As we continue our chat with Steve Niles as part of our look at horror during this here Halloween Week, we change our focus for the moment from talking about the books he's writing to his thoughts on horror, who's been the biggest influences on his writing and working in the comics industry.
While he's now a major force and influence within the genre, keep in mind that before his successes he was simply a horror fan like anyone else. He turned that fascination with the macabre into a job. Most readers may think this guy just walked onto the comics scene with "30 Days of Night" in 2002, coming from no where, but that's not true. Niles had worked for years writing his horrific tales, trying to get someone to look at them, publish them or just to talk to him about his work with not a whole lot of luck. Since the publication of "30 Days" his stock has risen exponentially, to the point where his name sells comics, a fact Niles can't quite wrap his mind around.
"How weird is that? Can I just say that? Now we can book end things by comparing this interview to the first interview we did sitting in Arune House [a Thai restaurant in Toluca Lake, California]. How weird is that? At that time we were talking about how I was harassing everybody to buy 'Fused.' I don't think '30 Days of Night' was even out yet. I think we were talking about grass roots publicity and how to survive on minimal sales."
Niles and I met for dinner that night back in 2002 and we discussed the various books he was working on for Todd McFarlane as well as the "Spawn 2" script the two were writing. His big push at the time was for the first "Fused" series coming from Image Comics. "30 Days of Night" hadn't even been announced and Niles couldn't talk about it quite yet, but he did bring a folder along with him with print outs of the work that Ben had completed. After we finished the interview I recall talking with Niles about grassroots promotion and just how to get people interested in talking to him about his work. Oh how things have changed.
With his name now holding greater weight, one might ask if he's considered doing more long form original graphic novels in place of the monthly 22 page format.
"I think I'm heading more and more in that direction," said Niles. "I think that's more of an IDW decision. Right now putting out four issues over four months and then collecting it, it's just more ways to pay for it. It's also very hard for IDW and the artist to just sit there and say, 'Now, go do Ninety pages.'"
Niles noted that the investment of time and money into a long form OGN makes the production of a comic more like how they make movies, where you have a considerable investment of time and money up front, all with the hope that the thing you created pays off in the end. Niles happily embraces the monthly format, finding that grind actually works to his advantage.
"I would like to do it [OGN's], but a lot of the series work I do I write to deadline. About half the stuff I write I do ahead of time, but, for instance 'Dark Days' I was exactly one issue ahead of Ben the whole time. I liked that. You can't have that same spontaneity when you plan the whole thing in advance.
"I like hearing fans reactions to the first issue when I'm working on the third issue. It's fun. Do I make changes? Sometimes. Sometimes it helps me when I see how they really like a particular character, then I think 'Great! I'm gonna kill him!'
Niles noted that the various online communities he's taken part in have impacted his work, especially when he was working on 'Dark Ages' for Todd McFarlane Productions. Today, Niles admits, he has a better understanding of what people like, yet his own community still influences some of his decisions.
"It's so bizarre just having people responding to this material. I'm still coping with that. They like me!"
Looking at horror in comics today, Niles feels DC Comics' Vertigo line has always been a good place to go to, feeling they have a good sensibility for the material, but thinks they pull their punches too much.
"I think they need to dirty their hands a little bit," said Niles. "It's odd, though, because they don't in some respects and they do in others. They've got their attitude, they've got their extremes and that's what they do and they won't do anything outside of that. I've read 'Hellblazer' since the first issue, I've always loved it, but I don't think of it as horror a lot of the time. It's like 'my ongoing supernatural drama.' There's no horror because I know the main character is always going to be safe and I know he's always going to come back. I know they have to put out 'Hellblazer' and if they do kill him, I'm gonna know about it four months in advance. If I have one problem with Vertigo it's that they get a little pretentious every now and again, but it's part of the charm, too.
"I know that a bunch of horror stuff just came in from Image, but I haven't really read it. I've been reading a lot of the Dark Horse stuff. I love Eric Powell and love 'The Goon.' 'The Blackburne Covenant' I think is really cool and it looks fricken' great. What other horror stuff is out there? I think most of it is in movies and TV and I don't see much of it in comics and when they do, they always super hero it up. They do a horror idea and then they put them into leotards which always absolutely sterilizes it for me."
The fact of the matter is that today there's more horror product being published than in the last five years. Niles isn't certain why it's this way, but is happy to see events turn in this direction.
"I think the interest has always been there and the interest in variety has always been there. Pick any genre and apply the word 'good' or 'quality' to it and people will want it. Do people want bad westerns? No! Do they want good? Probably, but they don't know because no one is doing it. Same thing with war comics. You've just got to find the right angle and right attitude for it."
Niles isn't comfortable with the suggestion that his success has spawned this resurgent interest into horror comics, but feels his own attitude towards the material has helped raise enthusiasm.
"I think the only thing that I brought to horror comics [that wasn't there before] is that I fucking love them," said Niles. "I love horror. I love vampires and monsters and I'm not ashamed of it. I think that's the only thing that's new and or refreshing.
"Most of the time when people have done horror comics in the past 10, 15, 20 years it's all been E.C. take offs. That formula, I don't particularly know what it came out of, but a lot of time with the E.C. stories the bad guys were the lead characters. They would do bad things and then the innocent people would rise from the grave and kill them. We don't really do that kind of horror anymore."
As for what makes for good horror comics, Niles knows how important a good story is to the success of a series, but finding the right artist can make or break it entirely.
"This is a case where guys like Ben [Templesmith] and a lot of artists have helped out. First thing, get the mood right. Keep the unexpected because you're not going to get the jump scare. You're never going to make someone jump when they turn the page, but you can certainly creep them out. One of the things I try to do is that none of my characters are safe. That's why I like doing the mini-series, you don't know what the outcome is going to be. You really have to go for the unexpected. That is your best tool in horror comics to me.
"Human emotion in general is important. The thing that doesn't work for me in horror is, take the slasher movies for instance, where they just introduce you to these six characters. Character one, character two, etc., and they're just fodder. You don't care about them. It's the stories where you care about the people and their relationships that you become frightened for their well-being and makes it scary."
Looking to the history of horror comics, Niles has his favorites. Of course there's always the legendary stories printed by E.C. Comics. In addition Niles mentioned names like Richard Corben and Bernie Wrightson. He also mentioned Lee Elias, a comic artist who did a number of pre-code horror comics in the '50s, specialized in horror comics for Warren Publishing and famous for his work on "Black Cat."
Switching our focus to film, Niles has spent a lifetime watching them what makes for a good film, in his opinion, can be summed up in two simple words, "Smart ones."
"Those that are just a little different, that try to do something a little more original. I really liked '28 Days Later' because of the way it came at you as a character driven zombie story. I thought that was really great. I enjoyed 'House of 1000 Corpses' a lot. I thought it was so much fun. Especially for a horror movie, it was so colorful. It had a good spirit to it. 'Freddy vs. Jason' was fantastic because it didn't try to be anything more than what it was."
Niles fascination with horror began when he was young with both comics and film.
"Oh yeah, I bought the first issue of 'Fangoria.' I had my whole 'Famous Monsters' collection. The first comic I ever read was 'Creepy' #1, which my Mom yanked out of my hands in church!
"[The first horror film I saw was]…'Night of the Living Dead.' I remember the night watching it. It came on the TV, I'm lying on the floor and it just freaked me out! Completely frightened me. It had that sort of documentary feel, it was black and white and as a kid I couldn't understand if it was a movie or not. The whole time I was like, 'Are they eating them? Are they eating people?' Then they went to that shot where they show you what they're doing outside and 'Oh my God! They're eating dead people!'"
His absolute favorite horror films are some of the very same ones that we all remember fondly.
"My favorites have always been the simple ones," said Niles. "The original 'Dracula' and 'Frankenstein.' the original 'Nosferatu.' I loved the horror movies of the '70s like 'Rosemary's Baby.' They just took their time and built their characters. I don't know when the last time was you saw 'Rosemary's Baby,' but the movie holds up great. Then I jump immediately to 'Halloween' and 'Alien.' 'Alien' and the remake of 'The Thing' are perfect character driven horror stories to me. You really care about those people. Just good quality writing, filmmaking and acting.
"I'm a big fan of a lot of the '50s schlock, which a lot of people have a hard time with because they have really shitty monsters, but the stories are pretty good. Like 'I Was a Teenage Werewolf.' Good movie! Same with 'Monster on the Campus,' 'Invasion of the Saucer Men.' If you ever watch 'It, the Terror from Beyond,' it's 'Alien!' It's 'Alien' in the fifties. You just have to get past these horrible rubber suits and wobbly sets. These movies were made in like two weeks, but they were good stuff."
The writer finds that today horror is very much moving in the right direction.
"As a genre, I think it's getting healthier. I think it's doing well and there are a lot of people who are enthusiastic about it. The people who put out movies, it's caught their attention and hopefully that leads to some good quality movies coming out."
For purists, horror in the the 1990s took a bit of a detour with films like "Scream" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer." Those type of films don't bother Niles as a horror fan, but thinks they served their purpose and is glad the genre is getting back to its roots.
"'I Know What You Did Last Summer,' I don't know, what, the Old Spice man is attacking people? Captain Salty is back? For whatever reason they never scared me, but the production was always good. The 'Scream' ones I always thought were more fun. I just felt like those weren't made for me, but I enjoyed them fine. It was just a clever take at the time, but now it's time to move on and get back to the monsters!
"I can jump back and watch 'Friday the 13th' and 'A Nightmare on Elm Street.' Those were the 'Sceam's' and 'I Know What You Did Last Summer' when I was a kid. I know on a lot of levels they're crap, but I just enjoy them."
Niles has a number of horror writers he points to as great influences on his work.
"I always say Richard Matheson. John Carpenter. I think there's maybe only one movie by him I don't like, 'Memoirs of the Invisible Man,' but all the others I really enjoyed! George Romero, Sam Raimi, Clive Barker, Steven King. I'm a closet 'Dreamcatcher' fan, just because of the monster's exit plan, I guess we'll call it. I love the ass-monster! 'The Shining,' 'The Stand,' 'Carrie,' those are just great horror books. Clive Barker's 'Books of Blood' is probably the best short story collection of horror you can get."
Halloween is a big day for Niles, saying it's his Christmas and he definitely gets up for it.
"The house is decorated inside and out. Cauldron's of candy. This is the first time since I was like two years old that I'm in a neighborhood where there are kids, so I'm going a little crazy. The house looks like a Haunted House! Outside I still haven't put the lights up yet, but we've got a graveyard out there, some bodies, skeletons hanging and bats hanging from the trees. Our neighbors across the street are even worse! It's like Martha Stewart lives across the street!"
Oh, and you might be wondering will Niles be dressing up to greet the kids? Certainly. Trick or Treaters stopping by the Niles household will be treated to a Ghoul answering the door.
Tomorrow Niles steps aside for a day, giving the spotlight over to Stephen Bissette who shares his thoughts on horror and takes a look at it's history in comics. We'll talk more with Niles on Thursday about his upcoming work from IDW, including the latest on his "30 Days Of Night" spin offs, "Remains," "Alesiter Arcane" and much more. And Friday, Niles interviews Rob Zombie.