At first glance, the Syfy series Wynonna Earp seems to be the latest entry in a recent wave of SFF TV shows with female leads. Look deeper, and it’s clear that Wynonna was a trailblazer. She debuted in 1996, a year before Buffy the Vampire Slayer went on the air.
The federal marshall who fights monsters has been through some changes since her first cheesecake-oriented appearance during Image Comics’ “bad girl” art phase. With a new home at IDW and revised artwork, she’s appeared in several miniseries since then (in a recent run, she confronted the Yeti). Her latest adventures began this week, and are synched to match the television show’s focus on her early years on the job.
Beau Smith, Wynonna’s creator, has spent the last 22 years in comics, working for numerous publishers, and has written Batman, Superman, Wolverine, Guy Gardner, and Boba Fett. He’s also the former vice president of marketing and publishing for Eclipse Comics, Image Comics, Todd McFarlane Productions/McFarlane Toys , and IDW Publishing, and currently serves as director of product information for toy maker JUN Planning USA.
In a recent interview, Smith, one of the most gregarious creators in comics, talked about how Wynonna is an extension of stories he told himself as a kid, how happy he was to find a permanent home for her at IDW, and the new miniseries, which features a female artist that he’s longed to work with, The Dreamer‘s Lora Innes.
When did Wynonna first see print, and how did she evolve over time?
It goes back to when I was in grade school. I always had a love for the history of the Old West, especially the post-Civil War [period], through the passing of the west in the 1920s. You see, the discovery of the west was really a very short time. The lawless frontier didn’t last all that long, before there were laws and more structure. Granted, it wasn’t the land of the internet and TMZ, where your every move could be followed; it was still a time where you could get away, no matter what side of the law you were on. Also, being in grade school and being a little boy, I was mesmerized by dinosaurs and monsters. Mostly monsters from the 1940s and 50s, the Universal style of Creature From The Black Lagoon, The Wolfman, Frankenstein, and such. As a kid, I was always thinking up stories to combine the two genres in fiction.
Originally I had Wyatt Earp fighting monsters that committed crimes in the old west—in secret, of course. I never seemed to tire of that. I favored Wyatt because he had a long life, born in 1858 and not passing away until 1929. That gave me a long time frame to work with. I kept thinking of new slants and twists on the stories as I grew older, but by the time I was in my 30s and working in comics as a writer, the western genre had somewhat died off in sales, and not very many publisher were willing to publish Wyatt Earp fighting monsters in the old west.
In 1994, I was working for Image Comics and Todd McFarlane as VP of marketing, so I had an inside track, but still, they didn’t want to do a western. That’s when I decided to move the stories into the present, using the great-great-great granddaughter of Wyatt Earp.
Why a woman as the lead of the series?
Why did I choose to make the character a female? My questions was, why not? You go into the hospital delivery room, it’s either gonna be a boy or a girl. This time, it was a girl.
I didn’t, and never do, set out to write a “strong male lead,” or a strong female lead.” I set out, always to write a likable, compelling lead. That’s what is important as a writer and a creator. The incredible situation and conflict that you set them is secondary. Readers/viewers are not going to care if they don’t like the character. I want my readers to have an emotional investment in that character, [so] every conflict will be important. They will care what happens, and always be there to follow that character into wild situations.
I made Wynonna Earp a U.S. Marshal of the covert branch the Black Badge Division. Instead of hunting regular fugitives like the standard U.S. Marshals, she hunts paranormal fugitives that have committed crimes, or deals with the paranormal witness protection program. I created a vast paranormal organized crime system that she has to [navigate], just like our real-life law enforcement has to deal with. Humans commit crimes; why not werewolves, spellcasters, and pre-decay zombies?
What happened with the first Image series, and why the move to IDW?
Wynonna Earp first saw print in 1996 at Image Comics/Wildstorm in a 5-issue series. But, just because you created a character and own it, doesn’t always mean you get to have everything your way.
Case in point was the art.
I had an artist, Brad Gorby, do up some images of what I thought Wynonna Earp should look like. I had worked with Brad on my other creator-owned series, Parts Unknown, at Eclipse Comics, as well as Guy Gardner at DC Comics. There’s nothing that Brad can’t draw or design.
Problem was, the powers that be at Wildstorm thought he was wasn’t “Image Style” enough. You have to remember what “Image Style” was back in 1996. You also have to remember that “Bad Girl” art was big then, I was never a fan of “Bad Girl” art. I’ve always leaned more towards realistic art and looks, but in this case, outnumbered by management and editorial, I was left with what Image thought they wanted.
At times, Wynonna could look like a cowgirl stripper with badge and a gun. I was never happy with that. The series had some shaky times. The artist that Wildstorm picked quit after the third issue, having problems with the editor, and the editor having problems with the artist. With two issues left, a lot of staff of Wildstorm artists tired out. For the remaining two issues, they chose an artist who came in and did both issues within three weeks, an amazing amount of work—not the best of a long career, but like a real trooper, he did the work on time and never had any complaints.
I was always happy with the story that I wrote, even if the art was a bumpy ride, but I hoped by the next time Wynonna came out, the “Bad Girl” era would be over.
[The book] was picked up by IDW Publishing next. Ted Adams, CEO of IDW, had worked at Wildstorm and always believed in character and the scripts. He was always the person, back in 1996, who said, “This should be a TV show.” He never stopped trying to make that happen. In 2015, he did make it happen.
Wynonna Earp has been published at IDW Publishing ever since, including the latest series coming out [this year].
Why do you believe she’s had such staying power when creative new characters for comics that cause an impact in the marketplace is difficult?
I believe that finally, the times have caught up with the character. I don’t mean that in and egotistical way at all—I think that the slow shove uphill for female characters is finally moving towards a direction that is more human, more realistic than what we’ve all suffered through in the past.
I always wrote Wynonna as 35-40 years old, established, composed, and very, very good at her job—she feels more at home in these chaotic situations and confrontations than she does at a dinner party. In chaos, she’s at home. When others run away from [a] confrontations, Wynonna feels compelled to run towards them. She wants to help and protect those that feel threatened in strange situations, much like she feels in [a] regular social outing. That’s why she is so close to her comrades at work, and depends on them to help her get through a party, just as they depend on her in a firefight with the Vampire Nation.
The television show will depict her at a younger age. How does that affect your comics?
I have always written Wynonna as mature, because that appeals to me and I don’t think there are enough, if any, women in that role in comic books. Granted, she is nobody’s granny, but most heroines are somewhere between the ages of 18 and 22.
My intentions have always been to write Wynonna through her career and to her death. That’s why with the new series, I am going to truly do a writing reversal and show the readers Wynonna at the start of her Black Badge Division career, at the age of 25-27, when she was still brunette and not as composed and polished as she will be in her late-30s state that everyone is used to.
After I show the beginning of her career, I will eventually get back to her later story and grow from there. The new TV series, written by showrunner and head writer Emily Andras, has kickstarted the whole young Wynonna arc, and it has made my writing the new series so much more layered and fun. What Emily and the whole Wynonna Earp TV crew have done is assemble an onion in reverse. They have taken my core and added layers to it. In turn, I am making the new series a hybrid of what I created and what they have added, and it has me amped up beyond belief. The best part is, all this works perfectly in my original plan for the character.
Tell us about the new mini-series. How did you find the artist?
The art for the new series was a true gift. Over 15 years ago, roughly, at Mid-Ohio Con in Columbus, Ohio, Jeff Smith, of Bone fame, introduced me to a young art student, Lora Biondi (Now Innes). Jeff thought I might be able to help Lora with connections and give her advice on her art and career. To be honest, I get this kind of request a lot, but when I get it from a peer I’m friends with and respect, it means something special. In this case, it was.
I could see Lora was a unique talent. I could also tell she was a storyteller. I won’t take the long way around the barn: Lora and her husband Mike, have been friends with me and my wife Beth ever since. Lora and I always meant to work together on a project, including a college-age rom-com I created a long time ago with her, called Courting Fate. Who knows, maybe that wil see light of day yet.
Lora has been doing her own creator-owned series at IDW for the last 8 years, called The Dreamer. She has been talking about trying to take a break from it for a while, but scheduling and travel demands have made that tough, until recently. Once again, Ted Adams suggested that I think about Lora Innes for the art on Wynonna Earp. I did, for about three seconds. I was stoked. I no longer had to worry about Wynonna looking like Barb-Wire Part 6.
I also didn’t have to worry about her being drawn as some hipster chick with a grudge against the world. I thought Lora would be the perfect person to meld the humor, likability, and action that Wynonna has always been known for into this new series.
We’ve been so blessed with having artist Chris Evenhuis doing variant cover art, and possibly and issue or two. Chris is beyond amazing, and like Lora, has really captured everything I ever hoped Wynonna could be. My editor on the series, Carlos Guzman, was kind enough to bring Chris on, and I will always owe him for that.
Wynonna is going to look very different from any time you’ve seen her before. It will match the story very well, in the fact that Wynonna Earp is a genre book with genre layers of humor, horror, action, and crime. Not too much of any one genre, but equal amounts of all. To those that have never read an issue, I would say it is a mix of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, and Justified.
New readers will be able to “start” right alongside Wynonna Earp in not only the new comic book series, but the TV series. With the comics, I have made sure to make this an easy ride for both new readers and core [fans]. No one will feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick. In a landscape of complicated and constipated continuity and characters, I want to make Wynonna Earp a refuge.