Interview With Santa Shane Hensley!
He may not actually be Kris Kringle, but this year Deadlands creator Shane Hensley is in a pretty joyous mood. As we ramp up the 20th Anniversary celebration, there’s lots of excitement and we thought it would be a good time for the two head honchos, from Pinnacle and Visionary, to dig a little more into Deadlands lore, and dish some more details on what’s coming up from the Pinnacle / Visionary Partnership!
CES: Alright Shanester, let’s start at the beginning for all the newbies. What’s Deadlands all about?
SH: Deadlands is a Weird Western where the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, known as the Reckoners, are trying to bring about a Hell on Earth so they can walk upon it in the flesh. They do this by nurturing fear to drench the earth in dark, supernatural energy that can sustain their physical manifestation.
That’s the “meta level” and the back story that ties all the various Deadlands games together—the original Weird Western, the post-apocalyptic “Wasted” West” of Hell on Earth, Deadlands Noir, and Deadlands Lost Colony—which takes place on the far fringes of space.
CES: Sounds like real fun at your holiday party.
SH: Characters in the property rarely know any of this though. They’re focused on more local events and what’s right in front of their faces. Our heroes are usually concerned with the dead coming back to life or the haunt that lives in the old Jenkins’ place.
CES: I could see that.
SH: But by defeating even these local terrors, they’re slowly—bit by bit—battling the Reckoners as well. Besides lightning-fast gunslingers, brave Indian warriors, and other standards in the Weird West, Deadlands also has a number of “arcane backgrounds,” characters who have developed supernatural powers to fight the good fight. Hucksters make dark bargains for power, hurling playing cards charged with energy or casting other “hexes” and spells. Mad scientists use a super fuel called “ghost rock” to power infernal gizmos and weapons. Shamans channel power from nature spirits, and the blessed draw spiritual magic directly from the distant but always present powers of good.
Most importantly, in the world of Deadlands, those with particularly strong wills can come back from the dead—hence the name. The price is high though—the “Harrowed” crawl out of their graves by way of “manitous,” evil spirits that vie for control of their host. Those Harrowed who maintain “dominion” over their demonic rider can quickly develop additional supernatural powers as well.
CES: So, nice mix of Western, Horror, Mystical, and Steampunk. One reason we did the four one-shots originally, with each issue leaning more or less toward one of those foundational elements. Fantastic! How did this all come about? What made you create Deadlands?
SH: The original inspiration came from a Brom / White Wolf painting that was later used for their Vampire the Masquerade game. The book was Necropolis: Atlanta, and it featured a vampire with his crossed guns in front of a tattered rebel flag. (I originally saw it as the cover of their magazine though and didn’t realize he was a vampire.) I saw it at a convention (GenCon), and had a 16 hour drive home afterwards, through the long, dark night. I couldn’t get that image of the undead “cowboy” out of my head. I kept wondering “What was so important in life that he crawled up out of his grave for?”
Slowly, all the ideas began to take form. I eventually put the game together for my home group. Everyone seemed to love it, so I decided to do it for real.
CES: And everything grew from there?
SH: Yes. We were very fortunate. At first we were told that Westerns don’t sell, so we planned on a small print run, then we’d blow the world up and let the bad guys win—a story that would be told in the post-apocalyptic sequel, Hell on Earth. We did that, but as Deadlands proved successful we made it official that the Reckoners cheated…Hell on Earth wasn’t inevitable. Exactly how that works is best left to the books themselves, but we think it’s a pretty cool story. Short version? The Reckoners do lose and Hell on Earth is avoided—but then they cheat. At least in the official timeline.
CES: Sounds like a world and setting that would appeal to comics fans on multiple levels. You got your genre points, you got your epic backstory, you got your whole worlds of characters and even your own twisted timelines and alternate futures. We should do Deadlands comics! Oh, wait…
CES: Now…tell us about the Cackler.
SH: In college, I ran one of my favorite Dungeons & Dragons® campaign settings, Dark Sun. One of the villains was an albino elf with long, stringy hair and round, rose-colored sunglasses who giggled after he insulted the heroes. I did the laugh when I ran the games and my players hated that guy. It stuck with me years later when we created Deadlands.
We had always planned on Deadlands being a property, not just a roleplaying game, and one of the things we were excited about was pitching an animated series—something like HBO’s Spawn. We didn’t know it was going to be so short-lived at the time, of course, but we thought a dark, adult-oriented animated show would be a fantastic way to explore the Weird West. I did a treatment for it and knew that my villain would be my giggling fiend from so many years earlier. “The Giggler” didn’t sound particularly menacing, so I called him “the Cackler.”
Since we wanted this to be an animated series, I wanted the Cackler’s origin to be something that was unveiled over a long season, and when people found out—when they deciphered all the clues—the payoff would be worth it. That meant he had to come from a story we either set the groundwork for or was a story most people already knew. The albino angle stuck with me hard and I knew exactly who he was. Who he was defined what he was doing. What he was doing had the ability to change the world of Deadlands.
And just like with the Reckoners and Hell on Earth, I knew I wasn’t afraid to let the bad guys win. You’ll have to read the graphic novel to find out exactly what that means.
CES: Speaking of which, we got our first full-color tease from that, with art from legendary Bart Sears!
CES: Now, that’s just to whet your whistle! We’ll run the second half of this here interview next week amigos! And start looking for regular little teasers of art from the upcoming Kickstarter campaign! Bart is KILLING this! So, Shane, you gonna “HoHoHo” for us?