A year ago this month, I contributed an article to Broken Frontier titled “Creating by Candlelight,” in which I explored the allure of dark storytelling in the arts and entertainment. In the article, Nate Kenyon, author of such novels as Bloodstone and The Reach, said the following when I asked him why he finds purpose in writing horror novels: “We enter a world of our mind. We can face our fears and stare them down. That’s a valuable thing,”
These dark genres are endlessly fascinating because of the stories and imagery they dare to create, the unexpected inspirations they draw purpose upon, and the taboos they unabashedly break. In honor of Halloween, I have continued this investigation into the appeal of horror and dark fantasy by talking with an eclectic assortment of comic book writers and artists.
To discuss their work and why they create what they do, we have Jason Shawn Alexander of Hellboy, Creepy, and Dead Irons notoriety; Ryan Colucci, the writer and producer of Harbor Moon, due to released by Arcana this December; Blacklist Studios’ Thomas Hall and Daniel Bradford of Robot 13 and KING! popularity; Archaia’s Nick Tapalansky and Alex Eckman-Lawn, creators of the Awakening series; and Visionary Comics’ Nektarios Chrissos and George Martzoukos, creators of Aposperos: Merchant of Souls.
STEVEN SURMAN: 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?
JASON SHAWN ALEXANDER: The dramatic and emotive quality to darker subject matter is something I’ve always gravitated toward. It’s just something my imagination instinctively goes to. I have nothing against the light and flowery, but the graphic nature of my work just tends to go in a dark direction. For me, seeing Bernie Wrightson’s black-and-white horror images always had a more profound affect on me than any image of Superman.
RYAN COLUCCI: Happy, normal people just aren’t interesting. The flip side of that are disturbed and distressed characters in dark environments. I gravitate towards anything to do with problem and puzzle solving. Even if your characters are good and normal people—if you throw them into a dark environment, problems will arise. What is interesting to me is how they solve those problems.
THOMAS HALL: I think monsters and dark subject matter in general is somehow hardwired into people. Mythologies for thousands of years have been filled with the stuff, and dealing with creatures and situations beyond normal human control was a way to work out our feelings about the world. Today we are too “modern” to believe in myths, but I suppose we still are drawn to the dark as we try to make sense of things. Working with those archetypes is fantastic.
BRADFORD: A lot of it has to do with the unnatural order of it. Growing up, you’re told how things work, how you’re supposed to act, what you are to expect, and what you should know. Horror deals with the exact opposite, often bringing up a situation that is totally unexpected, that isn’t natural, something that you were never told how to handle—something you have to survive.
Storytellers and artists are able to create those situations in any way they want. They can design them. There is no natural order to it, so it’s a big, black, blank canvas.
ALEX ECKMAN-LAWN: Personally, I get this sort of question a lot, the “why so dark and gloomy?” and it always comes as a surprise. But hey, we can’t help it if the world is a dark and macabre place!
NICK TAPALANSKY: Yeah, me too, although I’ve got less of an excuse. Alex’s 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, you don’t dip into the gloomy nearly as much as people think.
NEKTARIOS CHRISSOS: I have been attracted to the darker aspects of the psyche since I started writing; my writing back then was amateurish, D&D-style fan fiction. But during the past few years of my writing, I’ve begun to feel that those aspects actually help shed a truer light to what a person truly is, what his motives and goals are, and why these things are so. I believe it’s our darker nature, our darker self that outlines the aspects of our character that are closer to the light.
GEORGE MARTZOUKOS: I, too, have always been a creator of dark images. My major inspirations all carry dark elements, whether if they’re movies or comics. The idea of a story that is unfolding from mystery to revelation is my main artistic interest. Also, the use of shadow plays an important role in showing depth and power.
SURMAN: 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.
ALEXANDER: I don’t make a decision to work in horror. I consider my work, just darker. What’s lying under the skin or behind the eyes of someone intrigues me. We all have dark thoughts and I think it’s healthy to let them out and play around for a bit. It’s what keeps me sane and happy in my daily life. And again, I just find it’s the best way for me to get dramatic in my work.
COLUCCI: While at USC’s grad school for film producing, I was determined to graduate and not have to be an assistant. So I aggressively pursued a wealth of material: books, comics, web comics, etc. I must have read over 500 scripts in two years before one caught my eye. Titled “Bloodkin,” it was an X-Men-type story about a man without a past who finds out he is from a town in Maine that the government has its eye on because the inhabitants are werewolves.
I took the script to Dikran Ornekian, my co-writer and a classmate, and we immediately sparked to the core idea (by Brian Anderson) about a man that’s half werewolf coming home to his “family.” I optioned that script and Dikran and I began a long journey taking the story down many paths before we came to what is now Harbor Moon. So what started off as a military action thing with political components became a smaller, isolated horror piece.
It took me a while to find [artist Pawel Sambor], but once I did everything fell into place. He penciled, inked, painted, and lettered everything. Nikodem Cabala did six pages in the middle. But everything else was Pawel. He and Karol Wisniewski would layout each page, then he would sketch the page and I’d follow with my notes, which were pretty extensive sometimes. Then once we locked those, Pawel would ink and paint it and I would give notes on that. I was technically the final word on each panel, but to be honest, it was more about me finding the right artist and letting him do what he does rather than trying to fit that artist into my neat little box.
HALL: Robot 13 started from some sketches of the character Daniel made—he had some general ideas of what he’d like the character to be like and what kind of story he wanted to tell. I did a lot of digging into Greek mythology, and that research informed what we ended up doing to a great extent. I love doing research: it’s no fun when you are a slave to the details you discover, but I think it gives you a fantastic framework to build off of.
So as the story took shape, we tried to figure out what some of these monsters could have been like if they really existed, and build a story around these mythological creatures being brought into a “modern” time. What we found was you can’t disconnect the elements from the deeper themes. These creatures symbolized something that was very specific and that was tied to the journey that it took to overcome them. As a writer, that was exciting for me.
BRADFORD: Being the artist of two books that deal in totally opposite sides of horror and fantasy, one book being a comical approach and the other more serious and dramatic, I have to rely on my own surroundings to provide the right amount of mood and atmosphere. Even the style of the books is slightly different. And like Tom said, Researching the subject matter has a lot to do with the production.
TAPALANSKY: I guess our main body of work right now would consist of Awakening, though we’ve had a few short stories pop up that we’re 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-oriented 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.
CHRISSOS: The flagship of my own dark writing is Aposperos: Merchant of Souls. When I first conceived the character, many years ago, I had imagined a grim and tragic person. That person, however, also had a happier past that is now lost, and was entangled in a web of events that have made him what he is now: a puppet for his masters. Could that puppet break his strings and make his own performance one last time? Could he regain his morale after all his personal disasters of the past and pull a last stand against the torrent of misery threatening to engulf him?
Those are questions that, I’m sure, were already in my subconscious at the time of Aposperos‘ inception, but they actually emerged much later, after I had finished the first and second drafts of the first issue and George had started with his drawings and designs.
MARTZOUKOS: My many memories of movies and comics have led to my own inception in the dark genres. I am always in awe of the efforts of protagonists trying to shine through in dark plots and settings.
SURMAN: 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?
ALEXANDER: Film. My older brother and my mother were huge Stephen King and horror fans. I grew up on Halloween, Night of the Living Dead, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. My first idea of a career in anything creative was the possibility of becoming a special effects make-up artist. I’m still a big fan. But that level of drama and graphic images and the audience’s reaction to those sunk in and made me want to tell those types of stories.
COLUCCI: To be honest, they weren’t horror or dark fantasy-related, not exactly. The inspiration for Harbor Moon were two Clint Eastwood movies: Pale Rider and High Plains Drifter. Also, Bad Day at Black Rock. Then we took those stories and turned them on their heads and said: “What if this town is full of werewolves? I grew up a huge fan of horror from the late 70’s and 80’s just like Jason: Halloween, Friday the 13th and the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. So those definitely shaped the world created in the book.
HALL: I was always a monster movie fan as a kid and I still am. I have been collecting Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine for a long time, and the visuals from the old issues have always been inspiring. We used to have a big stack of them that my brother and I would read cover to cover, and they always had the coolest shots of some of the most obscure monsters. I still read the old issues when I need some inspiration, because it’s great to go back to what drew you in as a kid and look at it now.
BRADFORD: All through my childhood I loved horror. When I was in the sixth grade I picked up my first of many copies of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and was infatuated with Stephen Gammell’s art. To this day I still stare at his work and repeatedly buy copies of the series.
My influences haven’t really changed—I still have a passion for zombie movies and campy horror, and I may have grown an appreciation for the movies about the unseen evil like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, the original The Haunting, etc.
TAPALANSKY: 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. As a kid though, I had to go hide in my room when my mom put on Arachnophobia, and a Child’s Play commercial gave me nightmares for a month, so horror wasn’t really my bag.
ECKMAN-LAWN: I got into anime and manga around the fourth grade. That actually probably has a lot to do with why I’m such a weirdo now. I remember watching Vampire Hunter D, like, every day for a week. The tone of 80’s and early 90’s 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.
CHRISSOS: I was a so-called “geek” of sorts, and sometimes my classmates would make fun of or bully me, but not to an extent that deeply scarred me. My parents were very conservative but they never oppressed me.
However, I believe that those factors led me to develop quite a lonely personality at the time, keeping many bad things to myself, and thinking and rethinking about them all the time. Was that my own darker nature? I guess it was, and at times it still is, even considering the fact that in college and afterwards I have been outgoing. So my initial inspirations for horror and dark fantasy actually had to do more with real life.
MARTZOUKOS: Old movies like The Black Hole, Alien, Predator, and Batman inspired me. I saw most of them in grade school and at that time I wasn’t thinking as an artist but as a child that was enjoying the magic of those worlds. Although, I was drawing fulltime with mid-tones and shadows by the sixth grade.
SURMAN: 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?
ALEXANDER: For me, comics are the most perfect medium for storytelling: amazing artwork and imagery and fantastic literature. It’s the perfect combination. And if you’re lucky enough to be able to try and write and draw your own stories, that’s just a gift. And as opposed to film and television, there’s no budget so you can create any world you like. And it’s immediate. Write something and begin producing it. With film, it’s such a slow arduous process and, for me, too many chefs in the kitchen. Comics, you can be master and commander of your story.
COLUCCI: Exactly: you can truly create whatever you want. You aren’t bound by the limitations of your budget or reality. I know special effects exist today that enable filmmakers to create things like never before, but a budget is always attached. And a film has to pass through so many gatekeepers before it’s made. Comics allow anyone with a pad and pen to create and share their vision. When writing or reading prose, things get lost in translation. Everyone has their own vision of what they are reading. But with comics, you can directly influence their vision and create “your” world. The only limitation, if you yourself are not the artist, is communication between with the artist.
HALL: Comics are a genius medium when it comes to telling darker stories because of how you experience them. Different types of information are dealt with in different parts of your brain that are isolated from each other, and comics pull in several areas at once and make them share in the interpretation. Reading words on a page can be very evocative, but images tap into something different in the brain. The mixture of elements that are unique to comics means that your brain is filling in more data than it would with a movie, and it has more information than it would if you were reading a book.
BRADFORD: I’ve never been scared or gotten the chills from a comic book, which is kind of weird seeing as how Gammell’s work in Scary Stories series actually does give me chills. I couldn’t finish reading Stephen King’s The Boogeyman without turning the lights back on. But I’ve never gotten that feeling from a comic. When reading a novel you’re able to visualize everything to your own liking, when watching a film you’re shown what you need to see at a fixed and purposeful pace. But comics are more unique in that the entire book allows for a more stylized production, from the colors to the angles of the artwork to the subject matter itself.
ECKMAN-LAWN: 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.
TAPALANSKY: I think it’s two-fold, at least from a writing perspective. As Jason and Ryan said, the first point 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. And 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.
CHRISSOS: I think this quality lays a lot in the stillness of the images, the grim color palette the artist uses, the facial expressions of the characters, and the hidden implications of the plot as it lingers around all this stillness and grimness. It’s a more subtle, less graphic depiction of horror that suits the genre’s entropic nature, in my opinion.
MARTZOUKOS: It depends. I like what Alex said: try taking some screenshots from your favorite movies and you will notice that it is very difficult to capture something that would look great on your wall as a poster, although the model, actors, and movements all look great in a rolling film at first glance.
The final finish of the artist is very important in comics—the way he thinks and places imagery. The artist also must grab the eye’s focus. I believe you can acquire depth and understanding over space and form, through detailed visual work, but you can gain better perception of light and surfaces through cinematic models. On the other hand, emotions and beauty are not as easy to capture in film, not like the way they are for a photographer or painter.
SURMAN: Is there an element that you feel has been overdone in the genres, perhaps even ruined, that needs to be toned down or corrected?
ALEXANDER: I miss storytelling. Too many comics want splash-page money shots. Too many movies want good-looking teens and digital blood and torture scenes. Movies like Let the Right One In and The Orphanage got it right. Tell us and story and freak us out. Even Night of the Living Dead relied on deep emotional responses and atmosphere and superb storytelling. There’s no subtly nowadays. Great, now I sound like an old man.
COLUCCI: For me, gore for the sake of gore. When it doesn’t add to the story, it just stands out and detracts from it, and usually when it is there for that sake, there isn’t much of a story anyway. When used well, it can be great. But I think people now are becoming desensitized to it.
HALL: I hate to say this, but zombies are overdone. We have some zombies in KING!, but it’s not about zombies. When we started doing the book, zombies weren’t as overblown as they are now. So many people are jumping on the zombie bandwagon and so many of those books are not very good, that it’s killing zombies in comics.
BRADFORD: I agree with Tom about zombies, seeing as how they’ve been given a scientific explanation—be it a form of rabies or some type of biological mutation—but when I was growing up the horrific nature of a zombie is the corpse digging it’s way up from the dirt, lurching and dragging it’s body down the street with clumps of soil falling off it’s form.
Why it clawed its way out of the ground and is lumbering toward me is a mystery, but I don’t care. That’s a damn corpse lumbering towards my gawking ass and it has no eyeballs, no hair, and worms are crawling out of it’s mouth—which will soon to be filled with my brain and shards of my skull. Who cares about the “why” when there’s only the “oh, shit!”
And now vampires are sparkly and sexy. There is a severe correction that needs to be made.
ECKMAN-LAWN: Anything can be done well enough to be valid, but just like Ryan and Jason, I am sick of the shock and torture side of horror. I’m not a fan of The Human Centipede. I am into atmosphere and tone and thought, which is, I think, what Nick is doing with Awakening.
TAPALANSKY: That’s why we worked so well together on Awakening—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.
But yeah, Alex and Ryan are right—gore-porn, it’s really not my shtick. I don’t like horror for the sake of it.
CHRISSOS & MARTZOUKOS: Well, recent vampire lore has really done the genre more bad than good, and I consider it almost ruined and in need of a reboot. Zombie lore suffers from the same fate, too, and Saw-style horror has been overdone, so we agree with most of what everyone else has said. But also, magic is not scary anymore, either; it’s much flashier than it should be, considering it’s innately dark in nature.
At least ghost stories still work well, and we have seen some good twists and turns of late.
SURMAN: On the flipside of that, what hasn’t been done in the genres that you think deserves to be explored?
ALEXANDER: I’m getting sick of “re-imaginings.” I miss original stories. Let’s stop doing remakes and create some original stories. There’s still plenty of stuff out there to be scared of.
COLUCCI: I’m a fantasy geek and think it would be cool to set other genres within that genre. Zombie elves? How bad-ass would that be? If I missed a good book about that, I need to know ASAP.
HALL: What Jason said. I think creators are too interested in coming up with a franchise book with horror titles, so they are afraid to do things they would do if all they cared about was writing a good story.
Think of the original The Exorcist: watch that movie, and it’s pretty clear that had they planned for it to be a long-running franchise from day one, they would have done a lot of things different. Had they done that, however, the movie would have been just another horror flick and not the all time classic it is. I think more comics should be like that.
BRADFORD: How about more paranormal? How about a really cool and creepy comic book with a ghost story?
TAPALANSKY: 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.
ECKMAN-LAWN: 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.
CHRISSOS: Actual character development! Past and present motivations, traits, and flaws utilized to present more reality in the dark hero’s personality and not awkwardly used to support weak plots based on circumstance rather than consistency.
MARTZOUKOS: In comics, I’m fed up of gunfights, shallow mercenaries and with Berettas in black and white. I would like to see combinations of dark fantasy and horror in films, representing realms with dark sorcerers and battles between them and mythical creatures—that are not boring. The same goes for comic books: I would like to see dark fantasy merging with horror in color.
I’m also bored with the misery of defenseless humans against mysterious biological enemies. I yawn at commercial films where suddenly, at the end of the movie for no reason, the giant monster appears, while there was no reason to watch the rest of the movie up until that point.
SURMAN: What’s your favorite comic, film, TV show, short story, or novel that captures exactly why you love horror and dark fantasy?
ALEXANDER: Films like Jacob’s Ladder and The Devil’s Backbone—they’re superb. Absolutely. They’ve also influenced my comic work as well.
COLUCCI: Lord of the Flies. I don’t think there is anything scarier than humans stripped to the bone of societal norms. And if those humans are kids? That is the most base evil to me.
HALL: If you are talking serious movies, I would say John Carpenter’s The Thing. The sense of isolation, the craziness of the monsters, the way that you really don’t know who is who—it’s fantastic storytelling. For what it tries to do, it’s almost a perfect movie.
BRADFORD: I really enjoyed REC, but after watching REC 2 I absolutely loved the story told, simply because when I thought I had a handle on what was going on the movie went in a completely unexpected direction that revealed an even scarier element. I love it when a story teller is able to do that.
ECKMAN-LAWN: 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 would probably be terrible. I love Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Alfred Hitchcock in general. Movies like The Thing, as Thomas mentioned, which blend genres, are pretty awesome.
The Shining is great, also. As for dark fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth is the easy choice but a really good one. And like Jason , I also like Jacob’s Ladder, though I don’t think its perfect by any means.
TAPALANSKY: It’s H.P. Lovecraft’s sci-fi for me. I love that stuff. And 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.
CHRISSOS: The Sandman, Hellblazer, The Others, The Sixth Sense, Sleepy Hollow, The Twilight Zone, the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, etc. All these works capture the atmosphere and mood that I love in the genres, each in its own distinctive way.
MARTZOUKOS: I’m between Dune and Aliens. It would have to be the former; although I cannot skip the powerful inspiration of the latter. There are so many of them, really.
SURMAN: 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?
ALEXANDER: I’m in the process of finishing the script for my first creator-owned graphic novel that definitely falls into this category, and I’m also writing and co-directing a series of horror short films. My most instinctive talent is storytelling, in any form, and I love to entertain and take people for a ride.
Film allows me to reach a different audience and see my imagination actually move and interact and I also get to be a special effects man and fulfill that fantasy. But comics are still my favorite because art is my life. And if I can take you on a journey with it, well that’s just close to perfect.
COLUCCI: I really believe I’m just starting out and I haven’t accomplished the large majority of what I’d like to. So although I’m comfortable with where I’m currently at, I am far from satisfied.
With any luck, if there is appetite from fans then there will be more in the world of Harbor Moon. We actually sat down with the intention of writing it as a trilogy and I’d love to see that through. There are also plans to do a Brotherhood of the Moon spin-off. We may also do a book that includes a series of separate stories that tie into the first book—following characters from the book in a lead-up to Harbor Moon.
I’m actually hard at work on my next three books, all being produced on my own just like Harbor Moon. One of those books, Chasing Rabbits, can definitely be described as dark fantasy. It is a gritty detective story about the hunt for a serial killer in the gothic city of Wonderland, inspired by Lewis Carroll’s books. There’s also a thriller I’m working on about a scientist trying to unlock the mysteries of sleep.
HALL: Right now, I am happy with what we are doing. I know 100 percent what the next “new” dark story will be, though, as soon as we have enough time to commit to it.
BRADFORD: I’m too scared to stagnate and I’m too afraid of finishing. Not knowing what lies in the future is all a part of surviving the unknown.
ECKMAN-LAWN: 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 genre we like to work with.
TAPALANSKY: 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.
CHRISSOS: I’d like to expand the Aposperos story, giving more depth to the main character and the path he walks. I certainly do hope to entertain my readers and make them think; I hope to give more depth and meaning to my stories. In that sense, I am not at all comfortable with where I’m at right now; I want to keep improving.
MARTZOUKOS: I’m totally satisfied with what I have published so far. But I would like to publish more books that will hopefully attract and spark the imagination of more and more readers.
This interview originally appeared in the Frontiersman digital magazine.