A few weeks back, I got my hands on an advanced copy of The Nightmare Factory: Volume 2 (Fox Atomic/HarperCollins). As described by the publisher: “The mind-bending universe of horror master Thomas Ligotti awaits in another graphic adaptation of his haunting work … Four more of Ligotti’s arresting tales are adapted into fine graphic literature by famed creators Stuart Moore, Joe Harris, Vasilis Lolos (The Last Call), Bill Sienkiewicz (Elektra: Assassin), Toby Cypress (Killing Girl), and Nick Stakal (Criminal Macabre: My Demon Baby), featuring all-new introductions to each story by Thomas Ligotti.”
With the help of HarperCollins’ Greg Kubie, I was able to get in contact with both Moore and Harris for email interviews to discuss the book. First off, we’ll begin with Moore. Here’s his official bio (via his must-read blog, Pensive Mischief): “Moore has been a writer, a book editor, and an award-winning comics editor. His recent writing includes Iron Man (Marvel Comics), The 99 (Teshkeel), Firestorm (DC Comics), the original science-fiction series Earthlight (Tokyopop) and PARA (Penny-Farthing Press), and the prose novels American Meat and Reality Bites (Games Workshop). He was a founding editor of DC’s Vertigo imprint, and has also edited the Marvel Knights and Virgin Comics/SciFi Channel comics lines. Stuart lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, author Liz Sonneborn, and three of the most spoiled cats on the planet.”
Tim O’Shea: In adapting someone else’s prose for graphic novel, how hard is it to find your own voice while maintaining the spirit of Ligotti’s work?
Stuart Moore: I don’t do a lot of comics adaptations, but I always find them interesting. You exercise different writing muscles, and it makes you think differently about the way you construct your own comics.
With the Ligotti books, I don’t really worry so much about finding my own voice. These are really beautifully crafted stories, and I always try to keep as much of the original prose as I can. The trick is to figure out how to make each individual piece work in comics form. It’s a challenge, because in their original form, these stories rely much more on interior narrative and moody prose than on dialogue.
O’Shea: Did you ever discuss with Ligotti about how you adapted his stories in the first volume and if you did, how did it influence your approach on writing the stories for volume 2?
Moore: We had no back-and-forth at all on volume 1. On volume 2, he sent some pretty extensive notes on THE CHYMIST, which arrived while I was in the middle of the script. He actually wanted to change more than I did; I had an idea for a narrative conceit that he was a bit leery of, but he suggested some visual bits near the end that strengthened the climax considerably. I’m very happy with the final result.
O’Shea: What appealed to you about the two stories you wrote in this volume?
Moore: SECT OF THE IDIOT is a very Lovecraftian story, with a basic plot Ligotti has returned to several times: a lone man who finds his true, dark self in a strange town. I really liked the languid feel of this one; I tried not to rush it, because I wanted the reader to feel the days pass in the creaky old hotel while the protagonist tried to make sense of what was happening to and around him. Nick Stakal’s art really captured that feeling.
THE CHYMIST is an odder piece. It’s much more humorous, one of the funniest stories in Ligotti’s oeuvre…though it’s also quite disturbing by the end. Toby Cypress’s sharp, stylized art emphasized that. It’s really a favorite of mine, and I think it stands out in the collection…its tone is quite different from the other stories’. It’s not at all lightweight — in fact, it’s much darker than SECT OF THE IDIOT — but it is very funny in its way.
O’Shea: Everyone knows Heidi MacDonald as the industry Watcher (though she is not bald and does not wear a toga…) on the Beat, but few folks remember she was an editor long before her current gig. As a writer what is the greatest benefit or part of the experience in having MacDonald as your editor?
Moore: Heidi knows all parts of the industry inside and out. She’s also very good at trusting people and letting them do their jobs. As a former editor myself, I’m always leery of butting in too much in the different stages of the creative process…but Heidi and Eric Leib, the Fox Atomic ed-in-chief, were both great about taking my suggestions and letting me proofread at various stages.
O’Shea: You’re a writer who has dabbled in Marvel and DC continuity (and all the fanboy expectations and demands that come with that). In contrast, how enjoyable is it to dive into horror stories, where as best I can tell there’s no huge message boards telling you how they expect you to tackle Ligotti’s stories?
Moore: Well…at times I’ve been a message board junkie, though I’m mostly recovered now. But I think I’ve always been good about not letting it influence my actual writing. The fans who post on boards are the most intensely interested in something, but they’re not always representative of the bulk of your readership. On the other hand, their very passion is inspiring and their knowledge is impressive.
In general, though, I like feedback of any kind. I think I’ve gotten good at reading reviews and thinking, “Ah, good point,” or “No, you just missed it” or “Okay, that one wasn’t for you.”
O’Shea: In Ligotti’s introduction to your first story, The Chymist, he talks about B-movie mad scientists (and creating a character somewhat against that type). Visually the lead character, Simon’s appearance alternates between the typecast mad scientist look and how he really looked. How did you and artist Toby Cypress come to this approach?
Moore: That was my idea. The original story talks about the Great Chemists, and it seemed to me the protagonist would have an image of himself as a large, forbidding manipulator of unimaginable forces. Basically it was a matter of taking the substance of the original story and figuring out an interesting way to depict it visually. Toby ran with it beautifully.
O’Shea: The Sect of the Idiot comes across like a Twilight Zone episode–rather than visually looking like a standard non-horror story until the last few horrific scenes. How hard is it to write a story like that–building up the payoff and keeping the reader engaged without giving too much of the reveal away?
Moore: I don’t know if I really considered it that way, because I wasn’t constructing the story from scratch. That was a particularly tricky one to adapt for precisely the reason you’ve mentioned: Most of it doesn’t offer much in the way of big visuals. I avoided responsibility for that by making a lot of airy suggestions about the impressions the town should give, and then just crossed my fingers that the artist — I don’t think I knew who it was when I was writing the script — would pull it off. In a way, it was a great story for the right artist to tackle, because the city could be designed from scratch and there was a lot of opportunity for small, slow storytelling moments. Heidi found Nick, who was absolutely perfect.
Before delving into the Harris email interview, here is the opening bit to Harris’ official bio: “JOE HARRIS makes movies and writes comics skewering the horror genre with tales of superheroes and the supernatural.” (Please be sure to visit Harris’ killer (heh) site, which also delves into his film work ["A Ronald Reagan-obsessed serial killer" is all the words I needed to entice me, honestly])
O’Shea: Did (editor Heidi) MacDonald assign you and Stuart certain stories to adapt, or were you given a choice? Did you have to fight Stuart for the chance to collaborate with Sienkiewicz?
Joe Harris: We all poured through a bunch of stories for the first volume, when we were still new at this, getting into Ligotti’s material for the first time and considering which might make for the best comics adaptions. I remember reading both “The Clown Puppet” and “The Chymist” back in 2007 for consideration in Volume One only to end up adapting the former for Volume Two while Stuart ended up adapting the later for the new book as well. So there were plenty of contenders from the beginning which found their way onto the next album, so to speak, once the band was tight and amitious enough to tackle them.
I would have fought for Bill Sienkiewicz. Let’s all be thankful it didn’t come to that.
O’Shea: In adapting Ligotti’s work for graphic novel, what was your largest challenge?
Harris: I think the most important thing, for me, is to really build both the big visual moments and the scares in a way which plays to the comics medium while still maintaining the dark, dreamy and distinctively horrific telling of the tale that’s so recognizable in Ligotti’s stories. You want, I think in these cases, for the narrative to unfold as the original material did. In reading the majority of the Ligotti stories I’ve been exposed to at this point, I usually find myself as taken with the pace and telling of the tale as I am with the sum of the parts at the end, if that makes sense. The adaptations need to make use of the visuals. Ours is a visual medium. There’s more to this than just visualizing what the text is getting at and providing backdrops for the artists to draw (or paint, in Bill’s case). You want to direct the actors a bit… provide for juxtaposition between the text we include and the pictures playing behind it and hopefully add something to the story, not merely reprint the text with wallpaper behind it. That said, you want to be, I think, slavishly faithful at the same time. Honestly, I feel like I’m under a spell when I read these stories. I want to adapt them to visual media in a way that quietly accentuates what’s already there while preserving the flow and feel the author of the source material intended.
O’Shea: Did you get a chance to talk with Ligotti about the work, or hear back from him about your approach–or did you intentionally avoid any such interaction?
Harris: He provided some feedback which was both thrilling and humbling in different spots, but wholly appreciated in both cases I received commentary. Ligotti wasn’t involved much in VOL. 1 and we were all excited for his feedback in this new volume.
O’Shea: How has screenwriting influenced your approach toward the comics medium (if at all) and vice versa?
Harris: Honestly, I think my ambitions to direct more influence my comic scripts more than the actual screenwriting does. When writing comics, I set out to direct the movie on paper. I love the collaboration with my artists. I tend to view them as both my cast and cinematographer. When the partnership is good, the only thing I appreciate more than an incredible depiction of the panel just as I saw it is an artist’s rendition that brings something out of the panel, the page, book, etc. that I never saw coming. But make no mistake… I’m sitting in my mental director’s chair while curled up at my desk and scripting the book. My scripts direct the camera and the actors and I’m cutting the movie in my head while shooting the entire time.
So far as my taking comics writing into the screenwriting process… it’s a gear shift, honestly. With comics, you’re composing page by page. Each page says something. There’s a beginning, middle and end… even if it’s a full-page splash that goes along with the overall story structure you’re serving. In movies, things are similar in that you’ve got to structure your scenes to serve the larger picture… but they can be a paragraph long, half a page, three pages, whatever. I’m writing visually, in my screenwriting, but I’m not composing the scenes with the same level of presentation. It’s more open. The first and last panel of a comics page punctuate it and I write with that in mind. Not the same with screenwriting.
And, honestly, one has to keep in mind that there’s a huge difference between how dialogue sounds when delivered by actors and how it reads on a page. I’m not the same writer. The two writers in me know one another well, but it’s not an effortless transition.
O’Shea: For some writers, one of the greatest benefits of collaborating with an artist is seeing how the visual interpretation takes the written word to a higher level. Can you point to certain scenes in both stories in which you believe that occurred?
Harris: In GAS STATION CARNIVALS, Vasilis Lolos and I had to depict this strange, crumbling amusement park full of freaks way out in the sticks. His style was so well suited to depict this. I wrote with him in mind and he really nailed the miniature, crumbling merry-go-round… the ho-hum freak show and, most importantly, the incredibly creepy “Showman” who ends up haunting our narrator’s life and dreams. Ligotti had written to me, having read my outline and take on the story, that he was pleased I had focused so much on the Showman, whom I saw as elemental… darkness in a form but not really, necessarily human… rather, he was a larger than life carnival barker who didn’t bark. He just… appeared, his back turned, like he was hiding something awful but tempting the narrator to see what was on the other side. Vasilis nailed it. And he really outdid himself with our final page reveal, where our narrator really gets the comeuppance he’s been both earning and searching for at the end.
With Bill Sienkiewicz in THE CLOWN PUPPET, I found myself scripting with these abstract ideas in mind. I’ve been reading books Bill’s illustrated since I was a kid. I knew we weren’t doing NEW MUTANTS here… but I’ve read ELEKTRA ASSASSIN and VOODOO CHILD enough to have preconceived notions about how he might have attacked my script. I tried not to tell him, “do Bill Sienkiewicz-y things here”… but I did try to provide a space where he could do his thing. The story is about a man, working alone in a pharmacy at night and going off a deep end when realizing or, rather, affirming how nonsensical life around him really is. It’s absolutely batty. A symphonic juxtaposition of the mundane and the surreal and I was so fucking thrilled knowing Bill was going to tackle this.
O’Shea: What attracts you to working in the horror genre–and is it your favorite genre to write?
Harris: I like horror for many of the same reasons I like science fiction. At its best and at its heart, it explores and examines everyday life, often taking things to a fantastic extreme which both entertains and illuminates the reality we’re basing the story in. I enjoy horror as commentary, much more so than blood and guts or rampaging monsters. Not that there’s anything wrong with rampaging monsters, mind you… they need love too. But there’s some genuinely scary stuff swirling around in this world of ours. I’m talking in the micro, forget about the macro for a second. We’re terrible, people are. Capable of so much cruelty and darkness. When I see a group of school kids on their way to class in the morning, I imagine them rising up and taking over at lunchtime. When I see traffic stopped and thick at an intersection, I imagine what happens if the guy at the front decides to plow into the pedestrians racing through the crosswalk. We are fascinatingly complex and dark creatures. There are champions among us, but we all wrestle with choices and we’re all animals beneath that sprinkle of super-ego on top.
O’Shea: Why do you think puppets are used to such great success and a large extent in horror stories?
Harris: I think back to that incredible scene in POLTERGEIST… where the boy is trying to fall asleep, but that incredibly creepy clown puppet across the room keeps staring at him and causing the kid all sorts of problems. We’ve been there. I think that the puppet device both perverts the innocent notion of playtime as well as corrupts the nature of adulthood.
O’Shea: Given that you were also a writer in the first Nightmare Factory volume, I was wondering if you found it easier or less daunting to tackle Ligotti’s characters the second time around?
Harris: Much easier the second time around. The first time, I wasn’t sure of myself. I wasn’t sure I fully ‘got’ the stories in certain places. With the second volume, I let go of any fears of misinterpretation. The stories aren’t wholly narrative driven. They don’t sew up tightly at the end and plenty really is open to interpretation. As a writer, I found myself much more at peace with the abstract nature of the stories.
O’Shea: Are there any stories you have hopes for tackling if there was ever a third volume or are you ready to move away from the Ligotti universe?
Harris: I’d have to go back and pick through the original volume, should there end up being a third graphic novel. I’d like to possibly revisit, “The Night School” or “The Red Tower”. Who knows? We’ll see.
Harris: Well, sure… I mean, I hope they would. They’re both gorgeous volumes of work. Beautiful packaging and printing. You can’t go wrong. I know there’s little else like this on the rack right now. If you want a more philosophical take on your horror, I’d like to think we’ve really established a brand for it.