[WARNING: The following interview contains mature language and subject matter.]
Comics informed by other aspects of popular culture are a given in the industry, but “Smoke” and “Ashes” writer Alex de Campi takes Grindhouse comics to a whole new level with the aptly-titled “Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight,” an 8-issue series from Dark Horse Comics. Split into four different two-issue stories clocking in at 48 pages each, “Grindhouse” takes de Campi’s love of the Grindhouse film genre of B-, C- and even Z-movies and translates it to print.
“Grindhouse” kicks off with the science-fiction/horror story “Bee Vixens from Mars,” illustrated by Chris Peterson, followed by women’s prison story in space “Prison Ship Anteres,” “rape-revenge “Bride of Blood” and teen-girl gang/teen slasher story “Devil Doll.” These stories aren’t for the faint of heart, and feature all the blood and full-frontal nudity one would expect from Grindhouse films.
CBR News spoke with de Campi about her love of the Grindhouse genre, the structure of the four stories, details about the opening story “Bee Vixens from Mars,” working with a talented roster of artists and the non-conformist nature of the Grindhouse genre.
CBR News: Alex, let chat a bit about “Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight.” The name is somewhat of a pitch for the title as well — over-the-top sex and violence in the same vein as the Grindhouse films of old. You’re telling four 2-issue tales — tell us a bit about your debut arc, “Bee Vixens from Mars” — another title that seems to say a lot about the story itself.
Alex de Campi: Well, it’s a hot summer night in a small Tennessee town, and Mars is hanging in the sky like a drop of blood in oil. It’s so hot out, it’s one of those nights you just want to curl up with your head in the freezer. And some of the girls from town have found this beehive up on Cemetery Hill that is pumping out honey like it’s going out of style. Real good honey. Honey that no woman can resist. Meanwhile, the local sheriff and his one-eyed Latina deputy get called up to check out an abandoned car up on the hill. It’s not so abandoned — there’s a dead teenage boy in there, and whatever killed him wasn’t quite human — though it was wearing lipstick. It’s out there, waiting in that humid, dark night. And it’s far from alone.
You clearly have a love of old Grindhouse films. How far back does your love of this genre go? What brought you into it initially?
I was an only child who watched a ton of TV. The local TV station (29 in Philly) would pretty much broadcast cartoons on Saturday morning, then B- and Z-movies for the rest of Saturday and Sunday — at least until the “M.A.S.H.” reruns came on. So “Cleopatra Jones” is one of the earliest movies I remember seeing. (The very earliest was “Death on the Nile.” Saw it in a local movie theatre. Will never forget the blood seeping out from under the door.) If it’s an exploitation film and it involves action or war? Seen it. And the horror ones? I am ultra-squeamish thanks to an overly vivid imagination, so I’ve seen them, but with my eyes closed going, “Ew, ew, ew!” for large portions. Seriously, “Berberian Sound Studio” freaked me out and it’s only the sounds, not the images. (It’s an awesome film, though. See it).
So yeah, I love trashy movies where you can check your brain at the door and just be entertained/horrified/whatever. The current Hollywood studio actioner is just so dull right now: “The Adventures of White Guy, With A Boring-Ass Boss Fight At End Of Act II And Then A Bigger And Even More Boring One In Act III.” I love the old Grindhouse films because they didn’t conform to three-act structure. They often didn’t take themselves seriously. They often didn’t star white dudes. They weren’t focus-grouped into the ground. People were just like, “Fuck it, black girls with katanas are awesome.” Or, “Wouldn’t it be really perverted if the monster kills people by drowning them in semen?” (Actual movie, folks.) Everyone talks about how filmmaking has been democratized by cheap DSLR cameras and laptop VFX programs, but so far that just seems to have churned out a ton of wannabes doing more versions of “The Adventures of White Guy and Manic Pixie Girl” in hopes they’ll get tapped by Sony Pictures to film the next Ben Stiller abortion. Somehow there was more freedom, diversity and just downright craziness in films in the ’60s and ’70s when everyone still had to pay for, shoot on, and process Super16 film. How is that? Where did the fun go? Where did the crazy people go?
Anyway, I suppose that’s what this series is. It’s just something fun and crazy that throws back to those films before everything was so anodyne. We throw things out there that are really nuts, quite gory, and mostly naked. And the badass dial is turned up to 11.
After the 48-pages of “Bee Vixens from Mars,” you’ve got three more 48-page stories separated into two issues a piece, including “Prison Ship Anteres,” “Bride of Blood” and “Flesh Feast of the Devil Doll.” Which aspects of Grindhouse film do each of these stories represent?
“Prison Ship Antares” is the women’s prison film — in space. “Bride of Blood” is much darker than the other stories; it’s the rape-revenge film. “Devil Doll” is the teen girl gang film and the teen slasher film all wrapped up together.
Which story has been the most fun to write and why?
Oh, heavens. They’ve all been a complete blast. I suppose “Devil Doll” was my biggest worry, because I really didn’t have anything other than a title. You know, fourth story/arc in a series, you have the first one probably completely written out already, the second two in breakdowns and the fourth is just, “And then some shit happens, and gore and boobs, honest.” I got to it with a title, but without a clue. And it may be my favorite story of the four now.
It came out as this crazy girl gang-vs-satanists story that both embraces and subverts a ton of teen slasher/horror movie tropes, as well as having significant nods to war films like “Guns of Navarone” and “Dirty Dozen.” Lots of great John Carpenter-style quips, too. They were all a blast, really. Except possibly “Bride of Blood,” which is at once the most beautiful and the most horrifying of all the stories. We deliberately start it off with a gorgeous, very decorative Adam Hughes/Alphonse Mucha art style — and then things go really, really bad very quickly.
You’re collaborating with some talented artists for the series, with Chris Peterson up first in “Bee Vixens from Mars.” What specifically makes Chris a good match for the old timey science fiction/horror story you’re telling?
Chris came on board first and had his pick of the stories… and he chose “Bee Vixens.” I think we found each other on Twitter. Chris just has a wicked sense of humor and a love of badassery that made him really right for “Bee Vixens.” He and Nolan Woodard (who colored the book) were like this two-person comedy duo that kept everyone cracking up. Getting Nolan’s e-mails as he got new pages (“What? I do not know how to process this,” “You know I colored ’28 Days Later’ and this is still way more blood, right?”) made us snicker like bad children. And then I’d send them photos of my friend’s spider bite that became a pus volcano. Seriously, though, Chris has a rather unique ability to do really subtle character facial expressions, as well as huge, cinematic action moments. Look at the expressions of the background characters, especially in Issue #2.
I do a lot of stuff via social networks. It’s really fun to shake the twitter tree and see who falls out of it. The call for backup posters went out on twitter and we’ve had some amazing ones by people I fully intend to do comics with in the future: Eric Kim; Luca Pizzari; there’s an amazingly talented artist in Dubai named Ashraf Ghori who did two posters.
Although it’s not really an anthology series, “Grindhouse” does have four separate and distinct stories to tell. Was there ever any temptation to try and connect them, given that they’re all under the same title?
Mm, not really. It’s much more fun to just carve out a new world with each story. And we pack a lot of story into those 48 pages — probably as much as the average 4- or 6-issue mainstream story. So I didn’t have spare space for connecting filaments. Nor was it appealing to start having to share character designs and so forth among several artists. We are already thinking up random sequels, though. Chris and Nolan already have plotted out a completely gonzo sequel to “Bee Vixens” called “Blood Lagoon.” I promised to write it if they plotted it. And we have some amazing artists doing fake Grindhouse movie posters in the back of each issue, and there are a few of those (Luca Pizzari’s “Swamp Tramp,” for one) that would be a blast to write.
Given that you’re collaborating with four different artists, how have you had to adjust your scripting for each artist’s style? Do you have a favorite image from the series so far?
I didn’t adjust my writing very much, actually. I’m afraid they had to adjust to me — though frankly this is some of the more easy to draw work I’ve ever done. “Bride of Blood” definitely came with the most art direction from me, but Federica [Manfredi] and I have worked a lot together in the past and I knew she’d be happy with the direction we were taking — and would tell me if she wasn’t!
You’ve said previously that “Books like ‘Grindhouse’ were the reason the Comics Code was invented.” That’s a pretty bold statement to make — what so far has been the most Comics Code non-approving moment you’ve gotten to write?
Maybe the severed penis in Issue #1? Like, the shot would have been full frontal nudity if the todger hadn’t been bitten off. Possibly the lesbian sex the page before that? The glass shard-covered dildo in “Prison Ship” and what we do with it? The extended gang rape scene in “Bride of Blood?” Inter-racial queer kissing? Oh no, wait, it was the Devil Doll’s penis-tail that zombified dudes by having ass-sex with them and shooting them full of demon juice until it came out of their eyes and mouth. I actually had to back off on that because editorial was just like “No, that is too far.” Dudes be getting all stressed when they get raped in comics. Not a comment on the female gang rape, but a couple truckers get ass invaded by a demoness’ penis-tail and suddenly it’s like, “Whoa, Nellie.”
It seems like “Grindhouse” is somewhat of a departure from “Smoke” and “Ashes,” which are more of a dystopic political/spy thriller. Creatively, what kind of muscles does “Grindhouse” stretch that “Smoke” and “Ashes” don’t?
I wrote “Smoke” back in 2005. “Ashes,” I wrote a couple years ago (takes a long time to get a 250-page OGN produced) and I really wrote it only for me. So, there are surreal/formalist bits, homages to western film posters, quotes from Cocteau’s film “Orphee” (one of my all-time favorites), and just — things that make me happy. It’s very literary, while disguising itself as an action book. The chapters are as long as they need to be, ranging from 24-50 pages.
“Grindhouse,” I was much more conscious of it going out to a mainstream fanbase that had genre expectations. So it’s much faster paced. We make sure every issue has nudity and mega-gore by page 10, and it’s much quippier. More one-liners. And much crazier. I think both books have really solid characters, who have normal and believable reactions — and both work as suspense/action stories, but “Grindhouse” is just so much trashier. I think the biggest task with “Grindhouse” was being so utterly gratuitous, but not making it feel gratuitous. I felt a great sense of freedom and delight in writing these stories, and I think that comes across in the book.
“Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight” #1 is on sale now, with the first chapter of “Bee Vixens from Mars by Alex de Campi, Chris Peterson and Nolan Woodard.