Interview with Matt Wagner

by Andrew J. Rausch

Pennsylvania-bred comic book writer and illustrator Matt Wagner started his career with a story that introduced the world to the assassin character Grendel. That character would ultimately become the stuff of legends, resulting in not just its own title but two Grendel/Batman crossovers. Perhaps best known for Mage, Wagner has also worked on many established characters, including the villain Two-Face for the graphic novel Faces. Wagner is also responsible for Trinity, a series combining the forces of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. In recent years he has been closely associated with Dynamite Entertainment’s Zorro, in which he reimagined the classic character from the old West.

This led to the Wagner-written crossover comic Django/Zorro, which served as an official sequel story to Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained. Speaking on the crossover, Tarantino told reporters, “I loved the idea. One of the things I liked so much, I grew up reading Western comics and entertainment in general, whether it was the Zorro comics, or the Disney show, or Zorro’s Fighting Legend. What I thought was such a great idea was taking the most famous fictional Mexican Western hero, and putting him together with one of the most famous black Western heroes.”

Were you a fan of the original film Django Unchained?

Oh, fuck yeah. I had a friend who’s a local reviewer take me to a press screening. He told me later, “I’ve got to take you to more of those.” Because all the critics sit there very seriously considering the film, and I was just laughing and howling and clapping. [Laughs.] I just enjoyed the hell out of it. I’m a fan of Quentin’s stuff in general.

How did you become involved with the Django/Zorro comic?

The whole project was put together by Nick Barrucci, the guy who runs Dyamite. He was a long-time friend of Reginald Hudlin, who was a producer on Quentin Tarantino’s film. They just kind of put this idea together, I think half-joking to begin with. Then things started to get more serious, and Nick contacted me and said, “We’re talking about doing this. Would you be interested in writing it?” I just thought, That’s never going to happen, but I said, “Sure.” If the opportunity comes up, I’d love to do it, but it’s not going to happen. So I completely forgot about it and then four or five months later, I got another very energized call from Nick. He says, “I sent Quentin all your Zorro stuff and he loves it. He wants you to come down next week to talk about this.” Even then I was like, really, no, it’s not going to happen. But then, yeah, it all came true. I was surprised, but they pulled it off.

What was meeting Quentin like?

Here again, I was like, “This could fall apart at any minute.” Quentin’s such a famous guy, and I’m sure there are about a million people demanding his time. Even when I pulled up to his house I was thinking, “Something’s gonna fall through.” [Laughs.] But no, he met me at the door. He pulled me in and took me and showed me his comics right away. He has a very unique and cool box where he keeps his comics. If we’re not the exact same age, Quentin and I are pretty close in age, so our cultural touch points are kind of similar. His is of course more movie oriented, and mine more comic oriented. But I know plenty of movies and he knows plenty of comics.

Did you guys talk a lot about other comics?

Yeah. He had just gotten back from this big San Diego con, and he had bought up a whole bunch of the oversized black-and-white magazines that Marvel used to publish in the seventies. That just thrilled the hell out of me, because I had loved those when I was young. Even though they didn’t have very strong subject matter in them, they felt more adult when I was buying them at twelve and thirteen-years-old. I guess because they weren’t racked with the other comics—they were racked at the magazine rack. So he had maybe fifty or a hundred of those, and we just pored through those and reminisced.

I read that Quentin was adamant that Zorro be the same Zorro you had already redefined at Dynamite.

When I went down there, I was thinking we’re gonna have to have a legacy Zorro, since Django occurs so much later than the Zorro adventures. But when we first started talking about it, he was adamant. “I want the old Zorro.” Considering Django’s relationship with King Shultz in the film, where he already had this openness towards having an older mentor-like character, it just fit like a glove. Then we had to talk about what had happened to Django since the film, because this took place about two years after the film. He told me Django’s wife was down in Philadelphia, and that he’d taken her there. He was very much a wanted man. It had taken them a long time to get out of the South. They had fought there way out of there, and Brunhilda was now working with the underground railroad. So he’s gone back to doing the only thing he knows how to do, which is bounty hunting. And he just keeps pushing farther and farther West, because there’s not as much institutionalized racism out there.

Did you get much direct input from Tarantino while working on the project?

Sure. We spent two days with the first go-around. I had already heard this from somebody else, but when Quentin first starts working with you, he likes to screen movies for you. So he had a whole litany of stuff he wanted us to watch in this very cool, very comfortable screening room. So we watched a couple of films, and we watched a couple of chapters of old Zorro serials. We’d kind of watch a little bit and then go up to his porch and chat, working out storyline stuff. So when I went there to meet him, I was down there for two days. It was a very open, very free-form kind of meeting. I didn’t know if I’d need to come back the second day. We didn’t even know if we’d get along. But he said, “No, no, no, you’ve got to come back tomorrow so we can keep working on this.” I went back to the hotel that night and I wrote the first six pages of the script to kick it off and get it started, so I could get direct feedback from him in regards to Django’s voice in particular. One thing he cautioned me about, he said, “Don’t try to write black dialect. Try to write more cowboy dialect.” Of course a few of Django’s enunciations are more black than cowboy, but that was a very cool and insightful bit of direction.

So then I came back and started to work on it, and maybe three months later I contacted him and said, “We need one more meeting. We’ve got the general outline, but now that I’m kind of blocking it out, I have a few more questions for you.” So I went back down for another afternoon, and we got everything accomplished that we wanted to do. He had very quick answers for each of my questions. And it was valuable, because there’s a scene in there that’s a flashback where Django remembers a little adventure with King. That scene was actually in Quentin’s first draft of Django Unchained. He still had it in handwritten form. But he’d cut the scene because he felt it was a little repetitive and that the film was already long enough. He brought this up because I felt we needed some sort of reminiscence about King, because he was such a powerful figure. With this being the first new Django adventure, I thought we needed to see King in some fashion. He had the scene already, and we found a place where it fit in nicely. He pretty much acted the entire scene out, telling me all of it. He kept telling me he was gonna get me his original handwritten script, but he never did because he got started on The Hateful Eight preproduction. And when you start working on a movie, boom, you just disappear into that hole. Since he had acted it all out for me, I just kind of wrote it from memory and just filled in the spots that needed filled myself. I was pretty happy with it. I felt that I hit King’s voice pretty well.

How much freedom did you have in crafting this story? Did you ever feel at all hamstrung, having to answer back to Quentin?

No, he was really open to everything. Again, he really loved my version of Zorro, so… When I went down the second time, the questions I had were very specific. I said, “In all your films, there’s some chunk of pop culture.” In Django you could argue that that’s not there, but it is. Mandingo fighting was a pop culture thing of its time. You could almost compare it to the S&M dungeon in Pulp Fiction. We were determined to examine racism not through black people, but through the local indigenous population. I said, “We need something the Indians do that signifies their despair. A dark, sort of subcultural thing.” So he very quickly came up with the idea of playing chicken with sticks of dynamite. That fit right in and certainly fit the bill for what we were going for. The other big thing was when I told him we needed a significant death of some kind. So I suggested we kill Bernardo, Zorro’s longtime servant and brother-in-arms. And he just thought that was a terrific idea.

What are some of the challenges you faced on this particular project?

The big challenge was that it wasn’t as neat a pairing as I had originally thought it would be. I had thought, yeah, that sounds neat. That sounds cool. But the two characters are very different ages, and they come from very different worlds. That’s always fun to meld, but one operates completely incognito and the other one doesn’t. So I found in writing it, I really couldn’t have the two of them fighting back to back, so to speak, until the grand finale. Otherwise you’ve got one guy in a mask and another guy not in a mask. The bad guys are gonna go, “We don’t know who that guy is, but go get the other guy who doesn’t have the mask on.” [Laughs.] They’re also very different in their approaches. Certainly in the heat of battle Zorro will kill somebody if he has to. But he’s not like Django who will just happily blow their head off. It was a really neat challenge trying to make those work, and I think I pulled it off.

What are some of the challenges to writing for someone else’s character as opposed to one you’ve created yourself?

Both of those are somebody else’s character. Over the years I’ve done a lot of that. I don’t know how familiar you are with the comics industry, but I’m sort of more known for my two indie characters, Grendel and Mage. Over the years I’ve had lots of opportunities to work with other characters for other comic companies. I’ve done lots of Batman for DC. I’ve done lots of stuff for Dynamite, like Zorro, The Green Hornet, The Shadow—all those old cool pulp characters. I’m currently working on the relaunch of the Will Eisner character the Spirit. I find it an interesting challenge to play with someone else’s toys like that. One difference is that with a character like Batman, you have a history of like seventy-five, eighty-five years. You’re kind of free to pick out the stuff you like and toss out the stuff you don’t. But with something like The Spirit or with Django, you’re suddenly working with a character that is closely identified with one particular voice and one particular author. So that’s a neat challenge also—to try and strike that author’s tone, and yet bring something of your own to the table, as well. Ever since the death of Ian Fleming, you’ve seen many officially-sanctioned other people writing James Bond books. And some of them are more successful than others in striking that tone.

What are some of the joys and challenges that came with writing about an older Don Diego character?

Once Quentin suggested that to me, it all sort of made sense. He also brought up another interesting factor in that Don Diego sort of puts on this foppish demeanor to deflect people from his true identity and adventures as Zorro. Quentin pointed out that after that many of years of living like that, wouldn’t he actually become that persona? Wouldn’t he actually be that kind of fussy older aristocrat? And I thought, yes, he absolutely would.

Quentin hints at the beginning of issue one about a possible future Django/Lone Ranger team-up. Is that something we might actually see?

They haven’t contacted me, so I don’t know. I don’t write The Lone Ranger. If they did that, I would think they would turn to one of the regular Lone Ranger authors. I don’t know. Maybe. I wouldn’t say no.

What kind of feedback did you get from Quentin once the comic was finished?

He loved it. I would say for the first half of production I heard from him pretty regularly. Then, again, he started Hateful Eight, and I didn’t hear from him until the end. I would assume with that he’s keeping watch over me with his character, and I’m sure that once he saw that I could handle it he was okay with it. He told me at the end he loved the way it turned out.

What elements of the Django/Zorro comic are you the most proud of?

Meshing these two characters that on my second thought of it didn’t seem to mesh as well as I initially thought they would. I’m certainly proud of having had the chance to work with Quentin. He’s really one of the most vital film directors working today. I’ve enjoyed his work for many, many years. Also, my son colored the book, which was pretty cool. I think it just turned out beautifully.

django cover.jpg

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