This month, self-styled “Mojo storyteller” Joe R. Lansdale (“Bubba Ho-Tep,” “Jonah Hex: Two-Gun Mojo”) and new talent Nathan Fox present a modern retelling of Robert E. Howard’s classic horror story, “Pigeons From Hell,” courtesy of Dark Horse. CBR News had a chance to speak with Lansdale and Fox about the miniseries, Howard’s works, and the abiding influence of Texas.
“'Pigeons From Hell’ is a Southern Gothic with a bit of tough Western tone thrown in,” Lansdale told CBR News. The story centers on a Louisiana house that’s been abandoned since Antebellum times. At dusk, the house releases scores of pigeons into the night air -- pigeons that, they say, are the souls of the damned escaping from the depths of Hell itself. In the Dark Horse comic, two young women find themselves heiresses to the mysterious estate and quickly discover the horrors within, which include shadow monsters and zombies. While trying to stay alive, the pair slowly unravels the evil history of the damned mansion.
Artist Nathan Fox praised both the original story and Lansdale’s modern retelling. “Pigeons from Hell,” he said, is “a beautifully written Southern-rooted horror story of voodoo, folklore and history at its unapologetically goriest... and an amazing adaptation of one of the freakiest imaginative writers and short stories I have ever read.”
As “Pigeons From Hell” is largely the story of a house, Lansdale believes a sense of place is vital to telling the story in comics, and his Texas background was a great resource. “Howard was from Texas, and East Texas is very much like Louisana,” he said. “There are trees and water and snakes and alligators. It is so far removed from Cormac McCarthy territory, and is much more like Flannery O'Conner territory. Howard, no matter where or when he was writing about, was always writing about Texas, which is bigger than life, and is more a place of the mind than a place of the earth.”
Fox also noted the importance of creating just the right atmosphere, once again drawing on real-life experiences in Texas. “Growing up in Houston and camping/traveling around East Texas and Louisiana, the scenario and location alone was enough to get me creeped out,” he said. “If you've ever spent any time out in the open terrain out there, there is something spiritually sinister and not of this world about the air. Freaked me out as a kid and made me jump at the opportunity to put some of that to pictures.
“Traveling and growing up in Texas had a lot to do with my referencing and mood,” Fox continued. “Both Howard and Lansdale's work sets the scene and brings everything to eerie/lucid life so well that I wanted to make sure, visually that that vitality was built into the characters and my part in it all. Cinematically, if I could. Hitchcock, Kubrick and other directors’ works were a big influence. As far as the characters and the house go, talking with Joe when we started he mentioned the 'Thriller’ TV series that Karlof hosted so I hunted down the episode of 'Pigeons from Hell’ that he saw on the series, and tried to pay homage to that episode and the set involved since it was such a big influence for him.
“And in terms of the characters I just kept at them till what I got on paper felt like what I had filmed in my head as I worked the story out. Borrowing from kids I knew from Louisiana and back home, adapting characters and celebrities that fit the descriptions. Just about anything I had at hand or could get a hold of that applied I researched and developed from. Alcebee, the lawman, and the shadow in the corn turned out to be the most difficult to nail down. They don't show up in the story till a good half way into the series but they needed to be just as important as the main characters if not more so - as mysterious and elusive as they are. Hopefully all the research and such comes through in the end and it all fits.”
When adapting a short story, it can sometimes be difficult to decide how much of the source material to keep and where to innovate. Lansdale suggested that he went back and forth quite a bit before finalizing his version of “Pigeons.” “Originally, I wanted to stick to it absolutely, but it was pointed out to me that had already been done, and so I broadened the view,” he said. “Too much at first, but then I went in and trimmed and tried to keep the main story and play around with a bit. I actually don't like to get too far from the story, but there were certain things in it that dated it quite a bit, which is fine for a historical, but I was asked to update it, thought about it, and did. It will never satisfy everyone. You can't when you're doing that kind of work.”
Having also contributed to the comic book universe of Conan the Barbarian, which R.E. Howard also created, Lansdale indicated a close appreciation for Howard as a storyteller. “I relate to Howard as a writer. I grew up in small town and few people understood my passion for books and writing,” he said. “Howard's death [from suicide], a very unromantic death in my view, and his problems with depression, were not like me, but I could relate to his day to day concerns, and worries about making a living, because like Howard, I didn't have an official degree. I'm self taught for better or worse.”
Coming from the world of design and illustration, “Pigeons from Hell” is Fox’s first comics series, though he has provided art for occasional issues of “DMZ” and other titles. “I have been fortunate enough to freelance as an illustrator full time for the last eight years for editorial/magazine work and advertising,” he explained, doing “one image or a series of images spread across multiple pages at a time. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy illustrating a great deal. But going beyond the single image and developing the story has been mind-blowing as well. It has really challenged how I see illustration work and I'm sure the illustration work has influenced the comic work. And I’ve been able to put more work on a single page than I ever thought was possible.
“I’m nervous and excited about the whole solo thing as anyone would be I can imagine. The shift into sequential work has been amazing and an ambition for a long time on top of everything else. Hopefully there will be more to come.”
Fox, whose upcoming work includes “Fluorescent Black,” written by M.F. Wilson, which will run in “Heavy Metal Magazine,” and an animated short for the new Tommy Hilfiger web site, admits he was unfamiliar with his collaborators, both contemporary and historical, before taking on “Pigeons.” “I didn't really know of Howard’s or Lansdale's work up until I was offered the gig,” he said. “I knew of the Barbarian, but that was about it. Once I got a hold of both of their works, though, I was in. I was blown away and honored to be handed such an amazing script my first solo shot out. I've worked with some amazing writers so far comics-wise. Hopefully I do Joe's work justice.”
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