Sam Costello’s Split Lip horror comic has been popular with reviewers and readers alike for a couple of years, so it was a surprise when Costello announced earlier this week that he is ending the comic, which is written by him and illustrated by different artists. We checked in to see what happened—and what will happen next.
Robot 6: When you first started Split Lip, what were you hoping to accomplish?
Sam Costello: There’s a big answer and a small one. The small one is that I just wanted to make comics, to write stories that would let me express some of the things inside me and demonstrate that perhaps I could be a writer of good comics. That’s not the interesting answer, though. The interesting answer is the big one: I wanted to make a different kind of horror comics.
This may seem like an odd thing to say about a comics market crowded full of titles filed under horror, but I think there are actually vanishingly few true horror comics. There are lots of comics with horror elements or themes, but many of them are actually something else: action with horror in them, romance with horror in them, adventure with horror in them. In my analysis, there are relatively few true horror comics, comics that peel away the social niceties and shared delusions we use to make the basic horror of existence (that we live in an indifferent universe, that’s there’s no meaning to life other than what we instill it with, how fraught and confused and misunderstood our relationships with others can be) bearable.
True horror, to my mind, examines those issues. It’s things like Takashi Miike’s Audition, Junji Ito’s “The Enigma of Amigara Fault,” Joyce Carol Oates’ short horror stories (especially those in The Collector of Hearts), Charles Burns’ Black Hole, most anything by Josh Simmons. My definition of horror reminds me of William S. Burroughs’ quote explaining what the title Naked Lunch referred to: “A frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”
I wasn’t seeing those works in comics as much as I wanted. I was sick of seeing vampires and zombies and other overexposed horror archetypes that have dominated the genre for however many decades. I wanted something new, more of the horror that I appreciate. So I set out to create it.
Robot 6: Why have you decided to end it now?
Costello: There are a lot of reasons, but probably the most compelling one is financial. While I never really expected Split Lip to be a major source of income, or even necessarily profitable, I’d hoped to break even or just have a small loss. When I ran the numbers on this—for a series of columns I did for iFanboy in 2010—I found that in the 12 months previous to that, I’d lost nearly $8,000. And that was just in one year. I’ve been doing this since 2006; I hate to think what the total figure might be.
Bottom line: I couldn’t close the gap between the costs and the income enough to justify continuing. Why that gap didn’t close is harder to say. Part of it, I think, is the anthology format of Split Lip. Conventional comics wisdom is that anthologies don’t sell—apparently I had to discover that for myself. Maybe the stories aren’t as good as I think they are. We got many good reviews, but also some tepid ones. Maybe horror, true horror, horror that sidesteps high concept and traditional archetypes just doesn’t have a large potential audience in comics. Maybe I failed as a businessman and the audience is out there but they never felt compelled to buy or even knew we existed. I’m not really sure, honestly. There are a lot of questions that leaving Split Lip leaves me with, questions that I probably won’t be able to answer without some distance from it.
Robot 6: What did you learn along the way?
Costello: Oh wow, did I learn a lot. Certainly I learned how to write comics. Before starting Split Lip, I’d probably written 5 or 6 scripts, just two of which had actually been produced (one was a mini comic I self-published, the other went into a long-since-departed anthology). After it, I’ve written 37 stories and nearly 600 pages of comics. In no way does that make me an old hand, but it’s a solid start.
I learned how to sell comics at conventions (though I could still be a lot better at that). I learned how to letter comics. I learned more pre-press than I knew. I learned what kind of advertising (sort of) worked and what (definitely) didn’t.
I could probably do a whole interview about what I learned, but that wouldn’t be of much interest. I think, fundamentally, the most important things I learned were the necessity of creating work you’re passionate about and not letting editorial gatekeepers control your dreams. Taking action trumps almost everything else.
Robot 6: How did working with different artists affect your writing?
Costello: It didn’t, always. Some of my scripts were written before I knew who would be drawing them. In those cases I wrote the story as I saw it in my head and tried to find an artist who matched my vision. In the cases where I knew who would be drawing a story before or during my writing, I tried to consult with the artists about what they’d be interested in drawing or tried to determine where I thought they shone and then wrote to those strengths.
Robot 6: Last year, you took a little bit of a break from horror to write Labor & Love, which was a quartet of comics based on ballads. Why did you change genres?
Costello: In some ways, the genre actually didn’t change that much. Of those four stories, two were murder ballads, one of which began its life as part of Split Lip. So, those two stories, with their combination of murder and bizarre events and deep, historic strangeness were thematically in sync with Split Lip.
Otherwise, changing genres was simply a bit of creative muscle flexing. I love horror, am glad I started with it and I’ll continue with, but it’s not the only genre I’m interested in. I love crime, enjoy some science fiction, like literary fiction a lot. I hope to work in some or all of those genres in the future. Maybe I’ll even revisit folk music comics.
Robot 6: How has Split Lip changed your life?
Costello: Split Lip changed my life in so many ways. I’ve got a stack of 4 books that I can point to as my creative output and be proud of. I know and have worked with talented artists from literally all over the world, from my neighbor across the street to Finland, from Hungary to Mexico, from the U.K. to Minnesota. I’ve been able to share my vision of what makes life disturbing and energizing (not necessarily in a good way), how the world looks to me and what scares me. And lastly, I’ve gotten to hear from many people who enjoyed and were scared by my work, which was very gratifying indeed.
Robot 6: Aaand… What are you doing next?
Costello: First, the release of the final Split Lip book, Last Caress and Other
Stories. It’s available for pre-order on the website now and will begin shipping to buyers in about two weeks. It’s 194 pages for $15 and collects all the stories that haven’t yet been collected. After that, a break. I realized the other day that I’ve been working a day job, a freelance job, and writing (both comics and a book on technology) for the better part of the last 12 months. I’m tired! I need a little break to recharge my creative batteries. That’s not to say I won’t be working, though. I’m already developing my next comic–horror, of course–which takes place in a very strange office building. I’m not sure when I’ll start writing or when it will see the light of day, but I’ll be sure to share the news when it does. I hope that the people who enjoyed Split Lip‘s brand of horror will enjoy whatever comes next.