Getting Freaky With Vertigo's "Un-Men"

Wed, November 8th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
George A. Tramountanas, Staff Writer

Boo!

Did I scare you?   No?   What if I use capital letters and a bold font?

BOO!

Still nothing?   Well, as you can see by my meager attempt, it's hard to frighten people with words.   Horror movies have it easier - they have the benefit of audio and moving images.   And while we do have graphics in comics, making a reader's skin crawl still takes a special kind of talent.

In 2007, writer John Whalen ("Big Book of the Weird Wild West," "The 80 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time") and artist Mike Hawthorne ( "3 Days in Europe," "Umbra," "Hysteria") will get to display their abilities in this arena in the new upcoming Vertigo series "The Un-Men."   Announced at the 2006 San Diego Comic-Con International, this ongoing title follows the deformed creatures created by Anton Arcane to fight the legendary Swamp Thing.   Karen Berger (Senior Vice President - Executive Editor, Vertigo) promised this will be "a really good horror book" with a crime mystery angle to it.

CBR News contacted Whalen and Hawthorne, who were both excited to spill some of the details on this new series coming to readers next year.   And when fans hear what they have planned, the reasons behind their enthusiasm should be readily apparent.

Story continues below

target="PopUp">How did this project evolve?   Did an editor at Vertigo come up with the idea?   Or was it something that you brought to them?   And if you didn't bring the pitch in, how did the two of you get involved?

John Whalen :   I had pitched a few projects to editor Jonathan Vankin [Whalen's co-writer on "The 80 Greatest Conspiracies..."] at Vertigo, who came back at me with the idea of reviving and updating the Un-Men characters created by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson in the first "Swamp Thing" run, back in the 1970's.   Vertigo [editors Karen Berger and Vankin] wanted to do a great horror book with roots in the Wein/Wrightson "Swamp Thing" era - not another "Swamp Thing" revival, but an all-original series with a tone and purpose all its own, featuring Wein and Wrightson's frenetic creatures.

I'm a longtime fan of "Swamp Thing" - especially Alan Moore's classic run - but I'd never want to be the guy toiling in his long shadow.   Fortunately, what Vertigo wanted in tone and purpose was worlds apart from "Swamp Thing":   a twisted horror comic taking its cue from the early Wein/Wrightson "Swamp Thing" comics, and also the EC horror comics that partly inspired them, but with contemporary themes and black humor.  

In fact, I remembered Berni Wrightson's ghastly little creepers (visually somewhere between EC's gimped-out bestiary and Big Daddy Roth's souped-up hotrod freaks) and quickly dug up my moldering Volume 1 "Swamp Thing" issues (covers long gone) to get reacquainted with Anton Arcane's "synthetic men."   I've always been partial to horror comics, and so - long story probably too long - I jumped at the chance to bring Arcane's creepy henchmen into the 21st century.

Mike Hawthorne :   Jon asked me to draw it while I was working on "The Exterminators" with him.   At first I was reluctant, as I've tried to avoid a monthly book.   I've turned down at least half a dozen or so, but after learning more about the Un-Men, I pretty much couldn't wait.

I mean, a book where one of the main characters is a brain with a face on a huge hand?   Yeah, I can draw that every month!

What is the premise of the book?   It's ongoing, so are the characters on an uber-mission?   Or does their mission change from story arc to story arc?

JW :   The initial idea was to write a five-issue miniseries, but as we began to develop the premise, characters, and setting, multiple stories and a longer-term arc started to suggest themselves.   At that point, Karen and Jonathan decided (quite savvily, if I do say so myself) to expand on the original idea and make "The Un-Men" an ongoing series.   The basic premise brings together the various strands of Un-Men back-story and answers the questions "Where are they today?" and "What the hell have they been up to?"

As far as continuity goes, there's not a lot of Un-Men history to deal with - the characters appeared in only three of the Wein/Wrightson issues of "Swamp Thing," and later made a brief appearance in Volume 2, just before Alan Moore took over the title.   Their other appearances in "Swamp Thing" have been limited to flashbacks.

In 1994, Vertigo briefly revived the Un-Men concept in a five-issue miniseries called "American Freak: A Tale of the Un-Men" (written by Dave Louapre and drawn by Vince Locke).   But that series didn't involve any of the distinctive characters created by Wein and Wrightson.   Instead, it focused on a second-generation Un-Men character bred by the U.S. military from a pair of unnamed captive Arcane Un-Men (one being an "Un-Woman").

My story takes place fifteen years after the events in "American Freak."   At the end of that miniseries, a chagrined U.S. government - its freak-making experiments exposed to the world - grants a handful of surviving Un-Men (and human "freaks" of the sideshow variety) squatters rights on a parcel of wasteland formerly used as an atomic bomb test site.  

target="PopUp">As our new series begins, we learn that this government-sanctioned reservation for freaks has grown (metastasized is probably the better word) into a gated community/tourism trap called Midway City.   It's been developed by a group of (initially mysterious) profiteers into a tax-free, permanent urban freak show that looks something like an neon-lit amalgam of Disneyland, Amsterdam's Red Light District, the Vegas strip, and a nightmare carnival somewhere in the midwest.   The economic engine driving this spectacle is fueled by equal parts exploitation and voyeurism.   So, it's not too far removed from American pop culture circa 2006.

The Un-Men have strong ties to the Swamp Thing.   Are these the same Un-Men from those past issues?   Are these new Un-Men?   Will you be following the original origin, creating your own, or a bit of both?

JW :   Yes, several of the Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson Un-Men will appear in this series, and at least one of them will have a major role.   There will also be references to some of the characters in the "American Freak" miniseries.   And there will also be a number of Un-Men we have not seen before.

Talk about their origin a bit.

MH :   Some guy, Wrightsomething or other drew them...I think.

No, seriously, Mr. Wrightson - if you're reading this - thank you!   I hope I do you justice.   Following you up is no easy thing.

JW :   In the Wein/Wrightson "Swamp Thing" run, the Un-Men were described as "synthetic" creatures created by Anton Arcane as a byproduct of his efforts to build himself an immortal body.   Presumably, the Un-Men were mostly leftovers from these failed experiments:   Frankenstein-like creations with customized features such as extra heads and limbs, amphibian parts, and other assorted visual gimcracks knocking about in Wrightson's feverish head.   Of course, Arcane was savvy enough to make lemonade from his lemons, so he turned many of these deformed critters into mindless henchmen capable of harassing Swamp Thing on multiple continents.

Which of the original Un-Men do you plan on using?   Can you give us a rundown of of the Un-Men involved and what they're like?   Two that come to mind are Cranius and Ophidian...

JW :   Okay, I'll let the (two-headed) cat out of the bag:   yes, Cranius will be a major player in this series.   He's always been my favorite Un-Men character, and for good reason - he's an authoritarian brain on a hand, for gawdsakes.   Of course, it's been necessary to flesh out his character more than a little bit.   In the Wein/Wrightson stories, Cranius is Arcane's loyal major domo.   He perches on stuff and shouts things like, "The master will not tolerate your failure!"   But that's about the extent of his personality in the early tales.  

In the new series, Cranius has long since broken free of his slavish devotion to Arcane, and like any second banana emerging from his former superior's shadow, he's harboring some resentment.   He's just as stentorian as ever, and the Teutonic accent that I always heard in my head when reading Wein's boldface dialog is now front and center.

As for Ophidian, the ten-legged snake man, he may or may not appear in later issues.   Right now, however, he is honored as the namesake of a tourist hotel in Midway City:   The Ophidian Arms.

How do you classify the Un-Men?   Are they bad, good, or in-between?   Do they have minds of their own, or do they feel the need to follow Anton Arcane's orders?

JW :   As I mentioned, Arcane is out of the picture for now (isn't his head being used for soccer practice in hell?).   But will he one day turn up in Midway City to claim his due?   Never say never.

target="PopUp">But right now, the Un-Men are currently free agents, although they do acknowledge their creator, however ambivalent they now feel about him.   They're independent thinkers, and each has a distinct - and distinctly human - personality.   Mindless monsters don't interest me much.

As far as their ethics go, I wouldn't say that the Un-Men are simply good or bad...let's just say that they're ambitious like any other set of American moguls on the brink of a major economic breakthrough.   For now, that's all I'll say about their motives.  

Their aspirations and goals will become clear as the series progresses.   And just for the record, like any other association of mutually interested parties, they're not always on the same page.   To quote US Magazine, "Mutant Freaks: They're just like us."

MH :   Yeah, some are "ambitious"...like Genghis Khan!

Will the Swamp Thing be making an appearance as well?

MH :   I don't think so, but man, it would be f-ing cool if he could.

JW :   Right now, there are no definite plans for a walk-on by the "muck-encrusted mockery of a man."   But if the story (or my alliteration quota) eventually calls for it, we might see a certain visitor from the Green.

MH :   Don't tease, John.   It's un-kind.

target="PopUp">Karen Berger described the book as horror with a crime mystery angle to it.   Can you tell me anything about the crime?   Are we talking robbery crime, or murder?

MH :   Murder most foul, George.   Most foul.

JW :   When one of the resident workers in Midway City (a human "freak") goes missing, an outside government agency is called in to investigate.   Because the U.S. Department of Energy retains administrative jurisdiction over the former A-bomb test site, this duty falls to one of its security officers.   As he begins his investigation, this agent - Kilcrop is his name - soon discovers the outlines of a much larger and darker mystery.

Kilcrop's assignment to the case is something of a joke:   he is himself a "freak" of sorts.   Born without skin pigmentation, he is an albino - a condition that he has struggled his entire life to abnegate or suppress.   What's more, he is an African-American albino, and he's convinced that his current task is Washington's idea of a knee-slapper: "Why not dump freak detail on the house freak?"

It was Mike who came up with idea of making Kilcrop an African-American albino.   Originally, my idea was to make Kilcrop a Caucasian albino.   But when Mike turned in his first round of character sketches, he snuck in an alternative rendering of Kilcrop as an African-American albino.   I thought this was a brilliant idea and so did Jonathan Vankin at Vertigo.   Not only did Mike's spin on my original idea amplify several of the key themes in the book - including those of alienation and what it means to be an outsider not accepted by any group - it promised to be visually stunning.   So after my initial "Why didn't I think of that?" reaction, I went back into my finished scripts and made the necessary revisions.

I've always felt it's tough to convey horror in comics.   What do each of you feel is the secret to conveying this tone in comic books?   And what would you point to as successful horror books in comics?

MH :   Getting the timing right, and knowing you have to sell a single creepy image in a way that burns it into your brain, like the EC covers of the '50s.   I think a certain amount of visual wit must come into play, not just blood and gore.   They'd set up an image where you take for granted it's spooky, then as you study it something jumps out at you that you hadn't seen before.

JW :   First of all, you need a great artist with a twisted reptile brain (that's a compliment, Mike).   But I don't think there's any one secret to conveying horror effectively in comics.   Admittedly, it's a lot harder in the comic medium to scare the bejeezes out of your audience than it is to do the same in a movie or even a prose book.  

On a purely technical level, movies have the advantage of delivering stimuli both visually and aurally - so that as a filmmaker, you are pushing emotional buttons via two powerful, and primal, sensory inputs.   A good horror filmmaker knows how to manipulate these senses; how to use a violent succession of images or a sudden elevation in sound levels or creepy music to incite an instinctive emotional response in the audience.   Prose books, if they are written well enough, have the advantage of mustering the reader's imagination to conjure its own images - and who better than the reader to envision what is most terrifying to him or herself?  

target="PopUp">In comics, it's much more difficult to evoke a "primal horror response."   Boldface type and extra exclamation points are not going to make readers jump out of their chair.   In my opinion, the horror comics that work best are the ones that convey an eerie and unsettling mood through a variety of means, including use of art (composition, ink style, use of light and shadow, coloring, use of extreme imagery), the sense of a deepening mystery, well-written characters that inspire a reader's emotional investment in them, the use of universal archetypes that humans tend to find psychologically disturbing (torture, suffocation, bugs! , being buried alive), and lots of inventive surprises that keep readers on edge and thrilled to be there.

I think those are some of the traits of the horror comics that I love:   Alan Moore's "Love and Death" story arc in "Swamp Thing," the Jamie Delano "Hellblazer" run, and lots of stuff by Steve Niles/Kyle Hotz/Ben Templesmith and other artists....

Mike, I've seen you use a couple of different styles throughout your career.   How would you describe the style for this book?   What do you feel makes it "scary?"

MH :   I'm going for a rich, textured feel with this.   It'll be more in line with "Queen & Country" or "Umbra," but not as cold and stark.   This book will be filled with dark chiaroscuro and moody settings.   Hopefully, I'll inspire some of the fright guys like Johnny Craig and Mr. Wrightson were able to inspire.

Do either of you have any other projects you are working on that you want to mention?

JW :   I've got a couple of irons in the fire, but it's probably way too early to talk about them.

MH :   I'm wrapping up a graphic novel with "Umbra" writer Steve Murphy called "Sturgeon."   I also have some stuff Oeming and I are gonna do, which will knock your socks off.   You'll also see odd and end stuff from me both writing and drawing...some even online.

Terrific!   And finally, what excites each of you most about working on "The Un-Men?"

JW :   Hard to narrow it down to just one thing.   I'm really enjoying the process of taking what were essentially one-dimensional characters and fleshing them out as recognizably human beings.   No, the Un-Men are not "human" in the typical physical or metaphysical sense, but their motives, fears and responses to the world are very human.

Okay, one more thing I'm really enjoying:   we've been talking about horror comics, but "The Un-Men" will not be a straight-up horror comic.   There's also a lot of twisted black humor involved (how can there not be when one of the main characters is a talking brain on a hand?), as well as elements of noir - as in the old EC horror comics.   I'm having a blast working in that mode.   As a reader (and moviegoer), I love that disturbing fine line between the funny and the horrifying - it's a place where we're always a little off-balance.   Should we laugh or should we turn away in revulsion?   And that's a "sense experience" that comics can communicate just as well as, if not better than, movies.

MH :   I'm getting the chance to go back to the stuff I drew as a kid:   monsters and mutants, and tell creepy stories!   For me, that's the pay-off.

And now you can discuss this story right here in CBR's Vertigo Forum.

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