Touring "Screamland" with Sipe & Sebela

Whatever happened to the Wolfman? Or The Creature from the Black Lagoon? Or the Invisible Man? Well, in the world of "Screamland," these former actors struggle with their declining fame, dabble in adult films and frequent the convention circuit. Thanks to the prevalence of CGI and pretty, sparkly vampires, it's become increasingly hard for the old guard to stay relevant.

Debuting in 2008 as a 5-issue Image Comics miniseries written by Harold Sipe and drawn by Hector Casanova, "Screamland" returns this June. The new ongoing series, once again published by Image, will add several new wrinkles to the world and lives of its predecessor. Joined by longtime friend and fellow writer Christopher Sebela, Sipe is also teaming with new artist Lee Leslie.

Reflecting the new creative lineup, the book itself will take a different approach from the previous incarnation. Eschewing many of the monsters introduced in the original series for new, lower tiered creatures, the plot focuses on Wolfman and a William Shatner-esque human actor as they attempt to discover why their friends keep dying while making moves to stop the release of a late 70s group sex tape featuring pretty much everyone in the monster community.

CBR News spoke with Sipe and Sebela about the new focus of the ongoing title, how well monsters and porn mix and the writing team's thoughts on conventions.

CBR News: Aside from the obvious change in the creative team, how does the new series' first arc, "Death of the Party," differ from the original "Screamland?"

Harold Sipe: The first volume of "Screamland" focused on the top-shelf of monster screen icons, so when Chris and I sat down to map out a follow-up, we wanted to really go in a different direction. We wanted to build out the world and shine a light into the darker and forgotten corners. The second arc kicks that off by introducing a cast that is made of second and third tier also-rans.

The other decision we made very early on was to have the new book be much more plot-driven. The first volume introduced the concept and a lot of the characters and did so with the first arc taking the form of a series of character vignettes that formed to make an overall story. The new book, while focusing on character, has a much more involved overall plot. "Death of the Party" is a murder mystery set at a comic book convention featuring over-the-hill, washed-up monsters. If that doesn't move someone's dial in comics, then I'm hanging it all up.

Christopher Sebela: If the original mini was all about the Rat Pack of monsterdom, then this new series is all about all those monsters who have to live in their tremendous shadows. Icons have it pretty easy; they're icons, so even if they're not doing the work, their place in history is established. But if you're a murderous robot built in the '40s, your job potential in pictures is kind of limited. What do you do then?

This first arc is our murder mystery book, centering around a missing monster orgy movie called "Phantasmagorgya." All our characters were in the movie and each has different reactions to it leaking into the 24 hour news cycle. It becomes an all-out race to track the film down, in the course of which a whole other batch of secrets gets spilled.

I'd say this first arc is a good introduction to what we're looking to explore in the ongoing series. We've got winners and losers, heroes and villains, high drama stories, low rent circumstances and a whole world of monsters just struggling to get by.

Mixing monsters and porn is a fairly unique idea. Was that always the plan for the "Screamland" follow-up, or did it come to you after the first series came out?

Sipe: I don't think Ed Wood would have considered mixing monsters and porn to be all that revolutionary an idea! For the purposes of the book, it was one of the few areas [original series artist] Hector [Casanova] and I didn't explore as far as the end of the road for monster careers.

Chris and I plotted this out way back in 2008, as the first volume was closing. This was always the idea for a follow-up, but all kinds of obstacles came up and held the book up. I had also plotted a direct sequel to the first volume, but considering how much time has passed, we really wanted a book that was totally accessible to a new audience.

As to why monsters and porn go together like chocolate and peanut butter, you'll have to ask someone much smarter than me. They just do.

Sebela: In the first volume, there were, I think, two references to monster porn. They were jokes, totally not important to the main story, but the kind of details I think really helped establish the larger, stranger world of "Screamland." When Harold and I started talking about working on a follow-up, we played a few games of pool and sort of talked out what we thought should happen. As we went on, we'd keep upping the ante on each other. Monster porn became secret monster orgy sex tapes, drug addiction became swimming pools with cocaine instead of chlorine and so on, until we eventually got too dark even for ourselves.

It just made sense that if there was a demand for monster porn, there would be a monster porn industry, especially today when nearly every conceivable fetish has a cottage industry set up around it. Plus, I love "Boogie Nights" and "Wonderland" and that book "The Other Hollywood," so I had all this '70s porn knowledge in my head just yearning to break free. Fortunately, "Screamland" is the kind of book to accommodate things like that.

The first issue of "Screamland" puts together a pretty eclectic team of horror veterans; what can you tell us about this group of unusual suspects?

Sebela: The main two are Carl London and Travis Walters. Carl is the original Wolfman and he's kind of the id of "Screamland," only interested in getting drunk, living large and seeing how things can best be bent to benefit him and his floundering career. He's been working the convention circuit for years now with Travis, just waiting for his phone to ring with the news that someone wants to pay him dumptrucks of money for his lifelong curse of hair and fangs. Oddly, Carl is kind of the optimist of the book, too, mostly because he's too in-the-moment to worry about what comes next.

Travis is our only major human character, formerly a star on the hit sci-fi TV show "Space Path" and now doing the slow dance of guest shots on TV shows and sitting on fan panels to make his living. Travis also functions as the warm moral center of the book. Things are very black and white for Travis, which is a struggle when your best friend is a monster who has admittedly killed some people in his lifetime, but they're bound together by their mutual struggle to carve out a continuing career in showbiz.

As for our other major characters, we've got Robrain, a robot with a human brain and a shady past; The Midnight Slasher, one of the kings of teen slaughter films of the last few decades; The Mass, an amorphous ball of goo from outer space trapped in a world he didn't create; and Lady Tempest, a former horror show host who is now out of the business entirely, showing up for the odd convention to relive her past glory for a weekend. Of course, there's also Devil Fish and Invisible Man, who function as the icons of this arc and also as the source of everyone's problems trying to track down the missing monster orgy film. I'm trying to say things without saying things, because I think one of the biggest thrills of this book is setting up everyone's public persona and then digging deeper to reveal who they really are, which is equal parts hilarious and horrifying.

How important is it for new readers to read the original miniseries before jumping into the ongoing?

Sipe: It's not at all essential to reading and enjoying the new volume. I am still insanely proud of volume one and hope folks will check it out, but it isn't holding your enjoyment of volume two hostage or anything.

Sebela: We made a conscious decision that this was a new direction for "Screamland," that anyone could walk in, get this first issue and be able to pick up what we're putting down. That said, there are references to the first volume that show up here and there, both in this first arc and in the issues coming afterwards, as a reward to those who read and loved the original mini, myself included.

Harold, you wrote the original "Screamland" solo, so how did you guys hook up as co-writers for the ongoing?

Sipe: It was totally a "My Fair Lady" scenario. Chris was the most dangerous and surly of hobos and it was wagered he could never be made presentable to comic book high-society.

No, no -- Chris is one of the most talented writers I have ever had the privilege knowing, and an even better friend. We had been bouncing stuff off each other for years. We decided to make a go of writing together in 2010. We sold an OGN that I later had to drop out of due to obligations I have in gaming. I consider myself lucky to have him onboard for "Screamland."

Sebela: That's probably a pretty accurate assessment. If I didn't have Harold to guide me through my initial sojourn through comics-making, I'd probably be the guy shouting obscenities outside of a 7-11 at 3 in the morning by now.

Harold and I worked around one another for many years, and I was able to read and give notes when he was writing the original mini, so I feel like I've been on-board the "Screamland" party van since the beginning. We'd always wanted to work on something together, and last year we'd both ended up moving away from Kansas City to new, terrifying places, which seemed like the perfect time to start collaborating on stuff. We started pitching stuff right away and landed an OGN and, in the same week, we got the nod from Image for "Screamland," so apparently we are really dumb for not doing this sooner.

Lee Leslie is replacing original "Screamland" artist Hector Casanova -- who's still doing covers. What does Leslie bring to the table?

Sipe: Lee brings the awesome. He fits the tone of the satire stuff so much. People may think it's easy, but Lee can move from heartbreaking drama to hilarity in the space of one page. That is not at all an easy thing to do, much less do well. In a sane world, Lee will be offered all sorts of work even before the first issue drops. Folks should really check out his awesome webcomic, RiGBY The Barbarian.

Sebela: Hector Casanova is so great and such an essential part of the original series that he left some pretty big shoes to fill. I think Lee's strength was to come at "Screamland" from a totally different perspective, but still keep the mood of the first book around. He's able to turn some pretty ridiculous writing on our parts into great pages, which is a big plus. Lee is as big a collaborator as Harold or I, and the ideas he's thrown out there for characters or ideas or what would work better than the complicated diagrams we give him has been invaluable. Plus, he'll throw in some great jokes as visual asides, enough that occasionally I have to email him to confirm I'm getting all the references he's throwing out there. And he just keeps getting better. Lee makes me want to write even better just to try to keep up with him.

Are you guys fans of the convention culture you're playing with in this first story arc?

Sipe: In 2008, Hector and I did dozens of conventions to promote the first volume. I think it is really a mixed bag for me, now. I'm more likely to enjoy a smaller, more comics-based show than one of the new mega-show media monstrosities that have sprung up. Some of them are like the 13th or 14th Circle of Hell.

Sebela: Before we started in on "Screamland" last year, I had been to exactly two conventions in my life. I think this storyline was me sending a message to future me of right now, because I've been to three so far this year, with several more to come. Maybe because I'm so green to it, I really like the con culture. I get to hang out with friends I wouldn't otherwise see and meet creators I've admired from afar or people who I'd never have been exposed to.

The other side is, they can be exhausting. Seas of humanity, many of them in costume, all trying to get along in a cavernously huge room that still manages to feel packed tight. It seemed like a perfect setting for a murder mystery, trying to apply logic and cold, rational thought to a room that almost seems to designed to make you think you're secretly crazy.

When dealing with such well known, iconic characters, is it difficult to come up with new ways of handling them?

Sipe: Not really. The great thing about the book is the satire of it all. We aren't really writing the classic version of anything but new characters based on culture ideas of the old creature features. We're doing more universal, catch-all type characters that reflect our thinking and cultural ideas about these monsters and that gives us a lot of room to tell new stories. If Chris and I didn't have, like, a million monster jokes, we never would have brought back "Screamland."

Sebela: "Screamland" is a character-driven book, and that's why we do it. It just happens that our characters are (formerly) terrifying monsters still grasping at their last few bits of fame. Pretty much the first thing we do when we pick an iconic sort of character is to throw out everything that makes them worthy of movie stardom and just deal with, "Okay, if a living pile of gelatin from outer space lived next door to you, what would they be like?" Which is not to say we don't have reverence for these characters; it's more like we have too much reverence. We don't stop at saying, "Wow, Dracula is great" which is where normal people would leave it. We just keep moving on to such existential dilemmas as, "Gee, I wonder what Dracula does in his free time?" We're more interested in the inner monologue of Wolfman worrying about his direct-to-DVD movie sales figures than the fact that he can eat a room full of dudes.

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