In January, Top Cow's "The Darkness" enlists a new ally in the form of H.P. Lovecraft. The legendary author's influence casts a shadow upon writer Rob Levin and artist Jorge Lucas's "The Darkness: Shadows and Flame," a one-shot issue that combines Lovecraftian horror with turn-of-the-century drama. As a standalone issue, "Shadows and Flame" shines the spotlight on Salvador Gomes, a broken man looking to restore meaning to his life after the tragic deaths of his wife and child. Gomes's drug-laced journey takes him from the pits of despair to an even darker place, as he comes into conflict with a nefarious being known as the Shadow God.
CBR News spoke with Levin about the story of "Shadows and Flame," how it came to be and what interested him and Lucas about utilizing Lovecraftian horror in a "Darkness" story.
CBR News: Rob, without tipping your hand too much, can you describe the premise and plot for the "Shadows and Flame" one-shot?
Rob Levin: It would probably kill this interview right from the jump if I said no, right? The short answer is, it's "The Darkness" meets H.P. Lovecraft. It's about a man who has suffered a great loss, and now he's searching for a way to turn back the clock and right a wrong. Because of various elements like insomnia and peyote, he thinks he can actually travel through time and change his past, only he doesn't know how. This sets him off in search of something or someone he's only heard whispers about - enter The Shadow God.
Is it safe to assume that the God has some connection with the Darkness?
Well, I want to leave the book itself with some mystery, but yes, the Darkness shows up, as does an Estacado. Hopefully we're presenting it all in a way that people aren't expecting. One of the great things about "The Darkness" is the breadth of its mythology. With Jackie, in the ongoing series, you can do horror, supernatural, crime, etc., and that's just one guy in the modern day. All of those same elements can then be applied in different eras and with different characters because of the generational aspect of the concept, and suddenly it opens up all kinds of new avenues as a writer. Just as we know there are umpteen different brands of horror within the larger umbrella, "The Darkness" really allows you to explore a different one with each new story.
What can you reveal about the book's protagonist, Salvador Gomes?
Sal is a broken man when we meet him. He's lost his wife and daughter in a tragic fire, and that, coupled with the aforementioned insomnia and abuse of peyote, has made him lose his way even further. He's become a bit of a vagrant who wanders the streets of his town each night and then holes up in the burned out shell of his house while he trips. He's lost everything, and as a result, he's willing to do anything to try and get it back.
What is the dynamic like between Salvador and the Shadow God? What can they offer one another?
Sal seeks out the Shadow God when he's at the end of his rope. When I say he's a broken man, I mean that in every sense of the word. He's tired, strung out, malnourished, and maybe even starting to lose his mind a bit. He's desperate and willing to do anything. And the Shadow God - well, if you've read any Lovecraft, you'll know that the operating idea is that man is not the center of the universe, and the gods don't necessarily care about him.
What are some of the reasons you wanted to set the story at the turn of the 20th century? What does it allow you to do as a writer and storyteller?
It actually takes place in 1897, just prior to the turn of the century. It was partially because I wanted to make sure things fit in with the Estacado lineage and timeline, and partially because I wanted to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown. We've seen, in flashbacks in some of the "Tales of The Darkness" issues, cave men and conquistadors and Rat Pack-era gangsters, to name a few. I wanted to take something that wasn't completely alien to people following Jackie's modern adventures, but take away both the technology and the ideological advancements of the last century.
Emerging technology has made the world smaller, but it's also changed outlooks and belief systems. When people talk about "simpler times," that's not a demeaning term. There was less knowledge, less ability to do certain things. It's almost more primal in a way, but I didn't want to totally pull the rug out and do a cave man or medieval story - which, again, we've seen before. [Setting the book in] 1897 gave me a solid middle ground, and it meant that my learning curve in terms of research wasn't too steep.
Will the one-shot have repercussions for Jackie Estacado and the current Darkness continuity, or is the issue truly a stand-alone?
One of the goals was to make sure that this fit firmly within the overall continuity of "The Darkness," so while it won't affect Jackie in any direct way today, it's safely available for Phil Hester or anyone else to mine and make parallels or use in other ways. I mean, if this issue is about changing the past, who is to say the next adventure couldn't be about changing the future?
What can you tell us about the title - "Shadows and Flame" - was it picked for a specific reason? What does it mean to you?
It's funny you ask this, because we actually went back and forth on the title for a while. I didn't have any clue what to name it initially. I'm a big fan of titles, especially for individual issues, but when I dreamed this up, I couldn't quite nail anything I loved. As a joke, and because I knew [Top Cow Publisher Filip Sablik] would call me on my hack-osity, the original temp title was "Blackest Night" - you might have heard, DC has this event going on right now with a vaguely similar title.
It actually survived a little longer than it should have, with Jorge starting on the art and some of the initial pages being labeled with the temp title. Filip and [Top Cow Managing Editor] Phil Smith and I all went back and forth with names, and for the longest time nothing was working. We even tried looking to Lovecraft's works to see if there was something we could riff on. Ultimately, I think "Shadows and Flame" arose from an amalgamation of several other potential titles that didn't work quite as well. The book takes place at night, it's a "The Darkness" story, and flames are the reason Sal is in this whole mess - 'nuff said.
As you said, Lovecraft is something of an influence on "Shadows and Flames." Are you drawing on any particular stories of his? What did you find compelling about the author that you wanted to evoke in this one-shot?
I think "The Stranger" was the last story I read right before scripting the issue. I've read a fair amount of Lovecraft's oeuvre, but I wouldn't say I'm an expert by any means. This is a tale equally inspired by what the creators of "The Darkness" laid the foundation for, and some of the larger thematic ideas prevalent in Lovecraft's work. In terms of the latter, the devolving nature and seeming mental unraveling of the protagonists always impressed me. They were often smart men, such as professors, who can't quite get out of their own way. The warning signs are all there for them to turn back, but they just keep trudging along the path to their ultimate demise. Lovecraft's works always deal with man's relation to the greater cosmos, and I think the Top Cow Universe and its artifacts lend itself pretty easily to that same arena.
Can you talk about how the issue came to be? Was this something that Top Cow asked you to do, or did you approach them with this idea?
Pretty much, I wrote this story because of my friendship with Jorge Lucas. When I was working in editorial at Top Cow, he was one of the artists I brought in. He was the victim of several "sorry this deadline is short, I'll make it up to you" talks. I promised him that one day we'd get him a script that was exactly what he wanted to draw, and we'd give him as much time as he needed to make it sing. Every time I asked, Jorge repeated something similar - that he really wanted to draw something Lovecraftian.
When I went freelance, I talked to Top Cow about a number of projects, including some one-shots for "The Darkness" and "Witchblade." From there, I floated the idea of doing a Lovecraft-inspired "The Darkness" story, and they saw the potential, told me they'd check on Jorge's schedule, and away we went. Luckily, everything worked out that we were able to get him to draw it. I'd have felt pretty bad if I wrote it for him and it went to someone else!
What is it about Jorge's particular strengths and the themes of the story that works together so well?
Well, for one, it was kind of his idea to even do the Lovecraft/Darkness mash-up. He really gets the material and has very solid sensibilities, both as a storyteller and as a draftsman. Plus, he's one of the best guys I know at merging illustration and reference into one organic whole. We play with that a little bit in here to interesting results. He's also automatic when it comes to dark and gritty. If Sal needs to be haggard and worn down, [it's a] done deal. If I need a terrifying creature, he'll do up several designs, at least two of which will make me cry a little inside because I'm from the suburbs and I didn't grow up with demons.
Without giving too much away, there are some interesting flashbacks, not to mention some drug-induced sequences. Because I wrote it with Jorge in mind, I was able to really draw upon his strengths, and he definitely didn't disappoint. Since the issue was entirely set at night, another thing I wanted to get across was that the shadows and the blacks in the art really had some character to them. Again, that's just bread and butter for him.
More than anything, though, Jorge gets excited about projects and has the power to transfer that energy to you. I was done with the script for a few months before he even started on designs, and I was kind of over it - in a positive way - but as soon as he got rolling, I was sucked back in.
Can we expect to see more one-shots in the same vein as "Shadows and Flame," or perhaps even a further expansion on this particular story?
As always, that's a decision left up to Filip and Phil at Top Cow. There's definitely more room to deal with this particular era of "The Darkness," and there's certainly plenty to mine with the Estacado family tree. It's just a matter of specifics and scheduling. I'm a big fan of the title, so I'd love to be onboard for more.
"The Darkness: Shadows and Flames," written by Rob Levin and illustrated by Jorge Lucas, is out on January 27th, 2010 courtesy of Top Cow Productions.