Coming out like a freight train of horror, author Joe Hill’s DC imprint, Hill House Comics, has given genre fans some of the most refreshing and unique books around, with titles like Basketful of Heads, The Dollhouse Family, The Low Low Woods, and the most recent title, Daphne Byrne. Written by Laura Marks (TV’s Ray Donovan, The Expanse) and horror-art legend Kelley Jones (Batman: Red Rain, The Sandman), Daphne Byrne gives horror fans an enthralling tale of 19th century New York, where a 14-year old falls in way with occultists, in an attempt to communicate with her loss loved ones. It’s one of the best first issues this writer has read in quite some time and I cannot vouch for the book enough.
Dread caught up with Marks and Jones to discuss the influence behind Daphne Byrne, as well as the visual aesthetic it plays so well in. Read on!
In the gaslit splendor of late 19th-century New York, rage builds inside 14-year-old Daphne. The sudden death of her father has left her alone with her irresponsible, grief-stricken mother-who becomes easy prey for a group of occultists promising to contact her dead husband. While fighting to disentangle her mother from these charlatans, Daphne begins to sense a strange, insidious presence in her own body…an entity with unspeakable appetites. What does “Brother” want? And could she even stop him if she tried?
Dread Central: Daphne Byrne speaks on loss and how we all have different ways of dealing with it. It also further proves how comic storytelling is capable of telling stories the mainstream public fails to realize are ripe for comic books. What was the jumping-off point for creating such an emotionally rich story?
Laura Marks: For years now, I’ve been wanting to write something about the 19th-century Spiritualist movement—which, as you point out, was all about people dealing with loss. And Daphne herself is my favorite kind of character to write: an anti-heroine who’s highly sympathetic but also, as we’ll come to find later, a bit of a monster. And she’s struggling to reconcile those two sides of herself. I find her very relatable. Don’t we all fear that some part of us is monstrous? Especially when you’re a lonely, fourteen-year-old misfit like she is…
Kelley Jones: I think everyone can relate to the anger and the quiet rebellion of Daphne. That is a lot to work with when drawing, and gives an energy to the art.
DC: Was setting the book in the 19th century hindering or freeing to the story you wanted to tell?
LM: Definitely freeing, from a storytelling perspective. I love how that era represses the characters. Daphne and her mother both have to follow a very strict code of female behavior, and without a male protector or a source of income, they’re so vulnerable and isolated. Both of them are literally prey, but Daphne’s the only one who realizes she needs to fight back.
KJ: Challenging and freeing at the same time. Creating an atmosphere that’s interesting and believable is what horror comics are all about to me. Part of the job I most enjoy is to make a world come to life. A book should be upsetting before one drop of blood is shed because you believe in that world in which the story is set. To walk the streets of a city from a different time should be part of the experience that makes this book unique.
DC: The artwork is just gorgeous. It complements the story so well. Going into it, did you both have a specific vibe and tone, visually, that you wanted to put out there?
KJ: Thank you! I want the book to feel like if Val Lewton adapted an M.R. James story into a movie for Hammer studios!
LM: That’s all Kelley! He immediately understood the tone I was going for. I sent him a ton of historical references, period photos and such, because I love getting really granular with research. But Kelley took all of that and elevated it far beyond anything I could have imagined. And Michelle’s colors feel so rich and faithful to the period, too.
Kelley puts so much incredible detail in every page that you have to stop and savor it. There are all these sneaky little flourishes that create a sense of creeping unease. But what I love most is the expressiveness he finds in the characters’ faces and bodies. He always invites the reader into Daphne’s POV, and lets us feel what she’s feeling. For the kind of story I wanted to tell, that’s essential.
DC: The comic also speaks on changes within the body. Body horror is such a great subgenre to tell these big stories and address various topics. Did you have any inspirations you wanted to incorporate at all?
KJ: My main thought was to make the physical changes to Daphne subtle, but affect her in how she holds herself in a more confident way. A more powerful way, bit by bit.
LM: One inspiration was the iconic shower scene in Carrie— that idea of puberty as its own kind of body horror. Daphne’s right on that cusp between girlhood and womanhood, but being a woman means being weak and helpless, like her mother. So the changes in her body are almost like a cruel destiny that she can’t escape.
And, without giving too much away, Daphne also ends up facing the physical realities of death and decay—the way of all flesh. And realizing how intimately entwined with death we all are, all the time.
DC: Every title released through the Hill House imprint has been unique and very engaging. How has the experience been of working with Hill House?
LM: I can’t say enough good things about Joe Hill, who was kind enough to recruit me for this, and the whole Hill House Comics editorial team. They’ve been so supportive in their guidance, and so willing to take risks. I’m thrilled to be part of this lineup.
KJ: I’ve had an incredible time within Hill House making real horror comics is beyond wonderful. Getting to work with Laura has been a real pleasure as well—she’s really damned good. Knowing that you are in a great circle of talent only pushes you harder to make something special.
Check out a sneak peek at Daphne Byrne #1 below.