Wheaton, Mark (The Cleaners)
While the name Mark Wheaton doesn’t jump out at most of you, for me it’s synonymous with the near decade I’ve been working in the online horror community. Wheaton has been there for all of it in one capacity or another, most notably as one of the screenwriters of The Messengers. So when I heard that he was penning a new comic series for Dark Horse, my interest was piqued.
Wheaton’s one of the smartest geeks I know and I knew whatever he was penning would be worth a look. Damn it if I wasn’t right! Cleaners is the story of a team of trauma scene cleaners, those who sweep in to make all the blood and gore disappear after a violent crime. The first arc is unfolding over 4 issues and so far is very cool. The first two issues of Cleaners are on shelves now so when you’ve read his thoughts on the project below, make sure you get out there and pick it up!
Johnny Butane: So what drew you from the world of screenplays to the world of comics?
Mark Wheaton: Opportunity, really – like a fan who suddenly gets asked to join a big league game. I’ve always read comics, dating back to when I was in elementary school - books like X-Men, G.I. Joe and Transformers – then again in high school, with comics like Hard Boiled, Terminator and Aliens vs. Predator, which introduced me to Dark Horse. When you come up with a story, you have to ask – would this be a better movie? A better comic? A better novel? With Cleaners, it was an idea I thought would fit in well to the serial nature of comics and got lucky enough to execute it in the medium it was meant for. It doesn’t always happen that way, so I was pretty thrilled.
JB: Was/is there any intention to turn Cleaners into a feature?
MW: Comics is the same as book publishing these days, a publisher is much more likely to put something out and support it in the marketplace if there’s the possibility of licensing it further. Every time a new chick-lit book comes out, the publisher is hoping it’ll be a Devil Wears Prada or a Confessions of a Shopaholic or a Julie and Julia or a Washingtonienne – all books that sold to Hollywood. Same with comics. All that said, I really don’t think this first Cleaners arc – Absent Bodies - is particularly cinematic. A different story in the Cleaners universe, maybe, especially if setting it up at a studio might mean more Cleaners comic book stories further down the road, but that’s all fairly pie-in-the-sky.
JB: How did you get involved with Dark Horse?
MW: I did a favor for a comic book writer who wanted to get into feature-writing and – in return – he used his contacts to get the pitch in front of Dark Horse. Criss-cross, just like Strangers on a Train.
JB: The forensic terminology indicates a lot of research done on your part; was that done primarily with those in the medical field or did you talk to actual crime scene clean-up people?
MW: First off, I love research – if I wasn’t doing this job, I’d hope to be a research librarian with some nifty university collection. And while I was lucky enough to talk to some good people in the field – particularly, medical, even visiting a few hospitals in America and overseas (including a witch doctor or “sangoma” in Johannesburg, whose expertise has done wonders for the Cleaners universe, if not all in this initial arc) – a great deal of the research came from books and articles. From historical texts to simple janitorial guides, to even info about setting up a small business in California. For every book on big city police procedure, there’s some book full of “helpful hints” on how to get blood out of upholstery.
JB: Is there really this much competition in the clean up business? Seems like it’d be so specialized there’d be no room for it.
MW: It is an incredibly competitive field because the money is so good. They’re not just crime scene cleaners, but all trauma scenes. If someone slips and cracks their head open in the food preparation area of a Whataburger, the restaurant can get sued if anyone gets sick from eating food contaminated by that person’s fall. Same with selling a house that’s had a “medical incident” in it that involved bodily fluids. Same as a motel room that’s been used as a meth lab. As it’s so much about liability, a lot of businesses have trauma scene cleaners on retainer in order that they can have their businesses cleaned up and returned to profit-making in as short a time as possible.
As the fines for not doing that or doing it yourself are so high, these cleaning and restoration companies can charge quite a bit. Remember, every hotel or motel in America pretty much has had a suicide or a murder in it, people die unseen and alone in their homes – quickly rotting into their sofas or floorboards, someone’s always slipping and falling in a newly mopped produce section of a grocery store, grisly auto accidents spill over onto sidewalks, etc. It’s a bloody world. And a brainy, spinal fluidy, pulped-tissue one, too.
JB: The first and most of the second issue of The Cleaners is very much based in reality, but when the first explanation is given for what might be behind the killings, it was anything but “normal.” Did you purposefully set it up as a bit of “WTF?” moment for the readers?
MW: Just wait until issues #3 and #4. I don’t mean to be obtuse, but it’s a contained miniseries where the rules of the world end up taking all four issues to spell out.
MW: Well, I’m a huge history buff, which means I’m interested in the history of religion as human events often turn on religious change. But just as science has been used to debunk the myths of Rome and Greece, it has also been used to both prove or disprove events in Christian history – depending which side you listen to. Was there a Noah’s Ark? Did Moses part the Red Sea? Could Jesus of Nazareth walk on water? People use science to try and bolster their own belief system, creating – in some cases – pseudo-science to suggest a miraculous fiction could have happened. Cleaners is that with the supernatural – suggesting that things that may appear to be supernatural could well exist in the world as we know it, but there’s always a very real-world explanation for why it exists – even if, on the surface, it appears impossible or miraculous.
JB: Any other film or comic projects you’re working on that you can talk about?
MW: I’ve got a pair of comic books I’m trying to get going in ’09 – one, an L.A.-based series about crime in immigrant communities I’m co-creating with the artist Tony Fleecs and then another horror book with my Cleaners artist, Rahsan Ekedal that we’re just starting to concept and bounce story ideas around on. Both are as research-heavy as Cleaners, so it’s a lot of work – but I’m hoping to take what I’ve learned from working on Cleaners and build on that in future titles, but also future arcs of Cleaners. As for film projects that might interest the DC readership, there are a couple of horror-related ones up in the air, but nothing really worth talking about.
Huge thanks to Mr. Wheaton for taking the time to respond to our probing inquires. The first two issues of Cleaners are on stands now, look for Issue #3 in March. We’ll be bringing you more from this fascinating world very soon, so keep your eyes open!