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Writer of Stagger Lee

by Richard Vasseur - (Posted: 7/19/2007)

Derek McCulloch

Richard: What is the storyline of "Stagger Lee"?

Derek McCulloch: In St. Louis in 1895, ďStagĒ Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons dead after a drunken argument. The killing was quickly documented in song. It spread across America from singer to singer, becoming a staple in the blues, folk, and country traditions. By the time Lee Shelton died in 1912, his story was a legend but he himself was forgotten. Stagger Lee the graphic novel tells the story of the murder, its politically complicated aftermath, and its transformation into legend.

Richard: How was the idea of Stagger Lee created?

Derek: I vaguely knew different Stagger Lee songs, mainly the Lloyd Price version from the 50s and later the Nick Cave version from the 90s, but Iíd never really paid much attention to what the song was about. When I read a book called Mystery Train by Greil Marcus, I was surprised to learn that it was a story about a real-life murder. I thought there was something that could be done with the story in narrative form, so I began to collect versions of the song and read everything I could find about its history. Only seven years later, the book was ready.

Richard: Who are the supporting characters?

Derek: The supporting cast is peopled by character drawn from history: Lee Shelton, the murderer; Nathan Dryden, his brilliant, morphine-addicted attorney; Ed Butler, the charismatic political boss; Babe Connors, the music-loving madam; and many others. Several completely fictional characters play key roles: Hercules Moffat, the whorehouse piano player who composes an early version of Stagger Lee; Evelyn Prescott, his mysterious love interest; and Justin Troup, Drydenís upright and dangerously naÔve clerk.

Richard: Do you identify personally with any of the characters?

Derek: Yes, with all of them in one way or another. A character doesnít have much life or depth otherwise.

Richard: What is "Displaced Persons" about?

Derek: Iím still working on it, but hereís the current draft of the catalog text:

For good or ill, a familyís legacy is ongoing, a series of sons and daughters inheriting the achievements or burdens of their parents. For good or ill, sometimes itís not that simpleÖ

In 1939, a detective in Dashiell Hammettís San Francisco investigates the disappearance of an heiress while struggling to hold his family together.

In 1969, twin brothers find themselves on opposite sides of the law as the Summer of Love gives way to the death of the Sixties.

In 1999, a marriage explodes in violence under the strain of unsatisfied greed as the dot-com bubble reaches the bursting point.

Displaced Persons tells the story of a uniquely twisted and tragic family history spanning the most turbulent hundred years in the history of mankind: the twentieth century saw 99 wars, 16 famines, 19 pandemics, 14 genocides, and one family lost hopelessly in time.

Richard: Are you still active with the Comics Legends Legal Defense Fund?

Derek: Nope. But if they ever need to do another benefit, Iíd gladly contribute.

Richard: What do you have planned career wise next?

Derek: Iím getting ready to write a third, shorter graphic novel right now, and then Iíve got about a dozen next projects that I want to pitch to various publishers. In the meantime, Shep and I have a couple of short stories coming up in different anthologies. We just did a piece for an Image book called PopGun that should be coming out in November, and right now Iím writing a piece that Shepís going to illustrate for Jason Rodriguezís second Postcards anthology.

Richard: What books and movies do you like?

Derek: Books: I read a lot of Paul Auster, Russell Banks, William Kennedy, E.L. Doctorow, Ian McEwan, Richard Price, James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, Graham Greene, Nick Hornby, Robertson Davies, and a bunch of other writers I canít think of right now. Filmmakers whose work Iím particularly attached to include Sam Peckinpah, the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick, Preston Sturges, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, John Huston, and way more others than I can think of right now. If I could only read on book over and over for the rest of my life, it would be Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. If only one movie, it would be Diner by Barry Levinson.

Richard: What do you do with any spare time you have?

Derek: I have a full time-plus day job, a pile of books that need writing, a wife, a three-year-old daughter, and a dog who needs a lot of walks. Properly speaking I really shouldnít have any spare time, but when I want to squander hours that should be spent working I usually watch a movie. That, and Iím a big fan of the Harperís cryptic crossword.

Richard: If you could have one wish what would it be and why?

Derek: A long, happy, and healthy life for my daughter.

Richard: What comics did you read as a child and do you read now?

Derek: My formative comics years were the early and mid 70s. I started off reading mostly DC comics, but switched to Marvel in a big way. Spider-Man was my favourite character, but I really followed writers. My favourites were the Steves, Engelhart and Gerber, who were doing amazing work on The Avengers, Captain America, Man-Thing, Howard the Duck, and The Defenders; and later Doug Moench on Master of Kung Fu.

In 1982 I went to college and started to notice that while I was still buying superhero comics out of habit, Iíd at some point stopped reading them. Right around the same time I discovered Cerebus, and I gradually became a one-comic guy. A couple years later a friend introduced me to Alan Mooreís run on Swamp Thing. I was skeptical at first, but the ďPogĒ issue immediately won me over Ė I was a huge fan of Walt Kelly. Through the 90s, I moved around a lot. My tepid attitude toward the current comics and my lack of a stable home base combined to minimize the amount of time I spent in comic shops.

The only books I made a point of catching up on when the opportunity presented itself were Cerebus and From Hell. After From Hell concluded, I virtually stopped reading comics and really havenít started up again since. Every now and then someone will press this book or that on me and Iíll usually enjoy it, but the medium just doesnít excite me as a reader the way it used to. No knock on the work thatís being done, which Iím sure is exemplary Ė Iím just not inclined that way anymore. I guess Iím much more interested in writing comics now than reading them, and these days my reading hours are generally spent with prose.

Richard: How can someone contact you?

Derek: By emailing me at Ė but Iím pretty terrible about answering email.

Richard: Any last words of wisdom?

Derek: ďWhen you lose your money, learn to lose.Ē

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