John Lees and Iain Laurie have been making comics for a few years, but their new series, “And Then Emily Was Gone,” marks the first collaboration between them. For Lees, the horror-themed project is a marked departure from the work he’s best known for, but Laurie’s gained a reputation — thanks to his webcomic “Powwkipsie,” “Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain” and more — for his skill at depicting horror, his atmosphere and style, all of which are put to chilling use in this new title.
A five issue miniseries launching in July through ComixTribe, “And Then Emily Was Gone” is a supernatural thriller involving a young girl who disappeared and a detective haunted by visions of creatures that can’t possibly be real. Lees and Laurie explain their approach to the series, set on an island off the coast of Scotland, and the inspiration behind their tale of terror.
CBR News: What is “And Then Emily Was Gone?”
John Lees: It’s a horror comic about a haunted former police detective searching for a missing girl, the Emily of the title. His search takes him to the remote community of Merksay in the Scottish Orkney Islands, where strange and terrifying things are happening.
Who is Greg Hellinger?
Lees: Greg Hellinger was once a brilliant detective, who specialized in tracking down missing persons for the police. He had something of a unique way of thinking that helped him solve some high-profile cases, making him something of a celebrated figure. But then, five years ago, everything went wrong. He had what he refers to as a “spectacular nervous breakdown” — perhaps triggered by a mysterious case that went wrong — and ever since, in his every waking moment he has been plagued with visions of horrific, stomach-churning monsters that follow him around wherever he goes. As our story begins, he’s a broken shell of a man, his only consolation the belief that he is insane. Because the alternative would be that all these apparitions that only he can see are real.
Is Bonnie Shaw an actual folk tale or did you make it up?
Lees: We made it up! There were a couple of sources of inspiration, of course, from the Mystery Man played by Robert Blake in David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” to Iain Laurie’s own character, Dr. Schaeffenhaus, from his “Powwkipsie” webcomic. But I like how it feels like it could be an actual folk tale. It fits neatly into Orkney’s quite macabre folkloric tradition of infant-stealing trows.
Iain Laurie: For the look of him, some of it is based on people I know. I won’t say who, but there are elements of The Joker in there, bits of the UK comedians Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer and The Mighty Boosh — both of which I’m really influenced by — and the stuff John’s said already.
What are the Orkney Islands? On this side of the pond, I’m not sure how well known they are, so I was wondering if you could set the scene a little.
Lees: One of the things I love about Scotland is that it’s quite diverse for such a small nation. There are the big cities, like Glasgow and Edinburgh, which are pretty metropolitan and not all that different from other urban areas across the UK or elsewhere. Then you have the Scottish Highlands to the north, which are a lot more rural and remote, and where much of that archetypal iconography of Scotland from an outsider’s perspective of folks in tartan playing the bagpipes and rearing sheep seems to come from. But then if you go even further north, you’ll find Orkney, a cluster of about 70 islands of varying size just off the Northernmost tip of the Scottish mainland. Though geographically part of Scotland, Orcadians view themselves as quite distinct, and their history and culture is a lot more derived from Nordic tradition.
An island with strange goings on off the coast of Scotland makes me think of “The Wicker Man” — which may say more about me than you guys or the comic. What are the influences on this?
Lees: “The Wicker Man” is certainly a touchstone. I love that idea of how relatively little you need to travel to find yourself removed from what we consider mainstream society, that the bubble of the modern world we shield ourselves in might not be as big as we think, and “The Wicker Man” quiet astutely plays to the fears that something wicked is festering on the fringes of our safe, civilized world. In general, I love the horror being produced in Britain in that era: The legendary Hammer Horror label, of course, but also stuff like “Witchfinder General” and “Blood on Satan’s Claw,” not to mention the TV adaptations of ghost stories like “The Woman in Black,” “The Signal-Man” or numerous works of M.R. James. There was something about the low-budget, kitchen-sink quality to some of it that somehow made it feel less stylized and more grounded in the real world, which made the horror moments when they came all the more nightmarish in contrast.
Laurie: “Twin Peaks” was a big influence, Stephen Kings “IT,” British TV show “The League Of Gentlemen” and a lot of the Danish detective shows like “The Bridge” were influences, too. On the ideas front, anyway. Visually, I took a lot from Tim Burton, David Lynch and Jan Svankmajer films, and all the strange European cartoons I saw growing up.
How did the two of you connect?
Lees: I’ve been a fan of Iain’s since 2011, back when I first read “Roachwell” — his book with writer Craig Collins — at that year’s Glasgow Comic Con. He immediately stood out as someone with a distinctive artistic voice, and with the more work of his I sought out — “Powwkipsie,” “Mothwicke” with writer Fraser Campbell, “Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain” — the more he grew to become one of my favorite artists. He just has a real gift for zoning right in on that emotional gag reflex, crafting images that can make you recoil and feel ill at ease. Iain can craft raw, visceral horror on the page. I knew I had to find a way to work with him. We came close to collaborating on one work-for-hire project, but when that ended up not happening, we decided to instead work together on bringing our own story to life. I asked Iain what kind of story he’d want to draw, and he sent me three ideas — one about a man called Hellinger who has visions that help him solve crimes, one about an affable hitman, one about the search for a missing girl on a remote Scottish island — and I merged it all together into “And Then Emily Was Gone,” a story I hoped would simultaneously be the most mainstream narrative Iain had ever drawn and the weirdest, most out-there thing I had ever written!
Laurie: I was doing a lot of experimental comics like the stuff I did with Craig Collins as well as my own “Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain” or “Powwkipsie,” and I really liked the idea of doing something a bit more mainstream and structured. I saw “The Standard” and I was amazed that someone from the Scottish scene made it, so I sought John out and I’m glad I did. I don’t think there are many small press writers of his stripe out there, and I can’t wait to do more in future with him.
Iain, talk a little about how you approached the book. What did John give you and what were you trying for with the art on this book?
Laurie: John was very much “do what you do” with this. Initially, I was unsure about how to draw a proper comic. I’m still very new to all this. I looked at a lot of stuff for inspiration, from the film directors I’ve mentioned through to artists like Charles Burns, Frank Quitely, Rafael Grampa, Peter Howson, Paul Pope, Nick Pitarra — all of them, just for visual ideas and storytelling ideas. I throw them all in the mix and hope for the best!
John you’ve worked with ComixTribe in the past. How did this book end up there as well?
Lees: We’d self-published black-and-white editions of the first couple of issues for conventions and the local market here in Glasgow last year, and got some critical buzz. Off the back of that, we’d been in conversation with a few publishers, and there was some interest, but mostly non-committal. Some eventually passed on the project, others said to consider approaching them again later when their slate cleared up. The disadvantage of Iain and I creating this weird little comic that appealed so specifically to our own oddball tastes is then trying to sell that to a publisher! But then, when I was over at New York Comic Con promoting my other comic “The Standard” for ComixTribe, publisher Tyler James kindly invited me to bring along some of my “And Then Emily Was Gone” stock to sell at the table — and it ended up being one of the highest selling items at the ComixTribe table that weekend! That underlined for me that there was indeed a wider audience ready to eat up Iain Laurie’s unique visual stylings, and that ComixTribe could be a great fit for the book.
Tyler, editors Steven Forbes and Samantha LeBas, creative officer Joe Mulvey — all those guys at ComixTribe have always been great to me, and super-supportive. I knew I could trust them with my baby and that they’d get behind “And Then Emily Was Gone” with the same passion they do all the titles in their stable. Here’s the thing: If we’re talking about the quality of their titles, the production values of their comics and collected editions, I’d rank ComixTribe up there with the top 10 comic publishers in America, if not top 5. The only thing they don’t have to the same degree as some of the bigger guns is distribution, and that’s been growing every year. They are a growing force in the comics world, and with “And Then Emily Was Gone,” they’ll be releasing their first monthly title — another milestone. Being part of ComixTribe is like being part of a family, as well as like being part of something new and exciting.
Why did you decide to release it as a miniseries as opposed to a graphic novel?
Lees: At a couple of points during the development, we did consider the possibility of producing it as an original graphic novel, with supplementary material set within the universe of the story — content not unlike what ended up on the Visit Merksay blog — breaking up each chapter. But as you’ll see when the first issue comes to its climax, the narrative is built around some quite drastic cliffhangers, and so we felt that this was better suited to a serialized format. It’ll be a 5-issue miniseries in the end.
Laurie: It seems less daunting for me, drawing it in small, 20-page bursts.
So the first issue is out in July, with an alternate cover from Riley Rossmo. What do you have planned for the months ahead? What can people look forward to?
Lees: That Riley Rossmo cover is cracking, isn’t it? We’ve been fortunate enough to have some incredibly talented artists get behind the book and share their support for it, and so quite early into the partnership with ComixTribe, it struck us that a cool way to stand out from the crowd a little on the comic shelf would be to do a 50/50 variant cover for each issue: One cover drawn by Iain, the other by a high-profile guest artist. And so we have this gorgeous Riley Rossmo variant cover for the first issue, a cover from Nick Pitarra (“The Manhattan Projects”) for the second issue, a cover from Garry Brown (“The Massive”) for the third issue, and a cover from Joe Mulvey (“Scam”) for the fourth issue.
As for what people have to look forward to — they can look forward to “And Then Emily Was Gone” getting darker with each issue. From the beginning, this is set in a skewed, twisted world, but still one somewhat grounded in a recognizable reality. As the narrative progresses, things get steadily stranger, hopefully giving the reader a sense of stumbling through a dream that’s gradually turning bad. And by the time you get to the last couple of issues, it’ll be pure nightmare. Be afraid!
Laurie: It gets super weird round about #3, and I think that’s where we really start to gel in terms of what we’re doing. I genuinely believe that there’s no other comic out there like this, either writing or artwise, so if you’re looking for odd, stick with us!