Released this week was BOOM! Studios’ “Salem: Queen of Thorns” #0, and writers Chris Morgan and Kevin Walsh stopped by THE COMMENTARY TRACK to preview their new Wilfredo Torres-illustrated creation, discussing all the little things that go into making a comic book story. It’s an entertaining conversation between the two, and we think you’ll enjoy their sometimes off-the-wall tangents.
First, some of the official background of the miniseries, in case you’ve missed it previously:
Colonial America. Salem. For mankind’s greatest sin against God, they were born – the Coven of Thirteen. Thirteen witches granted elemental powers, each one derived from an aspect of Christ’s crucifixion. One man stands against them: Elias Hooke. A new hero in the tradition of Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane or Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name from the screenwriter of "Wanted" and "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift!"
This commentary covers only the first section of the issue, through page nine. There will obviously be SPOILERS for those pages, but Morgan and Kevin go out of their not to spoil future events for you too much.
Page 1, Panels 1 – 3
Chris Morgan: A lot of people have asked why we chose to set the story in period Massachusetts, and the first panel kind of says it all for me. A dark house in a dark wood. No neighbors for miles if you scream. No electricity to see what’s lurking in the shadows. It was the last time America had a mythology of its own; the Industrial Revolution hadn’t happened yet, so the world was still a dark and threatening place that people truly believed held monsters.
Kevin Walsh: Turns out they were right. In a little blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Easter Egg, that tree on the right is no tree, it’s the Queen. Our initial layout called for more panels to reveal the witch and then have her disappear into the ground. Part of our desire to "storyboard" every moment, which we had to curtail for the collective sanity of [editor Mark] Waid and Wilfredo. Kudos to Wilfredo for getting the beat across in three panels.
CM: This first sequence opens on the Parrishes — also known as "meat for the monster.” Kevin and I actually debated beginning the zero issue here versus opening it with a more chronologically correct version of Hooke’s back-story, detailing how he left the Church and why he hunts the Queen.
KW: But opening with exposition is rarely exciting and we wanted Hooke to enter the story with some aura of mystery. Plus, we remembered one of Aristotle’s Six Elements of Drama: "Always start by killin’ some folks."
CM: As well as Shakespeare’s beloved "bad shit happens to good people" motif. So we’ve got the Parrishes, trying to hide from the real world evil of the ongoing witch trials and ultimately falling prey to something even darker.
KW: And they get to serve as emblematic of the Salem population in general, setting up the idea that these are the witch trials you know and loathe — but with our different take on it. So you’ve got innocent people suffering through persecution.
CM: And you’ve got a 14-foot-tall tree monster that eats them and steals their babies.
Page 1, Panels 4 – 6
KW: We were asking an awful lot out of three small panels at the bottom of the page, but Wilfredo came to the rescue again. I love the crib in mid-transformation as the mobile armature sprouts a branch in panel five.
CM: Yeah, we kind of ran out of room to make it super clear, but the idea is that right before the Witch appears anywhere, nearby wooden objects begin to sprout thorns, signaling her arrival. In this case, the crib begins to grow thorns in panels five and six and on the next page becomes her hand.
KW: Oh, and bonus points to anyone who realizes that the element on the left hand side of the cover is the confession of "that poor Beadle girl," aka Abigail. She’s also discussed on page eight by Wood and Hopkins.
CM: And check out her cameo on the bottom of page seven! Love that little gallows ramp.
KW: I admit that I didn’t love having the confession on the cover. I wanted an element of supernatural horror and was worried people would just go, "What’s with the parchment?" But then I showed it to a friend who immediately pointed to the "witch confession" and realized, not for the first or last time on this project, that I’ve got no idea what I’m talking about.
CM: Admitting there’s a problem is the first step towards healing. And are we even supposed to be talking about the cover here?
KW: Right. Never mind.
KW: This scene has been a part of this story for a long, long time and it’s gone through some pretty dark permutations along the way.
CM: Remember the exploding human pincushion?
KW: Ah, someday…. Let’s just say that for a while there, the kid didn’t fare as well as he does here. But then Chris had the idea that we might actually want people to keep reading the book and not hunt us down with pitchforks, so saner heads prevailed. And I think Wilfredo really nailed Joshua’s death in panel four.
CM: But there is a point to the Parishes’ horrific suffering, and that is to illustrate in no uncertain terms just what our hero is going to be up against. When we say he’s fighting a witch, we don’t mean a pagan, a Wiccan or someone who dabbles in magic. In fact, we don’t mean anything even vaguely human.
KW: That actually led to some controversy when BOOM! first solicited the book. Some people thought we were doing a book about "heroic" church folks burning "evil" midwives and herbalists at the stake, and they were understandably vocal in their displeasure. Now, no one loves a good book-burning as much as we do, but we wanted to be sure people knew what they were barbecuing first. So we drafted a letter to clarify the core misunderstanding — which basically revolves around how one defines the term "witch."
CM: And even from the limited glimpses in these panels, you can guess our definition: In the world of "Salem" (which is one step removed from actual history), true witches are utterly inhuman, elemental monsters of extraordinary power.
KW: Who want to steal your babies. Important point. Worth repeating.
CM: We wanted these panels to show that the Queen of Thorns, our villain, has power and cruelty in limitless measure and will use them at the drop of a hat. And the more terrible we make the Queen, the more difficult Hooke’s journey, and the more heroic he will ultimately be for facing it down.
KW: Which would be a perfectly reasonable and rational explanation. Except….
CM: Yeah. The truth is we’re just deviants.
Page 2, Panel 6
KW: For the record, the Queen isn’t shooting fire at Rachel — those are the flames bursting from the fireplace as the wooden logs shoot outward due to the Queen’s power. She’s an arboreal demon, after all. But again, we can’t storyboard every second. It’s all about finding those punctuation images. So we get one panel of Rachel getting toasted. Happily, it’s a good panel.
CM: Yeah, I think Wilfredo and [series colorist] Andrew [Dalhouse] really hit their stride on this page. The layout’s visually interesting and the color pops. And I think the decision to show Joshua meeting his maker in silhouette was more effective than an in-your-face entrails shot (of course, there’s a time and a place for everything).
CM: Behold the Queen of Thorns! We wanted to incorporate elements of the skeletal nature of the Queen in "Aliens," but perhaps the earliest image that inspired us was a children’s picture book that I read when I was maybe five that scared the crap out of me. It was about this crazy witch that had a house all covered in rose bushes. I think the story was something about unwary kids that go into a witch’s house and get trapped by horrific thorny vines or some other bullshit beware-of-strangers P.S.A. of that sort. But the imagery was chilling; children being constricted by vines bristling with briars as a hungry witch with demented eyes looked on, charming them from screaming with a spell.
KW: I would bet that the book was actually relatively tame and innocuous before it passed through the patented "Chris Morgan maximize creepiness" mental filter and emerged as this nightmare memory. Or else freaked-out mothers would have burned and banned it long ago. What was it called anyway? Who wrote it?
CM: No idea.
KW: That’s a hell of a shout-out. I’m sure they appreciate it.
CM: The drawings were raw and full of power, and they haunted me — and in some deep, forgotten, seldomly-frequented corner of my mind, they haunt me still.
KW: Maybe you should take a moment while we share the Queen’s description from the script:
Panel 1 (splash) Her limbs are nearly skeletal, but combine interwoven briars and ropy, vine-like flora to evoke a sense of sinewy power. Her broad torso would seem more powerful if it were not virtually fleshless. Whatever bark-like "skin" covers her back does not reach all the way around and iron-hard darkwood ribs leave the cavity of her chest exposed. Above the left breast, a fist-sized hole has punched through the ribs and out the bark of her back. It is an old wound, but one that has not fully healed.
CM: A mysterious old wound? What’s that about?
KW: Next issue, next issue. . . .
Page 4, Panel 3
KW: Our hero finally makes his entrance and two writers are very, very happy. One of the things that sold us on Wilfredo was his take on Hooke, which held onto the core appeal as established in the preview book by the estimable Mike Hawthorne while investing a little something new.
CM: Hooke’s look reflects our initial pitch to BOOM! of "Clint Eastwood’s Man-with-no-Name meets the Exorcist.”
KW: I think you can really see that Eastwood aspect here and later at the bottom of page nine. And obviously there’s that Solomon Kane vibe. Gary Gianni’s version of Kane was definitely an early visual touchstone for us.
CM: But we wanted Hooke to have more of a sense of bulk than Gianni’s lean and angular Kane. And there’s a nice sense in the end product of a big man who still knows how to move.
Page 4, Panel 5
CM: We see Hooke’s signature "Confessor Knives” for the first time. And the Widow’s dialogue gives us our first hint of the larger story, that Hooke is on some quest, and perhaps has been for quite some time.
Observant readers will note that the thing Hooke picks up in the ashes of the Parishes’ house is the angel figurine that was part of the baby’s mobile on page one. This has special relevance to Hooke, which we’ll discover as the story unfolds.
KW: Now you’re just teasing people. And I notice that you didn’t mention that the original draft didn’t have an angel as the mobile figurine. It was a wooden duck.
CM: Which would have looked exactly as silly as it sounds. So thank you again, Wilfredo, for realizing this and saving our asses.
Page 5, Panel 1
KW: Spider demons! I love ’em! Quick side-note: When we were first shopping "Salem" around, we made a blow-up of Hawthorne’s art from this panel in the preview book.
CM: Yup. And it was a big draw at our Comic-Con table. People kept peeling away from the human logjam in the aisle to check it out.
KW: The only thing that makes me sad is how much more we wanted to do with the demons, particularly in the battle royal at the end of the issue. I think we gave Waid and Wilfredo a collective coronary with all of the demon action we tried to cram into that section. We had spider demons taking down horses. Spider demons lowering from the tree canopy on silk lines.
CM: Trapdoor spider demons bursting out of the ground. Hooke cutting a demon in half only to have the giant spider portion (still trailing the mangled human torso) leap onto his back. And all of that was supposed to be…?
KW: Three pages. I still don’t see the problem. Fifteen panels per page and a free magnifying glass with every issue. Totally doable. Actually, after BOOM! kindly informed us that they would need to publish an additional issue just to illustrate that single fight, we scaled it back just a bit.
Page 5, Panels 2 – 4
KW: Okay, here’s the skinny on this beat. First, Hooke uses his blade and lanyard to pull one demon into the path of its cohort.
CM: Then "SHRAK" is the sound of one demon accidentally sinking its envenomed fangs deep into the back of Hooke’s hapless (in)human shield.
KW: And spider demon venom is nasty stuff — which is how we arrive at Panel Four from the script:
Panel 4 In the middle distance, Trapdoor Demon #1 is dropping to the ground, dead on its feet. The bite wound on its back has expanded into a massive crater that takes up most of the demon’s back. The venom has eaten through the flesh and organs like acid. Smoke curls from the expanding wound.
KW: Totally clear, right? Anyway, rather than have to redraw the whole page to make it clear, the decision was made to toss in a quick dialogue balloon about Hooke throwing acid.
CM: At least it fits Hooke’s idiom. You know he’s got to be carrying acid somewhere. And we get to keep panels one and five, which are worth the price of admission all by themselves.
KW: What’s in the box? Oh, you know, just your standard severed thorny talon from a witch’s hand.
CM: Add a little blood and you’ve got yourself a handy little witch compass that points out the path the Queen took from the Parrish attack. Trying to evoke all of that without resorting to captions may have been a tall order, but I think it works.
KW: Yeah. And stay tuned for the next issue if you’d like to know just how Hooke happens to have that handy. Wow, that was awesomely and annoyingly alliterative.
CM: Now some of you may think you’ve caught a goof with the last panel on page five and the first panel on page six. Go ahead, take a look. The class will wait.
I know what you’re thinking. "Who the hell is yelling ‘NOOO!’ from off-panel?”
KW: I think that’s Waid getting his first look at our draft of the final fight.
Page 7, Panel 1
CM: Page seven and we finally make it to Salem proper. We wanted to take the readers here early on in the first issue to use the preconceived notions they have about this place and this time period, then twist them on their heads. So here’s the traditional Puritan town, here’s everything you learned about the American witch trials in school, all the familiar imagery.
But these people have no idea that while they’re busy chasing illusions, real evil, and a real hero, are about to hit their town.
KW: And here’s Jeffers, one of those second-string characters that keeps trying to shoulder his way to the front. He’s over-the-top and just plain fun to write. In the script, he’s "a weed of a man too small for his black robes." On the preview book, Hawthorne did a concept sketch of Jeffers in mid-rant and Chris and I both had the same immediate reaction.
CM: "Let’s see more of this guy." And once again, Wilfredo stepped up nicely. He had a tricky job expanding the preview book into a full issue and did great work transitioning from the atmosphere Hawthorne established in the preview into his own style for the rest of the book.
KW: As for Jeffers, the next best thing to writing a character like him is getting to kill him off.
CM: Not to give anything away….
KW: What? Come on, look at him. Does anyone really believe he’s going to make it to the end of the story?
Page 7, Panel 3
CM: This is the first time we see Hannah – our troubled healer – in the issue. To let you in on how bizarre the process of writing can sometimes be, we actually had a discussion on whether Hannah’s name should be spelled "Hanna” or "Hannah.” And Kevin argued that the terminal "h" made the name more "magical" because it made a palindrome.
KW: Which I don’t remember, but I’m happy to take credit for it. Even if "A man, a plan, a canal. Panama." doesn’t seem all that magical to me.
CM: Ah, but what about "Live, O Devil. Revel ever! Live! Do evil.”
KW: Okay, folks. We’ve been having some fun pretending this is a spontaneous conversation and not a lovingly-crafted, heavily-edited bit of writing. But no lie, when we talked about Hannah’s name, Chris just spouted that off the top of his head. Which I think is equal parts cool and disturbing.
CM: And that’s how writers waste two hours on a single letter.
Page 8, Panel 4
KW: I’ve got to say I was initially thrown by Wilfredo’s take on Samuels, the brawny right arm to sadistic Hopkins. I think I’d just absorbed the initial Hawthorne version too completely. But I have to admit, the new burly Lex Luthor vibe has really grown on me, particularly when Samuels faces down Hooke on page eleven.
CM: Lex Luthor? Nah, Tor Johnson, baby!
One Wikipedia search later….
KW: Holy crap, you’re totally right.
CM: Tor Johnson lives!
KW: But back to the point, we wanted to get a feeling of strata within the ranks of the Confessors. There are blowhards like Jeffers who only have courage with the backing of the Church and a cloak of fear. But Hopkins, Samuels and a few others that we’ve yet to meet….
CM: Issue Two! Issue Two!
KW: Settle. They needed to look like they could handle themselves in a scrap and maybe even go toe-to-toe with Hooke. Samuels is clearly a dangerous and deadly professional. Makes me wonder just what it would take to bring a down a bear like that….
CM: Issue Two! Issue Two!
KW: Also, some people have pointed out that the methods and accoutrements of Hopkins and company aren’t really Puritanical. And they’re correct.
CM: But then again, who says the Confessors are actually Puritans? Just which specific religious faction do they belong to, anyway? And what’s the deal with Hopkins’ eye?
KW: You’re a page early on that reveal.
CM: Whoops. Anyway, they’re still all good questions for Issue One.
Page 9, Panel 1
CM: Time for one last script excerpt?
Panel #1 Our first good look at Hopkins’ face, half-illuminated by the candle — the half we’d rather not see. His left eye is a misshapen, horrific thing. A scar slices from his scalp to his cheek, passing right over his milky, dead and distended orb. Below that eye, Hopkins is smirking. He’s already recovered from Wood’s clumsy attempt to rattle him.
KW: Ah, Matthew Hopkins. That’s actually a name we plucked out of witch hunting history.
CM: Matthew Hopkins? Or Roy Batty?
KW: True enough. I remember when we first saw the art for page #16, panel six and our "It’s Roy Batty!" emails crossed in cyberspace. But Hopkins, the real Hopkins, operated as "Witch-finder General" in England in the 17th century and made a fortune running bogus witch "tests" around the country.
CM: He often used a swim test and the ducking stool was something of a witch trial staple, so using it in this issue felt right on two levels. And he was just as greedy as our Hopkins. One town paid him a year’s wages for a few weeks of work.
KW: So he was just the perfect figure to import into our warped reality, where there are innocents suffering persecution, but there are also monstrous witches. And the witch trials are seen as part of a larger religious movement in the colonies, a kind of New World Inquisition.
CM: Plus, Hopkins gives us another angle on evil. The Queen is nasty, but at the end of the day, she’s a monster, a demon. But Hopkins is the evil next door. He’s a sadist and a sociopath.
KW: And he’s found a dream job, where he gets to torture and kill people and get rich in the process. A priest without a soul, a cynical pragmatist in shepherd’s clothing who only worships power. The more we played with him, the more fun we had imagining what would happen if he ever got a glimpse of true supernatural power.
CM: So keep your eyes —
KW: Or eye… sorry.
CM: — out for Issue Two, where Hopkins is destined to meet another character who’s graduated from second-string status to become a personal favorite, and it’s a match made in heaven.
Page 9, Panel 5
CM: I love the look of defiance in Hannah’s eyes. About to be drowned, yet totally unafraid.
KW: Wilfredo really hits those ECU shots out of the park. We’ve got nice eye close-ups from Hannah, Hooke and Hopkins in this issue and they’re all great.
Page 9, Panel 7
CM: And this seems like a good place to wrap up our commentary – Hannah shouting off panel, "Finish it,” and Hooke arriving at the village the moment before they are going to kill her. I mean, really. Check out that mug of his.
KW: Grim, man. Grim.
CM: That expression says a serious ass-kicking is about to be handed out.
KW: That, or he skipped his bran this morning. I’m just saying, I’ve seen that look in the mirror.
CM: In which case, a worse ass-kicking is about to be handed out. All I know is that when Hooke looks like that, asses will be kicked. Take that to the bank.
KW: Anyway, thanks a bunch, CBR, for letting a pair of newbie comic scribes ramble on about our book. And thanks to everybody over at BOOM!
CM: As well as Wilfredo, Andrew, [letterer] Marshall [Dillon], and of course Mark Waid. And a special shout-out to Mike Hawthorne, because without that Comic-Con preview book, there absolutely wouldn’t be a BOOM! book.
KW: Check out the series and let us know what you think over at myspace.com/salemcomic (http://www myspace.com/salemcomic). If you folks get one-tenth the enjoyment out of reading it that we got out of writing it, I think we’ll be doing okay.
Special thanks again to Chris Morgan and Kevin Walsh for letting THE COMMENTARY TRACK listen in on their conversation this week.
If you have any titles or creators you’d like to see a commentary from, drop us a line. If you’re a creator with a book due out soon that you’d like to stop by to talk about in detail, let us know. We’re especially looking for artists, colorists and letterers who want to talk about their craft, as we’ve had a shortage of those so far. We’re busy behind the scenes lining up books for the weeks ahead, but there’s always room for more!
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