, but not much. Beau really spearheaded the production and kept everything moving. We worked very closely on the script. Adapting his and Kathy’s screenplay into a first draft of the graphic novel script was just the beginning of the process. We didn’t make any major changes to the story, but there were lots of adjustments that had to be made in translating what works in a movie to what works in a graphic novel.

Will we be getting more L’Amour graphic novels after this?

More than likely.