Blood curdling. Demonic possessed. Serial killing. Comics.
For its nearly three decades in business, Dark Horse has never been a stranger to horror. With headlining series including Mike Mignola’s “Hellboy” and Joss Whedon’s “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” the publisher has built a solid platform for comics that scare, slash and scream. And under the eye of horror hound Editor-in-Chief Scott Allie, Dark Horse is looking to flesh out that aesthetic through the end of their “Year of the Horse” initiative.
Starting today, CBR News launches a new series of interviews highlighting Dark Horse’s horror ambitions. To get the ball rolling, Allie is joined by cartoonist Eric Powell whose creator-owned horror series “The Goon” careens between two-fisted satire and existential noir, and the pair discussed not only the role horror comics play at Dark Horse but also the broad impact of horror legend Richard Corben. July starts a run of projects new and old from Powell and Corben alike as “The Goon: Occasion of Revenge” — the first of two four-issue series reestablishing the character’s terrifying bona fides — arrives on July 23 followed in September by Powell and Kyle Hotz’s “The Authentic Accounts of Billy the Kid’s Old Timey Oddities Omnibus”, and then in October by Corben’s “Edgar Allan Poe’s Spirits of the Dead” reprinting the legend’s recent run of adaptations from America’s gothic master.
Below, Powell and Allie discuss the role of horror as a driver of modern comics idiosyncrasies, look at the influence of Corben’s early work on the style and substance of their own projects, unpack Dark Horse’s approach to editing creator-owned horror comics, tease the dark turns that await in the pages of “Occasion of Revenge” and announce Corben’s next all-original project.
CBR News: Scott, Dark Horse has always been known for its horror books, and you’re known as a major horror fan. But I wondered what your take was on horror as a modern genre. It’s always popular in film, on TV and in comics, but we don’t seem to talk about how horror changes with the times outside looking back at ’80s slasher films or the like. Is there a way in which you try to make the Dark Horse horror line feel like it’s at the forefront of the genre?
Scott Allie: We as a company have a somewhat classic take on it. We’re not trying to do “retro horror,” but the stuff that [Mike] Mignola does, the stuff Eric does and the stuff Corben does all have a classic sensibility. That’s been our tendency. We haven’t traditionally done a lot of stuff that’s gory or grindcore-ish, though lately we’ve gotten more into that kind of horror with Alex DeCampi and Tim Seeley. But we don’t look at our year of horror releases and try to find a theme. Or rather, we’ll do that in the marketing stage once the books are approved and lined up, but before that we’re just looking for creators we’re excited to work with. That’s what happened with Tim Seeley on “Ex Sanguine.” I asked him for a horror pitch, and that’s what he brought us. With “Grindhouse,” it evolved as editor Brendan Wright and Alex DeCampi had been working on some other things like the “Smoke & Ash” collection, and when he brought that to me, it was very different from the other things we were doing, but it didn’t feel totally contrary.
We’re going to be less likely to do real “tits and blood” kind of horror. Even with what Tim and Alex have done being more schlocky than what someone like Mignola does, I think it comes from a point of view that’s different from some of the horror stuff you see from, say, Avatar or Zenescope. We have a slightly different editorial perspective where if we go really gonzo on horror, it’s going to be a different kind of thing.
Eric Powell: It’s funny because I recently just moved my comic book collection into a cabinet, and as I did that I sorted through it and got rid of a lot of stuff that I know I’m never going to look at again. And I realized the ’90s were such a terrible time for comics. [Laughs] There was some really awful stuff coming out there. I was looking at some of those books, and in the quality level from the ’60s through the ’80s, you can see stuff just going up. The craftsmanship is getting better. The storytelling is getting better. And then you can see that progression hit the ’90s, and the bottom fell out. As a whole, the industry was not producing a lot of good stuff. It was all the same crap.
So I think Mignola doesn’t get enough credit for helping to turn the tides. He came in, and everybody appreciated his style — this minimalistic kind of drawing he was doing. It was just the fact that he could do really creepy stuff that started a shift. Then you had a lot of stuff come out that helped improve that. I don’t know if it’s just horror — because there are a lot of different genres out there now where we’re making up for a lack of good product in the ’90s with diversity. But I’m thrilled that horror is being represented so well right now. I can’t say for sure that my book has anything to do with that. [Laughs]Â But I’m glad to see some more books like that on the shelves.
Scott, does that come from your personal history with horror? I know you studied some of this stuff in college, and I wondered if that shaped your perspective.
Allie: A little bit. This was my genre of choice since I was nine years-old. When I was really little, I just loved to get scared. And as I grew, my aesthetics evolved over the years. The class you’re talking about was a really great thing for me. I was lucky because I had this advisor named Dr. Smart who looked like Karl Marx with these big googly eyes and this giant beard. His favorite book was “Dracula,” which is also Mignola’s favorite book. He was mostly steeped in the classics, but he also really liked the horror genre, and so my senior year he put together a class on gothic fiction, but it was more modern than that. It started with the early, early stuff like “The Monk” and then went up through Stephen King and Anne Rice. It did help me figure out that stuff. The thing I always say when I’m talking to students is, “Listen to your teachers and to what your favorite writers have to say, but mostly just use that as a way to hone your own aesthetics. Maybe they’ll be able to say it better than you’ve been able to articulate it yourself so far, but don’t just accept the aesthetics that they hand to you. Let your own ideas be shaped by theirs.” That horror class was great for me because of the way it helped me see how Stephen King’s work connected to things like the first novels being written, which fell into the horror genre often — things that can be hard to read like “Melmoth The Wanderer” and “Castle of Otranto.” Books like that I got to read in college, and I’m glad I did because I don’t know that I would have read them later. That was part of the reason I hit it off with Mignola because we’d read all those same books and had those same influences. We understood things to the same degree.
Eric, what are your horror influences? “The Goon” definitely has a horror element to it, but unlike someone like Mignola who has such a strongly defined set of influences, it’s harder to point to any specific thing with you and say, “That must have been huge.”
Powell: Yeah, my influences are kind of all over the place, and that probably is reflected in the book. I’ve told this story a lot of times where I was a kid and video tapes started becoming a thing where you could start to rent movies, and my sister and I would run out to rent a horror film and a comedy. So those seem to be the two genres that I most connected with. I also grew up watching a lot of reruns of “The Twilight Zone,” so that’s always been a big influence. I love Rod Serling and Richard Matheson and the stuff those guys have always done.
There is a lot of over-the-top stuff I do in the books, but I don’t do it so much as a spoof. Sometimes it’s just really fun to draw a guy’s head exploding. [Laughs] I’m attracted to over-the-top material too. I loved the “Friday The 13th” movies when I was a kid. I think the first VHS I ever bought was one of those. So I like it all. I love everything from the more cerebral horror like “The Exorcist” — which some people think is extreme, but I say even if you never saw Regan as a demon it’s still a good movie because it’s so intriguing and well done — on through to the dumb stuff like the 1950s B-movies with the stupid-looking monsters. I draw inspiration from all of that. I love drawing monsters, and every once in a while I like to have a genuinely creepier moment in there.
How does the process work between the editors and creators on some of this creator-owned horror material? I get the impression that there’s a lot of leeway given to the creator’s vision, but does editorial also take a stance in terms of challenging them in how they tell the final story?
Allie: Everyone is different. Another guy we haven’t mentioned yet is Steve Niles. And when you look at Mike or Eric or Steve, they all operate differently. Eric does his own thing and presents his book to us. He does what he wants to do, and it changes over time where he finds fresh challenges. We talk about it a bit, but he really does his own thing whether it’s “Goon” or “Billy” or “Chimichanga.”
Powell: I kind of usually just fixate on something until I can bang it out of my head. When I have a clear idea, I just run with it. But you always have tripping points where I’ll go to Scott for some feedback, but our working relationship is pretty hands off. He gives me the space to do what I want to do, and if I feel like I need the help, I can ask him. I also bounce ideas and ask help from Tom Sniegoski. He’s a good writer who’s a friend, and even if we have a conversation where he doesn’t help me fill the gap, it’s good to talk to somebody. Sometimes you just need to get the gears clicking.
That’s the process with “The Goon.” With other stuff, it’s different. If I’m doing a work-for-hire job, I try to keep them in the loop more, but as far as “Goon” and my other creator-owned work, I think it’s important to say, “This is my thing so I’m going to do it the way I want. I don’t need input to put my ideas on paper.”
Allie: With Mike, there’s a deep interaction. Mike and I talk almost every day, and we talk through this stuff to a great degree. I don’t know that I challenge him. We talk and the stories grow out of it. Now that I collaborate with him on “Abe,” there’s an energy between me, him and John [Arcudi] that keeps it all interesting for us. We do challenge each other. There was a big plot development we worked out recently — one that won’t show up for over a year — where we tried to take the story to a new level. One of us threw out an idea, and the other two said, “You can’t do that. You could never do that.” But then a day later, we all realized that’s exactly what we have to do. So we do challenge each other in those ways.
And working with Steve on “Criminal Macabre” is its own thing as well where it’s one character surrounded by an ensemble that we do in miniseries one at a time. When I first worked with Steve, there wasn’t a lot of back and forth between writer and editor, but there’s much more of that now. We bounce things off each other, and we go into each miniseries with him saying what he wants to do, and I think I do kind of push him to keep the story fresh and going in a direction that’s exciting for him. But we’re always working to get the stories he wants to tell across.
Speaking of that ideal, I assume that’s how you work with Richard Corben. He’s someone who I doubt needs a lot of guidance on what he wants to do, but he must be someone you really wanted to work with for a long while before he came to Dark Horse.
Allie: Yeah. It’s amazing sometimes. It’s the same kind of thing from when I was able to work with John Severin for a while where every so often you find yourself going, “Oh my God, I’m working with Corben.” But you’re working with him, so after a while most of that has to go away or you can’t continue. Corben has been great to work with, but there I definitely challenged him — particularly in that I really wanted to see him write his own stuff. Even in doing adaptations in the past, he’s always been more comfortable bringing in a writer like Jim Strnad or Rich Margopoulos who he did a lot of the Poe adaptations with. Richard wanted to tell a particular kind of story, and he brought Jim, and we did “Ragemoor” together. But it wasn’t exactly the story Richard wanted to do. It was something they ultimately came up with together. So I said, “Why don’t you do exactly what you want to do? There’s no reason you shouldn’t be in complete control of what you’re doing.”
So now we’re doing a new series with Corben called “The Rat God,” and when it came about, it was something I pushed him toward. Now that he’s wrapped with all his Poe adaptations, he was looking for what to do next, and he said, “I think now I’ll do Lovecraft adaptations.” And I said, “I don’t think Lovecraft adaptations work that well in comics.” I loved what he did with the Poe stories that made them faithful but kept them fresh as they stayed in that Gothic mold, but Lovecraft I didn’t think would work that well. So I said, “Why not do the kind of story you’d want to do in a Lovecraft adaptation but make it your own thing? Make it original!” So he’s not doing Cthulu mythos in this. He created his own mythology, and while you can see the Lovecraft influence, “The Rat God” is completely his own thing, completely new. And this is the first time I’ve worked with him on something long form that he’s written himself.
So yeah, working with Richard is like working with one of my heroes, but I still want to push him to the best of his abilities, and I think “Rat God” is a completely new thing for him. Maybe it’s not too different from his work in the ’70s and ’80s, but it’s not the kind of work he’s done in a long while. As a Corben fan, it’s extremely exciting to see what’s coming in. And because he’s tended to work with other writers in the past, we helped him out with the dialogue. The story is all his, but I kicked things around in the final until it was where he wanted it and where he was happy with it.
Where do you think a creator like Corben has influenced Eric and some of the other creators working for Dark Horse?
Allie: The only guy’s Corben has gotten to know really well are Mignola and Arcudi. Corben did a couple of covers for Eric, though.
Powell: I’ve spoken to Richard a few times over e-mail, and that’s been it. If Mike Mignola hadn’t used him so much on “Hellboy,” I think for sure I would have been trying to get him to do some “Goon” stuff. He’s a huge influence on me. I love that guy. He just has this great, weird sense to his art that’s really trippy and creepy and can be disturbing. But I also love the way he uses light and his rendering — all the textures that he can create. I love that Dark Horse has been doing so much stuff with him from the “Hellboy” stuff to his recent, really bizarre Poe adaptations. Those are great. Some of my favorite comics over the last few years have been those. So it’s kind of a thrill to be lumped in with him a little bit because he’s also working at Dark Horse.
Allie: A thing that’s always cracked me up is how artists have different opinions on who influences them or how people influence them. Frankly with Eric, it seemed so obvious that Corben influenced you that we’ve never even brought it up. It’s so there that you can’t even point to one thing — just like [Bernie] Wrightson.
But I’ve had other conversations with guys where, say, Mignola doesn’t feel like he was influence by [Alex] Toth because he wasn’t somebody he looked at a lot. I think often you get artists who arrive at a similar place not so much by coincidence but by similar paths. But with Corben and Eric, there’s a certain aspect to Eric’s art that is the way it is because he looked at Corben.
Powell: I kind of backtrack everyone that influenced me through Bernie Wrightson. I was a huge Wrightson fan, and I’d seen some of his “Swamp Thing” [issues] pretty early on when I was first exposed to comics. I would read interviews with him when I could. Where I grew up, there were almost no comic stores. A few small ones would pop up from time to time, but nothing was ever sustained that I could walk to. So I’d read these interviews, and he’d talk about his influences, and through that I became a fan of Frazetta and all the EC guys and Wally Wood and Jack Davis. Through all that stuff, you go from EC to the Warren books. So it was a weird, meandering path to Corben. When I was old enough to go to conventions, I would try and track down the underground stuff he did. For a little while, he was my #1 guy to track down their work.
Studying Bernie Wrightson is how I learned to ink. I studied his inking quite a bit, and early on I tried to mimic it as best I could to varying degrees of success and failure. But having a sense of texture to my work is something I got from Corben. I studied his painting a lot too, and I just loved the way that he created these smooth textures in the paint, but at the same time he’d create these environments that had eerie textures based on the subject. He never showed off his brush strokes — everything was very smooth — but he’d add elements to the piece that would have some really gnarly bark on a tree or something. It was completely unique what he accomplished, and I try to emulate that without ripping it off.
All of this leads to some upcoming releases with Corben’s “Spirits of the Dead” volume which collects his Poe work and Eric and Kyle Hotz’s “Billy The Kid’s Old Timey Oddities” Omnibus. How have you been approaching those new editions in terms of delivering that massive presentation Dark Horse has become known for?
Allie: There’s a lot of collaboration there. With the “Billy” Omnibus, Eric and Kyle kicked us a bunch of artwork. Some of it was stuff I’d seen before, and some I hadn’t. Their original pitch artwork goes back pretty far, and that’s getting included in the collection. We unearthed a number of things I’d forgotten about.
Once we got the stuff from them, our designer put a draft together and sent it to them to look over. Then the cover idea came very specifically from Eric and Kyle. Kyle drew the artwork, and after it was drawn they brainstormed the idea of doing it in this washed-out sepia approach. The whole design presents the book in this clever old-timey way.
With Corben, at one point what he wanted to do instead of “Spirits of the Dead” was to take Poe’s original collection of stories — “Tales of Mystery and Madness” — and just do a lushly illustrated version of it. He had all these drawings and all these design motifs for that, and at one point he was thinking about putting all of it in the new volume. He changed his mind and decided he didn’t want to share things to that degree, but there is a massive sketchbook section.
We take a lot of pride in these kinds of books. As a professional, I often pick up books from other publishers and think, “Man, they didn’t even try.” We always try to make the books as beautiful as possible across the line. We want all our trades to be special, nice-looking books. Everyone here in Editorial and Design are really book people. We take pride in having a ton of books lining our office walls, and we think of a book as a special object. When the story and the art is all done, you’ve got time to do the collection right and make sure it really looks great. We have an amazing in-house design team that are all really talented, and they put a lot into each individual books. That goes for our cover designs and letters columns too.
Powell: Because Kyle and I created it together and had these ideas together, I pretty much gave Kyle free reign to do what he wanted on the page for “Billy.” So when I was writing it, it felt like we already had the plot. I just had to make it work in a linear fashion and keep the character interactions interesting. So when we got to the book design, it was just a question of how to make it fun. With the Omnibus, we wanted it to have the feel of an old Western pulp. Kyle did the rough thumbnails of the direction we went with, and it turned out really cool. Any of the design work I did was pretty minimalistic. Most of that extra material is Kyle’s stuff.
So on the forward-looking front, what makes “The Goon: Occasion of Revenge” — which I understand is really two four-issue series that combine into one big epic — something that stands out as separate from some of the past series and stories that have been done?
Allie: I think “Occasion of Revenge” is the darkest thing that Eric’s ever done. I mean, the first issue goes right there and gets pretty crazy, but it gets so much darker after that. It’s a lot like “Chinatown,” which I think is probably Eric’s favorite thing he’s ever done.
Powell: The book is really two stories. It’s not really “Part 1” and “Part 2.” It’s two four-issue stories that are definitely linked. The first series deals with this mysterious race of witches that the zombie priest belongs to. They’re now coming into the town for the same reason that he did — they’re feeding off of this curse that permeates this place and draws dark things to it. Their race is dwindling away, and they see this as an opportunity to regain power and continue on. It creates more problems for the Goon because he was only dealing with one of these guys before, and now it’s several. Things get compounded, and he finds himself in a pretty harsh situation.
Allie: It’s funny because in June we’ve got “One For The Road,” which is kind of a Jack Davis tribute book with an actual Jack Davis cover. But once “The Road” is out, it really is one for the road. It’s a fun one and a funny one. Dave Stewart colored it, and it looks pretty. And then after that, it’s like, “Shit’s gonna get grim.” [Laughter] Eric’s world has always been a mix of this dark morality and this knee-slapping humor. Sometimes that humor takes a back seat, and here the dark, depressing stuff is returning. It has a really different color approach that Eric is doing himself — more washed out with accents of color — and he’s drawing the hell out of it. Every panel feels like a full painting, and it reflects this grim mood. If you go to “The Goon” for humor, you may be shocked. But if you love the book for the art, this is going to phenomenal. It’s a story with a greater complexity than we’ve ever seen before.
Powell: Yeah, I think so. At the end of this first four issues, the Goon goes through some pretty traumatic stuff and ultimately quite a change. I think of this as my “Godfather Part II.” [Laughs] That’s where Michael Corleone goes down a really dark path, and that’s what happens to the Goon here too. That’s what “Occasion of Revenge” is all about.
So what does revenge mean to you personally?
Powell: That’s tough. [Laughs] I think it’s really that obvious definition of comeuppance. In terms of these stories, the theme of revenge permeates every single issue. Every issue deals with a different type of revenge. It’s that comeuppance or payback.
This is dealing with how revenge is consuming and destructive. It’s self-destructive many times. There’s a line from Mark Twain that I’m going to remember wrong, so to paraphrase him, he says something like, “Revenge is immoral and totally unchristian and I don’t support it…but it sure is sweet anyway.” I think that sums up the book. It’s dealing with the idea that some people deserve to have vengeance put upon them. They’re terrible people who have done terrible things, and they deserve what’s coming to them. Then there are other people dishing it out, and it’s that whole Buddhist line of “Vengeance is an acid that only burns the vessel it’s containing.” It’s definitely a complicated subject if you start thinking about its cause and effects. That’s what the book is tackling, and without giving too much away, it’s what this whole town and the whole cause of the curse is built on. It comes at the reader from a lot of different angles.
“The Goon: Occasion of Revenge” #1 arrives on July 23 from Dark Horse.