REFLECTIONS #242: Chris Morgan & Kevin Walsh

It’s week three of BOOM! Studios Month here in REFLECTIONS! We spoke previously with Editor-in-Chief Mark Waid, followed by a conversation with “Cthulhu Tales” writers Steve Niles, Michael Alan Nelson and Tom Peyer, and we point the spotlight this week on Chris Morgan and Kevin Walsh, co-writers of the “Salem: Queen of Thorns” miniseries.

Set in colonial America and illustrated by Wilfredo Torres, “Salem” depicts the famous Witch Trials as orchestrated by a shadow organization -- and a bunch of gnarly spiders and tree demons. Now picture the colonial equivalent of Clint Eastwood kicking ass and taking names. That character is Elias Hooke, a hero BOOM! touts as in the tradition of Solomon Kane and Eastwood’s Man With No Name. In “Salem,” Hooke stands for the innocent against a coven of thirteen witches, each with a wicked power based in an aspect of Christ’s crucifixion.

“Salem: Queen of Thorns” began when Morgan (screenwriter of 'The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” and “Wanted”) and Walsh self-published a #0 issue for Comic-Con International in San Diego Comic. The storyline centered on actual witches living during the Salem Witch Trials caught the eye of BOOM! co-founder Ross Richie. The #0 issue was released for Free Comic Book Day, and the first “official” issue is on sale May 21.

Let’s get started by talking about the storyline behind “Salem."

Chris Morgan: In the time of the Salem witch trials, we discover two important things. The trials are part of a conspiracy run by a "Shadow Church" -- and actual witches do exist. But they're not the people being persecuted. Our witch here, the Queen of Thorns, is a monstrous arboreal demon with a plot to conquer the world.

Kevin Walsh: And our hero, Elias Hooke, is an ex-member of the Shadow Church who's broken from his crooked comrades to hunt the Queen on his own terms. Along the way, he picks up two allies, a young clergyman who's had his faith challenged by the witch trials, and an accused witch who harbors a dark secret. In addition to the Queen and her demonic minions, these three have to contend with Hopkins, the sadist who runs the trials for the Shadow Church.

Is this a story you want to expand further after the initial miniseries wraps?

CM: Yeah.

KW: See, it's just that kind of brevity that we strive to find in our comic writing. That succinct terseness, evocative and visceral, generating an ineffable power.

CM: Thanks.

KW: Anyway, issue #1 touches on the basics of our witch mythology and the rest of the series expands it -- to the point where there are many possibilities that beyond Hooke and the Queen.

CM: Hooke has locked horns with one of the greatest forces of evil in the world. I don’t want to spoil anything…

KW: Spoiler.

CM: …but let’s just say the world is bigger than he ever imagined. And darker. You don’t just walk away from a confrontation with that kind of power unscathed. And without even greater enemies. This is definitely a continuing story.

What attracted you to the witch-hunting era in the first place and how did the story develop from there?

KW: I'll defer to the man who first came to me and said "So there's this guy who hunts witches….”

CM: [laughs] Yeah, that’s how most of my story ideas sta“So there’s this guy…” Sometimes for variety it’ll be “So there’s this girl…” But basically that’s always my starting point. “So there’s this guy” is the seed of the creative idea and it blooms into a different story with each word that you string along after.

Anyway, I’ve always been interested in witches. My family has some obscure lore that I don’t quite buy, but I wish were true. My maternal grandmother always perpetuated this myth that, supposedly, my great-great-great-great-great grandmother -- maybe even an extra great or two in there -- was a woman accused of witchcraft in Springfield, Massachusetts, and my great-great-great, you get the idea, paternal grandfather was the judge who tried her case.

Whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter. What does is that, because of that story, I’ve always been interested in that time period and environment. I think the idea originated with the thought of what would happen if one of these arrogant pricks trying these innocents of “witchcraft” were to run face to face with a real witch. Not some waifish housewife, but a #$%^ing enormous bog monster with vast power. And suddenly there was the kernel of an idea. I ran it by Kevin and he started riffing. I riffed back, and before we knew it, Hooke and his journey were born.

KW: I fondly remember the riff session that hit on the question of "What specifically does the Queen want?" And in between sips of a delicious Fat Burger shake, the answer popped in, fully formed, carrying with it a whole train of possibilities that turned into our witch mythology.

CM: That's what you're going to leave them with?

KW: Please. It's only a five-issue arc. It's not like I'm holding out on the ending of “Lost” here.

How much of the creatures, like those super cool spidery-demons, was you guys and how much was Wilfredo Torres?

KW: We've lived with these characters for a long time, so we had some clear ideas on the look we wanted for them. But we love when the artist finds that unexpected angle. There've been a lot of emails and tweaks and Wilfredo had an additional hurdle of trying to honor some of the designs in the preview book while still making the piece his own. I think he did a great job and now that we're on into Issue 1, he's got a chance to bring in some more original stuff and it's looking sharp.

CM: I nearly failed art class in high school. What Wilfredo does is magic to me. I have no idea how he takes a description, visualizes it, then gets his hand to translate it to the page. It’s easy for Kevin and I to write “And a monstrous golem composed of iron hard wood and briars rises from the ground before Hooke.” But what you see is Wilfredo’s interpretation. His creation. The guy’s genius. Fred is the real deal. Creative. Collaborative. I mean, we built a world with him and his vision is on every page.

KW: I'm a sucker for his close-ups. We get these great expressive eyes and faces out of him. And his action looks dynamic, too. There are some panels of the Queen in issue #1 that I just want framed. One always comes to mind, of her leering demonic visage. The first time I saw it, I thought "Bingo. That’s the Queen."

You guys started out by self-publishing a #0 issue of “Salem.” What made you two feel the property was strong enough to merit self-publishing?

CM: The fact that it captured both our attentions so completely. We were absorbed with this dark hero Hooke cutting a swath of revenge across the semi-mythical landscape of colonial America in search of a fourteen-foot-tall elemental creature bent on the destruction of mankind. We had been discussing doing a comic together for some time, but when we couldn’t stop talking and brainstorming about Hooke, we knew we had the story to take the chance on.

KW: For me, it's always been about our witch mythology. I love the potential it has to spawn stories that can be set almost anywhere. And I just wanted to see if anybody else felt the same way. So, it was worth it just to do the preview book because of the great feedback we got at the Con. Folks grabbed the book on Friday and came back Saturday to talk about it, which was amazing. The subsequent deal with BOOM! was really just the icing on the cake.

Tell us a little about the process of self-publication as you guys saw it.

KW: I actually think we might be the poster boys for how not to self-publish, given the time and funds and little bits of our soul that went into that process. There had to be an easier way, don’t you think?

CM: Yeah, but in retrospect, I think the process is exactly the thing that kept us going. If something’s easy to do, it’s easy to put aside. But we committed to getting the #0 issue ready for the San Diego Comic-Con, and I think that sense of urgency and deadline kept us focused. Once we had the story in place and the notion to self-publish for the Con, we sat down and went through what exactly it would take and tried to schedule mini-deadlines for every piece: writing the #0 issue, hiring an artist, how long it would take to pencil, to ink, to hire a colorist, finding a print shop, etc.

KW: And the number of those elements we correctly projected was…?

CM: Zero. But the drive to finish by the Con kept us scrambling and finding creative ways around problems.

KW: That, and a lot of help and advice from people like Ivan Brandon and Mike Hawthorne.

Was Wilfredo Torres the same artist you commissioned?

KW: Actually, we worked with Mike Hawthorne and Erik Swanson on the preview book; a great pair of guys who were a big help in all facets of the process. And having Hawthorne definitely helped raise the profile of our book at the Con.

How did you attract BOOM!’s attention in the first place?

KW: I think it was when Chris stripped down to his underwear, glued all those twigs to himself, and cavorted around the convention floor, shouting "I'm the Queen of Thorns! Fear me!" Sheer marketing genius and well worth the restraining order.

CM: You swore you’d never mention that again, Kevin! And you agreed those parents over-reacted.

KW: It's true.

How is it working with BOOM! as your publisher?

CM: BOOM!’s been awesome. Ross Richie picked up a copy of the #0 issue at the Con and gave us a call after. We had a great creative meeting with Ross and [co-founder] Andrew Cosby and knew these guys were genuinely passionate about the story. In my writing career, I’ve always gone with passion over everything else. It’s a war to bring any creative endeavor to a production level, and people who care deeply about characters and story are the ones I always want in my corner. Ross, Andrew and Mark Waid are those kind of story-defenders.

KW: Thanks to BOOM!, we've got Mark frickin' Waid editing our first comic. 'Nuff said.

How much has the storyline or characters changed since that original #0 issue?

CM: Not much, really. After BOOM! picked up the book, we went back and took a harder look at our outline, which led to a few tweaks.

KW: I guess the biggest of those is the expanded roll of the Thrall, who makes his first appearance in issue #1. But, that being said, we're constantly adjusting as we go. The core plot is the same, but so far whenever we've gotten into the nuts and bolts of a particular issue, we've always come up with some new wrinkle that ripples down the line. Keeps things fresh. And my blood pressure high.

Alright, lightning round time. What was your first comic book?

KW: It was some issue of “The Fantastic Four” in my doctor's waiting room. All I remember is that Doom had them all trapped in his castle in customized cells. You know, that one time. But the first book I ever owned and really collected was “The Flash.” Barry Allen forever. All others are pretenders to the throne.

CM: First one I read was my brother’s Marvel Special Edition of “Star Wars.” I snuck it out of his collection to read and I remember I ripped one of the pages. Snuck it back in without telling him. To this day I still don’t think he knows. Yes, I’m a bastard.

KW: And there's no chance at all that Terry will ever read this interview. Your brother is so going to kick your ass.

Has there ever been a comic that touched you or changed your life?

KW: Comics in general shaped my whole childhood, but a single issue or title? Can't do it. Maybe the triple whammy of “Dark Knight Returns,” “Watchmen” and “Sandman” wowing me with the idea that comics were growing up with me.

CM: “Preacher” blew me away. The characters, the dialogue. I mean, Arseface? C’mon! Garth Ennis expanded the universe of comics for me.

What is your biggest strength as a writer?

KW: Chris is always imagining the next cool thing and isn't afraid to lob a creative grenade into the process. Which sometimes makes me nuts, because it always happens just as we're putting the final touches on something. For my part, I think I do well trying to piece those various shiny bits back into the overall mosaic. So between the two of us, we generally end up with something totally different and better than what either of us initially pitched.

CM: Yep, to be a solid team writer, the biggest strength you can have is being able to listen to the note behind the note and give up on ideas that you think are completely awesome -- but just don’t service the story as well as they should. I think Kevin and I are both strong in that regard.

Biggest weakness?

CM: Being paralyzed for an hour searching for the “right” word. I think it was Mark Twain who said something like “the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Or something like that. Either way, he’s right -- but damn him, there’s also an argument for just getting the idea down and fixing it once you’ve laid the story out. Intellectually, I know the argument but still get stuck in the time-consuming “right” word trap.

KW: Procrastination. Because truthfully, I hate writing. But I also hate myself for blowing off writing. And I really love having written something. Which all adds up to procrastinating like hell, but eventually getting it done. Which is why I love deadlines and collaboration. They force me to get stuff done.

If you could only write one comic for the rest of your career, what would it be?

KW: I wouldn't mind “Salem.” We've got a folder of ideas that keeps growing. Coming up with other “Salem” side stories is actually our preferred form of procrastination next to “Rock Band” and “Halo 3.”

CM: You didn’t really expect us to say anything else, did you?

What is the best comic book movie ever made? And Chris, “Wanted” isn’t out yet, so you can’t pick it!

CM: Touch. Well-phrased. And the answer in that case is “300.” I loved the graphic novel and loved the film. They’re both tragic and inspirational at the same time. Amazing.

KW: “Spider-Man 2” and “Batman Begins” are both the best. Hands down. If anyone wants to fight about it, we can step outside.

What is your weirdest convention experience?

CM: Probably trying to convince my then-three-year-old daughter to take a picture with a Tusken Raider. I’m sitting there going, “No, honey, he’s not scary. He’s a nice Tusken Raider.” Then, after getting the photo realizing, “Oh my god, I’m that father.”

KW: Having gone for many, many years as a fan, the whole experience of having a table for the “Salem” preview book was a surreal through-the-looking-glass weekend. Also, the time I was at a Dragon-Con in Atlanta as a teen and ended up in an elevator with Stan Lee. The coolest 22 floors of my life.

If you could only be remembered for one thing in your career, what would it be?

KW: "That 'Salem’ guy" would be fine with me.

CM: Saving the world from alien overlords. For reals.

Now discuss this story in CBR’s Indie Comics forum.

Tags: boom! studios, wilfredo torres, chris morgan, salem: queen of thorns, kevin walsh

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