INTERVIEW: JOHNNY SHAW
by Michael Wayne
When I was a kid, video games were prohibitively expensive for someone without an income (like myself), and I didn’t have my own video card. What option did I have when I wanted to go on an action-packed, politically incorrect adventure full of suggestive themes, revenge, mayhem and the occasional bout of extreme patriotism? Books.
Yes, while parents and teachers clucked about violence on television and in video games, we were getting our fix of subversive pleasure from the school library. It starts off innocently enough: Choose Your Own Adventure, ghost stories, things like that. Choose Your Own Adventure books could often be a scarring experience; the sense of mystery, excitement and wonder behind the idea of ‘turning the page’ was transformed into a white knuckle thrill ride, since death lurked behind myriad corners. Sure, you could rewind…it was like a video game with unlimited lives. But that entry level drug soon makes way for the harder stuff: Goosebumps, those dodgy horror compilations, and perhaps the sneakiest fix of all: movie adaptations. If I wasn’t allowed to watch the R-rated Total Recall on TV or get it from the video shop, I’d just march into the library and borrow the novelisation. Often, these were more violent than what you’d see on screen because your imagination (remember those?) augmented the graphic descriptions being thrown in your face.
Taking things one step further were the men’s adventure series so prolifically published in the 70s and 80s. Action heroes who could only exist on the page struggled eternally against wildly exaggerated street gangs tearing up the naked city, Commies, Nazis, mutants, or abominations of science. If you were a threat to the city/state/hero’s home/America, you were a villain that needed to be ended with extreme prejudice and a total lack of political correctness. Similarly, if you were a woman in peril during these adventures, you’d wind up satisfied multiple times.
Those days are long gone now, but inside one quarterly magazine, the fire still burns. Blood & Tacos seeks to bring back that era of fun, action and adventure in the biggest way possible: directly to your face. Each issue features five or six hard-as-nails page-turners crafted by some of today’s best and emerging crime writers, all featuring massive damage, hiss-worthy villains, soft-and-sensual ladies, and of course steely heroes determined to administer justice wherever and whenever it’s needed, which of course is everywhere and always.
Not long ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Johnny Shaw, accomplished screenwriter and author, and steel-toed editor of Blood & Tacos. Think about that for a second: this man has to whittle down a selection of the hardest of stories with his bare hands. Read on…
Johnny, what was it about the modern age that was screaming for a return to the gung-ho pulp action heroes of old?
I seriously doubt that the modern age was screaming for Blood & Tacos, but they are now. No matter how civilized we pretend to be, the universal appeal of sex and violence has never diminished. Blood & Tacos gives the people what they want, except we’re slapping sideburns and bushy mustaches on it.
There’s something freeing about stories set in the 1970s & 1980s. Stories that consciously forego any political correctness and let loose the dogs of war.
What can readers expect from a typical issue?
If you’ve read the Executioner, the Destroyer, or the Death Merchant, you’ll know right away what we’re all about. Entertaining stories that deliver fast-paced thrills and big action. Manly men doing manly things.
Every three months, Blood & Tacos delivers five original “re-discovered” stories from the 1970s & 1980s. Men’s fiction “discovered” by today’s hottest crime writers. The stories run the gamut from “one man’s war against the mob” to “survival in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.” Two-fisted tales with heroes named The Silencer, The Albino Wino, Bastard Mercenary, and Tiger Team Bravo, to name a few.
Was it hard to convince other crime writers to get on board? What kind of talent do you have on hand?
Surprisingly, most writers jumped at the chance to be a part of the Blood & Tacos family. I’m getting submissions from all over the world.
Remember, a lot of established, bestselling authors started their careers writing for the men’s adventure paperbacks of this era. Nelson DeMille (Ryker), Joe Lansdale (Stone: MIA Hunter), Marc Olden (Black Samurai), and Lee Goldberg (.357: Vigilante), just to name a few.
While I’m proud to have veteran writers like Gary Phillips and Ray Banks participating, the opportunity to publish an author for the first time (in the case of Christopher Blair’s Battleground USSA story) is even more rewarding. I’m also really excited to announce that the new issue will have a story by Stephen Mertz, a writer who actually wrote men’s adventure novels, including Executioner and Stone: MIA Hunter books.
You’ve been very careful not to denigrate the source material, although there’s plenty of room for humour. How do you find a balance between hard-boiled ball-tearers and the more satirical stories?
“Hard-boiled ball-tearers?” Maybe I should get you to write a story. I’m definitely using that in the publicity from now on.
The original stories from the era were so over-the-top, bordering on or completely sliding into self-parody that it would be difficult to do anything more outrageous than what was written in say, The Penetrator series. That gives our writers a lot of latitude. They can play it straight. They can go broad. I leave that choice up to them.
We’ve always described the aesthetic of the stories as “ridiculously awesome.” When an albino henchmen attacks a mustachioed hero with a spear gun. That kind of thing. That’s what we’re going for. It’s about big, harmless fun.
They’re definitely very cinematic stories. I know you can’t speak for the other writers, but what’s your process to get into the headspace of the grizzled ‘King of the Three-Shots’ Brace Godfrey?
Writing as Brace Godfrey is a blast. I’ve created a character that I write through rather than about. And he’s a real piece of work.
I see Brace as a reformer, although limited by a narrow world view. I really like the idea of a writer that wants to be the first person to feature a Hispanic hero or a tough female heroine, but when he does so, he incorporates all the worst stereotypes and caricatures in his portrayal. The opportunities for humor and satire are broad.
That was essentially the heart of blaxploitation and characters like John Shaft in the 1970s. Black heroes had finally arrived, but they were all pimps and players. And it’s not like things have changed much. It’s still happening with Asians, just to name one group. There might be stories with Asian heroes, but I can count on my left hand the number of non-martial artists out there.
You’ve recently released your first novel, Dove Season, which certainly testifies to your authority in the crime fiction genre. How did you get started, and what are your influences?
I started as a screenwriter and playwright, but over time grew more and more intrigued by fiction. I was so intimidated by writing a novel, that when I wrote Dove Season, I didn’t tell anyone—including my wife—that I was writing it until I was 100 pages in and confident that I would finish. Since the publication of Dove Season, exciting things just keep happening. In fact, my new novel, Big Maria, comes out in September.
I have always been drawn to writers that play with tone. Writers that are hard-boiled and comfortable in the shadows, but can shift to humor just as quickly. Off the top of my head, writers like James Crumley, Charles Willeford, Jonathan Latimer, and Chester Himes really showed me that realistic crime stories didn’t have to be humorless.
How far can you see Blood & Tacos going? Where would you like it to?
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my partners-in-crime. Pete Allen, the publisher of Blood & Tacos and the mastermind behind Creative Guy Publishing, has given me incredible creative control that borders on irresponsibility.
Also, my wife Roxanne Patruznick, who continues to do me the enormous favor of volunteering her incredible talent by supplying the original covers for each issue. How many magazines get original oil paintings for their covers? Honestly, they’re the best part.
Right now, we’re concentrating on putting out a solid issue every three months. But, don’t worry, we’ve got big plans.
Look for a Blood & Tacos book imprint in 2013. Pete and I are still working out the details, but at the very least we should have the Year One Annual (collecting all the stories from the first four issues) and a Chingón novella in print in the first half of next year. After that, our plan is to open it up to the authors to write novellas for their characters, stand-alone stories that deliver ungodly amounts of ridiculous awesomeness.
Could you reveal your favourite three-shot?
No question about it, Swamp Master by Jake Spencer.
Here’s the promotional copy from the cover of Swamp Master #2: Hell on Earth: “Mutants and killers rule a devastated land. One man defies them. In Post-Nuke America, Mutant Death Squads terrorize the masses of Occupied Florida. Now mindless killer drones are infiltrating the coast from a floating fortress manned by neo-Nazi stromtroopers. These assassins are wired to kill and willing to die – and only one man dares to take them on. Swamp Master.” Are you kidding me? Talk about ridiculously awesome.
Bonus: What’s the perfect soundtrack for reading an issue of Blood & Tacos?
“The Big Payback” by James Brown, Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”, and the theme to The A-Team playing simultaneously at full volume.
Johnny’s second novel, Big Maria, is due out in September 2012. His first, Dove Season, is available now, and very much worth the read. This interview originally appeared, in edited form, in Time Out Sydney magazine.