The human psyche sometimes can be a reservoir of happy thoughts and warm memories and other times it can literally be a house of horrors. For the cast of David Hine's "Strange Embrace," it proves to be the latter. Hine's critically acclaimed horror story returns to comic shops in May, this time in color, as an eight issue mini-series from Image Comics. CBR News spoke with Hine about "Strange Embrace."
"Strange Embrace" is a tale that Hine wrote and drew years ago and May will actually mark the second time the story has been revived and brought back to comic shops. Hine believes there are a few reasons why "Strange Embrace" has had such longevity. "I just came across the original script for 'Strange Embrace' and it's dated 1991! The comic was actually published as a four-issue mini-series from Atomeka Press in 1993," Hine told CBR News. "There's very little to date the book. It was set in the Edwardian period I believe 1911 was the actual year I picked on and the 'present day.' The book is about the persistence of memory and the way the past haunts us, both physically and mentally, so that 'present day' was deliberately non-specific. It could be any time between 1960 and 2007. The themes are universal and timeless, and my drawing style has nothing to tie it to any particular decade, so really the book is as valid now as it ever was."
It was Hine's desire to express his feelings of alienation that lead to the creation of "Strange Embrace" way back in 1991. "It's something I felt particularly when I was younger," Hine said. "As a child I didn't have a lot of friends and I spent most of my time in a fantasy world of one kind or another. 'Strange Embrace' takes that sense of alienation to the extreme. I also wanted to tell a bloody good horror story and in the end I think I succeeded in both areas.
"The roots of the story lie in my student days when I rented a room in an old Victorian house in Exeter where I was at Art College," Hine continued. "The place was owned by an ancient guy who wandered the corridors dressed in black and never spoke. He had a housekeeper who had been his wife's best friend. The guy's wife had killed herself years before and she moved in to look after him and keep his collection of antiques dusted. In 'Strange Embrace,' Alex [one of the story's protagonists] rents a room in similar circumstances and begins to write the story of the old man, gradually uncovering a tale of psychosis and murder. If I had ever seriously explored my landlord's past, it would probably have turned out to be incredibly banal, but because he remained a complete enigma I was able to let my imagination run riot.
"Something that hadn't occurred to me before is that I actually lost my virginity in the attic of that weird old house. Probably best not to probe too deeply into the significance of that . . ."
"Strange Embrace" proved to be a very enlightening project for Hine, "I learned most of what I know in the process of writing and drawing that book," Hine explained. "It was all instinctive, but I learned how to set and pace a scene, develop character, create atmosphere. I experimented a lot with isolating visual elements. I think of comics largely in cinematic terms and I would let the 'camera' drift past the centre of the action onto apparently unimportant elements -- an insect, a crack in the wall. It gives the work a dreamlike quality. I wanted to give the impression that nothing you are seeing is concrete. Everything is likely to crack or melt away like a dream. It's something I'm exploring again with 'Spawn' right now and again I'm using insects and cracks as symbols of decay.
"The first issue of 'Strange Embrace' opens with an imaginary underwater scene where the young boy, Sukumar, imagines himself swimming underwater where he encounters the malevolent Alex for the first time," Hine continued. "I drew a sequence where Alex's face dissolves into fish and weeds. Anything can literally transform into anything else. These days you can achieve that effect easily with graphics software, but it was more of a challenge in 1993 using a pencil and tracing paper."
In addition to being a very instructive project, "Strange Embrace" holds a special place in Hine's heart for two other reasons. "It's the one time I was able to tell exactly the story I wanted without any outside interference or influence," Hine stated "It's what I miss about publishing through the independent press. Working for the mainstream is always about pitching, working through editors and pleasing an audience. I truly didn't give a damn about who was going to read the book or what they thought of it and in the end I think the reader is best served by that kind of book. You can't second-guess your audience anyway, so you might as well set out to please yourself. As it turned out, a lot of people really liked the result. It was 'Strange Embrace' that persuaded Joe Quesada and later my editors Mike Marts and Jenny Lee, that I could write Marvel comics. It was also the book Brian Haberlin put under Todd McFarlane's nose to convince him I could write 'Spawn.' When you look at the book that seems unlikely, but in fact Joe in particular is very open to looking outside mainstream comics for new writers."
Richard Starkings was one of the people who believed it was time for a new audience to get acquainted with the work that launched Hine into the mainstream. This new incarnation of "Strange Embrace" will be slightly different from the other versions though; it will be in color. "Richard collected 'Strange Embrace' for the first time as a graphic novel in 2003 and I was very pleased with that," Hine said. "But Richard has always felt that I was missing a wider market that only buys monthly comics in color. It's true that most graphic novels start life as monthlies, so I guess we're just completing that process in reverse. When 'Strange Embrace' was originally released it came at a terrible time for independent black and white comics. The market was saturated and sales figures were plummeting, so my comic pretty much sunk without trace. It left me totally disillusioned with comics for a period but the last three years have been very good to me and I think this time I have enough of a reputation to get the book a little more attention."
At first, Hine was reluctant to let Starkings colorize "Strange Embrace" for the simple reason that he conceived of it as a black and white book. "Richard just told me to hold off on a decision until I saw what Rob Steen could do with it, explained Hine. Once I saw a few pages colored up I was convinced. Rob has a very European sensibility and the low-key coloring works fantastically well to enhance the mood of the book.
"Rob sends me pages as he colors them," Hine continued. "He's been busy on his own work, the manga 'Afterlife' from Tokyopop and his series of 'Flanimals' books with Ricky Gervais. Coloring 'Strange Embrace' is what he does to get away from that stuff, so it's been coming in batches over the past couple of years. It's more than three-quarters finished now and I have asked for about two changes in all that time. I get on well with Rob. It helps that we have similar personalities. We're both cynical bastards."
At first glance, Alex, one of the protagonists of "Strange Embrace" may seem like an evil bastard. "Alex is more amoral than evil or despicable," Hine stated. "It's his lack of feeling that makes him scary. This is another guy who is totally alienated from society.
Ironically he is a psychic but it's that ability to read minds that makes it impossible for him to relate emotionally. People are a curiosity to him. He sets out to discover what makes them tick by uncovering their histories as an act of psychic detection. By knowing them, he possesses them and they become part of his collection of stories. He literally keeps his collection of people in an abandoned cafe, like a human library."
Alex's obsession with people's stories means "Strange Embrace" is a tale that's set both in the past and the present. "The story revolves around a Victorian house and an antiques shop," Hine explained. "Initially we see the major character, Anthony Corbeau as an old man. Then we see in flashback how he came to be this messed up mad old bastard. The flashback period is shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. That was a very deliberate choice. I wanted to set the book in a time when the superficial aspects of European society, the culture, the etiquette and sophistication, were about to be subsumed by the filth and the horror of the trenches. Sod the art and culture! The twentieth century was about war and mass slaughter. That idea of the violent, primitive nature of human beings is a subtext running beneath the surface of the whole book."
As "Strange Embrace" unfolds, a number of characters will find their violent and primitive natures manipulated, exposed and probed as they get caught up in Alex's "investigation" of Corbeau. "The opening two issues introduce the psychic Alex, the old collector of African antiquities, Anthony Corbeau and Sukumar, a teen-ager who gets caught up in Alex's pursuit of the old man," Hine said. "Sukumar takes refuge from a snow storm in a derelict café, where he encounters the ghostly apparitions of Alex's collection. Alex tells Sukumar how he uncovered Corbeau's dark secrets, his obsession with African art that led him down a path of sexual perversion. The beautiful Sarah becomes similarly obsessed with Anthony and is sucked into his world of horror and self-abuse. We know from the start that Sarah will eventually commit suicide. It's the discovery of why and how she does it that Alex finds so fascinating."
As readers might have guessed, "Strange Embrace" is a very dark toned tale. "There are elements of nineteenth century novels in there: Dickens, the Brontes and Wilkie Collins, any authors who write about terrible family secrets and mad relatives locked away in the attic," Hine stated. "There's a madhouse scene that was heavily influenced by the film version of 'Suddenly Last Summer' too; so gothic horror and mystery are the predominant moods. The movies of David Lynch and Roman Polanski figure as influences too, with an unhealthy dose of existential angst that comes from reading too much Kafka and Sartre when I was a teenager."
Movies influenced Hine's creation of "Strange Embrace" and in the future, a film version of "Strange Embrace" might influence another burgeoning comic creator. "'Strange Embrace' has been optioned by Peter Boyce's Movienewmedia production company," Hine said. "Peter is the guy who has recently bought Comics International so he is pretty committed to comics. I have no idea how far along the project has progressed. A week after the option went to Movienewmedia I was approached by another British production company, so the interest is obviously there. Now if only there was money in this country to actually make the movies.
"For me it's the comic that counts. But it would be nice to make some money off a movie deal so I could afford to do another independent project like 'Strange Embrace,'" Hine said. "'Strange Embrace' gestated for years before I was actually able to take the time to write and draw 200 pages of comics. I have another similar project that I've been scribbling at for over ten years. It's so personal to me that I would have to draw it myself and publish it independently with no editorial oversight. At a guess that's two years of dedicated work. So if I suddenly disappear from mainstream comics, you'll know what I'm up to."
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