This May, writer Scott Snyder and artist Sean Murphy team up once again to bring readers “The Wake,” an oceanic horror miniseries puplished by Vertigo. While Snyder’s name has become synonymous with “Batman,” readers may know Murphy best as the artist behind with Grant Morrison’s “Joe The Barbarian” and his own Vertigo miniseries, “Punk Rock Jesus.” “The Wake” marks the second time Murphy and Snyder have worked together, the first being on Snyder’s other Vertigo horror series “American Vampire: Survival Of The Fittest.”
More than a year in the making, “The Wake” tells the story of marine biologist Lee Archer, “The Wake” begins as she and the Department of Homeland Security discover a potential threat to humanity — a threat that may or may not involve strange, humanoid creatures prowling the ocean depths.
While the release of “The Wake” is still a few months away, Snyder and Murphy joined CBR to discuss their creator-owned book as well as their fascination with human evolution, map the startling trajectory of their careers and shamelessly brag about their bear-fighting prowess!
CBR News: Let’s start off talking about the series’ artwork —
Scott Snyder: The work you’re turning in, Sean, is completely blowing my mind.
Sean Murphy: You work with Greg Capullo and all kinds of people, dude! Thank you!
The first five covers for “The Wake” are actually going to fit together to create one big mural. Who came up with the idea to do the interlocking cover art?
Murphy: I think it was mine. They wanted some extra advertising for the book, so we put everything on hold while we came up with some ideas. One of the ideas was a foldout. Even though we couldn’t use it for ads, we eventually decided to use it as a three-part cover, and then a five-part cover. Right now it’s finalized as a five-part, and there’s plans to do another five-part connected cover for the second half of the series.
I’ve got to say, my favorite image is on the left hand side where you’ve got what looks like a merman in a straight jacket — in a tank.
Snyder: [Laughs] I love that thing!
How did you two go about designing and creating the monsters? Were you pulling from specific sea myths like mermaids and images for this?
Snyder: Yeah, definitely. Sean was amazing about bringing so many ideas to the table. I sort of gave a rough template to him; without giving too much away about [the creature], its design etymology would touch on certain folklores of the sea but also actual sea creatures and human evolutionary traits. It became about bringing the creepiest and most evocative element to the creatures that we could while keeping it really scary. Sean did a number of designs, and every one of them would have made a great creature, but the final one that he came up with and some of the effects we’re going to use with the creature are going to blow people away. I’m really excited about it!
Murphy: I agree!
Sean, you’re a very detailed artist — how much research did you have to do for drawing things like the submersibles and sea creatures and underwater effects for the miniseries?
Murphy: Like Scott said, I used his references as a jump-off point. For further research, I started looking at the deep-sea creatures that never see the light. Some of them glow, they have different translucent effects. I was trying to work in some things that would make sense for a creature that far down. I figured every sea monster has been done at some point, but I wanted to use as much realism as I could; even if the reader didn’t quite pick up on it, I think they’ll sense that it’s there. Monsters aside, it’s not really that out there. A lot of the designs are really practical and pragmatic; I’m trying to keep it as realistic as I can.
As a species, we have so many myths about the ocean and the sea, and so many horror stories about things coming out of the water, which you’re clearly playing on. Why do you think the ocean freaks us out so much?
Snyder: [Laughs] I think it’s just the mystery of it, the fact that the ocean gives so much and takes away so much. I believe we’re fascinated by the idea of having some primal connection to this thing we crawled out of. Every once in a while, it gives up these secrets about our own origins, but at the same time the vast majority of it is completely undiscovered and impenetrable. It’s that kind of unexplored frontier sense of it that, at least for me, keeps it so potent as a place where you can develop phenomenal things. There aren’t that many places left in the world that haven’t been tapped or opened up by science. The fact the ocean still holds so much mystery is one of the most exciting things about it.
We wanted to do something that didn’t just create a creature or discovery that would be scary or monstrous but would actually speak to of all these questions we have about the ocean, both scientific questions and also all these stories we’ve made up. The discovery of the creature in the book is something that actually gives away explanations for a lot of folklore and myth about the sea and the different cultures that created them. It’s kind of an attempt to explore both the mystery of the ocean in terms of science but also in terms or storytelling and myth and legend.
Murphy: It’s really good that this is an ocean-centric book, because Scott talks about primal fear — we almost have to be underwater, because that’s where our basest fear comes from. I mean, think about it. Would you rather fight a bear on land or a shark in the water? People would rather have the bear, because you’re standing. [Snyder Laughs] But water, it’s like, “Get me out of there!” It’s one of the scariest things people can imagine. I think, as a genre, the ocean sort of boosts what Scott’s after in the story.
Snyder: I could definitely fight a bear.
You’d choose the bear?
Snyder: I could definitely take down the bear. [Laughter]
Talking about primal fears, in all of your work, Scott, you have very strong central fears. In “American Vampire,” you hit on the fear of losing the one you love with Pearl and Henry; in “Batman” you’ve delved into the fear of your family being, attacked. What is the primal fear you’re hitting in “The Wake?”
Snyder: A lot of it has to do with the danger and wonder of discovery. It’s populated by characters who are researchers, people who want to know more about the questions about human history and the possibilities of science in terms of what we can glean from the oceans, but also in terms of biological discoveries. One of the big spines, thematically, has to do with the catharsis, both terrible and wonderful, of discovery.
In “American Vampire,” you’ve set out a very methodical, logical system for how there’re different species and how other monsters like werewolves can exist, basically writing a whole taxonomy for every monster. Are you employing a similar methodology for “The Wake?”
Snyder: Yeah — my wife teases me a lot that I have a degree in Xenoscience! I love stretching the possibilities of scientific classification like that, to sort of downgrade what’s possible and then push it into the fantastic a bit so it still feels almost plausible, like in “American Vampire.” There’s definitely some of that here, because I think it makes it a lot scarier but also a lot more, I guess, emotionally evocative when the creature or the thing that makes you suspend your disbelief in a story makes you believe that this thing could actually exist, and it’s built on actual scientific discovery and on different theories that seem almost plausible. We try to do a lot to make you believe that this is possible. I love imagining that these things could be discovered in real life. I think one of the big engines of imagination is that small leftover from childhood where you’re like, “Maybe this thing does exist!”
Murphy: Do you think, Scott, comic book readers have a slightly better understanding of science and the things you’re mentioning than the average person? Not to say that we’re geeks and we get it, but I feel like if I were to write a TV series, I would feel like I should dumb it down. But when I write a comic, I feel like you can do the science and people will be down with it.
Snyder: One of the things I love about “American Vampire” is, we get called out all the time. We try to do our research. I really do try hard to be thorough with the historical research so that even the kinds of vehicles we use are actual vehicles from that time period. But every once in a while, we’ll get an email that’s like, “The T-32 helicopter wasn’t invented until six months after your arc happened.” [Laughs] That stuff we get really excited for! I want to give that person “American Vampire” free for life! I love it when you get called out on those things because it’s nice to know that people actually invest in the stories to that degree, that they do care that the science is thorough. I think we’ve got a really discerning audience. You have to do your homework, but that’s part of the fun of comics. You can take time to really mull things over and sit with a book and enter a world. They want to believe every aspect of it, they want to get swept away. One of the great things about comic readership is that your fans are looking to be enveloped both visually and narratively. You have to cross your Ts!
Sean is that exciting for you too, or as an artist, do you sigh and go, “I guess I better pull more reference pictures!”
Murphy: [Laughter] No, its funny with my limited experience writing “Punk Rock Jesus” last year, I got called out for a few punk rock references that I slightly messed up. One of the big mistakes was in issue #1. I have this clone who turns out to be a twin, and one of the twins is female. My friend is a doctor and was like, “You can’t have a clone split and one be female — that goes against the laws of nature.” The only way you’d get a male and a female twin is if there’s two fertilized eggs at the same time. So what I had to do — luckily it was in issue #1 or #2 — was rewrite my ending to tweak it and make it absolutely correct. My friend felt bad pointing it out. He was like, “Don’t worry, no one is ever going to notice it.” I said no, I really do care about this! I mean, what’s the point of being scientific if you’re just going to ignore the science? [Laughs]
I was lucky to find a loophole to fix it and make it correct, but I definitely like those challenges. If Scott doesn’t attack it, if I don’t attack that and fix it, nobody will. The editor’s job is to get it in on time, the colorist’s job is to color it. It’s up to him and me to catch these things.
I want to ask a two-part question: First, what appeals to you the most or has you most excited about this story and these characters —
Snyder: There’s two things that are the most exciting, for me, at least. The first is that it’s a very different kind of book than anything I’ve tried, and I think you’ll see that from the very first pages. As much as I love doing superhero work, and I do love it, doing creator-owned at Vertigo, where you’re in complete control of the world, that’s where I feel like I can really push my boundaries and try things in a way that is really liberating. You can take a risk and fall on your face — or hopefully not! — but it really flexes your muscles as a writer. Structurally, tonally and subject matter-wise, everything is different from what I’ve tried before.
The other thing I’m most excited about working on the project is one hundred percent working with Sean. I’ve been dying to work with him again since we did the [“Amecian Vampire”] miniseries together, and getting to see how the story is going to be brought to life by him in terms of how incredibly robust and thoughtful and evocative his artwork is. I’d write the phonebook to get to work with him, and I mean that. There’s nobody I put above Sean in terms of how excited I am to work with him. It makes me very excited to be total collaborators on this project, both for the sheer amount of inventiveness Sean brings to the story and to how incredibly vibrant his artwork is for it to.
Murphy: To keep the bromance going, what Scott said, I absolutely feel the same way! [Laughter]
Obviously he’s talented, obviously, he has a thousand batting average, he really can do no wrong — he’s making history, I think, by writing some of the stuff he’s writing right now, the Superman and Batman stuff. I’m thrilled to be involved with that. It’s when I have somebody in my corner who’s that capable and has that much pull at DC on my side, because I’m kind of coming from the outside a little bit, by knowing Scott’s with me, I feel a little more secure and happy that we can get our way! [Laughter]
The other thing that’s great about him is, I can communicate with him! I write to him and he writes back, he responds, he takes ideas, I take ideas and at the end of the day, I respect he’s a writer and I’m not. I might have an idea here or there, but if he doesn’t use it, I’m totally fine with that. I think he’s the same way with the art; he always leaves it up to me to make the final art decisions. Of course I want his opinion, but it’s nice knowing, that’s my job and he has his job. It’s a pretty healthy environment. We trust each other.
Snyder: For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’ve given me an idea I haven’t used/stolen.
Murphy: The Batman book I wanted to draw for you called “Batman Commits Suicide,” that was a great idea!
Snyder: That one we’re still working on pushing it through.
Murphy: And the bear! Don’t forget the bear fight! [Laughter]
Snyder: Honestly, coming from a prose background — I love doing that stuff, but the isolation is pretty brutal. One of the great things I discovered coming to comics is collaboration, how inspiring it is. At this point, I think the priority is to work with people who make me want to write better. Sean is definitely that guy. On top of that, we’re just friends! There’s nothing better than getting to work with someone you consider a good friend. I hope the fun that we have working on “The Wake” together is reflected in the book.
Murphy: The thing that excites me overall, is, Scott and I have opportunities other creators don’t have, and we’re really aware of that. Being successful and being able to pay rent, being on one of the biggest titles is, of course, the end zone for a lot of creators. But at this point, I think Scott and I have to ask ourselves, “Now what do we want?” I think the thing I want is control. Being on projects that I like excites me. To turn stuff down and be picky and be really choosy with the writer, the editor, the colorist, the whole team if I want to be. I don’t know how many creators can say that they have that, but Scott and I do. I feel that’s going to give “The Wake” a unique vibe that only our team can provide.
Snyder: I totally agree. So people understand, it’s not like we’re paired together. I mentioned this to Sean — how long ago was that?
Murphy: More than a year, almost two years.
Snyder: We’ve been waiting to do this together for a long time. He could have taken something else or I could have done something different, but there was like no question of that, ever. When I’m free and Sean’s free, we’re going to do this. That’s one of the things that makes it a joy to come to. It’s a book that’s fully realized that way. You have the creative team on it you wanted from go because it was part of the whole organic vision of the entire thing.
Ok, let’s end by breaking up this bromance. Sean, what scares you most about Scott’s story, and Scott, what scares you most about Sean’s artwork for “The Wake?”
Snyder: [Laughs] For me, the scariest thing is when he first sent the designs. The image that scares me the most now is the straight jacket one that you see here, but there are ones coming up in the book that I can’t mention because I don’t want to give them away. When he first sent in the designs, there were two elements that were scary. One, how terrifying his design is in a strange blend of humanity and total monstrousness. It’s also scary how fully realized it is, down to the scales, down to the gills, the way the eyes function. This thing hits the page breathing. My favorite image is that straight jacket image, I love it. When I got that part of the cover, I immediately printed it out and put it on my desk. It’s just incredibly iconic for me.
Murphy: For me, the scariest part is, Scott and I are friends, but we’ve only worked together once. I was shocked by how much he knew how I liked to work. He sent me the script and it started off with a bunch of notes and descriptions, and then the panel descriptions were very sparse, basically just dialogue. I’m like, this is perfect! I didn’t ask him to do this; he told me he felt my storytelling was already there and he didn’t feel comfortable telling me what to draw. “Here’s the dialogue, here’s this many panels per page — go!” I love that. Then I thought, “Wait, how does he know me so well?” [Laughs]
Snyder: We were friends before we worked together, you see how incredibly fully imagined his work is. I try to give a lot of notes on what a scene’s about tonally and say, “The issue is all about the tension between these two characters so anything you have to heighten that, what I want to get across is this.” I’m trying to trust him because I know he’s going to do it a hundred times better than I can describe it.
Murphy: There was a scene in “Survival Of The Fittest” where Felicia goes underground in basically the complex underneath the museum. He described it as kind of a library and kind of a lab and I basically went crazy-library on it. [Snyder laughs] I thought, “I think this is what he wants,” and jumped the gun and turned it in. If he really didn’t think it worked, of course I’d have fixed it, but so far everything I throw, sticks. Same thing with the straight jacket. I’m not sure why you’d need a straight jacket down there, but I felt like it fit!
Snyder: Not to keep jumping in, but Sean, that makes me write the story better. I love the stakes with all these books, I love the straight jacket and I can change it to they’re terrified of this thing because it actually already bit somebody. That’s what keeps it for me fresh in rewrites.
Murphy: You do rewrites. You do a final pass once you get the art, and I’ve worked with writers who didn’t. It still works, but I feel it’s not as bound together as it could have felt.
Snyder: That’s my favorite stage. My favorite stage is the pass after art. On “Superman” and “Batman” and on “American Vampire,” my editors know the most time I can squeeze out of that phase is what I want. When the art is all in and I do my next pass on the script, it’s the magic fun time for me because I get to rewrite the script based on the art and make it better.
Murphy: A couple of time I added extra balloons to our books, thinking, “Well this will help tell the story.” Once every five or ten pages, I’d add one. Then when I got it back, Scott had added balloons, too. I thought it was really cool to take that and run with it further, not just leave the script as it was.
Snyder: Not to be like, “artists don’t get enough credit,” but there’s a lot of stuff that goes on. In “Survival Of The Fittest,” my favorite moment that I think is most powerful is — sorry, spoilers if you haven’t read it! [Laughter] It’s the page after a major character dies and Felicia is alone on this blimp. I had written it in with dialogue between her and another character. Sean said he’d try it as a splash and it might look good silent. I ended up leaving it silent based on his suggestion, and it’s my favorite moment because of the sadness. That happens all the time with people as good as Sean. People credit the writer a lot, but it really is collaborative.
Murphy: For a while, I felt like I really couldn’t affect the story, which is a strange thing for an artist to say. But you work with other writers and you don’t feel comfortable taking that opportunity. With Scott and that team, I felt pretty welcomed.
So basically what scares you two the most is that you get along so well and are really good friends.
Snyder: [Laughter] Yeah, I feel like we’d be ok if we were down in a submersible for a while!
Murphy: I think we could manage to come out without killing each other, yeah!
“The Wake” #1 surfaces May 1.