REFLECTIONS #241: Nelson, Niles and Peyer

Thu, May 1st, 2008 at 3:33pm PDT | Updated: May 1st, 2008 at 3:51pm

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Robert Taylor, Staff Writer

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"Cthulhu Tales" #1 (Cover A) on sale now

It’s week two of BOOM! Studios month here in REFLECTIONS, and things are just heating up. We spoke previously with Editor-in-Chief Mark Waid about the Los Angeles-based publisher and what they’ve got coming up, and we continue now with a conversation about “Cthulhu Tales,” a new ongoing that may hail the return of the Great Horror Anthology.

Based on the giant tentacled god-monster created by author HP Lovecraft, the first issue “Cthulhu Tales,” on sale now, features murder, mayhem, mischief, eyeball gouging, animated corpses, slimy icky creatures and, of course, baseball.

Writers Steve Niles, Michael Alan Nelson and Tom Peyer decided to stop by REFLECTIONS for a roundtable discussion about the book, horror comics in general, and to explain just what the heck “Cthulhu” means.

Story continues below

Let’s get started with the obvious question: What the heck does “Cthulhu” mean!?

Tom Peyer: If I tell you what Cthulhu means, you will burst like a water balloon and your blood will cover the walls. So I'll pass on this one. You're welcome!

Oh come on now, anyone?

"Cthulhu Tales" #1 (Cover B)

Michael Alan Nelson: Cthulhu is the name of Lovecraft's most popular creation, an Old One who looks like a giant gargoyle with an octopus for a head who is so horrible, so otherworldly, that just looking upon him will drive you mad.

Either that or it's a type of gumbo. I'm not really sure.

Steve Niles: To me it means pure evil in a way no human can comprehend -- until it’s too late.

Why do you love horror?

TP: Because when I see that ice pick go into that eyeball a part of me still thinks, “Mom and Dad would not like me watching this.” No matter how old I get or how long they've been dead. I think the critical buzzword is "transgressive." That's what I love. Horror feels naughty.

SN: I don’t know. I suppose it because I love monsters most of all and there just aren’t enough monsters in romantic comedies these days. I also love horror because you can put characters in peril like no other genre.

MAN: For me, it's the genre that has the most visceral affect on me as a reader. No matter how much I might enjoy epic fantasy, science fiction, even mystery or romance, none of those have ever made me afraid of turning off the lights.

And, by extension, what are your favorite horror films/books/comics?

SN: Both versions of “The Thing,” Carpenter and Hawks. “Night of the Living Dead” for being a great independent horror film and showing how it’s done without Hollywood. I love Richard Matheson, everything he’s written, especially “I am Legend.” In comics, I love “The Goon” and “Hellboy” right now.

TP: John Carpenter's “The Thing.” Alan Moore's “Swamp Thing.” Anything with the word “thing,” apparently.

MAN: “Alien,” “Severance,” “Exorcist III,” “Session 9,” “Rear Window” (I know this is really suspense and not horror, but I don't care -- it's awesome!) “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Walking Dead,” “Damn Nation.” And even though it's a video game and not a book/film/comic, I want to include “Bioshock.” That game is unnerving. I got more genuine jolts from playing that game than anything I've seen or read in a long time.

Pages from "Cthulhu Tales" #1 by Steve Niles and Chee

How do you think the genre of horror in comics has evolved since its heyday with E.C. in the ‘50s, both for the better and worse?

MAN: Well, it's definitely evolved into a socially acceptable genre within comics. I think a lot of that has to do with the evolution of comics in general, that comics isn't viewed as a kids-only medium any more.

SN: I’m glad we’ve finally broken the trap/mold of E.C. comics. The “Twilight Zone”/Vengeance tale got old fast and for thirty years all we had were “E.C. Tribute” comics. Now people are trying different things, involved stories, and I’m very happy. To me E.C. was never so much about the stories but some of the best art ever!

TP: Plus, it's primarily changed in the way all comics have changed. The E.C.s were paced almost like storybooks; a scene could last one or two panels, then on to the next. Now comics are paced like movies or television. They use time better. They pause to build a mood, which obviously helps horror in particular. Where this becomes a two-edged sword is when writers forget that it's not movies or television and treat us to conversations that drag on for pages. Or waste three panels moving the camera in when the scene doesn't call for it.

Mark Waid said something uncannily similar when we spoke with him last week.

Now, what makes a hair-raising horror story?

SN: Characters you care about. Period. Also, don’t explain everything.

TP: My scariest thing: some condition that makes a person less than what they were. Like when Jeff Goldblum starts to deteriorate toward the end of “The Fly.” Big fear I can relate to. We all can, because it's waiting for us, unless we die prematurely. Have a nice day!

MAN: Alfred Hitchcock had it right when he said, “There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.” It's the unknown that scares us the most, so a story has to have that element of waiting for the shoe to drop to really creep us out. Also, I really like a sense of wrongness in a story, when a character's actions or situations arise that are so horrific that you need to step away from the story and remind yourself, for your own sanity, that it's fiction.

Pages from "Cthulhu Tales" #1 by Michael Alan Nelson and Sunder Raj

How did you guys get onboard with “Cthulhu Tales”?

TP: Mark Waid has been a close friend and a great believer in my work for a long time. We've written a fair number of stories together, but this was our first chance to work as editor and writer. Our sensibilities are so in tune it's amazing. How intelligent he must be, to agree with me so often.

MAN: I had been working on several different horror ideas that I wanted to use in “Fall of Cthulhu,” but I couldn't find a good way to work in the core idea of this story. I had mentioned this problem to Mark and he suggested that it might work better as a “Cthulhu Tales” instead.

SN: Mark Waid called. He had some photos I’d rather not go public and, well…

Give us the lowdown on your stories.

SN: One word: Tentacles. I did one story about bending faith and another about a detective on the trail of a murderer and they both have a lot of tentacles.

MAN: Three boys sneak out at night to do a little trespassing only to find out that they've got more than the authorities to worry about.

TP: A rabid fan of a "cursed" major league baseball team tries to use magic to get them a championship. Maybe he shouldn't.

Tell us about the difficulties (and good things) about changing your writing style to tell one full story in eight-to-ten pages, as opposed to an entire comic book?

MAN: For me, the hardest part is making the characters relatable in such a short period of time. Also, it's terribly difficult for me to bring the story to a close that feels like the end of the story rather than an interruption to a longer story. “The Farm” has that interrupted feeling at the end, but I think it works because the story is really about the boys and their night out, not about the events that follow.

But the nice thing about writing short stories like this is that it's really satisfying when it works. It's like solving a complex riddle.

Pages from "Cthulhu Tales" #1 by Tom Peyer and Chee

TP: Mine's only four pages! I'm probably using more words talking about the story than I did writing it. I love short stories, because they're simple, clean, and fun to wrap my head around. Sometimes the longer forms bog me down a little, and I have to untie some knots I stupidly put in there. But -- when it's working well -- a short story is comparatively problem-free and just a pleasure. And if I can write a whole draft in one sitting, I feel like I've done something that day.

SN: I love writing shorts. It’s a nice change of pace and you can kill everybody.

Steve, let’s talk about “Eyes of Madness,” which was your story for the first issue. Where did the idea of a priest’s slow “eye-opening” revelation come from?

SN: I love the idea of dimensions around us, held at bay by a spiritual screen of nothing. That got me thinking about faith and what a man of faith would do upon learning that there is much more in the world than he thought.

And, Michael, what about “The Farm,” with its kids-in-way-over-their-heads storyline?

MAN: The inspiration for the story came from two different places. The first was a news article I had read about the setting for the story. I had no idea that such places existed and the fact that they do just floored me. How could I not use that as a setting?

Page from Steve Niles' story in "Cthulhu Tales" #1 (published art will be in color)

The second was my nephew. Watching him grow up reminds me of all the things my friends and I used to do when we were kids. One of those things was pulling what we called a Bermuda Triangle: I tell my parents I'm staying at Carl's house, Carl tells his parents he's staying Zim's house, and Zim tells his parents he's staying at mine. Of course we wouldn't stay at anyone's house and instead we'd sneak around cemeteries or climb on top of the elementary school all night (there really wasn't much entertainment for kids living in the country).

Tom, if you could cast a spell to get your favorite team to the world series, would you?

TP: If I had magical powers, there would not be a single uninjured ballplayer. I get so sick of my heroes disappointing me. So angry at them. My inability to cast spells is good for baseball, good for America.

What little moments shocked or surprised you as you were writing them?

SN: That they worked at all! [laughs] I was very intimidated when I took on Lovecraft. It seems easy, but the fans are very particular. I suppose one of the biggest surprises was when Mark called and said he liked the stories.

"Cthulhu Tales" #2 (Cover A)

TP: My story is pretty short, and it came to me all at once, for once. So, no shockers for me. Alas. But if you're not the writer, I think you'll get a kick.

MAN: I was surprised at how difficult it was to capture the conversational style of 12-year-old boys. So I faked it. Hopefully no one will be able to tell. Shhh...

What makes a good horror artist?

MAN: I really think one of the most important aspects of drawing horror, especially Lovecraftian horror, is the ability to create an atmosphere of dread and despair. Obviously, the ability to draw monstrous things is key, but even more important is the ability to draw the reactions to those monstrous things.

I think that's what makes it resonate with the reader and why I just love what Sunder Raj did with the boys in “The Farm.”

SN: To me, and this is something I learned from working with guys like Kelley Jones, it’s a willingness to go dark and maybe not show everything. It’s knowing when to pull the trigger on a reveal and when to keep something in the background.

TP: There's no single way to be a good horror artist. That's the beauty of it; the very broad range of expression the form permits. Some stories require a solidly believable humanity, so we can feel that these are real people about to get butchered and we don't want it to happen. Others benefit from a really wacked-out approach that looks nothing at all like life, so we can feel like the universe is out to get us for no reason we can ever hope to understand.

In the case of my story, the main character has kind of an ESPN-watching, Hot Pockets-eating, sad divorced guy quality, and artist Chee really gave him an unglamorous, down-to-earth humanity, which was exactly what the story needed.

"Cthulhu Tales" #2 (Cover B)

What’s the scariest thing that has ever happened to you?

TP: So, I'm walking down the street one day, minding my own damn business, passing this house, when this big guy jumps out of a second story window, rolls off the porch roof, lands on his butt and gets quickly to his feet. Oh, and did I mention he was holding a butcher knife? And that there was blood on his shirt? And that our eyes met? For a long time? For some reason I'll never know, he shrugged and ran away instead of stabbing me a hundred times.

This really happened. In Syracuse, NY.

MAN: I was hit in the head with a golf ball. That in itself may not sound terribly scary, but it instantly paralyzed the left side of my face, making it impossible for me to talk. Other than a tremendous headache, I seemed fine, but my mouth wouldn't work. Whenever I tried to speak, the only thing that came out were gibbering sounds and drool. Even when the doctors were dosing me up on anti-seizure medication and debating on whether or not to drill into my head (they did not, thankfully), all I could think about was never being able to talk again. Cognitively I was fine, but I wasn't in control of my own body. I've never been more terrified in my life.

SN: At last week’s New York Comic Con, I thought that the JFK Airport was trying to kill me. On the way in I had to dive over a railing to stop an elderly man from tumbling down the escalator, and then on the way back I got clocked in the temple with a security bin. JFK is a haunted airport.

Why do you think horror comics are having a renaissance in today’s market? Was it just time, or was there something else?

SN: Horror is always popular in film and TV, but comics always seem a bit behind. I think people want horror the same reason they go on rollercoaster’s or skydiving. They like the thrill, the adrenaline jolt. It’s good for you too.

"Cthulhu Tales" #3 (Cover A)

MAN: I don't think I'm qualified to answer that question.

Oh, come on.

MAN: I'm sure there may be some sociological reason for it. Maybe it's the war, or life in a post-911 world, or maybe it's just a cyclical thing and we're currently at the zenith, but I just couldn't say.

TP: The superhero thing is so closed in on itself that, if you're not DC or Marvel, you'd be stupid not to try something new. Which is a great situation for everyone, as far as I'm concerned. Let a thousand genres bloom.

What are your opinions on real-life superstition?

MAN: On a purely rational level, it's all nonsense. I know this. But that still doesn't change the fact that I have to put on my right sock before my left or else terrible, terrible things will happen.

TP: Superstition worked really well in the Bronze Age. Because we didn't really know much yet, so we had to kind of fake it. But now that we've had the whole how-to-make-bronze thing worked out for a while, I wish we'd move on.

Knock on wood.

SN: I grew up with obsessive-compulsive disorder, so I wouldn’t know superstition from turning off the stove. It’s all the same to me!

Tell us about working at BOOM! Studios.

TP: I like everything about it, except for the dress code. I don't think it's necessary and, frankly, I worry that I don't look that great in a Speedo anymore. Even though everyone says I look really hot. Plus, the strip searches can be a pain. Or a joy.

"Cthulhu Tales" #3 (Cover B)

SN: I love BOOM! They let me do comics about monsters. Oh, and they get out there and sell it. That’s no small thing in today’s market.

MAN: In a word: fun. That's what it's all about. Making great comics and having a wonderful time doing it.

Lightning round time! What was your first comic book?

SN: “Creepy” #1 (Shocker!)

MAN: “ElfQuest.”

TP: An issue of “Superman.” I won't tell you which one, because it's none of your business how fraking old I am. Clue: turn the heat up, I'm freezing.

Oh, wait. This is supposed to be the lightning round, and here I am talking and talking. Can I at least get a blanket for my lap?

What is your biggest strength as a writer?

MAN: I have no idea.

TP: Character, I hope. That's any writer's most important job. To remind people that they're not alone, even when there's no one else in the room.

SN: I don’t care what people think -- or at least I pretend not to. I’ll go with characters too. I rely on strong characters a lot so I’d hope that was my strength. That’s a tough one to answer.

Biggest weakness?

SN: That’s easy. I take on way too much work because I still think I’ll be out of work next year.

"Cthulhu Tales" #4 (Cover A)

TP: Confusing myself sometimes -- because plotting gets no easier, no matter how many plots I write.

MAN: I am hopelessly in love with the sound of my own keyboard and will write gargantuan slabs of dripping prose that impress no one other than myself.

If you could only write one comic for the rest of your career, what would it be?

TP: I couldn't do it. I have no idea how, say, newspaper strip creators do the same thing day after day for 40 years. If I had to draw Funky Winkerbean day after day for 40 years, I would want to kill Funky Winkerbean. And then myself. Nothing against Funky or his talented creators. It's just me.

MAN: Something of my own creation. It would most likely be in the horror or dark fantasy/sci-fi genre, but I would want it to be about a character I made myself.

SN: Either “Criminal Macabre” or “Batman.”

Who would be drawing it?

TP: The Funky Winkerbean guy.

SN: Kelley Jones.

MAN: David Mack.

What is the best comic book movie ever made?

MAN: “Akira.”

"Cthulhu Tales" #4 (Cover B)

SN: “30 Days of...” er, “Road to Perdition.”

TP: “Spider-Man 2.”

Tell us about your weirdest convention experience.

SN: Okay, you know the thing earlier about diving the rail to catch the old man? Well guess who was right behind me and didn’t help? The Hulk, Lou Ferrigno. Does that count as con story? If not I have other.

TP: Explaining the concept of submitting scripts by email to the great Gil Kane. He was pretty far up there in years and fascinated to hear about it.

MAN: Talking to Stephanie Romanov and realizing afterward that my fly had been open the whole time (maybe that was her weirdest convention moment).

If you could only be remembered for one thing in your career, what would it be?

MAN: For creating a single iconic character that will live beyond me.

SN: For making people happy. Awwwww…shut up!

TP: For something I haven't even thought of yet.

Now discuss this story in CBR’s Independents forum.

TAGS:  cthulhu tales, boom! studios, steve niles, michael alan nelson, tom peyer

 
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