Rum Champions: Damian Wampler

Rum Champions is a series that shares the stories of people who’re passionate about rum culture. The Rum Ration is pleased to provide an interview with graphic novel writer Damian Wampler, who is set to release a gripping noir comic called The Rum-Running Queen. Set during Prohibition, the comic is a tale of freedom, morality and feminism.

It was great to chat with Damian about his inspiration behind the comic, what got him into rum and his advice for breaking into the comic industry. 

The Rum Ration: Cheers for taking the time to chat Damian. As an indie comics creator you’ve developed some great stories like the sci-fi noir thriller Monitor and also have a graphic novel about rum in the works called The Rum-Running Queen. What’s the story about and where did you got the inspiration from?

Damian Wampler: I’m so thrilled to have a chance to talk about my next project! The Rum-Running Queen is about a female moonshine smuggler and race car driver named Mary Sharpe. She’s a Tom boy from Franklin county, Virginia, a place that’s infamous as a haven for illegal alcohol production before, during, and after Prohibition. 

She gets involved in a plot involving a stolen ledger and a plan to blackmail and control Congress. I love history, and I had watched some documentaries about Prohibition and read some books about it and thought that there was fertile ground to tell a story about America and our legacy of resistance to tyranny. 

That also involves resistance to our own government. I was also inspired by female NASCAR driver and team owner Jen Cobb who I’ve hung out with a bunch of times. And since moonshine smuggling led to the creation of NASCAR, I thought I had a cool story here. 

So, the story is about people’s resistance to unjust laws. Just because something is illegal doesn’t always make it wrong. Laws and morals are different. And resistance takes all forms. There’s peaceful resistance to government in the form of protests, but there are also subversive people who make and move booze even when it’s illegal. The book is about exploring resistance to government, which I think is a timely theme because of what’s going on in America today. 

I always get inspiration from the world around me. The Rum-Running Queen is actually about what’s going on in politics now, but I just wanted to set it in a time period where I could really highlight the politics and have fun. 

The Rum Ration: Mary sounds like a strong female lead and that’s always refreshing to see in comics. Was the character inspired by any historical figures?

Damian Wampler: There was a real female moonshine smuggler, Willie Sharp, who my character is loosely based on. There’s not much information about her, even after contacting several sources in Franklin County. So, her character is mostly fictional. 

But in the 20’s and 30’s in America there were major changes taking place for women, and the things that Mary does in my graphic novel were certainly done by real women. Police were hesitant to stop and frisk women, so women could get away with smuggling booze easier than men.

Interestingly, Prohibition gave women a space to be free, drink, dance, and do business, albeit illegally. Producing and selling illegal booze actually enabled and empowered a lot of women. Everyone was welcome in speakeasies, whereas before, only men could go into bars. It was a wild and lawless time and I wanted to play around in it. But there was also resistance to change. Not everyone wanted women to vote and go to bars. It was a time of conflict on many fronts.

Mary’s real-life nickname was The Rum-Running Queen, so that’s where we get the title of the book from. In the comic and in real-life she mostly smuggles moonshine, but she must have moved rum in real life. I like using real historical figures. Reality is always more incredible than people can imagine. 

The Rum Ration: The Prohibition era is one of my favourite historical stomping grounds because of the colourful gangsters and people of the time. Were you conscious of remaining true to the time period when writing the graphic novel or did you want to take a bit of creative license? 

Damian Wampler: I did a lot of research before writing the graphic novel. I wanted to get it right. I’m a history buff, and I want to stay as true as I can to the time period. I’m looking at the art carefully to make sure that the cars and items fit the time period. I’m doing my best to stay true to the time period, but at the same time, this is a noir adventure and I can’t catch everything. 

I’d rather have people enjoy the book than take a magnifying glass to every car and outfit and accessory. I chose the time period because it serves the story. When I set about telling a story, I take a look at the themes and I think about what time period will work best. I’ll use sci-fi or fantasy or a certain time period to highlight the themes in the work. 

In this case, I’m looking at how Americans have always tried to keep the government from interfering in daily life. Freedom is at the core of who we are. So what better time period than Prohibition, when the government took away the right to drink booze! It just made sense. 

But once I chose the theme and time period, I wanted to take advantage of all that there is to offer. So, we go from DC to New York to Chicago, I have all the best cars of that time period, and even some planes and a zeppelin. In terms of the characters, my Mary Sharpe is the kind of person who history forgot. She meets all sorts of famous people who go on to fame, notoriety or infamy, but Mary gets left out of the history books. Kind of like Forest Gump, she’s there for all the most important moments in history but she doesn’t get the fame and fortune. 

In my story though, Mary’s bloodline goes all the way back to the Whiskey Rebellion. If you don’t know about that, I recommend reading about it. That early American uprising against the government is the core of the story and the center of Mary’s personality. She sees herself as a continuation of the Whiskey Rebellion.

You’d think I’d start with the Boston Tea Party, but the Whiskey Rebellion is the event that forms Mary’s psyche. See, people think that Prohibition was this singular event where people made illegal alcohol for a short time and then stopped once Prohibition ended. But that’s not the case. 

Americans were selling moonshine and avoiding paying taxes since early in our history. And in my story, Mary escapes into moonshiners’ hideout that is hidden inside a fake graveyard. The gravestones are actually just cinder blocks. That’s a real thing. The moonshiners put plastic flowers on the fake graves to fool the cops. 

But while in my story, that happens in 1920, in real life that graveyard hideout was discovered by cops in 1979! Prohibition was way over by then! So, my story takes truth and weaves it together into one story. I link together a lot of historical events in this book to make one narrative about America. 

The Rum Ration: Al Capone is set to feature in The Rum-Running Queen. Can readers expect to see any other infamous gangsters making an appearance? 

There are a lot of historical figures in this book. Al Capone plays a large role, as does Mayor Thompson and George Cassiday aka,” The Man in the Green Hat”. That’s the guy who sold booze to government officials – but his office was inside the US capitol building! Imagine the irony. 

He had an office in the Cannon House Office Building and then, when the representatives became unreliable, he moved to the Senate office building. So, you can see, this is not a book about good and evil. Like my graphic novel that just came out, there’s a lot of grey area in between.

There are some iconic bars and landmarks as well, but also some not-so well-known figures from that era. Early on in the book you meet a few of the early race car drivers. The book begins with Mary as a 12-year old girl, driving on dirt tracks in Virginia, and we briefly meet racers like Ray Keech, Frank Lockheart, Gaston Chevrolet, and John Boling. I hope that people will be interested in these real-life figures and spend time to learn more about them. 

The Chevrolet brothers came from France to start their now-famous company in the USA, and John Boling was a Native American racer who raced at Indy. One of the characters is pursued by a doctor who we hear about but don’t see. That’s actually the man who created the ‘icepick lobotomy’, Walter Freeman, who was a student in DC when our characters are there. 

There’s a famous rum smuggler named Cleo who ran rum from the Bahamas to Florida. She was beautiful, carried a gun on her hip, and became kind of a pirate queen of the Caribbean in the 1920s. You can read about her, and I hope to do a sequel to The Rum-Running Queen where Mary can meet Cleo, Amelia Airheart, and a bunch of other historical figures.

But the other main character in the book is Hellen. She’s the opposite of the uneducated and unrefined Mary Sharpe. Hellen is her nemesis, and she’s based loosely on a real-life French dancer, model, and race car driver Helle Nice. 

The real Helle disappeared from the world stage and died alone and unknown in France. So, I feel like by including her in my comic, more people can learn about her. I don’t want her to disappear into obscurity, and so I hope you’ll go online and find more about Helle and many others. I hope that my book draws attention to some of these amazing historical figures who’re lesser-known than Al Capone. 

The Rum Ration: Who are some of your favourite comic writers and have they influenced your work in any way?

Damian Wampler: I was really struck by Matt Fraction’s run on Hawkeye because I felt like it showed how you could push the boundaries of writing and art. And I’ve been lucky to have been able to sit and chat with a couple of great comic book creators. 

I’ve been able to spend some time talking to Van Jensen, David Mack, and Craig Thompson. These were all valuable experiences because I could pick their brains and get their perspective on the creative process. I also learned about their own personal philosophy and got some insights about the comic book industry. 

From these meetings I got empowered to take risks, have fun, and experiment. They taught me that creator-owned comics are a place where you can break the rules. Take a look at the 22-page long single panel spread in Six Million Dollar Man: Fall of Man #3. I tried to push the limits of what can be done with sequential art with The Rum-Running Queen.

The Rum Ration: What’s been your experience with drinking rum and do you have any favourite brands?

Damian Wampler: Believe it or not, I was a bartender for a few years in New York City. I was young and had a ton of energy, so I went to bartending school and then worked at a bar and comedy club in the West Village after my day job. I was working about 16-18-hour days, sometimes riding my bike from Brooklyn to Manhattan. 

The bar and comedy club is famous for being the place where Jerry Sinefield and a ton of other comedians got their start. I’ve stood an inch away from Dave Capelle and Chris Rock and a bunch of others – many of the comedians who got their start at the Comedy Cellar come back to do surprise shows or test out material. 

Chris Rock came in every night, totally unannounced, to practice his material for his New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden. That venue holds thousands, and we all got to hear the material in a room that holds maybe 120 people. It’s all totally impromptu, you don’t get a heads up when one of these people decides to drop in and just start doing stand-up. If you want to know what bar I’m talking about, there’s a documentary called Comedian that came out in 2002. 

This may sound strange and ever sacrilegious for rum aficionados, but I like to drink spiced rum with black tea and two sugar cubes. Don’t kill me, but it’s really good. When I was living in central Slovakia teaching English at a university there, my friends introduced me to this drink.  I don’t have a favorite rum brand, just this drink. 

The Rum Ration: What other booze related stories would you recommend for readers who’re interested in the noir genre?

Damian Wampler: I choose my genre based on the theme and the message of my story.  I can’t say that I have a lot of booze related stories to share, but I will encourage everyone to read all the Sin City you can get your hands on!

The Rum Ration: Name the most unusual type of cocktail you’ve ever tried and what it tasted like. 

Damian Wampler: Having been a bartender, I’ve seen a lot of drinks, good and bad. If you don’t know what a Jersey Shot is, I won’t tell you.

 But I’ll tell you about some very good but lesser known cocktails. I was recently in the Canary Islands at an art residency there called Casa Tagumerche for one whole month. I was writing The Rum-Running Queen, ironically. There I learned about a local drink called a barraquito. It’s got layers of sweetened condensed milk, espresso, liquor, and milk. It looks pretty and it tastes great, and keeps you awake. And it turns out that it’s a local specialty – you can’t really get it many other places.

 Living in Europe I discovered Becherovka, a herbal liqueur from the Czech Republic that’s bitter in a great way and really good with tonic. It’s like a gin and tonic but better.  And from Slovakia there’s Bison Grass liquor called Żubrówka that you mix with fresh apple cider (not apple juice, just natural non-alcoholic apple cider). Try all of these if you like exotic new things. 

The Rum Ration: What’s your best advice for someone who’d like to create their own independent comic?

Damian Wampler: The best advice is to start small, telling 8-12-page stories, and don’t spend a lot of money to tell your story. Make sure you can tell a good story in 8 pages, or even 4 or even 1. 

You want to keep the cost down, so you don’t break your bank account. There’s not a lot of profit in comics, so you need to get your story out there with as little money as you can. But working on 8-page stories allows you to hone your craft. You want to make sure that you are a strong enough storyteller that you can get people hooked in just 8 pages before you launch into trying to write a 100-page graphic novel. 

Perfect your skills first with small stories.  Then, look for anthologies. Don’t set your sights on 100-page graphic novels or even 22-page issues. Shoot for anthologies that look for 8-page stories and tell a kick-ass story for cheap. 

That might mean teaching yourself how to draw. Try drawing it yourself. You might be surprised at how good of an artist you are if you try. Also, you might just have to limit your budget if you are paying an artist. But the main thing is to keep the cost down when you’re just starting out. Work on telling an incredible 8-page story. The art doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. Just find a way to tell your story with the budget you have. 

The Rum Ration: If there was anything you could change about the comics industry, what would it be and why? 

Damian Wampler: The distribution system, of course. If you think about it, the comic book industry is very strange in that it is one of the few industries where the folks who make the product don’t do anything to help market it and sell it. 

They just let people order and see what happens. It would be like Coke or Ford making their products and then doing zero advertising. Sure, car companies let local retailers sell their products, but car companies still pour tons of money into promoting the new cars. There are car shows, TV commercials, you name it. 

I can see how, in the 80s and 90s, maybe Marvel and DC didn’t have the money to do much promotion. But now, Marvel is owned by Disney and DC is owned by Warner. Now there’s no excuse. These companies should be marketing their comics. But still, there are no ads for Marvel or DC comics anywhere, and you can’t buy Marvel Comics in a Disney store. 

When you watch the Disney channel, shouldn’t there be an add that tells you want Marvel comics just came out and what’s happening inside the pages? That’s a no brainer, but it isn’t happening. Not only is there no cross-pollination, there’s just no marketing at all from the big companies who make comics. There aren’t many WB stores, sure, but shouldn’t you be able to at least get a Superman comic there? That makes no sense. 

The industry is focused on making the current readers buy more comics instead of trying to cultivate new readers. It has been for years, but even though everyone complains, no one has changed how comics are sold.

In the case of comics, you have two audiences, new readers and those who are hooked on a story already. The industry has not searched for new readers. I’ve worked a lot of jobs, and most retail operators have sales reps who go around and try to sell the product.

I worked at a store for teachers and parents, and sales reps from different companies came in all the time to show us new toys and games. That’s just the way you do retail and distribution. You get people out on foot trying to create new distribution points. I just don’t see that from the sole comic book distributor. That’s crazy. 

New readers need to be exposed to the products – comics are an impulse buy for new readers. If you’re in a store shopping for something else, you see a comic with a character you like and you just grab it.  “Oh, I saw the Z-man movie, I’ll grab this comic, the cover looks cool.” Or your son or daughter sees the cover on a rack somewhere and says, “Buy me that comic!” That’s just how it works. 

But that isn’t happening because the comics aren’t available anywhere but in comic shops, and that’s the fault of both Disney, Warner, and Diamond. It’s like they just don’t care if the comics sell or not. What industry does not market their own product? It’s insane. In my opinion, there needs to be racks of comics in every CVS, 7-Eleven, Target, roller rink, Chuck-e-Cheese, and movie theater lobby in America and Britain. When you order a pizza, the app or phone operator should ask if you want a comic with it. When you buy a Batman T-shirt on Amazon, the site should ask if you want to throw in a $1 Batman comic into the order. And then, once the people read the comic and they want issue #2, they can go to the traditional comic shop and get it.   

I’m not sure how Disney and Warner see their comics. There are a couple of ways to approach comics now that the big two are owned by mega corporations. Comics can be marketing material, or they can be R&D (like a sandbox for movie scripts), or they can be a place to try to make money. If you go that last route, and try to be profitable, they will have to actually get into the business of selling comics and get reps out there opening up new distribution points. They’ll have to reduce the number of titles and focus on making a few good titles that are available at a lot of points and try to make money from advertising. And so far, they’ve been unwilling to do that. 

Maybe because the comic makers and the comic distributors are separate entities. Now if Marvel and DC use comics as a marketing tool for their movies, that’s both good and bad. A $100 million movie will have a $100 million-dollar marketing budget, so there’s plenty of money in there to make some great comics. 

But that will limit creativity and limit the titles to only those that have Hollywood movies.  I think Disney and Warner should look at comics as R&D. All major companies spend a portion of their budgets on research and development. You have to develop new stuff or die. Gore Tex and DuPont are always trying to make new materials. That could be the same with Marvel and DC – just use comics to test out new stories for their movies and TV shows. Right now, all their stories are coming from the comics. And that’s going to keep happening. They’d better keep making stories in comics. The Dark Phoenix saga was so good, they had to film it twice, right?

But for indie comics, the option is to bypass Diamond and go directly to retailers. Some companies are doing this. Alterna is going to direct distribution, which is good. But again, you have to reach new readers, and those new readers are at CVS and 7-Eleven, Costco and Wawas, not at the comic shop.

 I do know of a comic book shop in Virginia that opened a comic book cart in a nearby mall. That was a brilliant idea. Mom and pop comic book shops need to be creative and aggressive about getting new subscribers. They need to partner with local sporting events, local farmers markets, street fairs and other creative venues so that racks of comics will be out there on the street for people to buy. 

It takes a lot of energy and creativity and drive to do that, but that’s what has to happen. I was really thrilled to hear that Allegiance Arts & Entertainment has their rack in 35,00 Walmarts. That’s the right way to go. Comics need to be out there so that kids can buy them when they go shopping with their parents. It might hurt some of the brick and mortar shops that are off the beaten path, but someone needed to approach these major chains, and Allegiance was the one to do it. We’ll see what happens, but now is both an exciting and scary time for the industry. 

The Rum-Running Queen will be available to purchase in Spring 2021. 

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