Sideshow Freak: Bryan Johnson Explores the World of "Karney"

What is it about traveling carnival's that makes them so creepy? Is it just the odd attractions like "The Bearded Lady" that freak us out? Is it the nomadic lifestyle the carnival worker leads, going from city-to-city and never settling down? Or is it something else entirely?

Starting in April of 2005, writer Bryan Johnson and artist Walt Flanagan will explore those questions and more in the four-issue IDW Publishing series "Karney."

You're probably saying to yourself right now, "Wait, where do I know those names from?" They should be familiar to you. Johnson and Flanagan have both appeared in numerous films from writer/director Kevin smith as Steve-Dave and "Fanboy," respectively. Johnson also wrote and directed the 2000 film release "Vulgar," the dark story of one clown with a past he'd like to remain secret. CBR News caught up with Johnson to learn more about his first comics project.

"'Karney' is a four-issue series that takes you into the world of an old timey traveling carnival which also harbors a dark secret," Johnson told CBR News. "Named after the ringmaster and owner of the sideshow, they call themselves Othello's Cavalcade of Oddities. Winding their way through the deep south, they stop to entertain small remote towns who have limited access to the outside world. The Cavalcade happens upon a town called Broken Oak and the story takes off from there. It's a period piece (mid 1800's) and the townspeople are fairly jazzed that their otherwise hum-drum life is going to be injected with a little fun.

"The biggest proponent of the sideshow is a boy named Tobias who in time begins to suspect that maybe something sinister lurks beneath the veneer of the Cavalcade. The punch is, being so remote the town has no means of communication should they need to call for help. (that's a little hint that some shit is gonna go down)."

Johnson says that the characters in "Karney" are broken down into two distinct groups; the townspeople, or as he calls them the "Normies," and the Cavalcade or "Freaks."

"Clearly the freaks are the more interesting of the two," said Johnson. "We've included some of the old standbys like the bearded lady, the fat woman and the skinny man, but have also included a few that have more unusual 'talents.' Toho is a man who wields a straight razor, slashing himself and then stitching the wound on the spot. Alanzo, who will eat anything put before him, Mrs. X and Baby X, a mother and child who have had their mouths and eyes sewn shut and Rodale, a sex-crazed limbless man who wears a body sock.

"What I like about the performers is that essentially they're one big dysfunctional family. They argue, get on each other's nerves, and run to Othello with just about every little tiff they have. Othello, being the paternal figure in this family, many times finds himself an unwilling King Solomon."

One of the inspirations for "Karney" comes from Tod Browning's "Freaks," the 1932 horror classic. "The flick was an incredibly ballsy move that I guess was kind of his undoing, but maybe one of the most nightmarish films ever. I saw it first when I was in jr. high and have watched it countless times since.

"Originally, I had wanted to do ['Karney'] as a film and it was written as such. After reading it, Bob Hawk, a friend of mine said two things 1) 'It's going to be hard to raise the budget for a film like this due to the limited audience appeal' and 2) 'You wouldn't want to meet the audience for this film.' Walter loved the script and we decided to give it a go as a comic imagining that we would probably self-publish. After Walter had drawn the first issue he suggested that we try to submit it to a publisher and in his estimation IDW was the company to try to go with. The story is dark and weird and IDW is the one company that not only seemed like it wasn't shying away from stories with a horrific slant to them, but were actually embracing them. This will totally make me sound like a company man, but truthfully, I loved '30 Days of Night.' It was one of those stories that after reading I was like 'damn, I wish I had thought of that.' So we submitted it and [IDW Editor-In-Chief] Chris Ryall really dug it and kind of championed it over there."

Johnson says he feels that "Karney" is something of a throwback to the exploitive horror films of the '70s and early '80s. He grew up devouring horror films and they clearly influenced his work.

"The writing style isn't exactly grindhouse like Rob Zombie is doing these days (how great was 'House of 1000 Corpses?'), it's more strange and off kilter. I know Walter was really taken with the pacing of 'I Am Legend' and was mindful of the quieter times as well as the action and his art kind of reflects that."

But what is it that makes those traveling carnivals so ripe for creepy, horrific stories? Johnson has some thoughts on the matter, noting that the modern sideshow has nothing on it's earlier counterpart.

"People are just naturally drawn to the morbid, dark, and curious," said Johnson. "Anything existing on the fringes of normalcy is just more interesting than our daily lives. In some Asylums in the mid 1800's people would pay an admission to tour the building and observe caged or leashed patients, which is a testament to how much people love to see weird and lurid stuff.

"I don't feel like the modern sideshow has the same flavor and impact on the audience. We have so much information because of our access to so many different media outlets that people have become kind of desensitized, more informed and not so naive. Also, part of the difference today is that the freaks are largely self-made. Anyone who is willing to tattoo or pierce themselves to a questionable degree is considered a freak and the modern sideshow also lends itself to performers who are willing to torture themselves and have mastered pain manipulation. It doesn't seem as genuine to me. That's why the story takes place back in the day. It was a return to simpler times and simpler people. It's easier to believe that it could happen."

Johnson says he's been to a few sideshows, those more along the lines of the Jim Rose Circus, and related one story from ten years ago of a state fair visit he made with Flanagan where they paid $1 to look in on the world's smallest woman.

"She was sitting in this little box watching TV. I thought it was strange how she didn't acknowledge anyone who was looking at her, but in retrospect I guess I might have been doofus #15,237 that day, so to expect a wave and smile was probably a little silly of me."

Currently only this four-issue mini-series is scheduled, but if fan response is positive you might be seeing more stories of this traveling circus in the future.

"The series is set up in such a way that it lends itself to sequel and if we get a positive enough response, prequel. The characters are really colorful and interesting with pretty good potential for backstory.

"Walter and I have a few other ideas as well that would be right in line with the stuff IDW is doing, so with any luck the book will find an audience and we'll be able to do more."

It's no secret that hardest aspect of launching a new comic series is simply getting the word out. With both his and Flanagan's appearances in numerous Kevin Smith films, this should give them a slight edge over a complete newcomer, but Johnson knows the battle is still a tough one.

"Having the built in audience will help tremendously," said Johnson. "Kevin's website gets an enormous amount of traffic so the awareness of the project will get a huge boost from that. That's not to say they'll all buy the book but if it's anything like the old shampoo commercial - "and they told two friends…and they told two friends...and they told two friends..." - we'll be in business. Walter and I are also old hands at the Wizard comic-cons and have met many people over the years. If they happen to go into a comic shop and see our names on the cover, I think they'll pick it up. Our names don't have huge marquee value, but they're recognizable and any little advantage helps in the comics game."

As for further getting the word out, Johnson has a couple of thoughts in mind already.

"Well, right now I'm trying to get Walter to take sword swallowing lessons so we can take our act on the road and drum up some business. But between the full time dad gig he's got going on and finishing the art on the project, it's not looking too promising."

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