Mankind may sit at the top of the food chain, even amongst us there is an apex predator: the serial killer, human beings driven by an irresistible compulsion to stalk and murder their fellow man. But what sort of phenomenon creates these fearsome predators? And could an entire town become a veritable breeding ground for them? These are two of the central questions of “Nailbiter,” the creator-owned Image Comic series from writer Joshua Williamson and artist Mike Henderson, set in Buckaroo, Oregon, a fictional town that’s given birth to 16 of the world’s most infamous serial killers.
In “Nailbiter” #1, readers followed Nicholas Finch, an interrogator for the NSA, on his search for his friend, FBI profiler Eliot Carroll, who had traveled to Buckaroo to investigate the phenomenon of the “Buckaroo Butchers” before he vanished. Finch’s search led him to town sheriff Shannon Crane and Edward Charles Warren, AKA The Nailbiter, a Buckaroo Butcher who had been acquitted of the murders he committed. Together, the three were reluctantly drawn into the mysteries of Buckaroo, and for 2 years and 26 issues, they’ve been confronted by masked killers and horrific revelations as they try to uncover the town’s sinister secrets.
This March, their investigation will finally come to a close in “Nailbiter” #30, a special double-sized final issue. In honor of the occasion Williamson, Henderson, colorist Adam Guzowski: , and John J. Hill, who handles “Nailbiter’s” letters and book design, joined CBR to discuss bringing the book to a satisfying close.
CBR: Let’s start with the big news — the fact that “Nailbiter” is ending with issue #30. Why end it now? Is the story coming to it’s natural conclusion?
Joshua Williamson: Completely. It’s ending exactly how we planned from the start.
Why now? Well, it’s a few different factors. The biggest being that it was time in the story. We wanted to make sure we went out with our sales still strong, and Mike and I were ready for the end.
Over the years, Mike and I have built this story together. We knew the begging middle and end, we just didn’t know how many issues it would take. Recently, readers of the series have asked, “Are you getting close to the end? Because it feels like you are headed in that direction.” And it started to make us realize — they were right.
We could keep going if we wanted. The sales have gone down over the years, but with normal standard attrition. It isn’t because of that. If we were to keep putting out issues, we’d be dragging out the ending of this story. I’m sure some people will think we’re ending it because of our workloads or other projects, but it isn’t. There were a lot of conversations between Mike and I about the end, if #30 was the right number. But in the end, we knew it was the best call.
Mike Henderson: I’m paraphrasing here, but I remember [“Breaking Bad” creator] Vince Gilligan saying it was better to leave people wishing there was more than asking why something was still going. I realized that was true of almost all of my favorite things and it really stuck with me as we were winding down.
How does it feel knowing you’ll have gone 30 issues in this market? And how does it feel knowing the book will be done soon?
Williamson: Surreal. The market is not an easy place. When the book started, we were mostly unknown creators selling a slow burn grindhouse-style horror book. And we’ve survived.
I’d like to think it was because we made an engaging mystery that kept people coming back. I know a lot of word of mouth has helped, and it’s something we’re super grateful for. It’s been tough letting it go. I’ll miss it greatly. It’s been such a huge part of my life for so long. I first started to work on it in 2011, and Mike came on in 2013. We’ve pretty much worked on it nonstop since then.
I’m also extremely proud that over the 30 issues, we never missed a deadline. We always came out on time for three years.
Honestly I’ll probably miss hearing these characters voices in my head the most.
Henderson: It feels pretty great, I have to say. Comics isn’t an easy business, so to make it this far means you worked hard, but owe a lot to the readers who stuck with you. It’s a healthy mix of pride and realizing how right place/right time it really was.
John J. Hill: I think we’ve all really hit our stride on these last two arcs, so in that respect I definitely will miss “Nailbiter.” But all good stories have an ending, right? May as well end on a high note.
One of most engaging elements of “Nailbiter” has been the book’s overarching mystery. What’s it like telling a long-form mystery where you’re not sure how far you’re going to make it because of the market?
Williamson: If we had ended at #5… it would have sucked. I don’t think we could have ended it the way we wanted to. We had a plan for the end of each arc if we thought we’d have to cut it short, but looking at the big picture, issue #30 is best. Someone can read the six trades and get a complete story that all adds up.
It’s pretty awesome that we were able to tell the story the way we wanted, to pay off on things years later, y’know? I think that’s rare in comics. After a while, we knew were safe to go for a bit, but every ten issues we’d revaluate.
Henderson: I think if we did anything well, it was to make “moments.” I hope we had our share of shocking moments, but for me, we shined in the quiet ones. None of that happens if people don’t stick around long enough for you to tell your story the way you intended.
Another engaging element of “Nailbiter” is the characters, in particular the title character, Edward Charles Warren, a man who at times I’ve despised, and other times I’ve sympathized with. What inspired the creation of Warren? And how do you think the character has evolved over time?
Williamson: Warren has been hard to hate for me — hard to make myself and the readers hate. It’s always fascinating to me when people tell me that they love Warren. Maybe because I’m in his head and he’s in mine? I know how much of a monster he is.
When we first started to develop him…. I knew he needed a certain swagger to him. I did a lot of research on serial killers. How they can be charming. But it was when I started watching interviews with actors who had played serial killers that it finally clicked. There is a great interview of Jack Nicholson about playing the Joker that I pulled a bit from.
Warren has always been a blast to write. I’m going to miss the bastard.
Henderson: I don’t think he’s evolved away from our original vision of him. The villain you hate to love is a lot of fun to create, but we found we had to nudge everyone once in a while and remind them that Warren is absolutely a monster. “Suave and sarcastic” was my earliest line on designing Warren. Because his history is the bloodiest and his arc was the saddest, it was important for him to be the most expressive. And given the moniker of “Nailbiter,” it had to be his mouth that sells it.
Warren was just one of Buckaroo’s 16 notorious killers — what was it like designing the Buckaroo Butchers? Of the 16, which of the killers ended up being your favorite?
Williamson: At first, we thought it would be easy to create the 16 serial killers. We got to about eight and realized it was going to be harder than we thought. In the first few months, the list was fluid. In the beginning, Warren is clearly my favorite, followed by the Butcher. Then, I thought the Clown Car Killer was really funny.
Henderson: We had a few fleshed out very early, but the rest we kind of made up as we went along when we realized what was and wasn’t working. Warren was head and shoulders above the rest, but I went a little bananas when designing the Butcher himself, so he was a treat to draw every time he showed up.
What was it like working on a book that featured the violent and gruesome exploits of serial killers? Were the breaks between arcs a way of recharging so you could put yourself in the proper headspace again?
Williamson: It was actually one of the easiest books I’ve ever written. Maybe it was because it was a release of my own fears and love of horror. It flowed easier than most. It was just fun, y’know? My goal was always to create a bit of B-movie, ’70s horror book, but mixed with “Silence of the Lambs.” In that respect, I got to cut loose. Coming up with awesome cliffhangers and gross horror scenes were the biggest challenge, but I loved it, and if I ever got a little stuck, I’d just text Mike and get his take on it.
The breaks never really affected our work flow. We’ve worked on “Nailbiter” pretty much nonstop for years.
Henderson: Drawing real people in real clothes driving real cars in the real world can be a bit of a drain for an artist, me in particular. At a few points, I was ahead enough that I could take some jobs at Marvel and recharge my batteries. I’ll bet I could go back and find the exact moments where I needed them, too. [Laughs] Agent Barker’s imaginary rampage, I remember, was very draining for me. There were just too many real world parallels happening, and I struggled to put that on paper. But the breaks in “Nailbiter’s” schedule definitely weren’t our idea. We were ready to roll.
Hill: Being a huge fan of horror and working on a lot of different projects in that genre, I feel right at home. It’s nice to still run into “holy shit” moments while working on the book, even at the tail end of 30 issues.
Let’s turn to “Nailbiter’s”” primary heroes Nicholas Finch and Shanon Crane. What went into their creation?
Williamson: The choice to make Finch an interrogator is somewhat interesting — I think. I didn’t want Finch to just be another FBI agent, or police officer. I wanted something unique, a position of authority that was also a person who, at one time, was in a position to hurt people… but to help people. But I also looked at a lot of books I loved. Books where the main character had a job or title that somehow tied into the overall themes. Finch isn’t just an interrogator. He’s a torture expert, who struggles with it. But still has a bit of a dark sense of humor. We just talked a lot about those ideas and got running with him.
Crane has changed the most over the series. Her look Mike got on the first try, but her character has evolved the most to where she is now. In some ways, she became the main character.
It was also pointed out to me by a friend a few years ago that she seems like she is annoyed by everyone, which is not something I had planned. It just came out and became part of who she is. It’s great when characters do that.
Henderson: Finch took a few days worth of hashing out, as I recall, but I hit on Crane on the first try. We had talked out each character in pretty great detail and worked together enough that I knew what Josh had in mind when I read the original outline.
Adam, one of the things I’ve loved about this book was how much the colors popped, how they elevated the tone instead of overpowering it.
AdamGuzowski: Thanks! Jumping into “Nailbiter” felt pretty natural for me — I had already worked with Mike on some smaller projects, so I was very comfortable with his art. There was a bit of back and forth between me, Josh and Image during the pitch process to make sure we had the right tone for such a dark book (I think you can see some of my first passes in the Hardcover). I believe Josh said, think of this like a David Fincher movie, “Seven” in particular. From there, things really started to fall into place. My tastes lean more towards a muted pallet, so that gave room for the reds to really pop.
Everything leads to red in “Nailbiter.” Generally, when red pops up, something horrible is happening. We really went for this when Barker was having her murder fantasies, covering the background in red. I was so happy with the way that paid off in #20 — all that red blood splatter with mostly white behind it told people this was for real. Josh really tied that in nicely by having the occasional line about killers seeing red.
John, lettering can be just as big a part of setting the tone of a book as color and art, but it’s often overlooked by comic fans. What’s it like lettering “Nailbiter?”
Hill: Part of “Nailbiter’s” charm is the slower set ups and then explosive action and terror. I try to match the tone of the script and what Mike’s doing visually, but underplay it as much as possible so the lettering isn’t distracting. That’s the worst, when the style of the lettering takes you out of the story… it really needs to be a part of it. So yeah, when there’s a chance to go nuts with a sound effect or enhance a character’s screaming, I definitely go with it. Josh takes these characters from quiet moments to stark raving lunacy… and Mike’s art, Adam’s colors then my lettering really push that tone up and down those peaks and valleys.
You’re also credited with book design. What were some of the elements that you designed that fans might not know about?
Hill: There were already some elements in place for the monthly title when I came on board (the logo, cover layout and Josh does the letters pages). But I designed the inside front cover (credits, masthead and indicia) and the back cover. I think about 1/3 of the way into the series, I also started doing the production design, preparing the entire book for the printer. With the trades, I design the covers and front matter that comes before the story. Then, with the “Murder Edition” hardcover (collecting the first 10 issues), I did all the design and production for the entire book. Having done creative direction and graphic design for over 20 years, it made sense for me to take on more than just the lettering side of things.
Looking back at “Nailbiter” what are some of your favorite issues and/or arcs to have worked on? What is it about those stories that you especially enjoyed?
Williamson: “Nailbiter” #11 is probably my favorite. Something about that issue really hit for me. Originally it was something completely different. It was going to be a story about Warren in prison. But I had a moment while on vacation where I realized it wasn’t working. So I rewrote the script on the airplane home. And the “Bound by Blood” arc I felt like the whole team landed that story really well. That arc wasn’t intended to all take place in one night but once I started to write it and the team started to put it together I could tell we were hitting on stride on the book.
And #30 has a scene that I’m really proud of that Mike knocked out of the park.
Guzowski: : For me, these past 2 arcs (21-30) have been a joy. I think the whole team has been firing on all cylinders and we’ve all been at the top of our game.
Henderson: Maybe it’s because I’ve had them in my head for so long, but the last two arcs have been my favorite, as creator and reader. It’s a lot like setting up a trick shot and then watching all the balls drop. Finally getting to draw all the little payoffs we’ve been setting up for 20 some odd issues was great fun. Oh, and the Halloween issue. I love doing that kind of stuff.
Hill: My absolute favorite thing (so far) in the series is what I lovingly refer to as the “chop chop spread” in issue #11. It’s so cinematic and brutal… it really encompasses the intensity and insanity this book can get to.
#27 left Finch, Crane, and Warren all in bad situations and revealed that the Book Burner plans to destroy Buckaroo in a grand conflagration. How much more intense will things get as readers approach the finish line?
Williamson: “Nailbiter” #28 is one of the more insane issues we’ve done… all I have to say there, is, “Burn, baby, burn!”
#29 has easily been the hardest issue to write of the series, and 30 was written years ago. Mike and I worked together to write and craft this final issue to create a finale that does things that I don’t think we see often in comics. Someday I’ll post a bit about how Mike put that issue together. A lot of it was talked out in a car and then written on a white board together. It was great comic book making, and I think we end with some great horror.
Guzowski: : I’d like to thank everyone that’s picked up our book and stuck with us for 30 issues! Also a big thank you to Josh, Mike, &John for being such a joy to work with.
Henderson: I want to thank Josh and Adam and John who put everything into it and everyone who read one issue or all of them. It was hell of a ride and hearing that anyone liked it is the best feeling there is.
Hill: Thanks to the readers for all the support over the last few years. And to Josh, Mike and Adam for crafting this fantastic tale and allowing me to tag along.
Williamson: I’m so thankful for Mike, Adam and John. I’m glad that we were able to make it through this whole series together. Thanks to the fans and the many websites that pushed the book over the last three years. Thankful for Eric and Image for picking up the series and letting us present it at Image Expo.
There was a time when I didn’t think “Nailbiter” was ever going to happen. I could feel it in my gut that it was a story I had to tell. For a bit in my career I felt like I was having a hard time showing the real me in my writing; my voice. I had done another series called “Ghosted” and that was a good start, but Mike and I together knew this would be a place to explore the kinds of comics we wanted to make. And then we finally got it out there. And people liked it. It wasn’t just a success in sales. It was a success that we did it our way as a team and people liked it. It reaffirmed our passion for telling stories in a medium we loved.
“Nailbiter” changed my life. And I’ll always remember that.
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