H.P. Lovecraft and the Horror of Comics

A dedicated crowd braved the heat at the West Hollywood Book Fair to hear Steve Niles, Mike Mignola and Hans Rodionoff talk about the influence of H.P. Lovecraft on horror comic books. Packed elbow to elbow, the audience was made up of Lovecraft fans, comic fans...and a fish-man from "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."

An audience member explained to the panelists that there was a Lovecraft scavenger hunt going on, but instead of finding objects, participants had to find characters from Lovecraft's stories. Hence the fish-man.

Mignola shrugged in response. "I love that you walked by them and just went, 'eh,'" said Rodionoff to Mignola. Mignola shrugged again and the audience cracked up.

Moderator Gary Decampeo began the panel by asking how the writers first encountered Lovecraft. Rodionoff, author of Vertigo's "Mnemovore" and co-writer for "Lost Boys: The Tribe," admitted he got into it the old-fashioned way: sitting around a campfire.

"When I was a kid, we used to go on these camping trips with another family," said Rodionoff. The father of the second family, Rich, would challenge the kids to read scary stories. "He had this ghost story that was called 'The Green Fungus Hand.' It was supposed to be too scary for us. And the only way we could prove ourselves to him was if we showed him we could read this stuff," Rodionoff recalled. It was through these campfire sessions that Rich discovered his first Lovecraft short story. "I read through it that night with a flashlight in my sleeping bag, and I was never the same."

Mignola, the creator of "Hellboy" and "BPRD" and author of the Lovecraft-inspired "The Doom That Came To Gotham" found Lovecraft through the world of comics.

"As a comic book reader, my introduction to the old pulp writers was Robert E. Howard," said Mignola. While looking for more Howard stories, he stumbled onto "Weird Tales" and H.P. Lovecraft. "I was never the same again," said Mignola to more audience laughter.

Niles, the creator of "30 Days of Night" and Criminal Macabre," told the audience his experience was much like Mignola's. "I was digging around in books looking for stuff and I ran across Lovecraft," said Niles.

Decampeo asked the panelists how Lovecraft influenced their work. "More than anything, it has defined what I find scary," said Rodionoff. "The things I find scary are the things I can't quantify, I can't explain." Most classic horror monsters have rules of conduct, ways to kill them or an "Achilles tendon," said Rodionoff. Lovecraftian monsters do not.

"There really isn't a save for Lovecraft," said Rodionoff.

"You're only hope in Lovecraft is that it doesn't notice you," added Mignola.

Mignola then classified pre-Lovecraft horror as religion-based, centered on demons and evil. "Before Lovecraft, most horror was this kind of good versus evil," said Mignola. Lovecraft's stories were not about evil, however, but about ignorant humankind against a vast alien cosmos. "The closest I came to doing Lovecraft was what I put in 'Hellboy.' That's where I got in that idea of this big cosmic horror that's behind all the mythology," said Mignola. "Behind it all, I wanted this giant, cosmic, unknowable, too-big-to-understand machine."

Niles named Lovecraft as an influence on his "Criminal Macabre" series, although he admitted parts of the mythos annoyed him. "[The monsters] are always too terrible to describe. I'm like, 'Come on. Give it a shot," said Niles.

All three admitted the "indescribable" nature of Lovecraft's monsters was the most difficult things to translate into comics.

"How do you describe something that's kind of like a centipede, and a little bit like a hog, but also like a bubbling core of infinite knowledge?" said Mignola.

So, how does he draw it?

"I use a lot of shadows," laughed Mignola. "You get a little bit of something coming out of the dark and you go, 'Well, it's kind of got a lobster claw, and there's this kind of hook sticking out there...but mainly shadows."

"Just because it's a comic doesn't mean you have to show everything," agreed Niles.

Despite this, the writers all agreed that Lovecraft has a firm grip on modern horror.

"One of the influences of Lovecraft is that so many people now have this kind of Lovecraftian sense in the background of their horror," said Mignola. "You don't see horror nowadays with the old Catholic-based demon stuff. Even in 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' they tack on big Lovecraftian entities behind that stuff."

"I wrote 'Mnemovore,' which is essentially an attempt to bring the Lovecraftian mythos into a modern day setting," added Rodionoff, speaking of his graphic novel. "Mnemovore" centers on an amnesic snowboarder who discovers an ancient parasite eating people's memories.

Decampeo pointed out that Lovecraft has a large modern-day following, spawning conventions and role-playing games along with the comics.

"It has become shorthand for anything with tentacles," said Mignola. "Marvel, DC, they all have Lovecraft-inspired characters."

Beyond Lovecraft, Niles cited "I Am Legend" as one of his great horror inspirations. Comparing author Richard Matheson to Lovecraft, Niles spoke about how both engaged their readers to fill in the blanks. "[Lovecraft's] like: what do you think is indescribable? What do you think is too horrible to imagine?" said Niles.

Rodionoff agreed, saying that was what he hoped to accomplish in his own writing. "Hopefully I've found a way to worm inside your head so that it haunts you and causes a sleepless night or two," said Rodionoff.

The following Q&A session was a quiet one, the audience both pensive and overheated. However, one question stood out: did Rodionoff ever learn the story of The Green Fungus Hand?

"You know, I never got to hear it!" admitted Rodionoff. Everyone laughed at that, even the fish-man.

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