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A Friday chat with Fall of Cthulhu‘s Michael Nelson

by  in Comic News Comment
A Friday chat with <i>Fall of Cthulhu</i>‘s Michael Nelson

I should admit right up front, when Chip Mosher at Boom! sent us an advance copy of the Fall of Cthulhu trade collection, I wasn’t really that into it. Mostly I was skeptical about the idea of Lovecraft-based comics working at all. Comics are a primarily visual medium and Lovecraft’s whole career was based on writing about things that drove men mad to look upon. How the hell does an artist draw that?

But the book won me over, and oddly enough, it was the writing that did it, not the art… though the art from Ed Dukeshire and Jean Dzialowski is certainly very spooky and well-suited to the story. However, the writing was the standout for me — Fall of Cthulhu manages to succeed not only at evoking the atmospheric darkness of H.P. Lovecraft, but actually at being a genuinely scary horror comic on its own terms. I haven’t seen the latter done successfully since Alan Moore’s Arcane story in Swamp Thing, twenty-plus years ago.

I was curious to talk to the fellow that could pull that off, writer Michael Nelson, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions for me. Here’s what he had to say.

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Tell us a little about how you got into writing comics. Also, how’d you end up writing this book? Did Boom! come to you or did you bring the project to them?

Well, my first comics writing gig came about from a novel I had written and published online. Both Ross Richie and Andy Cosby (co-founders of BOOM! Studios) had read it and really enjoyed it. So when they started BOOM!, Ross came to me and asked if I’d like to try my hand at an 8 page story about zombies. Lucky for me, he liked it and published it in the very first Zombie Tales. For some strange reason the guy seems to like what I do and keeps asking me to write for him.

So when our Cthulhu Tales books did so well, we knew the next logical step would be to write an ongoing Cthulhu series.

We sat down and talked about what the series would be like: the tone, the characters, the story arcs, and everything just fell into place. At the time, I thought it was just a casual conversation of “what if,” but at the end, Ross turned to me and asked, “So, when can I see a script for the first issue?” Thus, the series was born.

You seem to have taken on an almost impossible challenge — a sequel in comics form, a VISUAL medium, to the work of a writer whose specialty was Things No Man Should See. How do you get around that? What governs your decisions behind what to show and what to keep hidden? Talk to us about how you solve the problems of adaptation.

It definitely is quite a challenge. I mean, how do you describe something that is indescribable in its horror, let alone ask an artist to create a visual representation of that Unknowable Thing? What I’ve been doing is trying to focus on what makes (at least for me) Lovecraft’s stories so compelling. It’s the atmosphere he creates. I think that sense of despair and hopelessness is what really makes his stories work and has made them viable for so many decades. Also, we as readers are more frightened of what we CAN’T see. So the trick is to exploit our primal fear of what lurks in the dark. We can’t see it, but we know it’s there. We can feel it, looking at us, hunting us, lusting after us. But as soon as we put a face to it, it becomes tangible and (usually) a little less frightening.

So I think the longer it waits in the shadows, the more frightening it becomes. But that doesn’t always work in comics because readers don’t want to read 22 pages of a guy staring at shadows and peeing his pants (okay, maybe there IS a market for that, but I prefer to live in ignorance). So the trick is to keep that Unknowable Thing lurking in the shadows yet still have an exciting visual element to the story.

I also have to make sure that the book stays PG-13 so that obviously limits what I can do visually. There have been several times I’ve had to tone down the story simply because my original idea was too dark or gruesome. That’s the reason I’ve never really been able to tell much of Connor’s back story (Arkham’s henchman). So I’ve had to learn how to come at these things obliquely.

That way, I can still have bloody severed-testicle magic so long as I don’t come out and SAY it’s bloody severed-testicle magic. But when you hear a dark priest talk about sacrificing his “seed” and tossing “the left one” onto the ground, you get the idea. I also think that sideways approach helps keep some of these things in the shadows and makes them even more ominous. Or it could just make them more confusing, I’m not sure.

Do your artists collaborate with you on any writing/plot-point things? Tell us about the process, what they’re bringing to the table.

Honestly, and this may sound a little weird and unorthodox, but I hardly ever talk with my artists. I pretty much keep the story creation to myself. I do collaborate, but it’s usually with my editor or publisher. I also have several close friends that are amazing writers who help me break my stories. Usually what happens is I’ll come up with a general outline or a goal for a particular story arc and present it to the publisher. From there we’ll discuss what we want for the characters, flesh out the major plot points, and then I’ll head off and write an outline. Once I have that outline, I’ll break it down into a beat sheet for each issue and then begin writing the issues themselves.

I’m a bit of a task master when it comes to scripts, though. When I’m telling a story, I know exactly what I want to see, where and when I want to see it, and why seeing it that way helps the story. That being said, I hardly ever ask for revisions from an artist. Just as often as not, the panels don’t look how I have them envisioned in my head, but they don’t have to be. As long as the panel does what it’s supposed to do, that’s all that matters. And quite often the artist will read my script, understand what it is that I’m trying to do, and draw it in a way that is far superior to what I had imagined. Plus, I always get a thrill when the artists bring these characters to life.

I do always try to leave room in the script for the artist to stretch out and have a little fun. Sometime, instead of being particularly specific, I’ll just describe the general vibe an image should have and let the artist interpret that on her own. I have a lot of fun writing these stories and I hope the artists have just as much fun drawing them. Of course they could all hate me and pull out the voodoo doll every time one of my scripts lands on their desks. That would at least explain the spontaneous eye bleeding.

Is this a licensed project? Does the Lovecraft estate get a say in things?

Much of the general mythos is in the public domain, so we work from that. That’s also one of the reasons I try to create my own characters and creatures. It allows me the latitude to write those characters in the way that I want without having to worry about deviating too far from the source material (which some readers have, rightfully, argued that I’ve done with some of the core characters).

Is this a finite series for you? I ask because “Fugue,” the first arc, felt very much like chapter one of a single story, rather than an episode of an open-ended ongoing series.

You’re absolutely right in the sense that the “Fugue” is sort of a Chapter One.

I do have an end game in mind for this particular story, which we’ll be heading into in the fourth arc. But there are SO many story possibilities in this universe that I could write this title forever. Whether those following stories will be structured similarly to the current story, or given a more open-ended feel, we’ll have to wait and see. It’s an awfully big sandbox to play in. The possibilities are endless.

Most horror comics have traditionally had an element of humor, a wink-at-the-reader moment. But you’re playing it straight, the book is genuinely frightening. How tough is it to seriously scare people with a comic? Are you surprised by what people react to?

Well, there are a couple of reasons I play it straight. The first is that the Lovecraft tone is one of despair and helplessness. When people laugh, it’s due to their failing mental faculties, not because of anything genuinely humorous. A funny quip or one-liner might help release some of that tension, but in Lovecraft’s universe, there is no release. Ever. There is only horror and madness.

The other reason is that, quite honestly, as a writer, humor scares the hell out of me. It takes a certain skill set to write humor effectively and that’s a skill set I’m still working on. Humor used correctly can increase the horror by putting the reader off guard, but my personal fear is that the humor won’t translate and that it will take the reader out of the story. Then, instead of amplifying the terror of the scene, there will be a moment when the reader says to herself, “My God, this character is an idiot. I’m glad his face was eaten by acidic goo.” My plan is to someday add that element of humor, if not in Fall of Cthulhu, at least in other horror projects. But we’ll have to wait and see if it will work.

As far as making a comic scary, the only way I know how to approach it is to write about what scares me. If I can do that, then hopefully it will have the same effect on other readers. But different readers bring different expectations to the table. What scares me may not scare you. For example, I have a thing about empty churches, but a lot of people actually find them comforting. So it’s always surprising to see what readers react to.

What can Fall of Cthulhu readers look forward to? What’s next? Any teases or hints to share?

Hmmm… Well, I can tell you this. The next arc, “The Gray Man,” begins with the sheriff of Arkham walking into the station one day to find he has a new prisoner: a sixteen-year-old Brazilian girl. She came looking for someone. But what none of them know is that something followed her.

And I’m not saying this as hype or anything like that (okay, maybe a little bit), but this arc is the best of the series so far. Seriously, I am REALLY proud of this arc and the way it’s turning out. We get to see some fresh faces along with some familiar ones amidst all the blood, fear, and blinding terror. And you don’t need to be familiar with the previous issues or even with Lovecraft to jump in and enjoy this arc.

Any other projects you’ve got pending you’d like fans to know about?

I’ll be writing off and on for BOOM!’s Cthulhu Tales and Zombie Tales as well as writing another Lovecraft series (but that’s still a secret. shhh…) But what I’m most excited about is a project based on one of the characters from “The Gray Man” story arc ( I told you TGM was good. 😉 ). It’s definitely going to happen, but we’re still in the early stages yet. I’m speaking with the publisher, trying to iron out all of the details. So keep a lookout in Previews.

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And there you have it. Thanks again to Mr. Nelson, and also to Chip Mosher for setting this up. The Fall of Cthulhu trade collection is hitting stores this week, I think, and if you like scary stuff I’d certainly recommend picking it up. It’s good.

See you next week.

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