Titles are some of the hardest parts of writing, for me. It’s a word or two that is supposed to carry the burden of not only the story but the theme without being too obvious, pretentious, or dumb.

Comics have a tradition, at least, of being named after the main character, and that’s the route I’ve followed with all of my comics to this point. I’ll admit, I feel like I could try harder, but that’s a problem for whatever my next project will be.

It should be clear, however, that I enjoy naming things––every single page has a title in addition to every chapter. So far, naming chapters has been pretty easy. Chapter 1––”Sunza”––was a title I had for years, built upon an idea from a short story a teacher of mine wrote, called “Kiltee”, that I read way back in the ’90s in college. The story’s title seemed mysterious and ancient, but ended up being a mispronunciation of the word “guilty” by a child in the story. I though that was fun and ran with it. Chapter 2’s title––”Bird’s Eye”––took a little bit of development, but came to me before I had gotten too far into the chapter. Originally, Chapter 2 was titled in the same manner as Chapter 1––titled “Upaways”––with the idea that it was one of Lady May’s “funny” words. Shortly thereafter, though, I landed on the story Lady May tells in the middle of the book and it was a done deal. “Making Smoke” was a title I had in my pocket for a very long time, since the early development of Long John as a series. So, it made sense to attach it to the chapter with the first real gunfight.

I had the chapter title, “Making Smoke,” in my back pocket since at least 2012.

When it came to Chapter 4, I was at a total loss.

The first bout of (forced) inspiration came from the first scene in the chapter where Long John and Geoff talk about the book Long John sees in his pack. During the writing of this chapter––knowing it was going to show Long John at his lowest point––I kept thinking of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work, those stories that meditate on guilt and the nature of evil and sin. I’m by no means a Hawthorne scholar, but his story, “Young Goodman Brown,” always stuck with me as a story that plumbed the idea of existential despair––a story that waded in morose cynicism. Though I have never been religious, and so I can’t fully understand or relate to the struggle the titular character goes through in that story, I latched onto and codified Goodman Brown as a paragon of belief-gone-wrong, and the burden that comes with that. In a secular sense, that was kind of where Long John was in this chapter––hitting absolute bottom while crumbling into fatalistic cynicism. As a literary nerd shout-out, for awhile, Geoff’s last name was “Goodman” as a Hawthorne reference (the book Geoff has is also Mosses from an Old Manse, within which one can find “Young Goodman Brown”). I viewed Geoff as a salvation for the dragged-out Goodman Brown, like I was saving him. It was dumb and shallow and based, likely, on my own misreading of the story. But I leaned into it enough that, for a very long while, the chapter was tentatively titled, “Goodman.”

I was never comfortable with the on-the-nose nature of the whole thing, but through revision I slowly chipped away the strange ties I had made to that story with the exception of keeping Hawthorne’s Old Manse as Geoff’s book and keeping the title as “Goodman.”

I was so excited about discovering Chapter 4’s title, I wrote it down in my notebook.

It wasn’t until late last year when things fell together. The book was drawn and I was doing a scripting revision when I came to this scene. As soon as I wrote Geoff’s joke at the end of the third panel, I realized I had found the title. It was then everything clicked and, for the first time since I had started scripting the chapter, I finally exhaled. The theme became clear because I could put a name to it and all of these pieces, up until then laid out before me like LEGO blocks, snapped together to make a finished book.

I love title drops in movies and books, but I understand that they can be a bit rote and cheesy. The fact that “Dead Words” came so late and was exactly what I was looking for made me proud then and proud now to finally share this title drop with everybody else.