Interview: Suicide Squad Creator John Ostander and Tom Mandrake on Kros: Hallowed Ground

Writer John Ostrander and illustrator Tom Mandrake are an established duo in the comic industry, and having worked together on multiple series including The Spectre, Batman and Martian Manhunter, they are now using KickStarter to bring their latest project, Kros: Hallowed Ground, to life.

Ostrander is also the creator of Suicide Squad, which unless you’ve been living in a cave on Mars, you will know is being turned into a film out next year. How satisfying it is to see such a great creator having his work receive such widespread recognition.

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Dread Central: Firstly, what is Kros: Hallowed Ground?

John Ostrander: Kros: Hallowed Ground is a 128-page graphic novel by me and Tom Mandrake. We are legendary. Folks may know us from our work on GrimJack, Firestorm, The Spectre, The Kents, and Martian Manhunter, as well as a Batman or two. The story is set during the American Civil War at the Battle of Gettysburg. Two sets of battles are being fought: the battle between the armies of the North and South during the day and another at night, when vampires come to prey on the wounded. Blood calls to blood, and the vampires come like carrion predators to prey on the weak and dying. Opposing them is the vampire hunter, a damphyr, known as Kros. He has many of the vampires’ abilities and few of their weaknesses, but if he should ever taste human blood — the blood of the innocent — he himself could become what he hates. As it is, he is a man with an obsessive mission – killing vampires.

Tom Mandrake: Kros: Hallowed Ground is a horror story set during the Battle of Gettysburg, but our focus is on Major Kros and the vampires he has been drawn to this place to destroy. His past is complex—born nearly 200 years before the events of this story, Kros has been pursuing vampires for most of his life. He has seen many of the other damphyr he has known fall to the temptation of human blood. Intent on the mission that seems to forever be before him and drawn to this place by the same scent of blood as the vampires, Kros is on the verge of losing his own humanity. It is a struggle he might not win.

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DC: Is crowdfunding the best way to get original independent comics off the ground?

JO: We think so. We hope so. We have a fan base, and we’re going directly to them to try to make this happen. I’ve worked for a lot of companies and I’ve enjoyed it, but for Kros we want to control the whole thing. With everything else we’ve done, it’s time Tom and I did a creator-owned story, and I’m very excited to be doing Kros!

TM: I’ve done all sorts of comics for established companies, horror, superhero, movie adaptations—everything—and I’ve had a blast drawing all of these books!  But Kros is the kind of story that you don’t see very often in mainstream comics. It’s an unusual meld of history and the supernatural. Mostly, we didn’t think that the story of Kros would fit well within any established universe, so we decided to strike out on our own. Given that both John and I have worked in mainstream comics for over 30 years, it’s probably the one big thing left on both of our creative bucket lists!

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DC: Can you talk about the vampires of the world that you are creating?

JO: We’re old school. Our vampires are monsters; they’re predators. They suck the life out of you. Monsters are important; monsters show us the dark side of our own natures. Trying to soften that, to make them sexier or tragic romantic heroes, for me misses the point. The better the monster, the better we see ourselves in that dark mirror. Vampires are devoid of love; they know only feeding, what they want. We live with many vampires today; they just don’t all have fangs.

TM: The vampires in Kros are very traditional in the sense that their roots go back to when vampires, ghouls, werewolves and their kind were considered to be one and the same. All of them wanted to kill mortals and steal what makes you human. They’re the alpha predator – fierce, amoral killing machines. They take you away from yourself and leave a shell that seeks sustenance for it’s own survival.

DC: Is Major Kros more of an anti-hero?

JO: Kros himself, having vampire blood in him, is also a monster. He is hyper-focused on his self-appointed mission – all vampires must die. He is isolated from others and he’s done that to himself. He is in danger of losing the human side of his nature.

TM: I’d say that Kros is an anti-hero. He’s a monster fighting monsters. The war means nothing to him. Human beings mean little to him, and yet, he finds himself fighting to save humanity from more terrible monsters than himself. I’d say, in that respect, he has some of the true hero in his nature as well.

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DC: How will the Civil War setting be utilized?

JO: As I’ve said elsewhere, all wars are horror stories. Brother was killing brother in the Civil War, and that’s nightmarish to start with. The battle at Gettysburg took place in several locations around Gettysburg and lasted three days. At different times Tom and I have both visited the battleground, and you get a sense of the size and the scope of the fighting. The place is haunting and haunted, and we intend to work that eerieness into the story.

TM: There are aspects to the Battle of Gettysbrug that really hit you at your core—like the choking amount of smoke from the gunpowder, the sheer number of dead, the streams that ran red with blood. That’s real horror. We Americans learn all about the events that took place at Gettysburg in history class—the names, the locations, the troop movements, but can we ever really understand the magnitude of what happened there? I don’t think most of us do.  In Kros we add a layer of supernatural horror which, for me, is a way of comprehending it all.

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DC: Can you talk about the style of artwork?

JO: Tom’s artwork is creepy and spooky and eerie, but also downright beautiful. No one’s art in the comics field today looks like his. No one. It is elegant even when he’s freaking you out. It’s classic; you can go back to the masters of EC and Warren and see their artistic DNA in Tom’s work. The storytelling is concise, the characterization is profound, and the effect is incredible. Actually, just look at it, look at the sample pages, look at what he’s done in the past; and you won’t need me to tell you how wonderful it is. It’s right there on the page.

TM:  I traveled to Gettysburg for inspiration late this past spring. I want to be able to capture the misty quality of the light, the rolling fields, the harsh rock formations at Devil’s Den, the eerie quality the light has at sunset. My job is to translate all this into art. I am really excited about this challenge! My daughter, Sian, is doing the colors on Kros. We talked a lot about capturing the feel of the era by toning the color toward grayed out sepia tones with hints of color like old-time hand-colored photographs.

DC: The two of you are known for creating new series and characters that go onto become iconic, such as Grimjack. How do you approach an original idea and turn it into something that is bound to be memorable?

JO: The way Tom and I approach an original idea is to explore it. You kick it around and discuss the ramifications of what you’re establishing. Tom and I take our different strengths and talents and then pool them. You ask questions – how is this different. What tropes do we use, which ones do we downplay? Ultimately, why should it matter? Why should the reader care? Each answer begets more questions and you follow those answers as well. It can be a lot of fun and that’s important; if we aren’t having fun, it’s guaranteed that the reader won’t have fun. With Kros, Tom and I are having a lot of fun.

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DC: Also, you’ve collaborated on many occasions so was it a natural decision for you to work together on Kros?

JO: I really enjoy working with Tom and jump at any opportunity to do so. We were actually looking for something to do together and wanted to combine two areas in which we are fascinated – the Civil War and horror stories. As these things sometimes do, we were talking together, and Kros eventually emerged as the result.

TM: Working on Kros was definitely a natural extension of our other collaborations—which were always exciting and a lot of fun!  Kros started out as a Western, but the more John and I explored the character, we determined that we wanted to place this story during an event that had historical importance. The Battle of Gettysburg came up, and we realized that what happened there would work incredibly well for the story.

DC: Can we expect to see more of Major Kros?

JO: There are other stories we can tell – assuming he survives this one.

TM: While Kros’ future isn’t guaranteed, we do have about 170 years of his past to explore. I would love to be able to tell those stories!

DC: As Suicide Squad, which you created, is headed to the big screen, is there any chance of Kros being turned into a movie?

JO: Oh man, I’d love that. Nothing planned at the moment, but we can hope. We always hope.

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