Howdy everyone – hope you had a great Halloween (and that you caught the awesome Walking Dead premiere on AMC – I thought it was pretty tits, but that’s just me and, likely, something better suited for another post).
Speaking of Halloween, Alex and I had the opportunity to chat with Steven Surman for Broken Frontier’s downloadable magazine, The Frontiersman (I’d link, but it seems the site is down currently due to some kind of malware issue). Alex and I were a part of a round table discussion about creating “dark fiction,” what drew us to the genre and the like.
Now, because of the nature of these things, we weren’t all actually in a room together and had to contribute our answers separately. Alex and I, because we thought it’d be more fun, decided to do ours together and submit it as such. Because we’re both ridiculous, this would-be short and sweet interview went on for much longer than it should have and, in the final cut, was necessarily trimmed down. Follow the link above if you want to see the finished round table, which included Jason Shawn Alexander, Ryan Colucci, Thomas Hall, Daniel Bradford, Nektarios Chrissos, and George Martzoukos on Steven’s site.
Read on here if you want to see what Alex and I had to say when left to our own devices. WARNING: Includes accusations of perversion, Hulk Hogan’s musical career, and The Secret of Nimh.
You’ve been warned.
For each and every one of you, your work touches upon the darker expressions and inspirations of the imagination. What is it about the dark side of art and storytelling that attracts you?
Alex: That’s funny, I get this sort of question a lot, the “why so dark and gloomy?” and it always comes as a surprise.
Nick: Yeah, me too, although I’ve got less of an excuse. Your body of work is much larger than mine. All people have to go on with me is a zombie noir and a post-apocalyptic commentary on social connection. And I think, being familiar with so much of your work, that you don’t dip into the gloomy nearly as much as people think.
Alex: Ha! I think it’s actually silly of me to try and deny it though. This probably just means it comes naturally. It’s the way I like to see things, and it’s not always so dark and depressing to me, even if it’s coming across that way to others, you know?
Nick: It’s just the way it is, right? I’m the same way. I don’t think it’s the dark or macabre that attracts me so much as it just happens to be a natural part of these stories.
Alex: Hey, we can’t help it if the world is a dark and macabre place!
You all have produced some kind of work in the comics medium that lends itself to the horror and dark fantasy genres. Tell me about your work and what went into its creation, from inception to publication.
Nick: I guess our main body of work right now would consist of AWAKENING, though we’ve had a few short stories pop up that I’m really proud of. In the case of AWAKENING, the initial concept came about around 2003 as a response to the sudden glut of zombie stories in all media. I have my favorites, but suddenly, thanks to movies like Dawn of the Dead (the remake), 28 Days Later, and books like The Walking Dead, everybody had a zombie story to tell and, unfortunately, most of them were the exact same story. They weren’t bad, just, you know, identical. I wanted to explore some specific conflicts and knew a zombie-esque scenario would be perfect, but it had to be done right, and not different just for the sake of being different. So I began plotting, planning, and luckily, hooked up with Alex about three years into the process. Things were pretty well in place at that point story-wise but he was the missing cog. Alex managed to bring life to the project in a way nobody else could have, mostly because he keyed into it so well, I think.
Alex: Thanks buddy. Yeah, things took off pretty quickly for us from there.
Nick: Right? We were lucky enough to hook up with Archaia really early in development of the book and have Mark Smylie to thank for being so supportive of what we wanted to do.
Alex: We hit the ground running, hooked up with Archaia, and the rest is history.
What were the inspirations during your childhood and subsequent adulthood that drove you to create your own horror and dark fantasy-related stories and imagery?
Alex: Wow. Hmmm…
Nick: For me, there isn’t too much of the dark fantasy/horror in my childhood.
Alex: I wish I had something tough and brutal to say like “I watched my family die at an early age.”
Alex: I watched Don Bluth movies as a kid?
Nick: I read Bone and Spider-Man.
Alex: Haha! I read Bone too. What’s darker than that? I guess Secret of Nimh is pretty intense for a kid.
Nick: I think, really, this goes back to the first question though. We’re not drawn to this stuff, it’s just how we express ourselves and explore these ideas.
Alex: Yeah I really wasn’t into horror at all as a kid.
Nick: From a storytelling perspective, I was inspired hugely by Bone, James Robinson’s Starman and books like that. I liked epic stories. Sometimes they delved into slightly darker territory but it was always about the characters first and tone second, though when I got older I really got into Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing. I guess that’s pretty dark fantasy. As a kid though, I had to go hide in my room when my mom put on Arachnaphobia, and a Child’s Play commercial gave me nightmares for a month, so horror wasn’t really my bag.
Alex: Yeah dude, Jeff Daniels is terrifying. What kid wouldn’t be scared?
Nick: See? You understand.
Alex: I got pretty into anime and manga in like 4th grade. That actually probably has a lot to do with why I’m such a fucked up weirdo now. I remember watching Vampire Hunter D like, every day for a week. The tone of 80s and early 90s anime really grabbed me and the slower pace and focus on atmosphere in manga spoke to me in a way that a lot of American comics didn’t.
Nick: It’s funny though, American comics came around a few decades later. But how’s this for tough – my gateway to anime and manga was Sailor Moon. I dug Vampire Hunter D and Project A-ko and Devil Hunter Yohko, but my drug of choice? Sailor Moon. To be fair, I got into the Japanese episodes so, you know, shit got serious from time to time…
Alex: I just want to point out to all the readers of this website that Nick Tapalansky was watching filth like Devil Hunter Yohko. We could just shorten this answer to two words “tentacle rape.”
Nick: Ha! It isn’t La Blue Girl! I think Yohko had boobies though.
Alex: Whatever, perv.
Alex: Ninja Scroll was my favorite movie in like 6th grade. I definitely should not have seen some of those things at that age.
Nick: Ha! Yeah, that movie was awesome and terrible and definitely not right to be watched by a 13-year old. Oh man… Maybe we ARE dark and fucked up.
Alex: Hey, looks like! Thanks, Japan.
Is there a unique quality about the comics medium as apposed to film, television, or prose that allows for something special in the delivery of a horror or dark fantasy story?
Alex: Hm. Well it gives the reader more freedom to linger in what’s going on. I mean you CAN pause a DVD and just stare at the monster or whatever but I doubt many people do that. You can read a comic at whatever pace you want, and if you want to really live in a page for a while, that’s your choice.
Nick: I think it’s two-fold, at least from a writing perspective. The first is the lack of budgetary or creative constraints. You don’t have to hear somebody complaining that you can’t use a set because it’s too expensive, or a producer who’s unhappy because your story didn’t include giant robot spiders. With creator-owned books, you’re the producers, directors, and set designers.
Alex: Yeah, you have complete control over every aspect.
Nick: And then, for me, the ability to collaborate is fantastic. The opportunity to work with somebody to bring a world to life that is exactly like the world in my head, and being able to share that fully formed concept with people, that’s something that comics offers without any drawback (at least, as far as I’m concerned).
Alex: These answers are romantic.
Is there an element that you feel has been overdone in the genres, perhaps even ruined, that needs to be toned down or corrected?
Alex: Psshh, of course. The thing is anything can be done well enough to be valid, but I am sick of the shock and torture side of horror. I’m not a fan of The Human Centipede.
Nick: Yeah, gore-porn. Ugh. Really not my schtick. I don’t like horror for the sake of it.
Alex: Yeah, I think we, or at least I, am into atmosphere and tone and more like thinking man’s horror, which is, I think, what Nick is doing with AWAKENING. The concepts are way more upsetting than the “zombies.”
Nick: Exactly! That’s why we worked so well together on it – we didn’t go into it saying “how can we gross people out? Can we fit a zombie into this panel ripping somebody’s eyes out?” We created a book that spoke to our sensibilities. To me, horror is what’s around us more than it’s the monster chasing you.
Alex: It’s dealing with an impossible situation. Hopelessness is terrifying! Wussiest thing I ever typed.
Nick: Fuck yes it is. On both counts.
Alex: Normally I only type very manly things.
Nick: His words have hair and knuckles and broad shoulders.
Alex: My words arm wrestle bears FOR BREAKFAST.
Nick: That’s not even getting into the flannel and beer and tree-chopping.
On the flipside of that, what hasn’t been done in the genre that you think deserves to be explored?
Alex: Hmm. Thats a really tough question, isn’t it? ”What hasn’t been done before?”
Nick: I don’t want to say too much… Someone might steal our awesome ideas! Truthfully though, it’s less about what hasn’t been done and more about finding new and exciting ways to explore what’s already out there.
Alex: Yes! A new presentation can be just as exciting as a new idea, using the pre-established language in a new way. The only thing I can really think of is that horror is a really male genre right now, aside from the few “my baby is a monster” scenes there isn’t much from the female perspective. I’m not sure if I’m qualified to do that story, but someone out there probably should.
This kind of storytelling and imagery conjures up a very definite tone and theme in the plot, cast, setting, and very atmosphere of what’s being communicated. Do you have a special process when you’re working—such as the time of day or music playing in the background—anything like that?
Alex: I wish I had the time/dedication to only work when the moon was full or something. I DO get a lot of my best work done at night, though it probably has to do more with a lack of distractions. Nothing sets the mood better than some really gloomy music though.
Nick: Yeah, that’s when I get most of my emails from you – 3am. I work best in the late-morning/afternoon and late at night. Early mornings and evenings are kind of when I do my thinking but trying to write is difficult. That’s when my mind wanders. I like some good ambient music, but words can screw me up so I try to stick with instrumental stuff, and specifically whatever matches the story if I can help it.
Alex: I listen to a lot of doom metal, noise, kind of formless ambient stuff to get me in the mood. Sunn o))), Wolf Eyes, Liars, some Boris. But since I work all day on this stuff I do have to take occasional breaks for variety. I’ve got tons of hopeless sounding music, haha! I find that grind helps me work really fast – nothing like 45 second songs to keep you on deadline.
Nick: I have a significantly smaller selection so I tend to stick with what works – Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, A Silver Mt. Zion, DJ Shadow, and… Even… George Winston. Oh god. George Winston. I can’t believe I said it out loud.
Alex: Let’s start this over. I mostly just listen to “Walk the Dinosaur” on loop and Hulk Hogan’s album from the mid 90’s. Those get me really fired up.
Nick: See, now I feel better about myself.
Alex: There was a new converge album last year and the closer, “Wretched World” is one of those world ending amazing songs that you should all check out – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2ac5z_xnXc. That goes for you too, Nick.
Nick: Yessir. I think it’s clear I need to expand my music selection. Oh! I forgot about all my awesome soundtracks, like the score from the new Evangelion movie. Nothing get’s me pumped like Angel of Doom!
Alex: Haha! You nerd.
The parameters of what constitutes “art” are being shaken up. Comic books receive more legitimacy now than ever before, and thoughtful and interesting debates have risen up about video games as art. As all of these changes evolve further, what affect will it have on the kinds of stories you tell.
Nick: I don’t think about stuff like that when I’m creating. I don’t consider a story based on whether people will receive it as art or consider it “high thinking” material. I think it’s great that these mediums are getting the exposure and respect, or at least are starting to, but it won’t change how I approach storytelling.
Alex: Yeah, I think you just try to put the best book out there and then let people make up their minds. I’m definitely excited and inspired by those more ambitious projects. in fact it was the more fine art minded comic book artists that really got me back into sequential storytelling, guys like Ashley wood and Kent williams, specifically. I think what’s really changed is people are willing to accept more and more different kinds of approaches to comic books and that’s always exciting.
Nick: I’m glad that books like ours have a place in comic shops and bookstores alike. We could’ve told this story in the 80′s (if we weren’t toddlers) but it would’ve been difficult to reach the same number of people. Now, rather than just hearing about it from a friend of a friend and never finding a copy, you can go to Barnes & Noble.
What’s your favorite comic, film, TV show, short story, or novel that captures exactly why you love horror and dark fantasy?
Alex: There’s so much that I like… I don’t know if there’s one all encompassing piece of media that has it ALL. And if any one thing tried it’d probably be terrible. I love Alfred Hitchcock presents, and Alfred Hitchcock in general. Movies like The Thing, which blend genres, are pretty awesome.
Nick: It’s Lovecraftian sci-fi. I love that stuff.
Alex: I like Jacob’s Ladder, though I don’t think it’s perfect by any means. It’s a good example of what we were talking about earlier – good horror can be mostly atmosphere. A lot of what’s “scary” about that movie is the confusion
Nick: Let the Right One In worked well for that too.
Alex: Yeah, that’s an awesome movie. The Shining is another good example, and I like what Cronenberg does in his movies though I don’t think there’s one singular choice. As for dark fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth is the easy choice but a really good one.
Nick: The Devil’s Backbone is still one of my favorites. And The Orphanage. I think flicks that make the normal stuff seem unsettling and the supernatural seem normal are awesome. In books and comics, I really like Locke & Key by Joe Hill and I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly. The latter was very reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth – you were never sure how legitimate the “fantasy” portions were, but they were amazing counter-points to the normal world the characters lived in. The Road was a great book too. Oh! And Joe the Barbarian.
Alex: Joe the Barbarian isn’t horror!
Nick: It’s fantasy…?
Alex: I don’t even know if it’s dark, man. You cheater.
Nick: I just want to shout out our best friend, Sean Gordon Murphy.
Looking ahead, what’s your future as a creator in the genres of horror and dark fantasy? What do you hope to accomplish that you haven’t already? Would you like to expand outside, or are you comfortable where you’re at?
Alex: I think we’re already kind of expanding with our next book and the short stories we’ve done, but like we said, this seems to be the kind of stories/look we make.
Nick: Yeah. I think it may just be how we express ourselves. I don’t know if I’ll think about expanding so much as growing as a creator. AWAKENING was our first full-length book, and I’m really proud of it, but I also know I learned a lot while working on it and I can’t wait to put it to the test on our next books. And then learn more doing that and applying it to the next thing. I think, and this is just my opinion, that Alex and I have pretty clear voices, but I’m always willing to learn new and exciting ways to express that.
Alex: Yeah, totally. I think the best work comes from just doing what you love best and what comes natural. We can worry about labeling it when we’re finished
Might Have Something To Do With:
- First Look At Volume Two? Free Prints? Awakening Halloween Excitement!
- Otaku Going Home
- Awakening Goes Digital
- Front Page Action
- Awakening Omnibus – Your Brick of Existential Horror
- Pre-Ordering Comics and You: A Guide
- Awakening In The News
- Awakening Halloween Signing Tour – Last Stop This Wednesday
- ‘AWAKENING’ CREATORS TO HOLD EAST COAST HALLOWEEN SIGNING TOUR
- Anime Vice: Get Your Geek On