Interview: Writer Eric M. Esquivel and Artist Ramon Villalobos Talk BORDER TOWN
“When a crack in the border between worlds releases an army of monsters from Mexican folklore, the residents of Devil’s Fork, AZ, blame the ensuing weirdness—the shared nightmares, the otherworldly radio transmissions, the mysterious goat mutilations—on “God-dang illegals.” With racial tensions supernaturally charged, it’s up to the new kid in town Frank Dominguez and a motley crew of high school misfits to discover what’s really going on in this town torn between worlds.”
DC Vertigo’s all-new ongoing series Border Town by writer Eric M. Esquivel (Gregory Graves, Ricanstruction) and artist Ramon Villalobos (Nighthawk, America) just debut their first issue earlier this month and we shared some killer exclusive images with you guys (check them out HERE).
In that article I promised you guys that we had an epic interview coming your way with Esquivel and Villalobos – and here it is! You can check out all the good times below and then let us know what you think of Border Town thus far.
Border Town #1 is now for sale. You can preview and order your copy RIGHT HERE.
Dread Central: How did you get into comics?
Ramon Villalobos: I got into comics as a kid. I liked the cartoons and everything, but I always kind of really liked them as a concept, because my older cousins — in the early 90s, anybody that was cool was into comics. So all my older cousins and uncles and everybody, they all would have them. But my mom was a single mom and raised me and my two brothers and my sister, so we didn’t have money for that, like any expendable income and she didn’t have time to take me to libraries or anything. So not until I was able to sort of explore the world on my own as a middle schooler and high schooler that I would kind of start having more access to them. When I was in high school, I would go to the library because it was the only place that you could go and not have money. So me and my friends would go to the library and rent CDs and books and stuff.
And then I found there was a comic book section, and then I just went crazy and would check out 15 books at a time or something ridiculous. And then if I was late one day, I’d get a $5 fee and be fucked. It was the going to the library with my friends and wasting time after school sometimes. That was the big plug. And then when I’m there, just whatever comics that looked cool, that was what appealed to me. So it was like, based on aesthetics first and not being selective. Just like, every comic was the best comic I had ever read because I had never read any.
Yeah, I had always drawn. Ever since I was a kindergartener and I saw the X-Men on TV. I remember the earliest image — the earliest memory I have is coloring with my sister and her telling me I was going outside the lines. Like, I wasn’t allowed to color anymore. And asking my uncle — my uncle, who’s a few years older than me, but I would be at his house and I saw a drawing of Wolverine fighting Carnage and I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. And he told me that he drew it, and I asked if he could teach me and he told me no. So then before I was in even kindergarten, I was learning how to draw Wolverine just to spite my uncle, who I thought was the best artist in the world because he had drawn this picture of Wolverine fighting Carnage.
But yeah, that was it. I was drawing all throughout my life. But when I didn’t have comic books, the absence of that, I would just draw Mortal Kombat shit or just skulls. And when I got into metal and stuff, it was just like, drawing Slipknot and stuff that I just thought was awesome, and that filled the void of not having comics. Like, I didn’t grow up drawing superheroes so much as just drawing shit that a kid thinks is awesome. Which is actually exciting, because Border Town now is like all this horror stuff, which as an artistic muscle, I never got to flex before. Because in comics, I’ve always just drawn superheroes or sci-fi stuff or whatever. And now I get to draw things with a lot of teeth, and stuff like that.
Eric M. Esquivel: I’ve been reading comics for 15 years now. I started when I was 15 years old, in Tucson, Arizona, which is the place that the fictional town, Devil’s Fork, is based on. And I used to just make really terrible black and white Kinko’s comics with my friends. It was really fun, and we would sell them for like, a dollar, and we would mail off copies. We would mail it off to one of the editors whose books we enjoyed. And then the writer and the artist, just to be part of the comics scene. Just to kind of communicate back and forth. Like, thank you for sharing your work. Here’s some of ours for free.
So we kept doing that until some of us tried to get attention, and I first started working at a company based out of Chicago, doing anthology books for them, and a couple of one-shots. And then those got the attention of Boom! Studios, where I did books like Adventure Time and Bravest Warriors and Freelancers and a bunch of stuff, and I sort of kept moving on from there. And every few years, sort of typecast as something. So initially, I was the black and white indie guy. And then for a while, I was the all-ages guy. So I did like, Sonic the Hedgehog, Nickelodeon types of things, and all kinds of younger books. And then from there, I took over the mature horror stuff.
DC: And your approach to sending things off, would you still recommend that to aspiring comic book writers out there?
Eric: I think the biggest thing to do is just find your people, right? Find your audience, or find the others. And whether that means in a corporate structure, like a publisher, or making your own comic book company, or like finding a convention that’s good for you. Comics are about communication, right? No one is in this to make money, because there isn’t a whole lot of money to make. What you’re in it is to invest in the culture and find your people. So the best thing that happened to me wasn’t really breaking into comics in any corporate way but was when I hooked up with the Latino comics community. And that happened because I was invited to go to the Latino Comics Expo by Javier Hernandez, who does a book called El Muerto and he runs that Latino Comics Expo.
I met a lot of people there who were telling stories that were based on — there are guys who love Superman, they love Wolverine, and they love Batman just like me, but they also were telling stories based on their own lives and informed by their mythology. Everyone knows most of the Norse mythology backward and forwards. No matter who you are, you know Norse mythologies now because of Disney and Marvel. That’s awesome.
But what about the Aztec mythology? What about Native American mythology? What about Mexican mythology? I thought it was important and fun to share those stories. And I think as a horror fan, I always love when I’m exposed to new monsters. Like, I love ghosts and vampires and werewolves, but when I heard about the Krampus a few years ago through management, that evil Santa, I lost my mind and watched all those horror movies and bought tons of books and stuff. So my hope is that sharing Mexican folklore monsters, that’s gonna make horror fans excited no matter what ethnicity you are because it’s a new creature to be afraid of.
Ramon: For people that wanna start drawing comics, the nice thing about comics is you can just do it. There are no rules for it. I have a lot of friends that do tattoos and stuff, and I get really — I think they’re a bunch of nerds because they have to be apprentices and sweep up shops and do all this stuff. And I’m just like, dude. You have to follow all these rules. In comics, there are no rules. I can do it whenever I want. Like, clients — If I didn’t want to work for a company, I could just do whatever I want, like when I first started. And that’s the coolest thing about it. It is the last kind of outlaw-ish artform that you could still make money off of, but that’s pretty rad.
DC: What were some of the inspirations for this series?
Eric: It’s based on my love of 80s horror stuff. Like The Goonies and IT, melded with my real-life journey from Illinois to Arizona my sophomore year of high school. So it was sort of funneling all of those impulses that I had from pop culture and from my actual culture of Mexican folklore and being raised around that, and then the real-world stuff of the culture shock moving from a very blue state to a very red state and how intense that was, and switching schools. And the trauma of moving as a teenager versus the trauma of actual real-life monsters.
During high school, you think it’s the end of the world if someone looks at you or wrong or says something mean to you. But what if it actually is the end of the world? That was kind of funny. And then having the borders between all of those things broken down. Like, growing up, I’m Irish and Mexican, so I was raised around a lot of Catholic imagery. So that mixed with being a sci-fi and horror nerd.
DC: How much freedom does Vertigo give you crafting these comics?
Eric: A lot actually. Yeah, it’s really surprising how much freedom we’re given. Because as a creator, I would think — Ramon and I own the story, so they would give us just enough rope to hang ourselves. They don’t want to give us too much advice, because it’s a controversial book, for sure. So they’re sort of just like, doing it at arm’s length. You do your own thing, plausible deniability, I think. But yeah, it’s great, man.
DC: Have they told you any of your scenes are maybe a little too violent, or Ramon, have they said any of your drawings are possibly a bit too much?
Ramon: No, that’s actually — like Eric said, surprisingly they’ve been so free, that like when we first started — when I first got the script, I knew in theory what the comic was gonna be about, what it was gonna look like. And then when I got the script, I was like, oh shit. Are they really letting us do this?
Because the books that I’d done at Marvel before, not DC, but at Marvel, they’d be like, yeah, this is a mature-rated book. You’re gonna be able to go as hard as you guys want. Make it violent, make it cool, whatever. And then I would get all these notes that were like, yeah, even though we told you that we wanted this person’s decapitated, we didn’t mean like, you would see a head cut off. And I was like, what does that even mean? Like, there were always all these legal notes.
And at DC and Vertigo, they’re just like no, go for it. Like, that’s the whole point. If they wanted us to go safe, I think we wouldn’t be Vertigo. So it’s like a blessing unless we really fuck ourselves. Then it’s a curse.
Eric: Yeah. It’s never anything, like, we’re doing something too edgy. Vertigo always asks if there’s gonna be emotional honesty in every scene, and for every character. So I always have real-life anecdotes and evidence to back it up with, so that’s helpful, the fact that it’s informed by reality is helpful. The fact that some of the gnarliest stuff is taken right from the headlines, that I can show them newspapers from Arizona. Like, that helps, too. The scarier stuff in the book isn’t the monsters. It’s the people, and what people do to each other.
DC: How do you go about striking the tone and the balance between the horror, the fantastical, the comedic elements, and the light-hearted friendships?
Eric: I honestly chalk all of it up to being Mexican. Like, that’s sort of what life is like. There’s a very close relationship with death at all times. Like, everyone’s really hip to like, Dia de Los Muertos, but like, I feel a connection to the people in my family who have died all the time. I have little gestures of respect that I do, that are like — they’re not supernatural, but they’re like, little offerings of like, me remembering them. I’m not super-duper superstitious, but I believe in honoring family and respect and stuff. So I sort of joke about that, and that’s where the humor comes in.
Kind of the horror comes from just the headlines of having kids trapped in cages and passports revoked. You can’t live in America and not experience tragedy, and the only that you can cope with it is by having a sense of humor. So all those things meld together. And we’re not making anything up. For Border Town, we’re pulling from our real lives. So I never feel like I have to strike a tone that it’s realistic because it’s all stuff that actually happened. Not the monster stuff, but the interesting, dramatized versions of real deaths that have occurred. You know, like, it’s already in the book because it’s stuff that happened.
Ramon: A lot of the tone, I think, is in the script. A lot of that is the foundation that Eric laid and a lot of it, for me, was really trying to heighten the humor. When he writes something that’s supposed to be funny, and draw more teeth when it’s supposed to be scary, that kind of thing. But yeah, I mean, it’s like, my favorite stuff — I love horror movies, especially when I was younger.
But my favorite stuff in horror movies is the weird — like the parts in Halloween where it’s just the girls talking about babysitting and how much they fuckin’ hate their lives and stuff. I could just watch a whole movie of that. In that new IT movie, I was like, man. Why did the clown even have to show up? I’m just, like, hanging out with these kids. But yeah, that’s my favorite part, so I always try to savor the parts where it’s just, like, the kids getting to express their frustrations with the actual world. And then the other stuff is just like color.
Eric: And the reason why Ramon and I work together so well is that I think I have very naturalistic dialogue, and Ramon draws people incredibly well. Like, all of the clothing is accurate and real. All of the kids feel real. And so if I write in the script the kid’s wearing something that he wouldn’t think the kid was wearing, he’ll ignore that, which is great. He creates a world that you believe, in the images and in the fashion, and I do that with the dialogue. And then when there’s a giant monster running at you, it makes it that much scarier because you believe the real world part, so then you believe the horror stuff, too. And it’s such an excellent combination.
DC: What is your working relationship like on back and forth on crafting an issue?
Eric: It’s hostile. Really hostile. [laughs]
Ramon: Yeah. I mean, Eric does work on the script, and we’ve had a couple conversations about general ideas of where — like, he asks me where I’m interested in it going and stuff. But mostly it’s a lot of, I think, trust in one another. He trusts me to not completely deviate from what he wants me to do, and I trust him to not go somewhere that I don’t think is cool. But at the end of the day, I’m the one drawing, he’s the one writing it. We haven’t let each other down yet, I don’t think. But it’s very collaborative.
Eric: And we had a big conversation when the book started. We talked about our experiences and our influences and what we wanted to put in the book. I think that most of that has gotten into the first arc so far. But yeah, there was a tone-setting conversation that really helped me a lot. That was great for me. A lot of times, I’ll work with artists who I’ve never spoken to and it’s just a trial, whereas, with Ramon and I, we’re both pretty emotionally invested in this. So I feel like we do have a pretty healthy back and forth dialogue about where we want it to go conceptually and the tone we’re going for.
DC: What are your goals for the comic, and where do you see it going throughout the next few years? Do you have an endgame in mind?
Eric: You know, I definitely have ideas for where I want this to end up. But the more we write, the more we expand the backstories and where they’re going. I would love to go for a long time. Ramon and I are both fans of terrible teenage dramas. Like, I loved Smallville and he loves Dawson’s Creek. And those both went forever, and you got to kind of grow with the characters. I would love that if people could kind of grow up with the Border Town characters because there’s plenty to explore. I wanna go into the past, like actually the founding of the town by the indigenous people, and then the later on conquest by the Spanish. So I want it to have real history, American history, in it. And I also wanna do future stuff, inspired by the works of Carlos Castaneda, and think about the future of America and of the Latinx community. I wanna go everywhere we can with this book.
The great thing about Border Town is it’s a place where every idea I have I can put into this book. I’m actually having a problem right now where, as a comic book author, it’s the healthiest thing in the world for you to have, like, five or six books going at the same time. But you see some guys do that, but I can’t do that, because all of the ideas that I have could fit in Border Town. Like, the Lucha Libre superhero, the supernatural stuff. The real world politics, like teenager drama stuff, like Archie-style, I can do that from a high school perspective. So everything I could ever possibly want to do in comics, I could do with Border Town.
Ramon: I would like to just — like Eric said, see the characters grow. Like Annie goes to college or something. I’m just here for a good time. I’m not really thinking about the long-term parts of it. I’ll leave that to Eric. I’m not a planner. So whatever they want, really. I’m pretty simple about that. I’m not particular about too much. I just wanna make sure that they wear cool clothes when you see them.
DC: What would you like our readers to know about Border Town?
Ramon: I do want people to know that there is — when you buy the book, when you read the book, I will guarantee a religious experience as you read it. People want to excuse me of that being a cheap marketing gimmick. It’s not. It’s very real.
I would want people to know that it’s like sort of a return to classic Vertigo comics from the early — the late 80s, early 90s. It’s a lot of stuff from that era and different books that I really like, and that we’re trying to bring back the spirit of old Vertigo comics where it had a real, strong identity. I think that’s why they wanted us to do this book, particularly. But I know when Andy, our editor, had messaged me, that was all that I could talk about. Like, man, I love Vertigo comics and it would be nice to do something that would have fit in in the early 90s, late 80s, as well as today that’s contemporary.
Eric: Yeah, and the book feels like it’s late 90s kind of stuff. But it’s interesting because these ideas are so intense that you get like, giant hate campaigns. Like, it’s really important, culturally impactful work, more so than you’d ever gotten from Vertigo before. And that’s really exciting to me, to be on the edge of this. The stakes were really high. It’s important. So that’s cool to me.
DC: What is your favorite scary movie?
Eric: Oh man. Gremlins 2, hands down. Because it’s a total shift. And there’s scary stuff in there and funny stuff and heartfelt stuff. That’s what life feels like, and that’s what Border Town feels like. Joe Dante is a god to me.
Ramon: So for me, probably Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the 2003 Jessica Biel remake of it. Just because the visuals were so good, and I was in high school when that came out. That was a movie I definitely skipped school with my friends for some reason. Like, we watched it in the middle of the day. Or it might have been during the summer. I just remember it was one of the scarier feelings that I had, leaving the movie because I had to walk past this Texas Chainsaw Massacre-looking house. And just being very uncomfortable with it. I loved that movie. I love all those 2000s horror movies that were like, they had budgets, but they weren’t — whatever. So it’s like, Freddy vs. Jason, too. That was a hot debate topic when that movie came out. And it had Ill Nino and Slipknot on the soundtrack.
DC: I don’t know, guys. I have to say that I’ve asked a lot of people that question, and Gremlins 2 and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) have got to be two of the best answers I’ve ever heard. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, guys, and we all look forward to the future of Border Town!
Border Town #1 is now for sale. You can preview and order your copy RIGHT HERE.