Jeremy Atkins, Dark Horse Comics' Director of Public Relations, kicked off the publisher's Drawing on Your Nightmares: Horror in Comics panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego by pointing out how cool it was to be at a horror panel on Friday the 13th. He also said that he'd be turning the moderation over to editor and writer Paul Tobin ("Falling Skies," "Gingerbread Girl" and lots of Marvel all-ages books), Eric Powell ("The Goon," "Billy the Kid's Old Timey Oddities") and Steve Niles ("30 Days of Night," "Criminal Macabre") were all present, creating an intimate panel with a high level of participation by everyone.
Allie took over with a slide show and a brief explanation of Tobin's presence. Though he's primarily known for a light, humorous approach to comics, Tobin previously worked with Dark Horse on the "Falling Skies" prequel with artist Juan Ferreyra, proving that he could write darker material. From that relationship came "Colder," a new horror series by Tobin and Ferreyra about a man whose body temperature won't stop dropping.
The slide show kicked off with a piece of art by Ferreyra mashing up all of Dark Horse's horror characters into one image.
Next, Allie introduced Powell and explained that "The Goon" is about to go monthly for the foreseeable future. Powell said that the last time the series went monthly was to push through to the end of what he thought of as the Goon's first chapter. There are also new plans for Powell's version of Billie the Kid with a miniseries called "Billy The Kid's Old Timey Oddities and the Orm of Loch Ness."
Tim Seeley is working on a series called "Ex Sanguine," which Allie described as Buffy and Angel if they were characters in "Natural Born Killers."
Allie shared some promotional art for "Colder," but said that he couldn't reveal the first issue's actual cover because it was "just too scary." He said that when Ferreyra sent it to him and Tobin, both of their wives freaked out and left the room until the picture was gone. He then teased the entire audience by showing it to Powell and Niles on his mobile device, but the room got over it when Tobin started talking about why he wanted to do the book.
Tobin explained that his horror influences aren't slasher films, but Korean and Japanese horror that build a sense of dread. He wanted to do the same thing by building a ticking clock and psychological aspect into "Colder" with the protagonist's constantly decreasing body temperature.
Allie talked about Richard Corben's adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Conqueror Worm" and said that though it's "one of Poe's most bizarre poems," Corben has one-upped it on the bizarre with "the strangest adaptation imaginable."
Allie cautioned Hellboy fans not to assume that Hellboy will return from Hell after the "Hellboy in Hell" miniseries. "He's dead. He may never come back and he's certainly going to be in Hell for a good long time."
Regarding "Criminal Macabre," Niles mentioned that Dark Horse will be re-releasing the original three Cal McDonald prose novels in addition to "The Iron Spirit," a new short story, comics/prose hybrid illustrated by Scott Morse. Rather than just creating spot illustrations to go with Niles' text, Morse is designing the 9" x 12" board book with art and text interwoven on the same page. Dark Horse will also continue to release one-shots of the "Criminal Macabre" material that has appeared in "Dark Horse Presents."
Niles also teased "Final Night," the upcoming Criminal Macabre/30 Days of Night crossover that will end with the cancellation of one of Niles' signature series. Niles promises that while only one series survives, neither comes out unscathed. "It's going to be a bloody mess either way," he promised.
Finally, Allie showed some art for Lance Henrikson's "To Hell You Ride." Drawn by Tom Mandrake, the series will feature Henrikson's twist on the Indian burial grounds and curse story.
Opening the Q&A part of the panel, Allie asked the group what it was about horror that drew them in. Niles explained that it's simply his first love and that he grew up reading comics like "Creepy" and "Eerie." Powell echoed that by saying that he grew up on episodes of "The Twilight Zone." Asking why he likes horror is like asking someone why they like chocolate ice cream. He just does.
Expanding on the question a bit, Allie inquired about the comedy Powell includes in his horror stories. Powell explained that it just seem to go together for him and shared a story about going to the Dairy Queen with his sister to rent VHS movies when they were kids. "We would rent a scary movie and a funny movie. That was the two requirements." Being drawn to those two genres is what's led him to include them in so much of his work.
Niles also talked about humor in his comics. While "30 Days of Night" is pretty dark and serious, Cal McDonald often responds to the very real horror in "Criminal Macabre" with a grim sense of humor.
Tobin is already known for his comedy and YA sensibilities, so Allie asked him whether or not that plays into "Colder." Tobin said that comedy adds depth to stories and characters. Characters need multiple emotions in order to make them feel real. Also, comedy makes the horror that much more jarring when it finally appears.
Niles then observed that everyone's involuntary reactions to scary things are either fear or laughter. He used roller coasters as an example where people either laugh hysterically or scream in fear.
Powell also brought up the need to vary emotions in order to build and release tension.
The first question from the audience was about how much an influence H.P. Lovecraft has been on the group's work. Tobin led off, mentioning the legendary writer's unrelenting, doomed outlook and how he kept his stories interesting by never explaining the monsters that inhabited them.
"A great way to destroy a scary story is to explain it," Niles added, agreeing that not doing that was one of Lovecraft's strengths. Tobin observed that readers fill in the details the best way in their own minds, which brought to Niles' mind the powerful, off-screen death scene in "The Blair Witch Project," a movie he otherwise isn't a huge fan of.
The next question was about the panel's favorite monsters, to which Allie responded first by talking about the deep meaning and resonance of werewolves. He lamented that while there have been good werewolf stories, there's been no definitive version yet. That led to a brief discussion of the panelists' favorite werewolf stories with Powell mentioning "The Howling," Allie talking about "American Werewolf in London" and Niles' bringing up the novel version of "Wolfen." Allie brought in the previous discussion by observing that "Wolfen" is weakened by explaining everything at the end.
Niles and Powell both like Frankenstein and other sympathetic monsters who just want to be left alone and can't seem to do anything right. Niles added the Creature from the Black Lagoon to that category, which sparked Allie to comment on the Creature's uniquely great design. "If they were to make a new one and built him to make him work better: sure. But if they redesigned him: boo!"
Tobin talked about his love for vampires because it's an entire race of characters filled with different personalities. He noted that the Hulk is his favorite super hero, to which Niles observed that the Hulk is Frankenstein. While Tobin agreed, he added, "But when I'm writing super heroes, I actually like writing Spider-Man more, because there's a wider range of characters to deal with." He also talked about how horrifying vampires' disassociation with humanity is and how they see humans as cattle.
The next question was an ambiguous one that started out about Halloween plans and ended up being sort of about kids' experiences with scary things. In response, Allie told a weirdly sweet story about watching "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" with his son and how the usually brave seven-year-old was terrified by the scene in which Dracula keeps moving Lou Costello's milk glass that's sitting on the coffin lid Dracula's trying to open. Allie joked that his reaction to his son's uncharacteristic fear was, "Wow, cool -- let me see how far I can push this."
When a fan asked about the progress on the animated Goon movie, Powell said that they're still trying to get financing, but that all of the creative team is still on board. Unfortunately, you can't Kickstart a $35 million dollar movie, but he is launching a Kickstarter campaign to pay for an animated sample to show Hollywood. He encouraged fans to stay tuned to the Goon and Dark Horse sites for further details about that.
The next question was about the difficulty of keeping horror subtle in the visual medium of comics. Powell said that the trick is to keep surprises on the top left page so that they're hidden until the page is turned. Allie agreed, but added that another technique is to not rely on visual surprises in the first place, but build fear in other ways. Niles suggested that one of those ways is simply to create good characters and then do horrible things to them.
An attendee asked about the possibility of the panelists' telling horror stories in other time periods. Powell pointed out that "The Goon" is set in a fake Depression Era, so he's already doing that, and Tobin announced that his next novel covers a wide time span, but is largely about vampires in the Weimar Republic's cabaret period. "The '30s and '40s are the edge of two worlds that I really like. There are still areas to be explored where nobody knows what's going on, where there's still a lot of adventure and they're still finding things that are unknown."
Niles observed that cell phones killed horror, launching a discussion about how to get around that in modern horror. Allie talked about scouting rural Oregon with Tim Seeley for their werewolf story so that they could see what areas looked like with no cell reception. He then offered his own answer to the time-period question by talking about the post-Civil War Restoration era. "It's such a weird time in American history with what's available. There are weapons; there are modes of transportation, but it is a very primitive time for America and the country's identity is a complete mess. That, I think, is ripe for a scary story."
The next question was about the possibility of a nineteenth century vampires vs. werewolves story. Allie replied that he was already sort of tired of vampires because there are so many of them. Besides, "Criminal Macabre" is already mashing up monster populations pretty well.
Powell added that he's annoyed by the Anne Rice version of vampires and that "Twilight" took that to a whole other level. He repeated that he likes sympathetic monsters and said that when vampires appear in "The Goon," they're usually spoofs.
Niles said that he wrote "30 Days of Night" because he'd grown to dislike vampires and wanted to make them scary again instead of romantic. "I don't see anybody romancing a cow," he said, referring to Tobin's earlier comment. "It doesn't make any sense. To me, it was that idea of somebody who is us, but having no regard for our lives and only looking at us as food. That was thing with (artist Ben) Templesmith, when I described it, was, 'These are the land sharks.'"
Next was a question about where (if at all) the writers draw the line in what they'll cover in their work. Tobin opened by saying that he doesn't do gore for its own sake and told an awesome story about a custodial job he once had in a Biology building's Experimental Cadaver Room. He described it as the most scared he's ever been in his life.
"I was there probably like 3:00 in the morning and I was alone, the lights were off, and there were about 50 corpses all under sheets."
"And," Niles reminded, "it's called 'Experimental Cadaver Room.'"
"Exactly," replied Tobin. "And one wall was nothing but ice cream buckets…full of brains. So they're coming right after you as soon as they get back up. That really taught me a lot about horror because I would walk in there, and it's not really scary. And about ten minutes in, it's like, 'I heard a noise, but the building's creaking.' And in twenty minutes, it's like, 'That sheet moved.'"
Niles said that there's really no line for him, but that he has his own tastes. Allie supposed that that's the way it was for the entire panel. It's not about lines; it's about interests. Writers don't write about things or scenarios that don't interest them, violence towards women being an example for Allie. He also mentioned Tobin's earlier statement about characterization and said that the problem with a lot of lowbrow horror is the tendency to treat characters like victims and not characters. He used the treatment of Laurie Strode in the "Halloween" movies as an example. In John Carpenter's version, she's a relatable character; in Rob Zombie's version, not so much. Tobin added that whatever a horror writer does or shows, everything has to have a reason.
The final question concerned faerie creatures that were historically feared in past ages, but are seen as cute and comical by today's audiences, with the questioner asking if there is still potential there as a source of horror. Allie responded that while it's not an interest of his, it's something that Mike Mignola has used quite a bit in his comics.