July 13, 2022 Sacramento State’s Dan Bethel has a not-so-secret identity:
writing teacher by day, comic book creator by night.
And like all good heroes, there’s an origin story – a “weird” one, Bethel says.
Weird or not, the University English lecturer’s existential, Western-themed comic book series Long John was optioned by actor Chris Pine’s production company. They pitched it to FX, and now it’s in development to be an animated TV show.
Bethel’s creation – a stripped-down cowboy robbed of his companions, guns and clothes – came to him in a dream nearly 20 years ago after he’d dropped out of college.
“It was about this huge cowboy wearing long johns acrobatically shooting guns from behind a rock,” Bethel said. “I woke up and drew it.”
The image tumbled around in Bethel’s head for years. He went back and finished his degree, then went to grad school at Sac State. He even started co-writing his first comic book web series with high school friend Eben Burgoon.
“I’ve always been fascinated by that masculine, Clint Eastwood-style, tough guy trope – the kind of guy who can walk into a room and everyone’s scared of him,” Bethel said.
“But not because I wanted to be like that. It was more like asking, ‘What could make a character like that cry?’ ”
Long John tells the story of a bounty hunter, the deadliest gunfighter in the West, who wakes up on the edge of Mono Lake with nothing but his long johns, blood dripping down his face.
“He has to interact with that violent, broken world he helped create,” Bethel said.
Bethel’s comic – set in Bodie, a ghost town preserved in a state of “arrested decay” near Mono Lake – is a love letter to the eastern Sierra region of California.
“It’s one of the most beautiful webcomics out there, and it deserves so much more attention,” Burgoon said. “A lot of times with comic books people like the artwork because it’s the first thing you see, and it resonates. … We kind of tend to forget the story.
“Dan has such a sharp eye for story and pacing. His real strength is storytelling … you’ll get so lost in the story of Long John.”
Bethel, who calls himself a “comicker,” is a rarity in the comic book world because he writes and draws his own work. He starts by sketching storyboards on his iPad, before drawing and inking panels by hand on his grandfather’s old artist table. Those images are scanned into his computer, where he adds color.
In 2015, a Long John reader asked Bethel if he based his character on actor Robert Baker, who was in the History Channel miniseries “Texas Rising.”
“I didn’t, but he does look a lot like Long John,” Bethel said. “So I created a side-by-side image of them and posted it everywhere.”
Bethel tagged Baker on Twitter, and a year later the actor emailed him asking if he’d ever thought of turning his comic into a TV show.
“I was like, ‘No, but now I am,’ ” Bethel said.
In April, the online entertainment site Deadline announced “Long John” was in development with Barry Linen, Pine’s production company. Stacey Sher and Floyd County Productions, whose work includes shows like “Archer” and “Marvel’s Hit-Monkey,” are also involved, the site reported.
“Everyone on board seems to be really into it and really energized by the project,” Bethel said. “They’re putting together a writing team and a production team, but with the malleability of TV, it could still never happen.
“They’ll most likely produce a pilot episode, and then its fate will be decided.”
Kyrun Silva, a Sacramento-area independent comic book writer and artist, says Long John is comparable to the comics put out by giants like Marvel and DC.
“It’s one of the best books out there,” Silva said. “Dan is very underrated because he doesn’t put himself out there like he should.”
Bethel isn’t quitting his day job to be a full-time comicker.
“I don’t want to stop being a teacher,” Bethel said. “It’s about getting students to talk about what they think and explain why they think it, and I love it.
“I hope they come away from my class knowing their voice matters.”