Superheroes, Mutants and Cowboys, Oh My!
Have you ever dreamed of fighting bad guys alongside the Dark Knight? How about intergalactic battles with Superman? Or maybe hunting down monsters in the wild, wild west alongside a beautiful, pistol-toting law woman?
Beau Smith has had that dream. And he lives it every day of his life.
Growing up not far from the Marshall University campus, Smith got his first taste of the comic book life at the tender age of four. The way the paper felt on his fingers. The bright colors. The heroes doing battle with evil. Every page, a new adventure waiting to be discovered. Every night, he dreamed of one day living in that world.
After graduating from high school, Smith put those dreams on hold. He held various retail jobs in the Huntington area, graduated with a degree in journalism, and settled into the routine of changing diapers and getting up early to attend his ho-hum job. Then, in his early 30s, while sitting on the tailgate of his truck in the parking lot of Heck’s Department Store, Smith decided he would listen to that little voice in his head from the third grade telling him he needed to pursue his passion.
Three decades later, Smith has worked with some of the most iconic characters of all-time including Green Lantern, Batman and Superman as a writer and has even seen one of his own original creations, the gunslinger Wynonna Earp, brought to the small screen as a television series on SyFy.
How did he do it? What does he think of the current superhero boom in Hollywood? What was it like seeing his own character come to life? We will let Smith tell you in this edition of Alumni Spotlight.
HERD HEAVEN: First things first, what is your earliest memory of comic books?
BEAU SMITH: I was four-years-old. I was at the Tradewell store with my mom in Westmoreland. They had a spinner rack of comic books – bright, four-colored, mesmerizing comic books! Each one had fantastic beings with bright costumes, big muscles, ray guns, all fighting monsters and other big people with bright costumes and big muscles. Army men, cowboys, creatures from outer space – what’s not to love? My mom was kind enough to buy me some. I was in love for life. I couldn’t read, but I loved looking at the pictures. I tried to draw or trace what I saw on the pages. In my head, I started making up stories of me and my brothers, my family, my friends – we were all fighting the bad guys.
I specifically recall how disappointed I was when I started first grade. I thought, finally, I am going to learn to read these wonderful books, but much to my dismay, they don’t teach you to read all in one day. I have to say, learning to read comics was my massive motivation for going to school. It also spurred a lifetime of reading for me. My love of books has only grown. Even today, I read on average two books a week. Oh, and that first comic book that I read was Batman #143. I still have it.
HH: What was your first comic book job and how did you get into the field?
BS: In my quest to break into comics, I went to comic book conventions. There, I wanted to meet, not only the writers and artists of the books I enjoyed so much, but I also wanted to meet the editors. I had been writing letters to the editors of each of the comic books I bought – and I mean every one. There was no internet, so you had to use the tools you had. I worked up relationships via mail with a number of editors, and with the help of fellow West Virginia native and artist Tim Truman, I was able to make solid connections that eventually got me a job. I was not only a writer, but the VP of Marketing for publishers such as Eclipse Comics, Image Comics, Todd McFarlane Productions, McFarlane Toys, IDW Publishing and Jun Planning. My first writing job was a one-page gag strip in the back of Tim Truman’s comic book SCOUT. It was called “Beau LaDuke’s Tips For Real Men.” It was based on the one subject I knew best – me! They always tell you to write about what you know best, so that’s just what I did. Still doing it 30 years later.
HH: How does it feel to have worked with such iconic characters as Green Lantern, Batman, etc.?
BS: I have to say that it snuck up on me. Writing comic books was always my dream, so actually making up and writing stories was a high. Then one evening I was writing an issue of Guy Gardner Warrior for DC Comics and Superman was the main guest star. There was this huge fist fight that I had the two characters engaging in and, right smack dab in the middle of it, I stopped and said out loud, “I’m putting words into Superman’s mouth!” It almost became overwhelming. I thought about the pure history of Superman, the character, and was just knocked out. In my career, I’ve been lucky enough to write quite a few icons such as Wolverine, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Action and characters from Star Wars. It’s more than I deserve.
HH: What do you love most about comic books?
BS: I love the unique craft of storytelling. The merger of pictures and words. Comic books are like no other form of entertainment. I enjoy the unlimited budget for special effects, the ability to use or make up any location for your story. But most of all, the freedom to totally create from whole cloth, the paint-a-scene with an infinite canvas. For a creative itch, it’s the ultimate scratch.
HH: Right now, superheroes are all the rage in Hollywood. What are your thoughts on the sudden boom of superheroes flying around on the big screen?
BS: I don’t think it’s such a craze as it is the entertainment industry and technology catching up with comic books. If you read any issue of, say, The Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, you will see a modern day masterpiece within those four-color pages. You will see that these are serious, incredibly entertaining stories. The big screen in theatres, as well as the ones in our homes, were made for comic books. Comic books are the oxygen that make these devices breathe.
HH: Alright, enough about other people’s work, tell us about your now-famous creation Wynonna Earp and how she came to be?
BS: Wynonna Earp was basically created when I was in grade school. During the 60s, westerns littered the television and film landscape. Being a young boy during that time, the western was a huge part of how you saw your fantasy hero self. As we all know, every hero must have a villain to defeat. Also during that time, monsters were all the rage. So I would write and draw stories in my school notebook of cowboys fighting dinosaurs and the universal monsters such as the Mummy, Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I merged them together. So, in 1996, I brought that idea out of the desk, dusted it off and made it relevant for the market and tastes of the present.
Through the last 20 years, Wynnona Earp has been optioned a couple of times and was close to production. CEO of IDW Publishing, Ted Adams, has believed in the property since its creation in 1996. He has always said that Wynonna Earp should be on TV. His belief in Wynonna Earp and his drive to see it on the screen paid off last year when he worked with SyFy to introduce her to the world. Showrunner and head writer of the TV series, Emily Andras, took it from there. I like to tell people I baked a loaf of bread and Emily fed it to the world.
HH: What were your first thoughts when you saw that character come to life on television?
BS: Some folks get goosebumps, I got “moosebumps” the first time I saw the auditions and, not only heard, but saw Melanie Scrofano say, “I’m Wynonna Earp – U.S. Marshal.” By that point, everything was well beyond what I envisioned as a child, and as an adult for that matter. Even as a writer, it’s really hard for me to describe what it’s like to see something you created, breath, move and speak, not only to you, but to the world. Let me tell you, it’s a really big deal to me.
HH: So let’s get away from comics for a second, tell us a little about Beau Smith the person.
BS: I was born right here in Huntington in 1954 and have lived in the area all my life. For the last 30 years, I’ve been stationed in Ceredo. Very proud to say I attended West Junior High School (‘Stender Forever) and graduated in 1973 from Huntington High School. I was at Marshall from 1974 through 1978 and majored in journalism with a minor in Business and Marketing. I ran track for a year until they found out I was a really slow sprinter.
HH: Why did you choose Marshall University?
BS: Marshall was kind enough to let me in. I’ve always been a hometown boy. The Huntington I grew up in during the 60s and 70s will always be a season of summer in my mind. I had no strong desire to leave this area. I also couldn’t imagine living in a town where there was no Midway Drive-In.
HH: Do you have a favorite memory from your time at Marshall?
BS: I loved the expanse of culture that Marshall injected into my life. From a creative POV, Marshall offered me so many opportunities and venues to, not only express myself, but to be exposed to things that would truly help me grow in a creative occupation. It may have taken me a few years to put those pieces into my life’s puzzle, but when it finally did happen, it has allowed me to do what I love, and what I have wanted to do my entire life, for going on 30 years.
HH: Did you have a favorite professor?
BS: I have to say Dr. Ralph Turner. He was a great teacher, but more importantly, he set me straight. At one point, he took me aside and told me that journalism was about writing the facts and he told me that I was probably better suited for writing fiction. Apparently, many of my “factual” stories ended up reading more like old western dime novels. I just couldn’t resist adding layers to the truth. He directed me to creative writing classes and was very kind about it. I had other journalism professors that weren’t as tactful, they simply told me, “Mr. Smith, you have gotta quit making things up.” Journalism just wasn’t the place for yarn spinners like me, at least not then. My style might have fit in better in today’s modern media.
HH: As someone who has been set straight by professors, what are your thoughts on those people who have a negative opinion of comics or think they are only for kids?
BS: Who are these people? Give me their names. I have a rusty ball peen hammer I can make beautiful music with on their kneecaps (laughing). That point of view, I feel, has changed a lot since the 1990s. The first change came because people on the outside realized that comic books, both old and new, are worth money. So the collectable side, good or bad, changed people’s view of comics. It also opened the door just wide enough to let people see that there are more to comic books than just kid stories.
The other thing that has changed and also broadened the view on comics is that technology and creators in the film and TV industry have caught up with comic books and really brought in new, non-traditional comic book readers. In a strange way, we are getting back to a new Golden Age of comic books. Myself, I’m more interested and passionate about comic books now than I was as a kid. The sophistication has adapted with, not only the readers, but the creators as well. Anything you can see on film, you can enjoy in comic books. It’s a wonderful time to be reading comic books.
HH: Obviously, getting to do what you love for a living is an amazing thing. What would you say to those hoping to make it in an industry they are equally as passionate about?
BS: Your dreams, your desire to do things, can happen. By the grace of God, I was able to be a kid with really weird dreams, from a small town in West Virginia who, without the internet and other modern technologies, made those weird dreams become reality. There is always a way to make that happen. You have to be passionate enough, opportunistic enough, and willing to have a strong work ethic to create a work situation that you want to be in.
Rarely do the objects of your desire come to you. You have to find that path and, sometimes, carve that path to your destination. It’s hard work, but most of all, it’s creative work. You not only have to market your talent, but you have to market yourself and what you can create. You are the product. You’re never too young to start and you’re never too old to stop. You can always learn from someone, something, or a situation. Observe everything and realize everything you see can be the spark to start your own creative fire.
HH: Favorite Food?
BS: Mexican grilled shrimp, refried beans and rice.
HH: Favorite Music?
BS: Classical, Americana, Roots, Blues, Rock, Soul, Rock, Easy Listening
HH: First Comic Book?
BS: Batman #143
HH: Favorite Movies?
BS: Tombstone, Howard Hawk’s The Thing From Another World, Wake of the Red Witch, The Wild Bunch.
HH: First Car?
BS: 1966 Chevy Malibu.
HH: Finally, anything you want to add?
BS: Check out and camp at my website www.flyingfistranch.com, adore me on Facebook, and follow me blindly on Twitter @BeauSmithRanch and don’t
ever look me directly in the eyes, I take that as a sign of aggression.