An opportunity to meet the creator of a unique tale of outlaws, lies, lust and the living dead in the Old West awaits visitors to Oxford’s Lone Ranger Parade and Festival on Saturday, Aug. 6.
Aaron Warner, the talented artist behind the photo graphic novel series “Ghost Canyon,” will be selling and autographing copies of his work at a booth downtown.
“When I found out there was an actual festival honoring the Lone Ranger, I had to be a part of it,” said the 45-year-old Bellevue resident.
Warner became a “huge” fan of the masked lawman as a child. He used to “sneak down” on Saturday mornings around 6 or 6:30 a.m. to watch reruns of the old television series that originally aired from 1949-57.
Part of his inspiration for “Ghost Canyon” came from following the Lone Ranger’s adventures set during those thrilling days of yesteryear.
As a comic artist for more than 25 years, Warner’s abilities were primarily focused on superheroes and science fiction.
But a trip out west about five years ago directed his imagination to this rough-and-tumble era of American history.
He visited the graves of Billy the Kid and other infamous gunslingers who ruled the day with six-shooters, lightning-fast reflexes and sheer audacity. That got Warner thinking.
“I wondered what if they weren’t bad guys endangering the lives of innocents. (What if they were) actually trying to protect them from something far more dangerous and evil. That was kind of the beginnings of (my) story.”
That trip also rekindled the “affection” he felt for the Lone Ranger, “The Rifleman,” and all the other western-themed TV shows from the 1950s that little Aaron thought were the “coolest.”
“I thought what if I could bring that excitement to a more modern storytelling vehicle like comic books,” Warner said.
He decided to “go one step further” and show “real people in real situations” by using photos of actors instead of traditional, colorful drawings.
“Ghost Canyon” was born.
The story centers around a young boy named Will Rye who heads west in search of his father. He has no frontier experience, so he must depend on a “shifty stranger” to serve as his guide and protector.
“It turns out the guy he’s come to rely on the most to help him (handle) ghouls, ghosts and gunfighters is actually the (one) who’s responsible for his father’s death,” Warner explained.
In addition to looking for his dad, Rye is also a journalist investigating some strange killings. The townsfolk of a nasty place called Nox believe they’re being hunted by the immortal spirit of a Dakota Indian boy, who’s seeking vengeance for being unjustly hanged. But Rye believes the evil spirit they call the Dakota Kid is simply a flesh-and-blood outlaw with a penchant for murder.
The Wild West that Ghost Canyon is set in isn’t the one from the history books where the primary dangers were outlaws, disease, snakes, the elements and conflicts with renegade Indians.
Folks living on this fictional frontier must also contend with zombies.
“Desolate outposts” are “being overrun by the dead who have mysteriously come back to life,” Warner explained. “Throughout the 10-issue series we (learn) why they’re coming back to life and maybe this town is responsible for that happening – more so than they think.”
Ghost Canyon is the stretch of land between the town of Nox and a cemetery for outcasts such as “bums,” criminals and “people with no history,” as Warner described them. This cemetery serves as the spawning ground for the zombies attacking people.
To Warner, using photos of actors is a much more effective storytelling method than “simple illustration.”
“Sequential storytelling is being surpassed (by other forms of media) because it hasn’t really been updated,” he said. “People are still drawing comics with pencil and ink on paper for the most part. The storytelling method hasn’t really (kept up) with the times.
“Young people are going to the theaters to see The Avengers and see Batman and see Superman in real life because they can now. They’re losing the affection for reading comic books, which almost seem beneath them (because) it’s simply line-drawn characters.”
“I wanted my story to grab their attention . . . (and be) as impactful as what a movie could be,” Warner continued. “The only way I could do that in comic book form was using photography, instead of drawn cartoons, to convey that story.”
Warner assembled a dedicated group of actors, who “totally bought into their characters” in terms of expressions and mood, then began snapping away with his camera.
Using Photoshop, he added special effects ranging from smoke and extra dust to sound effects and “the shine on a gun barrel.”
He said the process is “more time-consuming than hand-drawing a comic book,” but “it’s actually allowed me to create a much more dramatic story.”
Over the course of the summer and fall of 2013, about a dozen photo shoots were conducted at various locations. The first issue of “Ghost Canyon” came out in 2014.
Warner is currently working on the fourth issue of the 10-part series, which is being published by Evolved Comics, his own company.
When he started the project, he thought he would be able to put out a new issue every two months, but “the level of extra attention” Warner’s been giving each photo has extended the process to an average of about a year per issue.
He now estimates it will take him five, if not six, years to finish the series.
The response to “Ghost Canyon” has been very positive.
“Everybody’s really impressed,” Warner said. “They seem surprised when they flip through the book. At first, they think it’s a comic book with line drawings that may have been computer-colored because it has that comic book feel. But once they realize those are real people, it immediately draws them into the story.”
“There’s something familiar, there’s something exciting and attractive to a reader or a viewer when (they) go watch a live-action movie or a stage play as opposed to watching a cartoon,” he continued. “And I think the same thing is taking place with this concept as well.”
Folks wishing to purchase the current issue, as well as past issues, can do so by visiting www.ghostcanyon.com.
“We sell them and mail them directly,” Warner said. “People can go on the website and get a subscription. Obviously, it’s not a comic book in your mailbox every month like when you’re a kid because these take so long to create, but you’ll get a comic book per year. I feel they’re definitely worth the wait. I’ve definitely put a lot of work into them, so I hope people like them.”