Tom Hammock is something of a renaissance man. His day job involves bringing films from the page to the big screen as a production designer on projects like the recently released “You’re Next” and the upcoming “The Guest” which he had just wrapped in New Mexico before talking to CBR. In his off time, Hammond has moved around the creative world co-writing and directing a film called “The Well” and also writing the upcoming Archaia graphic novel “An Aurora Grimeon Story: Will O’ The Wisp” with artist Megan Hutchison.
The project stars a young girl named Aurora who finds herself moving down south to Ossuary Isle to live with her grandfather, Silver. Disillusioned with Silver, Aurora spends her days roaming the isle with his pet raccoon Missy, interacting with the supernatural traditions of Hoodoo and encountering the Will O’ the Wisp, a floating blue light phenomenon that really happens in swamps and has led hapless followers to their deaths. In this story, there are sinister motives behind the azure flames which have led to the disappearance of several people, creating a mystery that Aurora sets out to solve.
Hammock pulled from his own history to craft this graphic novel, noting that his father studied venomous animals and poisons, a job that took them down south where the writer unknowingly absorbed oral traditions that would inform this story years later. Hammock combined the stories his father told him with plenty of research and other real world experience to create “An Aurora Grimeon Story: Will O’ The Wisp” and a character he and Hutchison fell in love with across the experience. CBR News talked to Hammock about mining his past for the story, developing Aurora’s character and how a 10-year working relationship with Hutchison led to the birth of Aurora Grimeon.
CBR News: What’s the secret origin of “An Aurora Grimeon Story: Will O’ the Wisp?” Did the character come first and then the situation or did you have some familiarity with the setting?
Tom Hammock: It was a little bit tied together. My father’s from the deep south and I grew up either without a TV or with a black and white TV in high school. He would tell stories at night, like a lot of Southern folklore. A lot of the elements in the story are based on traditional Southern folklore. I’d go down there to visit relatives with him when I was little and it was always fascinating and a different world.
Aurora is like the 12-year-old version of me being taken out to the swamps and hearing all these ghost stories to explain supernatural events. So, that’s where it all came from. It came together via those oral traditions.
Hoodoo is kind of all tied up in it, it’s not like my dad is some water witch or something, there are just things that everyone used to do down there. Every New Year’s you burned a candle, it has to be green, it has to be what’s called a bayberry candle and you have to eat black eyed peas or it’s going to be bad luck the coming year. It’s not thought of as being magic or something, it’s just what people do and then there’s varying degrees of what people do. It wasn’t until, I don’t know, five years ago that I recognized that this is actually Hoodoo stuff as opposed to things that wacky relatives did.
Your main character Aurora comes into this world to live with her grandpa. How does she react to this vastly different way of life?
She’s basically fascinated by the Hoodoo aspect and very unsure of her grandfather. He doesn’t turn out to be what she hoped he would be.
It sounds like they had little to no connection before the story begins. What is it about him that disappoints Aurora?
Exactly. I think she was expecting a more idealized version of a grandparent. Nurturing, etc. But she gets put off because he’s a bit cold and just wants her to fend for her self and gives her creepy chores right away. Who didn’t grow up having to put skulls together?
Is Aurora coming from a big city to this place, making the transition all the more intense?
It’s a different area, but she’s really coming from the big city to this place, kind of the ends of the earth.
It’s that classic tale of a character being taken out of their situation and seeing how they deal with fantastical elements that.
Totally. Then the layer on top of it is that it’s not just the place being different. What her grandfather does [with venomous animals and poisons], to a certain extent, is what my father does, which is always very odd to my friends growing up. That adds an extra element of oddity and creepiness.
What else can you tell us about Aurora as a character? What’s she like before moving and what do we see develop in her after she moves?
She’s a really strong and plucky character, very independent. She’ll come to find out that her grandfather is very similar, very strong and independent and that’s why he appears to be so cold at the beginning. She comes to realize that he’s just very similar to her.
Over the course of time, she comes to respect the Hoodoo more and more and incorporate it into her daily life even if her grandfather doesn’t necessarily believe it. She picks up these traditions, so it’s more just a change of habit and belief for her. I don’t think the Hoodoo contributes to a true arc to her character other than it emboldens her. She probably wouldn’t have gone out to the swaps and gotten into all this trouble and these adventures if she didn’t have it in her back pocket, thinking it would protect her.
What are some of the adventures and trouble she gets into in the story?
It all spawns from this legend where she starts seeing this blue light out in the swamp, which is called the Will o’ the Wisp. I remember seeing them when I was little, they’re just so eerie. It’s actually natural swamp gas that gets lit by lightning or whatever. It floats along in the mist like three or four feet off the ground. It’s a really eerie sight. People will think it’s a lantern in the distance, follow it and wind up being led into a deep part of the swamp into quick sand or drown.
Surrounding this, my dad would always tell these stories about a man who was so evil that the devil didn’t want to keep him in hell and gave him this little piece of hell to carry along with him through the swamp. Solving the mystery of that blue flame is what Aurora gets mixed up in, things that happened on the isle long ago and that caused this flame to come back. She gets her chance to get to the bottom of it.
In researching this book and going back to some of your dad’s stories, did you find that various places had similar explanations for these natural phenomenas?
The ones specifically surrounding the flame seem to be told by a lot of different people. Hoodoo itself is this odd blend of Native American, Norther European and West African traditions all mixed in together. But, you go to other places with swamps, specifically Scotland over the moors and they tell very similar stories about these blue lights being carried along by the souls of shipwrecked sailors and that they would lead people out to the moors where you would drown. While his stories are particular to the south, the outcome is not particular to the south, it’s told in many different places.
Your bio on the Aurora Grimeon site — OssuaryIsle.com — mentions that your dad studied venomous creatures. How does that play into the story?
I grew up milking venomous animals. My dad deals with anti-venoms and that kind of thing. So, there’s this interesting aspect of mushrooms and poisons throughout the book that gets integrated into the story. Now it would probably be child endangerment.
It sounds like you drew a lot on your past to create this story from your dad’s stories to the venom wrangling. Was it a fun experience going back there and drawing story elements into the present?
Absolutely. It was an ingenious excuse to be able to get together with my dad and talk about all this stuff.
You work in the film industry doing production design, and you also wrote and directed “The Well.” Was there ever an intent to do this story as a film or did it always exist as a comic in your mind?
It was always a comic book. I always loved comic books. The artist I work with, Megan Hutchison, we do a lot of movies together. She’s a huge comic book fan, who’s been going to Comic-Con for forever. Maybe there is a movie in here. We work on Sundance-type independent movies, so we get to create worlds, but we don’t get to create worlds on this scale. This was a chance to do a world on the scale of a $150 million Tim Burton film at our kitchen table.
Did you bring the idea up to Megan as a potential comic and then just start working from there?
Yeah, she’d always been desperate to do a graphic novel and had never come across the right story that was tilted towards her style of art and I’d always wanted to do one. It just kind of happened. I’m not even sure what the genesis was, but when it started, all of a sudden it started and we were doing pages. Archaia found us halfway through the process.
How did Archaia come to hear about the project?
We were just going to do this book even if it was just for us. I think we’d done maybe 15 or 20 pages, then we met them at Comic-Con and they said, “Give us a look.” We gave them some of what we had and then we went off to make a movie, which actually just came out, called “You’re Next.” They called us part way through that movie and said, “We want to do it, come back and meet us when you’re back in L.A.” They’ve been super sweet and supportive of the book which is cool because it’s a female protagonist and there aren’t necessarily all that many within comics. It was very cool of them to gravitate toward the book.
Archaia’s got that reputation right now where they’re doing all different kinds of stories in the graphic novel format that you might not see elsewhere.
Totally, and the book itself is going to be just super awesome. It’s actually going to come out like an old book pulled from her grandfather’s library. It’ll be hardcover with marbling on the inside and a reading ribbon. It’ll actually have a clasp like a diary so you’ll have to open it to be able to open the book. They went full hog for sure with the idea which is great.
With the shift toward digital, it’s cool to see them giving fans of the physical format a little something extra for their money and also attract more people at a bookstore.
It’s meant to be this beautiful handcrafted little thing. So much art is done digitally, but Megan hand-penciled and hand-inked the book.
By the title, it sounds like this is the beginning of a series. Do you have more Aurora Grimeon stories in mind for future editions?
We do. Aurora’s gotten to the island and hasn’t even been there through Halloween yet, so there’s definitely more that can happen. I fell in love with the character and we’d both love to keep going.
“An Aurora Grimeon Story: Will O’ The Wisp” by Tom Hammock and Megan Hutchison debuts Jan. 22 from Archaia.