When Justin Jordan was a psych major at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania nearly 20 years ago, the aspiring comic book creator interviewed former FBI special agent John Douglas for a project on serial killers. Douglas was one of the first-ever criminal profilers, and was actually the inspiration for FBI agent Jack Crawford, a major character in the Thomas Harris novels and films "Red Dragon" and "The Silence of the Lambs."
Ever since the encounter, Jordan has been developing an idea about a covert government organization tasked with kidnapping young children with pre-existing homicidal tendencies and turning them into terrorists or 'chaos agents' for fomenting unrest and executing enemies of the state around the world.
Teamed with artist Ibrahim Moustafa, the high concept is now a reality, as Vertigo released "Savage Things" #1 this week.
CBR connected with Jordan and Moustafa to discuss the eight-issue series, and the pair shared important details about how you make a murderer, why we need to rethink the Cain and Abel dynamic and the reason that violent acts are sometimes even more frightening when then happen off-panel.
CBR: "Making a Murderer" was a huge success for Netflix, and "Serial" really captured the zeitgeist, making a podcast a pop culture touchstone for many people. Why are we obsessed with killers -- or, I guess, alleged killers?
Justin Jordan: It's a good question. I think people who are abhorrent fascinate us. There are, I suspect, and this may reveal some sort of incipient sociopathy in me, but I think there are certain situations where we are all like: "Yeah, I wouldn't kill somebody but I get it." [Laughs] Someone breaks into your house and you stab him. I get it. But I think with murder, there is a gap at least for me. At some point, they went: "I should just kill this mother fucker." And that seemed like a reasonable thing to do.
That's alien to us. It fascinates us the way that most alien stuff does. It is outside of our own experience to the point that it's hard to even get into that kind of headspace. Even me and my work, which in general hasn't been non-violent, it is difficult me to understand that level of violence as anything more than an abstract thing. I understand that sorts of processes exist but I can't make myself think that way. Where if someone falls in love or is having a bad day, you get that. You can understand it. There is inherent empathy for it. But I think it's the strangeness and alien-ness of killers that interests us. It's probably not coincidental that psychologists and psychiatrists were called alienists back in the day. That was the term for them. That's probably echoed in our fascination today for things like "Making a Murderer" and "Serial."
Ibrahim Moustafa: As humans, one of our most basic instincts is to try evade violence. When we look at something like "Savage Things" where violence is very much this sort of pervasive force that has to be dealt with, I think that really creates some space for some interesting storytelling and some interesting hypothesizing on how would this type of situation be handled, especially when it is a situation that you create yourself in a way. To Justin's point, I think there is a general interest in the 'what would I do in this situation' type of thing too. Even though our main character is a sociopath who is bread to be this killer, we're still able to follow the story through his lens because we get to see what he does do in this situation.
Let's talk about these sociopaths who are bred to be killers, which is the central conceit of "Savage Things." We see the students on their first day in the Black Forest program, the training ground for the killers, and we learn about the homicidal triad, which is cruelty to animals, obsession with fire setting, and persistent bedwetting past a certain age. Did one of you study psychology, or did you research serial killers for this series to learn about these behavioral characteristics?
Jordan: I'm almost 40, I just turned, and that's relevant because one of the things that inspired this series was years ago, back in the late-'90s, I was able to do a small discussion with John Douglas, who is famously the FBI profiler guy that built the serial crime division and wrote the book, "Mindhunter." He's written many books, actually, but "Mindhunter" was the big one. He was actually the basis for one of the main characters in "Silence of the Lambs." Back when I did that discussion, I was a psych major, so I read all of his books because I was interested in that kind of psychology.
One of the things about having been interested in that for a long time and having looked at it again is that our viewpoint on sociopathy has changed over the years, which makes doing research worthwhile. Especially in the case of this book, since part of it takes place literally 25 years ago. This becomes relevant to the plot as the series goes on. When you think about what these children are and what they can become has changed since that program started and the present day. I felt research was necessary to do that type of thing. I will happily sacrifice realism for drama, but I like to know what I am sacrificing. I will write when a gun clicks on an empty chamber, even though semi-autos don't naturally do that, if it's dramatic, but I want know if I am getting stuff wrong. It's the same thing here. I am willing to play fast and loose with the psychological underpinnings of this series and how the world actually is but I want to know what the world is actually like before I do that. [Laughs]
Ibrahim, can you please talk about your art style for this series? Specifically, how you change what you are doing to differentiate between the two eras.
Moustafa: I almost look at the two different parts not as a different story, but certainly, I need to think about the technology and the equipment of the time. It's easy to get lost in present day, but I need to think back to the '90s and remember what a TV looked like back then. In the first couple of pages, we see Abel's living room, and I had to think about what his parents would be wearing. [Laughs] What does a mom wear in the '90s? What does a kid wear? That takes a lot of concentration, in terms of drawing stuff from the past.
Fortunately, when we get to the Black Forest site, they are kind of secluded in a bubble environment so the look is kind of whatever we want it to be but I wanted that part to feel a little bit more timeless. The kids are all wearing uniforms but they're not necessarily indicative of post-Cold War or the tail end of the Cold War. When you think about government funding and what's going to be a priority, maybe their desks are going to be a little bit older and the tech isn't quite as new. That's the thought process for that kind of stuff. And Jordan [Boyd] with his colors did a really nice, washed out, almost sort of film feel to it to help denote the past from the present, which I think worked out really well.
For those not lucky enough to have read the first issue yet, what is the Black Forest program?
Jordan: The idea behind the Black Forest program is that they took children, who had demonstrated sociopathic tendencies and were already presenting the homicidal triad, which we already discussed, but it's basically three traits that serial killers tend to have. Having them doesn't mean that you're going to become a serial killer but most serial killers have them. Again, the homicidal triad is pyromania, cruelty to animals and wetting the bed, oddly enough, at an inappropriate age. The government recruits them by killing their parents and kidnapping them and then bringing them to the school. They're basically living the life of a special forces soldier from a very young age. They're trained to infiltrate. They're trained how to evaluate a target. They're trained how to psychologically terrorize and basically, channel their nasty, serial impulses in the direction that the government wants them to go.
The point of all of this is not to make soldiers out of them. The point is to be able to insert them into an area and just terrify the shit out of our enemies. Or do false flag operations, where we can do something horrible with no official record and blame it on somebody else. And they're good at it until the government decides that it's too dangerous to allow them to live and tries to kill them, which given the nature of the book, didn't work. [Laughs] Basically, if the government was going to train a bunch of Hannibal Lecters as terrorists, Black Forest is more or less what you would get.
In the first issue, we meet a character named Abel, and it appears that he may actually best another character by the name of Cain in a head-to-head conflict. If that's the case, it's the complete opposite scenario of how that same conflict played out in the Bible. Is that relevant to "Savage Things" moving forward?
Jordan: Abel is an extremely capable character. The main subplot of the book is entirely his relationship with Cain and how they defy what the names would make you think what they are. They don't inhabit the same roles. The names are, and this is mentioned in the book, given to them by the Black Forest program creators specifically because of the inherent symbolism. And it does kind of designate what their roles are. I have gone with the Abel-Cain thing before. I thought it worked in "Luther Strode." The ultimate bad guy is obviously Cain – he's the first murderer – so I wanted to play with that symbolism a little more with Abel but go in a different direction with it. His name is not apt as we get into the series in terms of where he's going and what he's done by the time "Savage Things" #8 rolls around.
This is solicited as an eight-issue series, but do you have more stories to tell about Abel and the Black Forest program should the opportunity present itself?
Jordan: This story is eight issues. There are certainly things happening in this universe that we've created that could go for another series if anybody were interested but within the context of "Savage Things," if you read these eight issues, you get a complete and satisfying story. That's what we set out to tell and we get to tell the whole thing. In eight issues so it's nice.
Is Abel a good guy in this series? And if so, who are the bad guys? Koenig, Proctor and the other men and women running the Black Forest program?
Jordan: There are no good guys. [Laughs] There are bad guys and less bad guys. Arguably, Kira represents the good guys even though she's working for Proctor and Koenig. Abel is least bad apart from Kira because his goals are not pure mayhem and destruction. He has a beef against Cain, which focuses his mayhem and destruction. He's on the less bad side of Cain, but yes, you're mostly looking at various shades of evil. [Laughs]
Finally Ibrahim, we've talked a lot about researching sociopaths and serial killers for this series but I wanted to ask you specifically about the art. There are some pretty gruesome things in even the first issue – an exposed spinal cord comes to mind – have you been looking at crime scene photos and images of severed body parts for your prep work?
Moustafa: I wish I could say that it's cathartic, but a lot of times I am just like, "Yikes, I need to go pet my dog for a while." [Laughs]
Definitely, this is something that I have never done before so it's a fun challenge. It is a little worrisome. Sometimes I come up with something and I think, "That's pretty cool." And then I am like, "Oh. That was inside of me." [Laughs] It's a fine balance in trying to find a way to convey that type of horror but not being gratuitous for gratuity's sake. I am definitely trying to find ways to imply a lot of the horror almost more of Hitchcockian approach to it. It's almost what you don't see is scarier than what you do see. But there are definitely moments when it has to be all-out carnage. There will definitely be some of that coming up.
"Savage Things" #1 is available now.