Sam Costello on the rebirth of his horror site Split Lip

Halloween seems like a particularly appropriate day to write about Sam Costello's Split Lip, not only because the webcomics he writes are horror works of the most uncanny sort, but also because the website itself has just risen from the dead.

Costello decided to shut down Split Lip two and a half years ago, citing financial and creative reasons. He wrote about the grim financial picture even before that, but he's always been one to not only talk about his mistakes but also learn from them. When I ran into him in August at Boston Comic Con, he told me he was relaunching the site and had reprinted the graphic novels as well with a new approach. The relaunch happened this week, just in time for Halloween, and I took the opportunity to ask him what happened during his hiatus — and what has changed since 2012.

Brigid Alverson: In 2012, when you shut down Split Lip, you said you were going to take a bit of a break from writing — you were doing quite a lot at the time. How did that work out for you? Were you able to take that break, and how did it affect you when you returned to writing?

Sam Costello: A friend of mine once described me as the kind of person who just can’t not work on projects. He’s right. I did take time off from writing comics, but I didn’t stop writing. In the last couple of years I wrote about horror for Rue Morgue magazine and Amazing Stories, and about comics for Full Stop, among other things. I took some time off from writing comics, but not much. I couldn’t; I just kept having new ideas. I wrote the first of the new batch of Split Lip stories about seven months after ending the series in 2012.

At that time, I thought the stories would be a new series, something other than Split Lip. But the more I wrote, they were all coalescing around the same themes as I was interested in for Split Lip: identity, the essential unknowability of other people, what we draw meaning from in life, strangeness in the world. When I realized that, I knew that Split Lip would have to come back from the dead.

The time when I wasn’t writing comics, and between when I started again and now, gave me time to think about what I wanted out of comics and Split Lip, what was strong about my comics and what could be stronger, what I wanted my comics to say. Being able to take a break and reconsider some things has led, I think, to better comics.

You have always been pretty upfront about your finances, and when we talked in 2012 you said that a big part of the reason was financial. What has changed since then?

Not much! I still expect to lose money, but at the same time, things are different. I still think it’s important to pay artists a page rate and royalties for everything they do, so doing Split Lip is still expensive, but my ambitions are different and that completely changes how I view the results. In the first phase of Split Lip, I had aspirations of exhibiting at five to seven conventions a year, selling hundreds of books, even turning a profit of thousands of dollars. I saw Split Lip as the first step to a larger career in comics.

My goals are different now. I’d still love for Split Lip to start a career in comics — I’ve got other things I’d like to write — but not achieving that won’t be failure. I’d love to actually make money on my comics, but that’s not why I’m making them now. I’m making them because it's fun, for the joy of writing and collaborating, for the pleasure of producing these stories and these books.

How is the new website different from the old one?

The website right now isn’t that different. The main changes are under the hood: the software being used to present the comic, etc. In a month or so, though, we’ll be launching a redesigned site that makes the navigation a little less prominent and the most recent page more prominent. The typography will be improved (font technology on the web has come a long way in just two years), and the design will be more tablet-friendly. The new stories will be also presented in higher resolution, which should make the comics sharper and clearer for people viewing the site on Retina Display and other high-resolution screens.

Do you have new stories up yet?

Yes! The first four pages of the newest story are up now. The story is called “Victims,” and it’s drawn by the excellent Steven Perkins. I think people are going to be thrilled to see his art — I certainly was when I first came across his work and when the first pages for this story started hitting my inbox. “Victims” is about family dysfunction, traumatic childhoods, memory, and who counts as a victim in horror stories.

We’re posting 1 new page every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. "Victims" is 22 pages, so it will roll out through November and into December. After that, we have “Lone and Level,” about materialism and the meaning of life, which was drawn by Max Temescu, and “8 Days Alone,” about a man who is certain his girlfriend has come back from vacation a different person, drawn by Matthew Goik.

What about the collections — you reformatted those as well. Can you talk about what is different with the new editions?

The original Split Lip books collected the stories in roughly the chronological order that they were published on the site. That made sense at first, but as time went on it created some problems. At conventions people always wanted to know which was the first book. Since all the stories are self-contained, it doesn’t matter, but that is too confusing. It was also difficult to recommend a given book based on what kind of stories and horror readers liked. They were too mixed up.

I reformatted and resequenced the books. There are now five books, all 144 pages each and digest-sized, with new cover designs and different paper, organized around distinct themes. Last Caress is about uncanny events. The Harvestmen is about monsters. Termites in Your Smile tackles the horrific aspects of relationships, while The Cousin of Death collects my adaptations of murder ballads and folk tales. Not Sleeping Well is a bit more general horror. With those themes, it’s a lot easier for people to understand which book will be more interesting to them.

You've been doing this for a while. When you look at your early work, compared to now, how have you grown as a writer?

This question presupposes that I’ve grown at all! Honestly, I think I’ve grown in almost every way. I’m still very proud of my earliest stories, but any writer can look back at their older work and see things they’d now do differently. That’s certainly true for me. With the new stories I’ve been thinking a lot more about how to conclude horror stories without resorting to cliffhangers or gimmicky twists. A lot of my earlier stories were idea driven. That’s still how they start for me, but I’m striving to give the new stories more emotional depth to go along with the ideas. That means that they’re more concerned with fleshed-out characters. I hope that readers see that in them.

On a technical level, I’ve been experimenting with the interplay of dialogue/captions and the art, trying to use juxtaposition and contrast between the two elements to create additional meaning in the stories.

What are your goals going forward?

To reach as many people as possible with the stories. To push my writing into new areas and techniques. And just to have fun — and scare readers and ourselves while doing it.

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