Dark Horse Comics Editor-in-Chief Scott Allie had an in-depth chat with the Eisner Award-winning writer/artist David Lapham on a wide range of topics including his adaptation of The Strain, the upcoming Ferals, the ups and downs of the comics world, blowing off steam on Twitter, and lots more.
Scott Allie: After breaking into superhero comics, you really made a name for yourself with Stray Bullets, which did two things: It (1) established you as a brilliant crime cartoonist and (2) marked a pinnacle of self-publishing, creator-owned success. Lately you’ve been a lot busier on licensed books. What’s different about the industry now, as opposed to the late Nineties?
David Lapham: Thanks! I’ll start by talking about the mid-Nineties, which is when we started Stray Bullets, and the movement of self-publishing, small press, and just independent-driven comics. For the record, I personally was never a self-publisher. Maria, my wife and business partner, and I jointly owned our El Capitan imprint, and she did 100 percent of the publishing and promotion, and I did Stray Bullets and some other works. We both did a lot of scheming, packing, shipping, and running around like crazy people to make our business work. That said, there was an explosion of creators at that time that all seemed to hit together: myself, Paul Pope, Shannon Wheeler, Jeff Smith, Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer, Jay Stephens, Terry Moore, etc. I’m sure I’m leaving out tons of people. It was a very creative time independently for comics at a time when I believe the mainstream was extremely weak. Unfortunately, a weak mainstream ends up hurting the independent market by eroding the fan base, or the “movement” would have sustained longer… but we won’t get into that.
Eventually, in my personal life, my wife and I started growing our family, and we didn’t have that time to be all about comics 24/7 so I began doing freelance work, starting with Batman and going wherever the freelance market took me—which was a lot of interesting places—and yes, today has me doing a lot of horror and licensed along with some superheroes.
SA: I self-published a horror comic called Sick Smiles in the mid-Nineties, before and then overlapping with my job at Dark Horse. There was a real feeling of camaraderie and achievement and support among that crew. One of those guys, John Roshell, who did Waste L.A., works for Comicraft now. What was that feeling of teamwork like for you after coming out of Valiant?
DL: The funny thing is that I had a strong feeling of teamwork at a certain point at Valiant. We all worked very hard there to make that company work, and when things began to turn and swing upwards, there was a great feeling we were doing something special. Maybe that’s because I started there and was a bit naive, but it lasted about ten minutes; then the wolves came in and ripped the whole thing apart. There was definitely a feeling of mutual support amongst the creators at the Spirits of Independence events. Everyone was rooting for everyone and drawing inspiration from each other. Small Press Expo is still going strong, I think. There are a lot of elements at that time that are strong in comics today. A good portion of my friendships in comics come from that time.
Compared to the late Nineties… Y’know, the overwhelming feeling I have about the industry today is that the overall talent level is drastically superior to the late Nineties. Before everyone loses an eyeball, a lot of the talent today are guys from the Nineties. I just mean across the board. From my own experience, I think a lot of talent today are people who read a lot of the indie stuff in the Nineties, and you see them now doing superheroes at Marvel and also doing their own independent work at places like Dark Horse, IDW, and elsewhere. I think there’s a lot of well-rounded talent. On the art side, the guys today blow me away. One artist is better than the last. What the heck are some of these guys doing in comics? They’re that good. They must love it because, surely, they can make tons more money elsewhere!
The sad thing today is that the industry is still smaller than it needs to be and has never recovered from the mid-Nineties bust when the mainstream stripped the fan base with poor-quality books, gimmicks, and false collectibles. Today you still see a lot of gimmicks, crossovers, etc., designed to force you to buy more from the mainstream, but I really believe it’s not one tenth as bad, and also it comes more from a desperation to survive rather than pure greed.
Just so I don’t end this answer on a down note, I’ll say this: We’re all still here, doing our thing.
SA: Do you miss doing straight-up superheroes?
DL: Well, no. I’m not opposed to them. I love superheroes, but I think more about the project than the genre. However, I am currently writing Age of Apocalypse for Marvel, which is superheroes.
SA: You’ve done a fair amount of video game spinoff stuff. What do you like about turning video game stories into comics?
DL: Honestly, nothing in particular. I love video games. I was big into horror games like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, etc. But those jobs, like Modern Warfare and Driver, came about through opportunity. They were concepts that I thought I could do a good job with, and the licensors were very open to doing different things with their properties. It’s always a “hold your breath” situation when you take a licensed job. Most licensors know that a comic book can be its own thing apart from the original, that you can be creative and still be true to the project, but sometimes you get someone who is fixated on making the comic be exactly like what it is in the other medium. That can be tough.
SA: What about adapting a novel to comics? What’s been the hardest thing about adapting The Strain to comics?
DL: By far it’s being true to the novel while you’re both changing it to adapt to a different medium and also bringing something of yourself to it. There’s a reality that a novel can be and usually is something far more massive than a comic book series—even one that can run ten to twelve issues like we have for the Strain novels. So you have to decide what to cut and what to leave. Scenes have to be reimagined both because of space issues and because of things that work in one medium and not in another. A novel can at any point just tell you things like histories and feelings of a character or setting. A comic can do some of that through narration, but specifically on The Strain I decided not to have internal monologues so that information has to be conveyed in other ways. Also the sheer volume of words in a novel cannot be duplicated in a comic. Try taking a simple conversation in a novel and typing it into a comic book strip. You’ll find that something you needed to take three panels just ate three pages.
The point is you have to analyze each scene and find the intent of the scene: What were Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan getting at with this scene? How does it play into the larger story? Can the same point be made within another scene? Do I really need this scene? My overall thought is to approach adapting the novel the same way I believe del Toro would approach adapting his own novel if he were to make it into a film. He would have to reimagine it. The same story but reinterpreted for a different medium and perspective.
The other thing that’s tough, especially with a project like The Strain where you admire and respect the person who made the original so much, is that you want them to like what you do, have confidence in what you do, and respect what you’re doing to their work. On that note, Guillermo has been amazingly supportive and open to what I’ve done in the writing and Mike Huddleston has done with the art. Both he and Chuck “get it.”
SA: When I saw Guillermo at San Diego [Comic-Con], it was really gratifying to see how happy he is with the book. He’s very happy with the whole team, each piece, individually. You say that your job is figuring out how Guillermo would adapt his own novel if he were to make it into a film. Do you think he’d do it differently if he could draw a comic himself?
DL: I’m certain he would. How could he not? Give the same plot to ten writers, and you’ll get ten completely different scripts. Give the same script to ten artists, and you’ll get ten completely different comics.
SA: When I was tackling Conan back in 2003 or so, the way I looked at it was to ask myself, ‘If Robert E. Howard were a brilliant cartoonist—if he were as accomplished a cartoonist as he was a pulp writer—how would he do this?’ I think that’s the trick to doing derivative or licensed work, and it sounds like you’re looking at The Strain the same way. For someone who’s done great original works, do you feel like you’re doing less than your best when you’re beholden to someone else’s vision?
DL: It’s actually less about me trying to figure out how he would adapt it than figuring out how I would adapt it. I want to bring his book to life, but I have to make choices along the way which are part of bringing myself to it. Same with Huddleston on his part. I know Guillermo is happy with what we’re doing, and hopefully part of that is that he’s surprised seeing his own story in a new way for the first time.
When I did the Kull stuff for Dark Horse, I tried to take that approach. Howard has such a raw feeling to his writing, all I could think was, ‘How can I convey that?’ A guy like Howard, though, presents a new problem. Guillermo and Chuck wrote some great books with a great story, characters, and ideas. Howard has the added element of being an artist with words—like Hemingway, Hammett, Faulkner, etc. He’s not just giving a story and a plot; his phrasing and dialogue are like a painter’s brushstrokes. This came into play in the second Kull series we did, which was an adaptation of “The Cat and the Skull.” When I presented a scene that was like the one in the story, I found that once I started using pieces of Howard’s dialogue, I couldn’t escape it. Even when it was redundant in spots, it has such a flow that to change it was like some giant game of Jenga. I was afraid if I took out or changed too much it would collapse.
It’s a tricky question to ask if I’m doing less than my best. The answer is no. I’m absolutely doing my best. By the same token I feel that the very best thing I do is being 100 percent me—creating, writing, and drawing. I think it would be silly to say that I don’t think Stray Bullets or Young Liars were my best work. I guess that’s different than doing your best.
SA: Speaking of your own original visions—you’ve got another serious horror book at Avatar called Ferals. What made you want to do a werewolf comic?
DL: That project started with Avatar owner William Christensen saying he wanted to do a werewolf book, and would I be interested. He had a couple things about it, which I don’t want to say—for risk of spoiling something—but I’ll just say he had an epic quality to where he wanted to see the book go. From there I was just able to invent this whole world, which I hope is a new and different take on werewolves, but really I’m just trying to make a book I like. The first thing that made me want to do it was the idea of creating this credible society within society, and second was when I came up with the Dale Chesnutt character. I really felt I hit on a guy that could carry the book and would be fun to write.
SA: Vampires and werewolves are both sort of all the rage, thanks to Twilight. What you’re doing takes a very different approach. Is there any sense that what you’re doing is a response to the current trends?
DL: The joke is that our vampires aren’t sparkly; our werewolves aren’t sappy. The great thing about classic myths is that they’re so basic to core human nature that they hold up to an insanely wide range of interpretation. For me I’m definitely not doing anything in response to anything else. I’m just writing stories I like how I see ’em.
SA: As we were looking at our fall lineup of horror comics, we noticed a theme—a lot of characters who act as detectives, either literally, as in Steve Niles’ Criminal Macabre or Dale in Ferals, or in the more modern sense, where other occupations stand in for detectives, like a doctor from the CDC—like Eph in The Strain. How do you see the connection between crime or detective stories and horror stories?
DL: A big part of horror is mystery—the unexpected happening. Detectives, cops, and even the CDC in The Strain are people that go looking into mystery. They’re also natural action characters. We live in an environment where we all grew up on many different genres and have a wide range of influences. I think a blending of genres is natural. Hell, look at society; we live in an age where we blend everything. In the past different eras have had very distinct fashion trends, but is anything really out of place today? We can instantly watch shows and movies from any era. Listen to music from any time. People are blended, lifestyles are blended, writing is blended. To me genres are blended to the point where I personally don’t make a distinction. It’s all just fiction.
SA: One of the things I’m hung up about is the challenge of making comics actually scary. With both The Strain and Ferals, what’s the reaction you’re trying to get out of the reader? Are you trying to scare?
DL: Absolutely. It’s tough, though. A movie has the advantage of being in complete control of the pace. They control the timing of how they scare you, the timing of an information reveal till payoff. In a novel it’s all words. Literally you have to read to reveal. Meaning, until you read it, you don’t know what’s going to happen. In a comic it’s very easy to see the picture in the next panel out of the corner of your eye and lose the shock or suspense.
SA: What do you think are the challenges of scaring your audience in a comic?
DL: You can give a quick scare by just the subject. If your book is about spiders, there’s a certain amount of people who are just scared of spiders. Ultimately, to really scare, you have to draw the reader into your story, get them invested with your characters and what they’re going through. If you can do that, then when you throw something at them, it’s going to affect the reader.
SA: With both books you’re writing scripts for another artist—Mike Huddleston on The Strain, and Gabriel Andrade on Ferals. What’s the hardest part to get across to the artist in a script?
DL: First off, you hope that the artist is sharp and also invested in the book and the story. If they are, then not only will they convey what’s supposed to be conveyed, but they’ll add to the story with a detail or a facial expression or a shadow. The hardest thing as a writer to convey is to make sure you don’t assume the artist knows what’s in your head. You try and write where each panel has one main point that it’s trying to convey. You want to make sure the artist knows what that is. That way if they make some different interpretations in their storytelling approach, they at least know what you’re doing and why so they can hit those beats in a different way.
SA: You recently contributed to Creepy with a story you wrote and drew. Were there things you felt you could do there that you couldn’t do in a story you were just writing?
DL: Writing and drawing is so different than just writing. Writing for someone else is exciting because often you get stuff back that’s different and better than you could have imagined. Still, drawing your own story feels more like being an author. This is mine. I’m showing you all of me. Oddly, when you put on the artist hat and go to work, you often get those same unexpected changes as working with a different artist.
SA: All of your horror work is fairly disturbing in an emotional way, but is the goriest of the bunch. Are there pros and cons to gore, or do you just do as much as you can get away with?
DL: Despite being known for brutal storytelling, when I did Stray Bullets, I used gore very sparingly. Most of the devastation was emotional. Other guys, from Alan Moore (The Saga of Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta) to Garth Ennis (Preacher, Crossed) to even guys like Geof Darrow (Shaolin Cowboy), use extreme gore to great effect. Comics lack movement and sound. Visually extreme gore can definitely have an impact beyond just being salacious. One key here is that, as a freelancer, you work for different companies. Avatar has a certain brand. I call it “The X Games of Comics.” I have a ton of creative freedom at Avatar, but it’s also my responsibility within that to present an Avatar book.
SA: What about the mix of sexuality and gore? With The Strain any sexuality is generally used in a disturbing way; whereas, in Ferals there’s some titillating stuff mixed with the gore. What’s the difference there?
DL: I always try to not be gratuitous for its own sake. When I worked on Garth Ennis’s Crossed, I was very gory and sexual and gratuitous. There, though, the whole point of the book was to be as horrible as possible so the only way to be gratuitous would be to not be. Ha! Ferals is more raw than The Strain. There is a definite tone to Ferals and the Avatar books, which go into this titillating area. That’s the brand. I try to, and believe I do, tie that into the basic fabric of the concept and story.
SA: Was Stray Bullets influenced by the old EC crime comics?
DL: No. I love the EC stuff, but when I made Stray Bullets, I had worked at Valiant Comics on superheroes. I worked at Defiant Comics on superheroes. I did a job for DC that was Robot Superman. I did a Harlan Ellison short for Dark Horse. My creative “god” was Frank Miller. Stray Bullets was based entirely on my absolute need to do something of my own and channel feelings that were going on in my life at that time.
SA: Who was your favorite artist from those books? I’d guess Johnny Craig (The Crypt of Terror).
DL: Craig is great. Who wasn’t great from their lineup? I always liked Bill Elder (Frontline Combat). Just always thought he nailed everything in a story. I really am not a genre lover. I’ve read more crime novels and seen more crime films since doing Stray Bullets than I did before. I love classic noir, but I love classic screwball comedies more. I like old musicals, too. Bringing Up Baby goes in the head and comes out the hand as Stray Bullets or Young Liars.
SA: What’s your favorite period of horror comics?
DL: I’m a bad person to ask here. I just don’t have a context for the history of horror comics. Film, too. I’ve seen a lot of horror films, but I’m by no means a connoisseur. The most impactful stuff on me personally would have to be Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. I also love when Gilbert Hernandez (Love & Rockets) uses horror. He can do a one- or two-page story relating a myth or urban legend that has real tangible creep and horror to it.
SA: Your work is firmly rooted in the traditions of comics, but outside of comics would you say your storytelling is more influenced by film or prose? With Stray Bullets I would have said film, but now I’m not sure.
DL: Film. I’ve done a lot of comics and used a lot of different approaches. My favorite way is still to keep a simple grid layout, limit captions to time and location, and use simple dialogue and camera shots to tell the story. I really think that’s what keeps the eye moving and sucks you into the comic. That said, when I’ve done things with captions and internal monologues, I did that because I thought it was the best way to tell the story. I spent many years being obsessed with Kurosawa, Capra, Hawks, Ford, Welles, Peckinpah, Lynch, etc. That’s how I see storytelling in my head, and I adapt what I think works to comics.
SA: I always loved the directness of the grid in Stray Bullets, and it did lead to movie-screen-shaped panels. I think you’ve used that elsewhere since. I like that the grid forces the reader to solely focus on what’s inside the panel, rather than the shape of the panels or the way the panel borders interact with each other.
DL: I’m a huge fan of the grid. I did it on Stray Bullets and also on Young Liars and the Silverfish graphic novel I did for Vertigo. I did a form of it on the Creepy story. Basically, I just don’t have the head for designing a complicated page layout. I just think of the shots. Grids suck you into the story. I like the eight-panel grid because, especially when I’m writing, it lets me do all the little details like a hand gesture or an extra close-up. Obviously most all the early Marvel books— the Kirby and Ditko books—are all in a grid. The famous John Byrne run on X-Men, that everyone remembers as being so exciting and full of power and punch, is all six-panel grid. Still, some people, and even editors, are afraid of it so I don’t generally do it on other people’s scripts. Maybe if I were a regular artist on something, I’d talk with the writer about it. I understand why a lot of artists wouldn’t like it because it sounds confining, but I’m surprised more writers don’t call for it because it makes writing easier—knowing what kind of room you have to call shots and fill story.
SA: What can comics creators learn from prose that they can’t learn from film?
DL: That’s tough. What film? I think a lot of film is garbage that no one should learn anything from or can learn anything from except what not to do to tell a story. I think a lot of classic film is a great teacher of storytelling and takes a lot from prose, using pictures the same way a good writer uses prose to make clear statements to convey ideas. The way they structure a sentence, or in film or comic art, the way they frame a shot or make a transition between panels or shots is where the artfulness comes in. I think it’s less about prose or film and more about learning from things that are good, things of quality, and things that work. If you like something, examine it, learn why it works, and see if you can take those ideas and apply them to your own work. There’s probably a whole roundtable discussion that can be had about this, but this is what’s coming to me right now. Learn from great things. All you can get from crap is an easy path to crap.
SA: Are there storytelling devices that work well in other media that you wouldn’t try in comics?
DL: Hmm… Sound? I think there are a lot of small things that have to be approached differently. Film can do montages that work. I’ve done those in comics, but I don’t think they work particularly well… hmmm… I don’t know; name some, and I’ll tell you if I would use them.
SA: How about the unreliable narrator, like Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart,” where the whole story is shaped for you by someone giving you “facts” that are mostly inaccurate? Would it be too much of a betrayal to the reader if you lied through pictures for a long stretch of pages?
DL: I did that one! That’s Young Liars. All unreliable narrator.
SA: Right! I’ve seen it done in a page here or there, but that’s a rare example of an extended use of it in comics.
DL: It was one of the greatest and most fun things I ever did. I don’t know if it’s a betrayal to the readers. Young Liars was a surreal series and was all about feelings and impressions of the main character so the more unreliable the narrator was, the more he was revealing his own struggle. At least that’s the way it was to me. I think if you were doing a straight-up mystery story, then all of a sudden revealed you were lying and this is the real story and that’s the killer—that would be a big cheat, but like any rule, in the right context you can break it.
SA: What about car chases? Shootouts?
DL: I like those things. Car chases are tougher than shootouts because they eat up so much space, which is what you’re dealing with in comics. Speed down the block, foot hits brake, car skids around corner, hand on shift stick, tires peel, reset wide shot as car speeds down block… that’s at least one page already and nothing much has happened. That Bullitt car chase would be, like, forty pages!
Anyway, both those things require solid, solid storytelling to pull off. You need an artist who’s willing to set an environment and move characters around in that environment and not be afraid to draw all those backgrounds and follow progressions from one panel to the next. Dave Gibbons (Watchmen) is a master at that. You can’t have guys who drop backgrounds and just have characters moving in an imaginary space, or it won’t work.
SA: What do you think about switching point of view in comics, like As I Lay Dying, where every few pages William Faulkner hops to a different character?
DL: I haven’t done that one yet. It sounds fun. But anytime you do that, you’re making it a tougher read. When I was a teenager and read Elektra: Assassin, there was a lot of jumping around with captions to different characters, and it was a bit tough to figure out at times, at least as a kid. I think you have to be careful. I see a lot of writers today just assume the “thought caption” is such a standard that they can use it willy-nilly for any character at any time in the story. So all of a sudden there are these captions and you’re wondering who the hell they’re for because that particular character has never had thought captions before, then has them for three pages, then never again. I might be going off on a tangent here…
SA: What appeals to you more—psychological horror or supernatural horror?
DL: Psychological is always more appealing to me. But the fun of telling stories and doing comics is you also want to do that in the context of something fantastically visual. Sometimes you imagine a thriller about guys in suits, and sometimes those suits need to become spacesuits.
SA: I ask because crime stories sync up more naturally with psychological horror, but you’ve dealt a lot with supernatural stuff.
DL: I would just say this goes back to the blending of genres I was talking about earlier. You can do both. My own stuff that I write and draw tends to stay more real world. Even when I have a lot of insane and surreal elements like in Young Liars, it’s grounded in real world psychology. I’m always trying to get at something I think is truthful about the emotions and experiences of the characters. Characters who are interesting to me, of course.
SA: What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever pulled off in a comic?
DL: A reader would probably have to tell me that, but one that comes right to mind is way back in Stray Bullets #2, which is about kids and ends very tragically. I’ve had a lot of people tell me they had chills and couldn’t stop turning pages. An instance of where I was able to take control of some readers at least. I did a run of Crossed stories in first person narration from the point of view of a serial killer. It’s extremely brutal and graphic, but I think the internal monologue is more chilling in the very clear logical progression the killer makes with each step, which allows him to torture and kill his friends. A lot of the things I did in Young Liars, particularly the last issue, #18, I personally find very isolating and scary.
SA: I follow you on Twitter (check out @DavidALapham), and you’re generally pretty amusing on there, but sometimes you go on a tear where I worry you’ve lost your mind. Do you drink and tweet a lot?
DL: No one reads these things, right? So this is practically just between you and me. I haven’t been drunk in… probably since the late Nineties. Once you’re past your mid-twenties there’s this thing called a hangover, and it’s very unpleasant. Anyway, don’t worry about me. Sometimes I just need to be weird. I’m a husband and a dad and try and be very normal most of the time. Sometimes I’m just compelled to come out with some nonsense. Sometimes the nonsense makes sense to me. I used to just annoy my wife and kids with it, but now I can spare them and type some crazy to my twelve fans and a few thousand spambots. I liked my old iPhone, too. My new iPhone has a good camera. My old iPhone had a crappy camera so I could go around taking blurry pictures of, say, the carpet and there’d be a shape there that looked like an ear and I could tweet about the ear, or Satan who lived in the ear… Good times. Twitter’s fun, though. Fans can let me know when I have books coming out. Sometimes I go on rants if something cheeses me off. I did, like, thirty tweets in a row on the Avengers movie. That was just for fun, though. Plus it wasn’t a good movie. I don’t know how some people tweet so often and still get work done. Or have families. Maybe they don’t. Maybe they just invent them. Families. Who would know? Maybe I’m a robot and everyone is real. Or the opposite of that. No, I’m not drinking.
Our thanks to both Scott Allie and David Lapham for their time! For more be sure to visit the official Dark Horse Comics website.
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