STEVE NILES WEEK: The Dark Horse Books

Mon, October 27th, 2003 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Jonah Weiland, Executive Producer/Publisher

So, what is it about horror that keeps people coming back? As a genre it asks the participant to intentionally subject oneself to an unpleasant experience, all the while the participant deprives pleasure from these gruesome images. While we'd be best to leave the examination of the masochism required to enjoy horror to sociologists and psychologists, we can say definitively that horror sells.

Two weeks ago the latest remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" scored an impressive $28 million dollars at the box office. Even horror spoofs bring in the cash as the third movie in the "Scary Movie" franchise bowed this weekend with an almost $50 Million take this weekend. Horror is very much alive and well.

That's not always been the case, though. If you look at the history of horror in film, certain styles and trends can be seen. There've been straight-up classic horror films, slasher films, periods where zombie's seem to be everywhere and on and on. While you can easily point to successes in horror films like "Halloween," "The Blair Witch Project," "Aliens," "Blade" (which successfully merged horror with super-heroics) and a long list of others, there's a far longer list of forgettable horror attempts that, at times, threatened to undermine the genre as a whole (anyone see "The Blair Witch Project 2?" We didn't think so.). But it always fights back, in typical horrific style.

Where horror continually bounces back in film, looking at horror through the history of comics, it's not quite the same. In the 1950's William Gaines' EC Comics published numerous horror titles that are to this day considered some of the finest examples of horror storytelling in comics. "Tales From The Crypt," "Weird Fantasy," "The Vault Of Horror." Rotting zombies, murder by meat cleaver, practical jokes gone bad with hosts like the Crypt Keeper, the Vault Keeper and the Old Witch were the domain of EC Comics. The stories were captivating and influential and that reflected in sales and its long lasting appeal.

As opposed to the film industry, the horror comics cycle has been much longer than in film (if it is in fact a cycle) and has never again reached the heights of EC. At the same time, there have been creators since those days whose names are forever linked with horror comics. John Bolton, Bernie Wrightson, Stephen Bisette, Len Wein, Frank Frazetta and Mike Mignola among others.

"Criminal Macabre" #5
There's another name that you can add to that list, Steve Niles. Back in June of 2002 Niles' "30 Days of Night" from IDW Publishing took everybody by surprise. With art by Ben Templesmith, "30 Days of Night" brought horror back to the fore front in comics with gruesome displays of Vampires out of control in a sleepy town in Alaska shrouded in darkness for thirty days. The series was a huge hit and put both Niles and Templesmith on the map. Since the release of that book interest in horror comics has been on the rise and the number of horror themed comics in production has seen a significant bump. Steve Niles has been a busy little ghoul himself, having followed up "30 Days Of Night" with "Dark Days" and the further adventures of a supernatural detective Cal McDonald in Dark Horse's "Criminal Macabre" and more.

With that in mind, CBR News will bring you a week's worth of Niles during this here Halloween Week. Last week we spoke with Niles from his Los Angeles home (he was suffering from a pretty nasty head cold we'd like to add) to find out what's coming next from this Master of Horror Comics, discover some of his influences and take a look at horror films. All week we'll be bring you his answers as well a special interview conducted by Niles himself with another well known lover and creator of horror this Friday. This Wednesday we'll give Mr. Niles a break from the questions, allowing another influential horror creator the chance to talk about the history of comics and his own contributions to the genre, Stephen Bissette.

For this first installment Niles talks about the numerous books he has coming from Dark Horse Comics. Recent books have included the afore mentioned "30 Days of Night" as well as a contribution to the "Drawing On Your Nightmares Halloween 2003 Special."

"Fused: Think Like A Machine" #1
Niles' history with the publisher goes back to 1995 when they published "Hairball: A Cal McDonald Monster Mystery" (the second ever appearance of Cal McDonald) within the pages of the anthology "Dark Horse Comics Presents." The story was recently republished as a one-shot from IDW Publishing. Niles also contributed to a number of Harlan Ellison adaptations. It wasn't until 2003 that Niles saw work published with Dark Horse again and there are numerous upcoming projects planned. First up for Niles is "Fused: Think Like A Machine" coming at the end of this year, the follow-up to the Image Comics series from a few years back, with art by Josh Medors and Peter Repovski.

"'Fused: Think Like A Machine' picks up right after where the last series ended, with maybe a couple of weeks jump in between," Niles told CBR News. "It continues the story of Mark Haggerty trapped inside the robot suit. He's on a military base with his wife trying to figure out what the hell he's going to do with his life. He's being actively recruited; I guess that's the best way to put it, by the Implementers. Mark's in a really tough position in that he's a really, really ordinary guy and likes being that way. Now, he has these people pushing him to fight for a living and it doesn't even register with him."

"Fused: Think Like A Machine" #1, Page 5
This latest "Fused" story also introduces a major new character. Niles didn't want to give away too much about who the character is and was at first reluctant to even reveal the character's name, but relented under extreme pressure. "This series introduces the first 'Fused' super villain. His name is Cro-mag." He wouldn't give any further details about Cro-mag, but joked, "Yeah, the name tells you a lot about him actually!"

And while "Fused" may not necessarily be a horror comic, the story in "Fused" finds influences from a number of different horror sources. Niles said that the classic Mary Shelley "Frankenstein," the Curt Siodmak novel "Donovan's Brain" and the 1958 movie "The Colossus of New York" (a favorite "schlock" film of Niles'), all stories featuring minds no longer in their original bodies. The writer fused these elements together to bring you "Fused." Occasionally people mention to Niles that "Fused" reminds them of other comics characters.

"It's really funny because I always hear people bring up 'The Coffin,' which I hadn't read at the time, but have since read it. I really don't see the similarities. I actually think that's a very scary, dark piece. 'Fused' is pretty fun for the most part. I also hear people bring up 'Concrete.' I'm going to insult myself - I admire Paul Chadwick's stuff a lot, I mean it was award winning comics! It's odd for people, comic fans especially, to make comparisons like that when there are 10,000 people with different colored caps and nobody goes, 'Wait, that's Superman' or 'That's a rip-off of Batman!' But as soon as you do this guy trapped in a foreign body, I guess you can only do one! (laughs)."

"Fused: Think Like A Machine" #1, Page 5
Niles tells CBR News that those interested in reading the stories found in the original mini-series will be happy to learn that Dark Horse is working to collect the Image series in trade paperback. A firm date is not scheduled yet, but it'll come out either during "Think Like A Machine," or right before the next "Fused" series. Yes, a third series is already planned to follow "Think Like a Machine," carrying the title "Fused: Dazed And Confused."

There is an end to the "Fused" story, but it's a long way off according to Niles. Seeing as how Niles is well known for horror stories in which no character is entirely safe, the immediate assumption when told that "Fused" will eventually come to an end is that Haggerty will die. Niles took issue with that.

"But I don't know what it's going to be," laughed the writer. "See, that's the assumption! That I'm just gonna kill everybody and I'm not!"

For those readers hoping for a bit more horror than action, Niles says you won't be disappointed.

"Wait till you see the last page of the first issue. There are always some horror elements that manage to creep in."

"Love Me Tenderloin"
Next from Dark Horse is the next chapter in the Cal McDonald myteries, following the recently completed "Criminal Macabre." January 7th sees the release of "Love Me Tenderloin: A Cal McDonald Mystery," a twenty-six page one-shot comic by Niles with Ben Templesmith.

"It is about meat! Haunted meat! And it's a love story! This is the kind of haunted meat that actually comes after you. Cal gets called in on the case and gets stuck in the middle."

More Cal McDonald is yet to come in the pages of a new Cal McDonald mystery, "Last Train to Deadsville."

"'Last Train to Deadsville' - What's it about? That's the whole thing with Cal stories. They all have their plots, but they're all about Cal plodding through. Once again, Cal is up against a bunch of monsters that are coming after him. In this one, the monsters in L.A. are trying to figure out a way to knock off Cal without having to dirty their hands themselves."

While Ben Templesmith has been the go to guy illustrating these latest Cal McDonald mysteries, the plan has always been to try and rotate artists, but have Ben be the establishing artist. Niles tells us it's a bit too early in the process to announce the artist on "Last Train To Deadsville," simply stating the artist was "someone really exciting."

For Niles, Cal McDonald as a character is one of his favorites and evolved from a number of influences.

"The big influence was Phillip Marlow. In a way, I'd say Sam Spade, who was a little happier character, a little more obnoxious. It all comes from that hard boiled detective character and I just combine them with monsters. You know, I tried to write just hard-boiled mysteries and I found myself getting really bored, so I started throwing in monsters and stuff and it all started coming together.

"I just really like [Cal]. I really enjoy the personality and perspective. I don't think any of the stories are necessarily terribly original, but it's the character's take on the story that's fun. His reaction to, say, a werewolf, seems to be something of an original angle. I just love his attitude."

Art by Josh Medors for "Freaks of the Heartland" #1
June of this year brought the announcement that MGM bought the rights to "Criminal Macabre," of which Niles is currently writing the script. He tells us that the story is an original one, bringing together elements from all previous appearances of Cal.

"I've plucked a little bit from everything," said Niles. "'Savage Membrane' really established a lot of his early life. 'Guns, Drugs and Monsters,' the novel, moved him to L.A. 'Criminal Macabre' introduced us to the Lieutenant Brueger character. [For the script] it's a totally original story, but it involves all the elements we've seen from Cal so far."

The good news for Cal fans doesn't stop there.

"Dark Horse is also going to be putting out all the 'Cal' novels. They're taking the three books, that's the two novels and the collection of short stories, they're splitting the short stories and they're going to make two big fat novels out of them. They're going to do mass market paperbacks that are going to be available hopefully by spring. Hopefully we can get them into bookstores and grocery stores and airports."

IDW Publishing, Niles' other publisher of choice, will also be sharing in the wealth of these reprints. IDW previously printed the Cal McDonald novel "Savage Membrane" as well as "Dial M for Monster," an anthology of Cal McDonald short stories. The publisher will also be participating in the new editions with limited edition hard covers, illustrated by Templesmith.

"Freaks of the Heartland" #1, Page 18
Following "Love Me Tenderloin," Niles and Dark Horse will release the five-issue series "Freaks of the Heartland," with art by Greg Ruth.

"I actually wrote this, wow, it was actually in 1987. That was when I first started working on it. I came up with this little comic idea and I remember talking about it with John Bolton and Mike Richardson who said, 'Wow, that's really cool, I really like that story.' I went on to write a little novella that Paul Lee did some illustrations on for a company called Fantaco [in 1993]. They were the same company that did the 'Night of the Living Dead: London' and all that stuff. I put out the little novella and was pretty happy with it, but I always pictured it as a work in progress. Then I wound up writing a spec screenplay, just still trying to figure it out. This story haunts me. I kept working on it and did like two or three different versions.

"Freaks of the Heartland" #2
"When I hooked up with Dark Horse they connected me with Greg Ruth and he just absolutely brought it alive. All of a sudden all these things that I couldn't quite nail down in prose or in the script form, he was doing it in the pictures. Basically, I took the screenplay and adapted it back into a comic script. I kept it really loose. What I really enjoy about it is that there are almost no captions, very few word balloons. It's a very visual story. I keep saying it's a quiet story. I guess that's what I'm really saying. It's not very wordy, it's all told in the pictures."

While this new series is based on the novella, there have been numerous changes to the original story for this new comic.

"The story is completely changed, actually. The characters are developed a lot more. Some of the events that occur are very similar, but I'm almost pulling back on the conclusion of it. One thing I did with the original is it sort of has a 'Twilight Zone' twist ending and that never quiet sat well with me. So, I've removed that, and instead implied a couple of different origins for the creatures in the story.

"Freaks of the Heartland" #2, Page 4
"This is like the only story where I do that Hollywood thing, ya know, where I say it's this meets this? It works for this. It's 'Slingblade' meets 'Village of the Damned.' It's about a town where monstrous children are born to families and the affect it has on the town. In particular, the relationship between a young boy and one of the monsters who is his brother."

Later in 2004 Dark Horse will publish "The Nail," a mini-series by rocker and director Rob Zombie who is joined on the book by Niles. Niles shared with us a bit about the story, but look for more about "The Nail" this Friday when Niles interviews Zombie for the final part of this Steve Niles Week event.

"['The Nail's] from Rob's original idea that he's had in his drawer, I think, for a movie. We've developed it into a comic and we brought on Nat Jones who I worked with on 'Spawn: The Dark Ages' with. Nat's done some great, great stuff. I feel like out of all the stuff I'm doing, this is like the most old fashioned, straight forward horror story. Great characters in bad situations.

A promotional poster for "The Nail"
"I'm enjoying the hell out of it. Satanic Bikers! Wrestlers of the '70s! It's probably the only time period, the '50s through the '70s, the only time that I really liked wrestling. You have big, giant men wearing leotards, cutting their own heads so they've got the blood, playing these community centers. It's just great!

"That's what this story is about. We follow this wrestler at the end of his career traveling from community center to community center with his family in a Winnebago and they come across trouble."

The two were hooked up together by a mutual friend at Dark Horse. According to Niles, the two were put into a room together, found they had a number of interests in common and "…we started talking like a couple of little kids. 'Oh my God, you too? Me too!' (laughs)

"We even grew up in kind of the same music scene. He was up in Boston, I was down in D.C. and we were both listening to punk rock. We both had that punk rock sensibility."

The collaborative effort has gone well for the two.

"It's actually been really great. I'm working with Rob the same way I work with everybody else. We're both in L.A. and we just e-mail everything back and forth."

We continue our chat with Steve Niles tomorrow on CBR.

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