Visiting Spencer's "Shuddertown"

What does it mean when dead bodies start turning up around town with every ounce of forensic evidence indicating that the killers themselves were deceased at the time of the murder? That's the question that detective Isaac Hernandez has to answer in "Shuddertown," the upcoming Image Comics/Shadowline miniseries from writer Nick Spencer and artist Adam Geen.

"Shuddertown" marks the third property that Spencer has set up with Shadowline, the first two being the genre-bending "Existence" series and "Forgetless," a story that is as much an action yarn as it is a fond farewell to one of New York City's craziest parties. As different as those stories are from one another, Spencer said that "Shuddertown" is an even greater departure from his other work in terms of the story's content and the production process, among other factors.

CBR News spoke with Spencer about "Shuddertown," the construction of lies, the importance of imagery and the true nature of ghost stories.

CBR News: Nick, what's "Shuddertown" all about?

Nick Spencer: Well, the tagline is 'The Dead Are Killing' and that just about sums it up. Inside and around the Shuddertown housing projects, a homicide detective with some troubles of his own is dealing with a string of murders where all the forensic evidence points conclusively towards perpetrators who are themselves already dead.   

Tell us more about this idea of the dead posthumously killing the living and how you arrived upon it as a story device?

How did I arrive upon the idea? I stole it from "Blackest Night." That's a joke! But really, this is an idea that had been percolating for a long time. I've always been very interested in the concept of ghosts, not so much the supernatural manifestation of them, but rather the purpose they serve in our folklore and how they influence the way we view ourselves and our actions.  Ghosts are very much real - we all have them. They're representations of our loss, of our regrets, and of our fears. They don't require anything 'otherworldly' to power them, and they are always with us. Basically, I wanted to do a story about what being haunted really means.

I will say this: "Shuddertown" is the biggest, most ambitious story I've tried to tell to date. I feel like we have something important to say here. It's a mystery on multiple levels, and my hope is that the audience will really dig deeply into the book and try to figure out exactly what's going on. It's a book that I'm not afraid to say requires some patience and a little extra attention, but I think that's a good thing. And I think the payoff here, both in terms of character and concept, will be worth it.     Assuming we're to take the idea of the dead coming back to kill literally, there would presumably be some supernatural elements at play in "Shuddertown." How much is this realism versus fantasy?

Well, the first thing I would do is caution anyone not to take it literally. Not to play my hand too early, but "Shuddertown" is by no means a traditional ghost story. It's more about the idea of ghosts and what they represent for us rather than some standard supernatural yarn.

At the same time, this is in part a story about how people react to the possibility of the supernatural, how some people try to hide unexplainable experiences for fear of being called crazy versus people who are just brightly optimistic about the possibilities it opens up, and every response in between. What's happening in Shuddertown certainly seems unexplainable, at least on first glance, and what the mystery does to the people who know about it is a big part of what drives the story forward.

The story's protagonist goes by the name of Isaac Hernandez. What can you reveal about him?

Isaac is someone struggling with a lot of his own demons. He's recently been injured in the line of duty, his wife has left him, he's nursing multiple addictions. He's in bad shape, and now he's trying to solve these cases that seem to defy all logic. It's just taking an immense toll on him, mentally and physically. He's straining himself far beyond what he can actually handle, and as a result, he's falling apart. This is  a  broken, desperate man at his wits end, and this story is in so many ways very much more about his collapse than it is about these murders.

Isaac's opening monologue deals with the prospects of lying versus truth, with the assertion made that the liar worships truth more than the honest man. Can you talk about the construction of this monologue, where the ideas came from, how they play into "Shuddertown" both on a thematic level and directly with Isaac himself?

Well, in terms of the construction, the narration in this book was really the last ingredient we added to the mix. Kris Simon [of Image/Shadowline] and I really went over this script very carefully a bunch of times. I think both of us were really focused on getting this one right, making sure it was the best it could be, in part because we  both saw a lot of potential in the story. That narration and the opening monologue was added to help bring the reader into Isaac's head a little more, to help us get to know him and his motivations a little better, and I think we managed to pull it off without diminishing that visuals-first storytelling style we were going for on this. 

Thematically, yeah, this issue is about lying. Or rather, a lie. Homicide detectives deal in lies every day - "I didn't do it," "I was somewhere else," etc. So Isaac has had a lot of experience with them and a lot of time to think about them, which makes him something of an expert. But this lie, which is what he sees a dead person killing as - a very elaborate, compelling lie - has really stalled him.  Aside from Isaac, can you describe some notable characters that we'll see throughout the series?

While this book is definitely Isaac's story, there are a lot of other people in and around Shuddertown that we'll be getting a chance to meet. Very early in number one, we'll be introduced to Sam, a friend of Isaac's and a narcotics detective with a dark side of his own. We'll also meet, albeit very briefly, a beautiful dancer named Brandi who Isaac will have to deal with more as our story progresses. And Shuddertown as a place really takes on a life of its own as we move forward. It's a run-down assemblage of housing projects that's now become this sort of monstrous, sprawling haunted house, and Isaac's descent into its corridors is very much a mirror for his own collapse into the darkness of depression and despair.  

"Shuddertown" is the third franchise and fourth miniseries you've launched under Image/Shadowline. What are some of the major differences between this, "Forgetless" and "Existence," both for the reader and for you as a storyteller?

Oh, this book is miles apart from "Existence" or "Forgetless."  In fact, I really think some people will be surprised by just how different it feels. I think in my earlier work there's been a lot of frenetic pacing and a lot of very energetic back-and-forth between the characters. This book, on the other hand, is a much quieter, slower-moving beast. Even the process of writing this one was completely different. Normally, when I script an issue out, I'll do the dialogue for a page first, then break it down into panels and do the descriptions from there. For this one, I really wanted to challenge myself and take a different approach, so I completely reversed the process for most of it - that is, I mapped out the key visuals, broke them down by page, then worked on the dialogue. I think as a writer, it's just so easy to forget that this is a visual medium. It's the whole "show don't tell" rule. So this is one story where the visuals will do a lot of the talking. We experimented heavily with silent sequences and interjecting strong, jarring single panel images into conversations or monologues to really draw the eye to the picture, not the word balloon. The result is a book that I think involves the reader on a much more basic, more instinctual level. It's a more immersive, evocative experience. I'm excited to see what people think of it and how they respond to it.   Speaking of the visuals, how did Adam Geen come aboard for "Shuddertown," and what do you think makes him the right artist for the book?

When you have a book where the images are so central to the story, it's kind of important to make sure they, you know, look good. And Adam is just incredible. When people see the work he's doing on this book, they're going to be raving about it for a long, long time to come. When he sends new pages in, everyone's jaws just drop, and I don't mean that as hype. This guy is the real deal, someone with potential to be a huge name in the industry. There are things he's doing that I've personally never seen before, and each page is better than the last. There are things he does in the color and effects stages that are just frighteningly effective at setting the tone and conveying a character's state of mind. Can't wait for people to see it.

According to the solicitation, "Shuddertown" should appeal to fans of "The Wire," "Mulholland Drive" and "Se7en." Can you talk about the influences of those projects on this?

With "Mulholland," I love David Lynch films in general, and I think a lot of it goes back to what I was saying about having an awareness of the visual nature of these mediums. Lynch uses a lot of restraint with his dialogue and instead really uses imagery to push the story forward and set the tone. And with "Mulholland" in particular, I think there are some similar themes in play here - notions of regret and guilt play heavily into this story, just like they did there.

With "The Wire" and "Se7en," both were big influences in that they're really exceptional police stories. Between them, they do an incredible job of capturing the spirit of police work, albeit in very different ways. "The Wire" really nailed the mannerisms, the relationships, the humdrum day-to-day stuff, and it had a big influence on me in that regard. It's so easy to turn these kinds of stories into "CSI" or whatever, to lose the reality and fall into caricature, so I fall back on "The Wire" and "Homicide" and [novelist] Richard Price's work, stories about real detectives doing real work. "Se7en," on the other hand, is an amazing look at the internal stuff, what motivates someone to try to put order to society and put themselves in harm's way in the first place. That's something I was really fascinated with here, that motivation. It's something we'll explore a lot down the road. 

Currently, "Shuddertown" is billed as a four issue series, but as we've already seen from "Existence," some of your stories go beyond that first initial wave. Is that the same thing here with "Shuddertown"? Is there enough material in the specific story, the character of Isaac Hernandez and the city of Shuddertown itself to turn this into a franchise?

Oh yeah, this is definitely one where we're hoping we can go longer. It's sort of a collapsible story, as in, I could tell it in four, or twelve, or twenty four [issues], and there's a big part of me that would love to do just that. But what it really comes down to is sales, sales, sales. If the book finds a receptive audience, we'll get more time. So, you know, pre-order and all that good stuff, please! I do think we have something special here, something a lot of people are going to be excited about and want more of. That's the hope at least. Shuddertown is a very intriguing place with a lot of interesting characters. I'd definitely like to spend more time there. 

"Shuddertown" #1, written by Nick Spencer and illustrated by Adam Geen, hits comic book stores on March 24, 2010, courstey of Image Comics and Shadowline.

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