New York City. Home of incredibly skyscrapers, the Statue of Liberty, the Yankees and… monsters? Yes, that’s right. Monsters. This August, Aspen Comics in association with McG’s Wonderland Sound and Vision turns the Big Apple into the world’s largest haunted house with “Haunted City.” Created by screenwriter Chap Taylor and co-written by “Supernatural” executive producer and comic book scribe Peter Johnson with art by Michael Ryan, the newest Aspen ongoing series sets its sights on America’s melting pot and takes readers through the mythology and monsters of all the cultures within — supernatural occurrences that lurk there even today. Following the exploits of NYPD detective Tom Whalen, “Haunted City” gives us a taste of a secret task force dedicated to unlocking the mysteries of New York while protecting its citizens from the unknown.
CBR News had a chance to speak with Taylor and Johnson about the premise of “Haunted City,” the story behind Detective Tom Whalen and the secret unit, the book’s version of New York, how Johnson’s work on “Supernatural” helped craft the story and what’s in store for the future of the book in movies and television.
CBR News: Guys, what’s the general premise behind “Haunted City?”
Chap Taylor: Our premise is that all of the superstitions of all the immigrant groups that passed through New York City are real, and that there is a secret unit of the New York Police Department that has been fighting to protect the people of New York since the city was founded.
Give us some background on the main character, Detective Tom Whalen — who is he and how does he fit into this story?
Taylor: As our story opens, Tom Whalen is a bad cop. He’s strung out on drugs and alcohol, he’s been selling confiscated narcotics to drug dealers and both the dealers and internal affairs are closing in on him. He’s the son of the most decorated cop in the history of the NYPD, “Iron” Mike Whalen, who is a living legend. But Tom knows that in reality, his dad was a monster. In particular, Mike Whalen tormented and abused his wife, Tom’s mother. So, you have a situation where Tom is perceived to be a bad cop, corrupt, strung out on booze and drugs, but in his heart he still has a sense of morality that he inherited from his mother. His father is publicly perceived to be this legendary hero, when in reality he was brutal and abusive, both as a cop and as a parent. And obviously, that dichotomy is one of the things that contributes to Tom’s self-destruction.
â€¨There have been so many interpretations of New York City in different forms of media, especially in comics — what sets “Haunted City’s” take on NYC apart from the pack?
Taylor: Our goal is to portray New York City as the biggest haunted house in the world.
In real life, New York is already a mythical place. You can walk down the streets of the Lower East Side, or some of the winding blocks in the Far West Village, and you can literally feel the presence of the people who lived and died there in previous generations. As I was first developing this idea, I spent a lot of time in old bars, old restaurants, old cafes, places where generations of human beings have lived, loved, fought each other, laughed with each other… you can almost hear the murmur of their voices. When I went to film school at NYU, many of my friends were living in the exact same apartments and buildings where previous generations of immigrants had lived for hundreds of years. It’s very easy to take that magical feeling one step further and imagine that all of the things that haunted those previous generations, all of the folk tales and dark superstitions they brought with the from their countries of origin, that those things immigrated to the New World along with them. And that they’re still lurking in the shadows of the modern city.
There’s also a definite feeling of things going on behind closed doors, in the penthouses of luxury apartment buildings or in some hidden speakeasy. The feeling of dark powers moving unseen all around you. That’s part of the mystery of New York and I think it’s something that people really enjoy in these kinds of stories.
â€¨Other than Detective Whalen, what other supporting cast can readers expect to see? How do they add to Whalen’s experience with the supernatural in NYC?
Taylor: After Tom is recruited into this secret unit, he meets the other members. Peter Van Schermer is the leader. He’s a police chaplain, a Dutch Calvinist Minister, and the direct descendant of the first “Witchfinder General” in the colony of New Amsterdam, which became New York City. He’s very much a fire and brimstone, black and white kind of leader. And Tom, because of his own flaws and mistakes, is much more inclined to see the grey in things.
The female lead is Catherine Gray. She’s actually a nun, a member of the order of St. Michael, which in our story is a secret order of warrior clergy within the Catholic Church. She’s the daughter of a female member of the IRA who was seduced by an operative of the British Secret Service during the troubles in Ireland. When Catherine’s mother realized that she had been tricked into betraying her fellow IRA members, she left Catherine at the door of a convent in Ireland and committed suicide. Obviously, Suicide is a mortal sin in Catholicism. That’s one of the reasons that Catherine is halfway between Peter and Tom as a character. She has a very black and white sense of morality. She’s a nun, but in her heart, she hopes and prays that her mother can somehow be forgiven and isn’t damned for all eternity. Her relationship with Tom will slowly reinforce that side of her, her hope that the flawed among us can be redeemed, because Tom is about as flawed as they come. But her relationship with Tom will also creatr its own set of problems because, obviously, she’s a nun and has taken a vow of chastity.
The other members of the team are kind of colorful and introduce a little humor into our story. This is dark, scary stuff but it isn’t unrelenting. We want to entertain people and have some fun, too.
As a writer, what appeals to you most about the characters in the book?
Taylor: I’m a deeply flawed human being. So, I write about other flawed human beings. It’s pretty much that simple.
The solicit for #1 seems to imply that Whalen and his team will be working on a number of different cases — is this more of a monster-of-the-week sort of deal or will there be an overarching story tying it all together?
Taylor: Both. One of the strengths of our core idea is that we can draw on an almost unlimited number of superstitions and folk tales. Every kind of person from every kind of background has passed through New York at one time or another. That means we can tell stories from every mythology. But there will be an ongoing story about Tom’s relationship with his father. In the zero issue, Tom sees the ghost of a little girl who was murdered in the 1970’s. Tom learns that it was a case his father investigated, so as Tom and the team fight all of the various ethnic monsters that haunt New York, Tom will also be unraveling the mystery of his father’s case. We don’t want to give anything away, but I think you can guess that his father’s involvement is darker and more dangerous than it first appears.
â€¨What kind of research did you have to do while crafting the story for this title? Was there anything in particular that you found especially intriguing?
Taylor: I’ve always been borderline obsessed with New York City. I’ve lived in and around New York for twenty years, but I’m not a native New Yorker. I’ve never stopped seeing the city with the eyes of an immigrant. I grew up on old gangster movies, detective movies, film noirs like “Force of Evil,” great suspense movies set in New York like “North By Northwest.” If you give me a choice between the bar or restaurant that’s popular this week and some old dive that been around since prohibition, I’ll always choose the dive. New York has never stopped being a magical place for me. So this was really a dream project, a chance to create my own version of New York’s mythology and to draw on all of the things I’ve always loved about the city.
Peter, you’re not exactly a stranger to monsters and myths — you’ve got loads of experience from Executive Producing (and writing the comics for) “Supernatural.” How did your experience with the show inform your writing on “Haunted City?”
Peter Johnson: Producing “Supernatural” for almost 7 years now has basically given me a tremendous batch of research, as well as an overall mindset toward the world of myths and legends. Â In developing the original pilot, Eric Kripke and I spent tons of time refining the subject matter for our horror show, and from the very beginning, we focused on the unique brand of American mythology as translated to the dusty backroads of Route 66 America. Â What I like about “Haunted City” is that we’re doing a similar thing, but with a big city. Â It’s kind of the exact opposite of how “Supernatural” started, but uses a similar idea, in our case that all the immigrants that came to America through the great city of New York brought all their myths, legends and horrors with them from aboard. Thus, the immigrant fabric of New York includes all these fantastic and horrifying culturally-specific monsters and myths.
How has working on “Haunted City” differed from your experiences writing other books?
Johnson: One major way that “Haunted City” is different is that [we’re] trying to create a new universe of stories here, rather than simply adapting shows or movies into comic form, or writing a one-off story in someone else’s world. Â We’re creating a viable universe where stories can pop up in other cities (London, Tokyo, Paris, etc.), in other timeframes in history, and other characters’ points-of-view. Â So really, the comic is the tip of a much larger iceberg in our minds.
â€¨Wonderland Sound and Vision has teamed up with Aspen to bring this story to print, with it being simultaneously developed as a feature script — how has this process affected the development of “Haunted City” from your standpoint?
Johnson: We’re looking at the concept fundamentally as multi-media so that the development of the comic is always tied to our thoughts and ideas for the “Haunted City” concept in its other forms. Â We’re not trying to tell the SAME story across film, tv and comics — they all should be unique components of our universe.
What do you think readers should most be looking forward to when this book hits the stands?
Taylor: They should just be looking forward to a great series of character-driven stories, great action, and just great entertainment. If you’re interested in mythology, in ethnic superstitions, in New York City, or in badass cop stories, we’ve got it all. And since we’re doing this in partnership with a director like McG, hopefully they can look forward to enjoying these stories as a film franchise, potentially a television series and all kinds of other projects that we hope to spin off, but first and foremost, great stories with great art. That’s what we’re aiming for…