Without getting all political on you – my dear readers – the witches I remember from my childhood tend to be of the crone variety as well. Between "The Wizard of Oz" and Bugs Bunny Halloween cartoons, this is what I was exposed to and I recall it with a certain amount of fondness – and fear. Apparently, I'm not the only one.
At the upcoming Comic-Con International in San Diego, readers will have the chance to pick up "Salem," a twelve-page black-and-white preview book from The Conspiracy Factory, available exclusively at the con. The book is packed with the kind of witches that give sweet little kids nightmares. The comic is written by Chris Morgan (screenwriter of "S.W.A.T.," "Cellular," and "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift") and Kevin Walsh (writer for National Lampoon and Mondo Media) with art by Mike Hawthorne ("Umbra," "Hysteria: One Man Gang," "3 Days in Europe").
The writers and artist were kind enough to sit down with CBR News and chat about this project and their plans for the book. Prepare yourselves – the witches are coming!
Chris and Kevin, how did the story come about and how was it decided to write the story together?
Chris Morgan: For my part, I can say that "Salem" really began for me about thirty years ago – I'm 35 now, so do the math. I was reading this crazy illustrated book in the kids' area about this witch that lived in a monstrous house of rosebushes, and it freaked the crap out of me. I'm sure it was meant to be totally innocent, but something about those images just felt wrong and sinister, and it stuck with me. Did I mention I'm a total puss?
Anyway, now flash-forward twenty-odd years where a nugget of an idea starts rumbling around in the back of my head; nothing fully thought-out, more just an image of a period character battling a fourteen foot tall elemental witch. Kevin and I had collaborated on other projects prior to this, so when I told him about the rough images, the idea caught fire for both of us and we started zinging a flurry of story points back and forth. Since we're both obsessive with this genre, we pounded out the story pretty quickly.
Kevin Walsh: Chris initially pitched me "Salem" as a comic book idea a few years back. We've known each other for a long time and have developed material for features and video games, so the creative relationship was already there. Plus, he knows I'm a lifelong comic fan. The irony is that we took a whack at it as a comic, then decided to adapt it into a feature screenplay, and have now come full circle with a retooled and improved version of the story as a comic book…which has in turn inspired us to do a new draft of the screenplay. At this point, we might as well do a novel while we're at it, followed by a laser show and interpretive dance revue.
How was Mike brought onboard as the artist?
CM: Kevin and I looked at quite a few other artists, many of them very good, but for various reasons, the match wasn't right. Finally a screenwriter friend, Jonathan Davis, put us in touch with Ivan Brandon – the writer of "NYC Mech" and all-around good guy. He really took us under his wing and helped guide us through the process, showing us the works of several artists and putting us in contact with some of the best in the business. When we saw Mike's art, Kevin and I instantly knew he was the guy.
KW: We were very fortunate to be introduced to Mike via a mutual friend because he came to us as the complete package. He's a consummate pro with tons of experience and a great sense of visual storytelling. One look at his portfolio and we knew he could pull off the atmosphere we wanted for the book. And maybe most importantly, he was able to take the story – which we'd written in full script format – and run with our invitation to use it as a springboard rather than a sacred text.
We could have hired some talented draftsmen earlier in the process, but Mike's ability and willingness to improvise off the initial script was a real boon. Although we're rookies, we were smart enough to know we were rookies, and so we made sure to hook up with an artist who could find and expand the potential in the script, take it to the next level, and make us look good in spite of our mistakes. Plus, Mike has been a wealth of information on the business and production end of things, so we don't just have great pages, we've got honorary degrees from the Mike Hawthorne School of Comic Book Production.
To go back to an earlier comment you made, you said you originally took the idea for this book and turned it into a film script, correct?
CM: Since Kevin and I were both fledgling screenwriters at the time, (we wrote the story as a screenplay at first). But what we wrote was probably the most expensive action/horror film in history – bloody as hell and with CG (computer-generated effects) out the wazoo. Funny, turns out studios don't want to risk $150,000,000 on a period horror film…hmm. Anyway, Kevin and I really loved the characters and the story and decided that a comic book gave us the freedom to tell the story we wanted at a price we could afford to do ourselves.
KW: It was initially conceived as a comic book, but when we were working it up, neither Chris nor I had any connection to (or conception of) comic book production other than being fans. And drawing it ourselves was not a viable option – I have the sketches to back that up. So with no artist and no clue how to proceed, we were momentarily stymied. When things picked up for Chris in screenwriting, we decided to rework the story as a spec screenplay. The draft had some great action which lots of folks loved but no one could afford, then other projects pushed it to the back burner before we found the drive to go back and whack it down to size.
Then, fairly recently, we fell into a fresh discussion about "Salem" and decided that the idea needed to find life in some medium. A few years older and wiser, and now with some connections to folks who know comics, we retooled "Salem" as a comic. And ironically, the fresh work we've done and the great art we're getting from Mike has inspired us to rewrite the screenplay to reflect the improved story. Of course, the comic has the added bonus that the budget restrictions are out the window – if we can imagine it, Mike can draw it and bang! It's in there.
Nice. So what is the story about?
CM & KW: In 1673, people are condemned for witchcraft by a fanatical arm of the church – a kind of American Inquisition. But these people are innocent. Witches exist, but they are not soothsaying crones or alluring maidens. They are monstrous, horrible, demonic beasts – immortal beings of great power and cunning with armies of minions and thralls. There are only thirteen of them, and one of them – The Queen of Thorns – is on the verge of seizing a talisman that will grant her ultimate power. One man, ex-Inquisitor Elias Hooke, learns the truth about witches and breaks ties with the church. Armed with a blend of guns, blades and magic, the heretic defies the church doctrine to carry out a lone quest to find and destroy the Queen of Thorns.
Is the book based on historical facts, fantasy, or a combination of both?
CM: Definitely a combo of both – enough history to ground the fantastical elements from floating away. Also, the time period really helped us so much with atmosphere that we wanted to use it as much as possible. For us, the 1600's were one of the last few times in American history where we had any real mythology in our own backyard. There were no electric lights, towns were at the edge of wild, dark forests…we were kind of at the mercy of the dark.
KW: "Salem" takes the witch trials in Salem, Mass. as a jumping-off point, but from there it's a fantasy construct that indulges in some dramatic license as far as history goes. For instance, in our version of the events, the witch trials are part of a vast movement organized by the church – a kind of American version of the Inquisition spearheaded by a clandestine order of witch-hunters known as the Black Brothers.
Plus, there are the demonic hybrid spider-people and a monstrous immortal witch made from iron-hard briars, which I was shocked to discover are not usually mentioned in most history books. And I think that's really an indictment of our modern educational system. In fact, it's my hope that "Salem" will one day be adopted as part of the curriculum to teach kids the real facts. Our motto is "No witch left behind."
Mike, was any research for the art needed? Or did you just let your imagination go wild?
Mike Hawthorne: A bit of both, actually. I had things I had to get exactly right, since they were real world things. Like, the "ducking stool" – I had to track one down and figure out how it worked for a few scenes.
The style of dress for the time, the town…hell, even the spiders for the Spider Demons all needed research.
Once I gather all the refs, then everything else is imagination.
In the book's myspace account under "Who I'd like to meet," you say: "Everyone who knows that witches aren't warty old crones or unjustly-accused maidens and agrees that it's past time we powerful, monstrous creatures and our hordes of demon minions were featured in a kick-ass comic."
So are these witches good, bad or both? Pretty, ugly, or pretty ugly?
MH: I'd bet on the last one. Heh…
Hm. So these aren't the "wiccas" who believe in earth-loving goddesses? What kind of witches are these?
MH: Ha! The Queen of Thrones would love a "wicca" – with some toast and mustard!
CM & KW: In the world of "Salem," there are three key things to remember about witches: They're not human. They're entirely evil. And they want you dead.
Most of the people dying in these witch trials are innocent. Some are evil. Some may have even made pacts with witches. But none of them are witches themselves.
Witches, in our mythology, are monstrous, demonic, immortal beings. They have vast powers and armies of minions that include hybrid demons and human thralls. To go toe-to-toe with a genuine witch, you'd have to be mad. Or you'd have to be Elias Hooke.
Witches are so powerful that there have only ever been thirteen of them. This Coven of Thirteen is born out of the Crucifixion. God sacrifices his Son for mankind, but in the world of "Salem," God still feels anger for that death. Because he's ultimately merciful, He sets aside that anger…but it doesn't die. Thirteen elements present at the Crucifixion are imbued with that rage and become the witches.
If you think of the Devil as the personification of God's pride, then the witches are His wrath. Each one draws from that pool of tainted divine power and each one is bent on the torment and ruin of mankind. They're the Earthly manifestation of the darkest parts of God's own soul. The only thing we have going in our favor is that the Thirteen don't necessarily work in concert. They're all scrambling to knock each other off and absorb the power of their sisters. If any one witch ever succeeds in consolidating their collective power, we'll be looking at a definite end-of-the-world scenario.
Who are the main characters? What can you tell us about them?
CM: Each major storyline revolves around the hunting and destruction of one of the witches in the Coven of Thirteen. In the first issue, Elias Hooke, former-Inquisition-Master-Confessor-turned-driven-witch-hunter is hunting the Queen of Thorns – a hulking bog witch made entirely of thorny briars and roots – so they are our primary focus. But as Hooke progresses in his quest to kill the Queen, her sisters will take up the hunt. Hooke's in for a bumpy road and, hey, no one ever said he'd make it out alive.
Branded a heretic by the church, he's at odds with the other Black Brothers, particularly Brother Hopkins, a sadist who lusts for power and enjoys torturing innocents. Hooke is also thrown into a reluctant partnership with Deacon Wood, a young priest suffering a crisis of faith, and Hannah Foster, an accused witch who is innocent of witchcraft, but who still harbors some dark secrets.
I assume the story takes place in Salem, Mass, correct? When does it take place?
CM & KW: The story begins in Salem, Mass around the time of the witch trials,specifically the late seventeenth century.
What are some of your favorite depictions of witches in movies, TV, or books?
CM: Hands down, I'd have to say Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman in "Practical Magic" because I'd love to work a threesome out with them. Now that would be true magic.
Coming in a distant second, though, I am the only one on planet earth who thinks this, but I truly loved the depiction (or lack thereof) of the witch in "The Blair Witch Project." She'd mess with your head, make baby noises and was covered in fur! Creepy, man, creepy...
KW: Well, there's Elizabeth Montgomery and her cute little twitchy nose. As a kid, she made me think marrying a witch would be pretty cool. And Alyson Hannigan on "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" is hands down the cutest witch ever. Throw in Hermione from "Harry Potter" and you've got the classic maiden/mother/crone witch model – except they're all too young for the roles. But give it time...
And what? No wizards? That's discrimination. Gandalf, Merlin, Dumbledore, Belgarath, and Raistlin Majere. John Constantine also counts as a wizard in my book, and a damn fine one, too.
Of course, you won't find any of these character types in "Salem" because the main idea was always to take witches from a completely fresh angle – to make them truly and completely monstrous.
MH: As for me, I kinda liked the chick from Bewitched.
What was your process in writing the script and breaking it down? Was it written in "film script" style and Mike did the breakdowns?
CM & KW: Well, as mentioned earlier, the script originated in comic book format, then the story changed as it became a feature script. Then we changed the story again and went back to a comic version in "full script" format. When we approached Mike, we gave him license to improvise off the panel layouts proposed in the script, and the changes he implemented have all made the finished book much better.
What did you think of your first experience writing comics? Would you have any interest in doing it again?
CM: Kevin and I had a blast and we're already thinking of the next project in the pipeline. We have a couple of great ones (all I'm going to say is "samurai"), but "Salem" is our passion right now, and we can't wait to see if people dig it like we do.
KW: Are you kidding? Every fanboy dreams of scribbling some words on a page, then suddenly someone sends you a collection of rough pencils, your eyes pop out, and then you realize "Hey, this is my story!" Do it again? I'd do it 24/7/365.
As "Salem" is being offered exclusively at the San Diego Comic-Con, what are your future plans for the book? Limited series? Ongoing? Is the Conspiracy Factory publishing it? Or are you looking for a publisher?
CM & KW: The plan right now is to put the Queen of Thorns portion of "Salem" out as a limited series. With regard to future prospects – there are twelve other witches with stories that span from AD 33 to the present to who-knows-when. And even though they're all part of the sweeping history of the Coven of Thirteen, they lend themselves to modular releases along the lines of the "Sin City" model. We also have ideas for a companion title that could carry shorter format stories set around the fringes of the main mythology.
The question of whether we'll continue to publish them ourselves hasn't really been discussed. At this point, we're just focused on getting the book out, making it as cool as possible, learning all we can from the process and having a blast while doing it.
Do any of you currently read any comic books? If so, which ones? If there aren't any current comics you follow, are there any in the past that you've read and enjoyed?
KW: Growing up, I was completely into Marvel and the various X-books, plus Miller's "Daredevil" and "G.I. Joe." On the DC side, I loved the Barry Allen Flash. Then I segued into "Sandman" and "Hellblazer" and the other early Vertigo books. These days, I'll read anything by Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Frank Miller or Warren Ellis; the ABC titles, "Top Ten," the "Sin City" books, and "Planetary." And I've enjoyed several of the Ultimate books, especially "X-Men."
MH: The only books I follow regularly are "100 Bullets," "Blade of the Immortal," and "Love and Rockets." I'll pick up stuff here and there if I dig the art...
What excites you most about this book?
CM: That we're doing it just for the joy of sharing the story with people who might appreciate it. That…and fourteen foot tall bog witches. Hot!
KW: That it's finally going to exist as something more than a script? Heck, I'm going to sit at a booth at Comic-Con with a stack of books and get to say "I made this". For the twelve-year-old in me, it doesn't get any better than that. Now all I need to do is buy a video game arcade, score in the World Cup, and walk on the moon and I'll have all my life goals checked off.
In terms of the content though, I love action and I love horror and "Salem" is a chance to get elbow deep into both genres. The way we used to pitch the concept was Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name" meets "The Exorcist." And I think, how can you not love being a part of that?
MH: That's it's fun. That's my main concern right now. Having fun, and pushing myself creatively. Chris and Kevin have a great comic here, and it's been a thrill to help them flesh it out.
Do you have anything else coming up in terms of projects you're working on?
CM: Now that "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" is done, I'm plugging away at "Wanted" and "The Psycho" full-time. Short of the time I get to play hookey with "Salem," that's pretty much all to report for now.
KW: Chris and I are banging out some new "Salem" ideas and we've got a Western story which we might tackle as a feature or another comic. I've also developing some feature ideas on the side.
MH: I have a few things on deck with one of the "Big Two" but I can't say just yet. Once I can say more you'll be the first to know, George. Promise!
I'm going to hold you to that, Mike. Thanks for your time, and I'll see you at Comic-Con!