Writer Benito Cereno first drew the attention of comics readers with his full-length graphic novel, “Tales from the Bully Pulpit,” which featured the odd mix of a time-traveling Teddy Roosevelt and the ghost of Thomas Edison. Prior to that, however, he and artist Nate Bellegarde had produced a series of gag back-up strips in Robert Kirkman’s “Invincible.” From there, they graduated to a continuing back-up series featuring their horror character Hector Plasm.
The Hector Plasm stories have appeared intermittently in “Invincible” and elsewhere, but have managed to garner a cult following. Now, the pair is releasing a collection of Hector stories along with new material in the form of “Totentanz” from Image Comics. Cereno sat down with CBR news to discuss Hector’s origins, his philosophy on horror fiction, and Hector’s possible future.
Hector Plasm is a modern day member of a centuries-old cult called the Benandanti, or Well-Walkers. “It basically means do-gooders,” Cereno told CBR. “They are people chosen by an accident of their birth--that is, being born with a bit of amnion called a caul over their face--to fight witches and generally to serve as gatekeepers between the living and the dead. Originally, they protected a local village, healing people and banishing spirits, but in this modern world where there are fewer Benandanti and where the idea of a global village is becoming more prevalent, Hector patrols most of the world, encountering people and their non-corporeal remains as he goes.
“As a result of his transitory--transient, even--lifestyle, he meets a lot of people but accumulates few friends. His only true companions on his journey are Sinner and Saint, whose true nature is unclear, but who are basically the angel and devil who stand over his shoulders and advise him on what to do. And so he walks the earth, helping people, helping ghosts, helping people help ghosts, and so on. But all of that is really just killing time between the Ember Days--when he does his most important job.”
“Totentanz” is a collection of shorter Hector Plasm stories, much like the previous book, “De Mortuis.” However, while “De Mortuis” was basically themed around stories concerning the dangers of not respecting the dead, “Totentanz” is, in Cereno’s words, the dance of the dead. “It's a celebration of the dead and the holidays that honor them, including Halloween, the Day of the Dead, and Hop-tu-naa,” he said.
The stories collected in “Totentanz” include the special Halloween strips called “Hectorweens” that were previously available only on the web, and will be presented in color for the first time. The book comes with some never-before-seen material, including what Cereno says is perhaps the most ambitious Hector story to date, and one of the earliest collaborations between Cereno and Bellegarde that has nothing to do with Hector Plasm, but “everything to do with Halloween.”
“I've always loved ghost stories and the motifs of the macabre,“ Cereno said of the origins of the Hector Plasm character. “Over the years, I have accumulated some material about supernatural folklore. One particular book mentioned the Benandanti and introduced me to the writing of Carlo Ginzburg. Once the idea was there, it never really left.”
Hector Plasm also grew out of a creative exercise undertaken by Bellegarde and Cereno, whereby they created new Ghostbusters for an imagined Ghostbusters comic book. Robert Kirkman would later suggest the pair create a “Tim Burton-y superhero.” “[We] mixed together some characters from our old Ghostbusters concept and tossed in some other elements. I think the mixture, in fact, was part-Hellboy and ‘real’ ghost stories, part ‘Kill Bill,’ part Tom Waits, and part Craig Thompson's ‘Blankets,’ all of which gives you an idea of what summer it was when we developed Hector. And suddenly story ideas flowed like milk and honey.”
When Cereno and Bellegarde first finalized the character of Hector Plasm, they had no outlet for the stories. Their original plan was to create a Hector Plasm graphic novel that would tell the tale of the character from beginning to end, but the creators realized they would be selling themselves and the character short, as they had a wealth of ideas for him. It was at that point that Robert Kirkman offered the pair the opportunity to produce a series of back-ups in his book, “Invincible,” giving them the chance to create a continuing Hector Plasm storyline. More short stories followed in the “Western Tales of Terror” anthology from Hoarse and Buggy Productions as well as “PopGun” from Image.
With a long history of short features, the creators have their eye on an ongoing series. “A longer-form series has always been the plan,” Cereno confirmed. “ We have a very definite story path with lots of interesting asides that we'd like to address. It's just always been a matter of scheduling. Also, we originally planned to follow up ‘De Mortuis’ with an ongoing series, but after the somewhat disheartening sales on that book, we decided to regroup, do some other things, try to get our names out there, and try again. So now that we've done ‘Atom Eve’ and ‘Brit,’ we're dipping our toes in the water again to see if we can sustain a series.
“However, rather than just a regular ongoing monthly, we'd probably follow the series-of-miniseries model, because I think trying to do a monthly ongoing would put Nate into a coma.”
Cereno has a very clear idea of who his target audience is for the Hector Plasm stories: “Older teens and adults who grew up reading and loving Alvin Schwartz's ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ book series and forming ghost hunting clubs with those noise making keychains that some fast food restaurant gave out when ‘Ghostbusters 2’ was in theaters,” he said. “People who loved ‘Teen Wolf’ and ‘The Addams Family’ and ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas.’
“But most importantly, people who realize that the ghost story, the oral mimetic, ‘dude, this is totally true and it happened right over there’ ghost story, is the purest form of the horror genre and should be celebrated high above slashers and saucy vampires and torture porn and anything else.”
With that philosophy on scary stories, combined with the detail and basis in actual legend of the Hector Plasm stories, Cereno does a great deal of research, though he characterizes it as “mostly listening.” Said the writer, “The polish of literary horror adds a layer that can often remove the immediacy of a good story told around a campfire. I'm always looking for good stories about ghosts and haunted houses. Several published Hector stories had their starts as second-hand tales related to me by someone I knew. I do also collect books on ghostlore and other supernatural phenomena, which I occasionally browse for ideas or reference. Even though I personally don't believe in ghosts or the supernatural, I think there is a considerable difference in feel in stories based on authentic ghostlore--that is to say, things people actually believe or believed--and something made up whole cloth. I want the immediacy of these ‘true’ ghost stories, so I'm always looking to them for inspiration, and I do try to include the popularly held beliefs about ghosts and mediums as well to try to uphold that authenticity.”
Beyond Hector Plasm, Cereno and Bellegarde are keeping busy with other projects at Image. “As announced at San Diego, I am doing a new ‘Invincible Presents’ miniseries, this time featuring my personal favorite character from the series, Rex Splode. In the meantime, Nate is still the artist on ‘Brit’ with Bruce Brown and Andy Kuhn. He will be on that book at least through issue #12, and then who knows?”
“Hector Plasm: Totentanz” arrives in stores on November 5 from Image Comics.