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Sydney Duncan and Natalie Barahona discuss their comics debut ‘Kill Whitey Donovan’

The debut creators discuss their deeply emotional tale of vengeance set during the Civil War.

As an avid reader of comic books (and one with my own Comics Podcast), I’m excited to see so many new voices entering the industry. Case in point, writer Sydney Duncan and artist Natalie Barahona, who are making their comics debut with Kill Whitey Donovan #1, out December 4 from Dark Horse Comics.

Set during the Civil War, the series focuses on Anna Hoyt as she sets off for Atlanta to kill the man responsible for destroying her family… who just so happens to be her fiance, Jim “Whitey” Donovan. Ms. Hoyt makes a deal with one of Donovan’s slaves, Hattie Virgil, to help her seek revenge she so rightly deserves.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with both Duncan and Barahona, tackling everything from the first issue and art style to their favorite TV shows and more.

AIPT: Sydney, I understand you wrote this originally as a novel 10 or so years ago. What was the process like adapting it for comics? Might we see this story in novel form at some point?

Sydney Duncan: That’s right! I’d written this thing as a sort of creative palate cleanser – like literary ginger – in between the first and second book of my young adult series. My agent hadn’t sold The Revelation of Gabriel Adam yet, so I was reluctant to begin its sequel. But then it did sell, and I had two more books in the series to deliver, so I set aside a nearly complete first draft of Kill Whitey Donovan, which was at the time called A Divine Labor. I found writing for comics incredibly intimidating and, just…hard. The economy of words is so different than that of a novel, where you aren’t really that constrained. Distilling a story where I had the freedom to put every word on the page that I wanted into something that could tell the same story in a much different way, was at first incredibly daunting. What I learned quickly, though, was that I could script the book for Natalie by basically giving her the guts of the story and then just getting out of her way. Her instincts as a storyteller did the heavy lifting. Once we both found that rhythm, my anxiety over whether or not this was doable for me became a little more manageable. It helped to know that she was also brand new at this, and likely experiencing some of the same fears. So we had this unspoken sisterhood going, as we ventured out into the comics world. It was nice.

As far as revisiting the novel version of Kill Whitey Donovan, I can’t say I’m terribly interested in the idea. First of all, with Natalie’s creative energy poured into the story, it lives separately from what existed in the novel. I think experiencing Hattie and Anna’s journey is a much richer and more visceral experience than what I could do individually in the novel. Also, in just being able to work with the people on this team, I feel like we caught lightning in a bottle with this comic. Trying to write it alone could never top what we collectively did here.

AIPT: Natalie, your use of color is so alluring, from the haze in a bedroom at night to the slow build of blues at night to purples, what goes through your head as you’re creating a color palette?

Natalie Barahona: For this comic, I did a lot of improvisation with color. To start, I would have a general idea of whether the scene would be warm or cool overall. But within every panel, there will be fluctuations in temperature that you can use to guide the eye to where you want it to go. It’s also important to spend time deciding how to light the scene. My best colors tend to happen when I focus more on light and dark, and color is next in degree of importance.

AIPT: I’m no historian and the very idea of writing historical fiction like this raises my anxiety, what sort of research do you go through be it the story, setting, clothing design, until it feels like enough?

SD: We wanted it to feel real. Historical fiction is still fiction, but we thought we owed it to the reader to get it as factual as possible. Did we take some liberties? Sure, a few. But we wanted to present the era as realistically as possible. The look. The sensibilities. The politics. The economics. Technologies. Culture. All of it. We researched just about everything because all of these dynamics contribute to who these characters are in the world. At some point, I think I even looked at old weather almanacs. I think it’s enough when the lack of something doesn’t take away from the story. Hopefully, we got that right.

AIPT: The flashes Anna has to her younger self are incredibly impactful. Is there an art to drawing a character accurately as their younger selves?

NB: It’s really fun to try and capture a likeness or draw people in different stages of life. I think I just try to pay attention to the proportions of the character and stay true to that.

AIPT: Sydney, I’ve read you’ve said the Civil War is basically this war for identity and a perfect backdrop for this story. Could you expand on that?

SD: Without minimizing what the Civil War was and its complexities and its importance, the essence of the conflict was a struggle for that of this country’s soul and humanity. At its center: slavery. The question was, if we the people were the United States of America, then what kind of people were we? I imagine the leaders of that time recognized that our nation had a horrible history of doing horrible things to people, and we had a future that could diverge from that if they were intentional. Hattie and Anna’s journey mirrors that in a lot of ways. They have scars that can’t really be healed, but what they realize they can do is take control of their destiny and, in doing so, discover their true selves.

AIPT:  Do you have a Mount Rushmore of artists/writers that you appreciate and would like to work with?

SD: Like, so many. Having been able to work with legends like Brian Stelfreeze and Jason Pearson has already been a dream come true, and I’d jump at the opportunity to do it again with both of them. I’ve been woo-girling at our editor, Keven Gardner, that I got to write Natalie Barahona’s first comic and feeling very, very privileged for that. I’m so excited to see what she does. I’m definitely her biggest fan. I would also love to work with Vanesa Del Rey or just, like, get coffee for Kelly Sue DeConnick or Gail Simone. I’m a massive fan of Sana Takeda and Fiona Staples. Frank Cho. Pepe Larraz. Adam Hughes. Gabriel Bá. This list could go on forever.

NB: Some writers I really respect are Junji Ito, Emil Ferris, Phoebe Gloeckner, Rick Remender, and Warren Ellis. And of course, Sydney is a fantastic writer and a lovely person as well. There are too many incredible artists to name, but I’ll just mention Bill Sienkiewicz and Brian Stelfreeze. Brian has given me and many other artists guidance that is so essential to working in this art form.

AIPT: If this series was adapted into a TV show or movie, who would you like to direct/produce and why?

SD: I would love to see what Octavia Spencer involved in some capacity. She’s putting out some amazing work, both in front of and behind the camera. I’m a 90s kid, so Steven Spielberg is always going to be on my list. Tyler Perry would even be amazing. I love creators who value the South and would be thrilled to see this story told through a camera’s lens.

NB: I recently watched The Sisters Brothers, directed by Jacques Audiard. It was a very different sort of western and a really beautiful film. He could do something very interesting with this story.

Kill Whitey Donovan #1 hits comic retailers on December 4. 

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