Guest Interview: Writer/Artist David Lapham on The Strain, Ferals, Self-Publishing, 'Weird' Tweeting, and More
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.