Dark Horse Comics Editor-in-Chief Scott Allie provided us with another guest interview this week in which he chats with the incomparable Steve Niles, horror writer extraordinaire.
SCOTT ALLIE: Your 30 Days of Night, which had its tenth anniversary this year, is widely credited as responsible for the resurgence of horror comics in the last decade. What do you think of where horror comics have gone since the first 30 Days of Night?
STEVE NILES (pictured above): It’s very nice people think Ben Templesmith and I had the slightest thing to do with horror becoming a stable comic genre. There was a great shift that happened. Horror comics went from EC tributes to having their own spotlight. I hope it happens to other genres in comics. Right now we have many great horror comics out there, from Hellboy to Fatale to Revival. Even the horror titles from Marvel/DC have gotten pretty great.
ALLIE: What do you mean by EC tributes? You’re talking around the year 2000, or before that?
NILES: For decades most horror comics followed the EC formula—somebody does something bad and pays for it in some macabre method.
ALLIE: Why do you make all your vampires so ugly? Don’t you know they’re supposed to be sexy?
NILES: I like my monsters scary. I feel like the romantic vampire has been—and continues to be—done to death. I’m just not interested.
ALLIE: Where do you see the origins of the real monstrous sort of vampire you did in 30 Days of Night? The prettified vampire owes a lot to Anne Rice, but people connect it to a certain way of reading Dracula. Do you think the 30 Days vampire is a more accurate read of the legend, or something subsequent to that?
NILES: Well, Dracula was pretty hideous in the original novel, so I do feel like the 30 Days vampires are a return to the original monster vampire.
ALLIE: You’ve written novels as well. Besides the obvious, what do you think is the difference, for the reader, between horror comics and horror prose?
NILES: Both have the lack of the “jump scare,” so you have to find other ways to frighten readers. Both offer us a way to get inside people’s heads and really lay the groundwork for a good scare, but comics have the addition of being able to also use images to pound the point home.
ALLIE: Are you trying to frighten your readers with comics? Often horror comics aren’t scary so much as they just feature characters and ideas familiar from the horror genre. When you sit down to write, do you specifically think about scaring the reader?
NILES: Sometimes I do, when I have an idea I think will be scary. But scares in comics are tough. The best I can do is plant something that sticks with people and they think about it when it’s dark. The “creep-out” factor.
ALLIE: Have you had moments where you really felt you pulled it off, got something in the comic that was really gonna get under a reader’s skin?
NILES: Every once in a while. The last time was when I wrote a Western horror. The characters tie bells to the dead they bury in case they come back. Late at night, when everything is quiet, the bell rings. I find that scary as hell.
ALLIE: You worked with Clive Barker really closely at a formative stage in your career. His stuff can be genuinely scary, or just creepy and weird. I think of him when I think of dark fantasy—the good kind of dark fantasy. What did you learn from him?
NILES: I learned a lot from Clive about everything from writing to how to treat fans. With Clive, fans come first. They pay our rent. They feed us. Creators who are rude to fans confuse me. I also learned a lot about characters from Clive. He knows the key to good horror is characters readers care about. When you get that down, scares come much easier.
ALLIE: Do you see Clive’s influence on the current state of horror in comics or film?
NILES: Clive left his mark, to be sure. I think of all his stuff, the Books of Blood for their insane originality and Hellraiser have left the biggest impression. Pinhead is an iconic monster. He’ll be around for a long time with the rest of the monsters.
ALLIE: Outside of horror and comics, your current relationship has you involved in music again, after your early punk rock days. Have you been playing all along?
NILES: I didn’t play at all for nearly fifteen years, maybe longer, but I did a reunion show a few years back and sorta got the music bug again. I recorded a new CD with Monica Richards and might do another reunion show with Gray Matter in September, but no, I’m not jumping back into music.
ALLIE: What’s the scariest thing about LA?
NILES: Nobody walks. Anywhere. Ever.
ALLIE: You grew up in DC, right? Or somewhere on the East Coast? Did you grow up in a walking city?
NILES: I didn’t even learn how to drive until I was thirty-three and moved to LA. I actually showed up in LA with my bike.
ALLIE: Did you grow up reading superhero comics?
NILES: Yes. I was a serious Marvel fan. I read Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Avengers, Defenders, and most everything else. Comics were a quarter then. It was a different time.
ALLIE: If you could turn any Jack Kirby character into a horror comic, what would it be? (Not counting the Demon.)
NILES: Probably one of his monsters, like Goom or something. He did some great monster books.
ALLIE: Would you play Goom straight, or for laughs? Embrace the kitsch?
NILES: I think there’s a point in the middle where you can embrace the kitsch and still tell a good monster story. Along the lines of some Godzilla movies.
ALLIE: You did a book called Crime and Terror with Scott Morse, which led to the Criminal Macabre: The Iron Spirit book we did this fall. Cal McDonald is a failed cop who became a private eye, and the protagonist, and now antagonist, of 30 Days is a cop. How do you see the relationship between horror stories and detective or crime stories?
NILES: Cops and detectives give us a quick in to finding horror in the world. I think that’s what makes them work so well together. These are people who seek out trouble—it’s their job—so in a horror story they are the perfect character sometimes, because it’s easy to imagine them in that situation.
ALLIE: They’re also looking for answers. Horror doesn’t always provide answers. Is that part of the fun of putting a character like Alice Blood front and center in 30 Days?
NILES: Alice has really grown on me. She knows more about the vampire than some of the vampires. She knew Stella (before she killed her) and came to understand that there was some hope for the vampires. Unfortunately when Alice killed Stella, Eben went over the edge.
ALLIE: You’re heavily involved with Trickster, Scott Morse’s event at Comic-Con. Why’s Trickster important?
NILES: Trickster is important because it focuses on creator-driven comics. This is important because even though comics are very big in popular culture right now, most of the focus is on the larger, corporate-owned superhero characters. It’s nothing against that. It’s just a way to put the spotlight on creators who own their creations and their work.
ALLIE: You’ve been outspoken about creator rights and supporting creator-owned comics. What specifically about creator ownership do you think is important to a reader? Is there a moral imperative, or is there something about the reading experience?
NILES: I think it’s important to give back and to have each other’s backs. This isn’t a popular notion in the corporate world, where humans don’t get credit for their work or any of the financial benefits for their work. I believe people who create things should get both credit and a share in profits. It’s very hard to do this retroactively, as we have seen with Jack Kirby and others, so being outspoken is also about spreading the word. It’s important for creators to know what’s happening with their creations. A big part of the reason we have sad stories like what happened to Kirby is because creators didn’t know. It’s very important to know our rights and options now. There is a part of it that’s reading experience too, sure. Comics come out every week that simply would never exist if they were pitched to Marvel or DC. I think creator-owned offers readers many more options than mainstream comics.
ALLIE: How’s Gary Friedrich? [Gary Friedrich sued Marvel and other companies in 2007, stating the copyright used in the first Ghost Rider movie and products reverted to him after Marvel failed to register Ghost Rider’s first appearance in 1972’s Marvel Spotlight #5. Marvel then countersued, and it was ruled that Friedrich would have to pay a $17,000 penalty for unauthorized sales of Ghost Rider posters, T-shirts, and cards at comic conventions. Read more about this case here.]
NILES: I haven’t spoken to him for a while, but last time we checked in with each other, he was doing good. As you may know, he has health problems, but when he last wrote, he seemed in good spirits.
ALLIE: What do you think of as the best period in the history of comics?
NILES: For me, when Watchmen and Dark Knight and Batman: Year One were coming out and there were lots of indie companies and everybody was selling books. It felt like comics had finally made that jump to respectability.
ALLIE: You were self-publishing then, weren’t you?
NILES: I just started self-publishing. 1986 was the year I published the first time, I believe.
ALLIE: What do you think of the horror comics of that time? Besides your own, naturally…
NILES: There were some good ones coming from strange places. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing was an excellent horror comic.
ALLIE: Right, of course. One of my favorites of all time still…Before that, back when comics were a quarter, you must have grown up reading Bernie Wrightson comics. You’ve done a bunch of work with him now, including writing the sequel to his career-defining Frankenstein book. What’s the process of collaborating with Bernie like?
NILES: Working with Bernie is probably one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. You called it right. I was a Wrightson fanatic as a kid. I read everything he put out and carried the hardcover of his Frankenstein around with me like it was the Bible. I’m always nervous meeting an idol, but in Bernie’s case it was great. We’re best friends. We work very closely. We usually hang out once a week and talk through whatever we’re working on, then I’ll go write it up. With Frankenstein, though, Bernie is taking the lead. We talk it through, and he writes in what we discussed in his roughs. I take that and script it, and then we finish. I’m still stunned I get to work with him. It’s pretty amazing. The thirteen-year-old in me freaks out a little, still.
ALLIE: Is there anyone whose work inspires you like that these days?
NILES: We’re living in a time where we have so many talented writers in comics it’s almost daunting. I find guys like Vaughn, Brubaker, Simone, Remender, Seeley, Lemire, Snyder, Kirkman—and on and on—inspiring. And that’s the thing I could really go on. These guys are all great, but there’s more and they’ll be pissed I didn’t mention them. So, I’m really inspired on a daily basis by all of the great writers. And artists? I won’t even start a list. Again, so much talent. Guys like Mike Mignola who can do it all make me want to be better. No shortage of inspiration out there.
ALLIE: In Creator-Owned Heroes, you’re doing a post-apocalyptic story. How do you feel post-apocalypse stories fit into your general oeuvre?
NILES: American Muscle started as a post-apocalyptic story and then wound up being a character piece. It’s just one chapter of the story, and I’m hoping to be able to do more and expand the world. It wound up going in some unexpected places.
ALLIE: You’re in a very unique position with Criminal Macabre and 30 Days of Night. They’re at two different publishers, but you own or co-own them both, and you have the same artist on both. What do you think are stronger, the similarities or differences between the two titles?
NILES: It’s hard to say. Cal McDonald, the lead character in Criminal Macabre, has been with me for a long time. I certainly know him better. But 30 Days of Night has a nice, clear horror concept. What was funny was that I was unintentionally doing similar but opposite stories in the two titles. In 30 Days I was writing about the vampires’ ever-growing hatred of humans and wanting to spark a war between the two species. I’ve been writing and hinting about a coming war of the monsters for over a decade in Criminal Macabre and other Cal stories, including the novels. When I first mentioned the idea of the crossover to you, I remember we both noticed the books were already on a potential collision course, so the crossover was pretty much a no-brainer.
ALLIE: You’d been creating your archetypal hero in one book and villain in the other.
NILES: I suppose so! It really worked out perfectly.
ALLIE: What does [illustrator] Chris Mitten bring to the books? Does he bring the same thing to both books, or is there something different about his contribution to one than the other?
NILES: Mitten has been put to the test and come through in flying colors. The sheer amount of pages he’s had to do is staggering. Chris is such a great artist to work with. He knows exactly what we need and does it. He’s perfect for horror, too. He pays a lot of attention to light and endures my endless crowd scenes and need to have multiple actions going on in panels. He’s made both books better books, but if I had to pick where he shines, it’s with Cal. Criminal Macabre has some humor in it, and I think Chris is at his best playing off horror and laughs.
ALLIE: Is the current run of 30 Days at IDW the end?
NILES: If the vampires lose the fight in the crossover, then the series ends.
ALLIE: If you were to do another crossover, what would it be?
NILES: Once upon a time we pitched a Cal McDonald/Batman crossover. But they took one look at Cal and (probably wisely) passed on the idea.
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