Film director, screenwriter, producer, and novelist Guillermo del Toro is a storyteller with a “clarity of his vision for a project and his total determination to see it made”, according to “The Strain: The Night Eternal” artist Mike Huddleston. The respect that Huddleston and series writer David Lapham have for del Toro is fully reciprocated, as people working on the FX television series — which recently wrapped up its first season– cite the Dark Horse Comics adaptation of “The Strain” as an influence on their work. With “The Strain: The Night Eternal”, Lapham and Huddleston currently are in the midst of adapting the final chapter in the successful Strain Trilogy of prose novels to the medium of comics.
In anticipation of the October 15 release of “The Strain: The Night Eternal” #3, Comic Book Resources spoke with series artist Mike Huddleston, who relishes working on the series given that it is an opportunity to draw a variety of settings including “prehistoric natives, ancient Inuit, the courts of Roman emperors, Biblical cities, angels, futuristic prison camps, space stations, even a ghost dog.” Of course, as he made clear in this interview, that is just one small element of why he greatly enjoys working on the Dark Horse series.
CBR News: Guillermo del Toro respects your design work so much that it has had a bearing on how he approaches the TV series, as well as the overall development of “The Strain” universe. How much does it boost your confidence in your own work to have such a creative endorsement from del Toro?
Mike Huddleston: It’s been great working with Guillermo on developing the look of “The Strain.” Knowing that he’s a guy with a million projects on his plate, I never expected he would be so intimately involved with the comic book, but he’s been hands on with everything from the beginning. He even handpicked the creative team. We worked pretty closely at the start designing the vampires, the Master, his coffin, even casting the looks of all the major characters, but even now on “Night Eternal” we are still in that process of creating new characters and creatures. Of course it’s flattering to hear from people working on the show about how much they are influenced by the comic, but the visual connection doesn’t really surprise me as Guillermo is the creative force behind both versions of the story. I do occasionally get an “awesome!” or a “fuck yeah” from Guillermo as he sees the new pages — and that definitely is a boost.
In moving the narrative forward, you are exploring the deep history of “The Strain” and delving into the past. What are you most enjoying about capitalizing upon that narrative dynamic?
Yes, in “Night Eternal” we simultaneously jump a few years into the future as we also go back thousands of years into the past. As a reader it’s been really interesting for me to see how this plague weaves its way through human history, while at the same time being shown an apocalyptic future where it dominates the planet. It’s jarring and somehow the idea that the threat is so ancient makes our heroes’ situation seem even more hopeless.
As the artist on the book, this final arc has been a blast to work on. Each issue feels almost like a completely different project. For “Night Eternal,” I’ve drawn prehistoric natives, ancient Inuit, the courts of Roman emperors, Biblical cities, angels, futuristic prison camps, space stations, even a ghost dog. Working on a book that is so broad in its scope has been challenging, but also a lot of fun.
A CBR review of the first issue noted: “Lapham and Huddleston grab the reader at the get-go, opening with an almost dialogue-less vampire origin story for The Master. It’s a clever way to keep the pace up; the post-Fall universe of “The Strain” is pretty dreary, and a violent, attention-grabbing first scene like this gives the book more energy. Huddleston crams quite a lot into a few pages, drawing hard on the emotion in each panel.” When you open a story in such an ambitious manner, do you find the creative opportunity more satisfying or more terrifying or a mixture of both?
Well first of all I need to give credit to David for the scripts he’s turning in. His scripts are a joy to work from and as I haven’t read the novels, I’m excited to get each new script to see what happens next. I’m really following his lead, though, as a storyteller. Most of the decisions concerning pacing, density of information, level of emotion, etc. are David’s, so if people think we’re being ambitious, the credit is all his.
For me it’s absolutely satisfying to have an opportunity to do work like this. If I don’t feel a little bit like I’m on a tightrope then I’m doing something wrong.
When you try to cover a lot of ground in a few pages, does that require you to initially produce thumbnail layouts to better visualize your artistic plan?
Regardless of what’s happening in the story, layouts and thumbnails are a regular part of how I work. Actually, for me, that’s the most challenging part of the entire process. That first read to break a script down into a paneled page — that’s where all your storytelling decisions and shot choices are made. It’s the actual “comic book artist” part of the job and I can get pretty obsessive at that stage.
In what ways have you learned the most from collaborating like Lapham and del Toro? Also, what storytelling strengths does Lapham possess that you hope to wield yourself at some point?
The thing that has impressed me working with Guillermo is seeing the clarity of his vision for a project and his total determination to see it made. As a creative person, it’s impressive to meet someone who has the imagination to create worlds like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Strain,” “Pacific Rim,” etc., but also has the ability to push these ideas into reality. From what I understand, “The Strain” was initially a TV idea, but when that didn’t initially work out it became a series of bestselling novels, then a 700-plus page comic book series, and now finally a TV show. That’s not a small feat.
What would I like to gain that David possesses? That’s easy — the ability to write. David is one of those double threats — a fantastic artist who is also a fantastic writer. People like him make the rest of us look lazy.
What is the key to designing the look for a series like “The Strain: The Night Eternal”?
“Night Eternal” differs from the earlier arcs of “The Strain” because the apocalypse has already happened. When we catch up with our heroes, they’ve failed and the world they live in is a dark scary place. Each of us on the creative team has responded to this in a different way. I think David’s scripts are much more character driven, focusing more on the emotions of our heroes. I’ve tried to make the world visually as bleak as possible, make our characters a little smaller in it, and tried to really focus on the emotions in conversations. [Colorist] Dan [Jackson] has changed his palette and simplified his approach in reaction to this darker world. So whatever the look of the book finally is, it’s definitely a team effort.
How critical is colorist Dan Jackson to the achieving the creative goals you set for the series?
Dan has been critical to establishing the mood of “The Strain” since the beginning, but I think it is even more important now on “Night Eternal.” It’s a more emotional book than the others, so having color as that extra layer of storytelling becomes invaluable. A great colorist like Dan can enhance the mood you are trying to create, heighten tensions in a scene, make emotions stronger, crank up the intensity in action scenes — generally just make you look good.
I was intrigued by one of your layout decisions in the first issue — you are taking readers to multiple cities at once. I loved how you had vertical panels to achieve this, rather than horizontal. Can you talk about your design process for this page?
Sure. Really, just some practical decision making on this page. The script described the four scenes and locations we would visit. We’re bringing the reader up to speed here on what’s happened in the world, so these shots should be delivered in quick succession to have the most emotional impact. My theory is that vertical panels read faster than horizontal ones. Your eyes scan across these four vertical panels very quickly, whereas if they were horizontal you would have spent more time looking at each scene. Maybe a subtle difference, but I think you’d feel it as a reader.
Add to that, the city shots are all highlighting famous vertical landmarks so it just became the only solution that made sense to me.
In a recent tweet, you wrote: “Quinlan. I dig drawing this guy.” What do you so love about that character in particular?
If this was the X-Men, Quinlan would be our Wolverine. He’s an ancient badass who just wades into battle, kills everything and looks cool doing it. What’s not to like?
Anything you’d like to discuss that I did not ask you about?
We talked so much about the creative team on this book I couldn’t go without a mention of E.M. Gist our unbelievably stellar cover artist. His covers have been a great source of inspiration for me while working on “The Strain”, not to mention intimidation. That guy is one hell of a painter.
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