Sunday, October 11, 2009

An interview with Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams is the writer behind NORTH 40, a six-part horror graphic novel I reviewed yesterday. Below is an interesting e-mail interview I recently had with this talented writer and cartoonist.

Aaron, I enjoyed the rural setting of North 40, which appears to be set in a southern part of a Midwest border state, like Missouri or West Virginia. It explores the sometimes-tense dynamic between "rural and "townie" folks, which is fresh for contemporary graphic novels. I'm curious--where did you grow up? Did you draw on memories of people in creating the residents of Conover county, and were you a townie or a country kid?

I grew up in mid-Missouri, in a town of ten to thirteen thousand people. I was definitely of the “townie” variety, with my parents teaching at the local college. I did have a lot of interaction with kids from all strata and social group, as our local high school was a kind of melting pot, where you had the usual jocks, nerds, and so on, but you also had a sizable Future Farmers of America membership and some who were planning on a vo-tech or factory work career path. While Conover County and the environs are based on my memories and observations of how different groups interacted and affected each other, few of the characters are direct caricatures of people I knew. I had no photo reference to send to the incredibly talented artist who made “North 40” the incredible work it is, but she still nailed the look perfectly, creating an alternate universe from where I lived, but one I think could pass for the genuine article if you swapped them out. One of the things I did on is something that seems more prevalent in smaller communities: Local lore. The past of Marguritte DeVris and her effect on the county is a kind of supernatural parallel to a legend we had growing up about our county during the Civil War. Except their means of staying out of the conflict involved painting cut logs to look like cannons rather than having a woman who could warp reality living nearby.

Lovecraft's "Old Ones" mythos informs the events and creatures seen in North 40. Do you have a particular favorite of Lovecraft's works? What other authors have stoked or influenced your imagination?

“At the Mountains of Madness” was always my favorite, as it used a bit of the science fictional elements the mythos had about it along with the mind-bending horror of encountering “the other” in an isolated place. The other big influence I always cite is Stephen King (whose book, “On Writing” is a great resource), as he wrote about what he knew. In his case, it was the people of Maine, who he then proceeded to drop horrible monsters on. That seemed like a good model to follow, and I think it’s worked out better than I’d hoped. He also has a novel I’d consider “Mythos Material,” called “From a Buick 8.”

I’m also a big fan of genre TV shows. “Babylon 5” was a program with writing good enough to overcome their limited special effects budget while still delivering a story about humanity and a war among godlike aliens. “Supernatural” also falls into that category, I think, as the writers have a great wit and sense of humor, and their effects team does some amazing practical effects that are squarely in the “less is more” camp, which makes them look all the more spectacular.

What comic book artists and writers were your faves growing up? Besides reading comics, what other ways did you indulge a love of the fantastic and macabre?

Oddly, I grew up reading more classic sci-fi than horror, mostly Isaac Asimov (I loves me some robotic laws as a storytelling device), Robert Heinlein, and all of those “best of” anthologies our library had. That dovetailed into my hunting down of “Twilight Zone” reruns as well as enjoying the first revival (the one in the 80’s, which was good, not the one that came after, which still gives me brain cramps). I think those sources of scares and chills lend themselves better to comics. The comic medium can’t really deliver the “jump out and scare you” kind of horror, but needs that “if this means this and that means that, then… oh, crap” kind of mental imagery, which was the stock and trade of the Twilight Zone’s “twist and wind up in hell” endings.

Since then, I find myself enjoying some of the more offbeat films that contain horror or “oh crap” elements, like “The Cube,” or the Sci Fi/SyFy mini series, “The Lost Room.” Another offering from Sci/Sy/Fi/Fy that really highlights how good writing can carry a production with almost no special effects is “The Man From Earth.” I think I’m also one of the few people who will admit to liking “The Exorcist III,” especially because it had some just plain creepy ideas that didn’t involve anything coming out of the dark (mostly). I’m thinking of the body covered by a shroud, and the glasses of a certain viscous liquid sitting nearby, neatly arranged on a tray…

You have said in another interview, "There's a glimpse in the story where we see the pursuit of this madness-inducing mystic art might not only be desirable, but something that humanity must pursue if it wants to move beyond what it currently is." A very tantalizing answer! Can you speak to that a little more?

One of the things I always loved about science fiction was how it would sometimes present you with a “big idea” about man’s place in the universe. Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter (who co-wrote a series with Clarke) were/are big proponents of what I’d call “humanity’s next step.” In their stories, like Clarke’s “2001,” at least one person gets to evolve to a new level of being, becoming almost godlike in ability and thought, gaining a sense of perspective that seems almost alien to what they were.

I was thinking that if all of these Mythos creatures were real, they’d achieved some amazing levels of civilization. They could bend time and space, create trans-dimensional servants, cross interstellar distances and so on. It’s exposure to this stuff that usually makes the human characters in those stories lose their minds, as they’re biologically incapable of holding some of the thoughts or shapes or concepts in their gray matter without rupturing something. So if we take these “monsters” as either being a higher state of evolution or pointing the way to knowledge that would make us more than we are now, then maybe we have to endure madness for some, if not a great many of us, to achieve a state where we’re the ones crossing the cosmos, becoming other races’ “Old Ones,” ourselves.

North 40 is illustrated beautifully by Fiona Staples. But you have a notable background as both a writer and an artist.Why did you not create the artwork yourself, and how did Ms. Staples come to the project? (I have to say she did an AMAZING job; just magnificent.)

Just “magnificent?” We shall face each other on the field of honor for that insult, sir! Necronomicons at twenty paces!

Her work is incredible. I have to say that very often, my descriptions of the monsters and people were very utilitarian, and she ran with those rough guidelines and created not only the most believable cast but some of the most horrific creatures I’ve ever seen. If they ever make “Junk-Bot” action figures, I want one… with LED lights and sounds.

To be honest, I don’t think I could have done this title justice. It would also have taken me forever, even if it was all I was doing at the time. At the moment, I produce two webcomics (“Full Frontal Nerdity” and “Backward Compatible”) and write/illustrate a self published comic book (“ps238”). And I’m more of a “cartoony” guy, which either doesn’t lend itself well to horror or makes it even more horrific for entirely different reasons.

Fiona was brought to this project by the alignment of the stars, many signs and portents, and the work of Wildstorm editor Scott Peterson. He’d worked with her on the comic adaptation of the movie, “Trick or Treat,” and rightly though she’d be perfect for this title. And she’s had an even greater time with it than I have, coming to love the characters so much that I’ve been told that if anything fatal happens to the Sheriff, I may need to go into witness protection.

Just for fun, let's assume North 40 will become a TV or film project. (I'd certainly like it to.) Who would you like to see cast as one of the characters? (Personally, I'd love to see Chris Cooper as Sheriff Morgan.)

There are a ton of “grizzled old tough guys” that would do well as Morgan; Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, and, if you “aged” him properly, even Gary Cole might be a candidate.

Marguritte DeVris could be pulled off by Mira Furlan, I think; her accent would bring a nice mysterious quality to her otherworldliness, though Dame Judi Densch would be another pick that might fit the role.

Wyatt… hmm, that’s a toughie. Ryan Gosling, maybe? Perhaps Paul Dano, if he can do a good rural brogue.

Amanda could be played by Monique Coleman, which would have the added fun of being a cast against type since she’s mostly done Disney work, and that could help bring along that sense of otherworldly corruption (grin).

But to be honest, complete unknowns could be awesome as well, so long as they’re competent actors. One of the things I loved about “The X-Files” was how their casting department always managed to get people who just looked the part, yet weren’t familiar (the gold standard being Giovanni Ribisi who played Darren Peter “Lightning Boy” Oswald (along with Jack Black as his pal and eventual victim, Zero).

North 40 has a more serious, adult tone than your other work. Was this your first story written strictly for a mature audience? And did you have to change your writing approach or methods when creating North 40?

Unless you count an 11-page story for “Spider-Man Unlimited #13,” this is probably my most “mature audiences” work to date. I didn’t have to change my plot structuring work too much for the tale, though I was advised to scale back my usual metric ton of dialogue by my editor; that was very good advice, by the way. The biggest differences were having a body count, including more violence (that’ll happen when someone grows fangs and the person across the bar has had a leech-like proboscis installed where his lips used to be), and having to get my word processor to not freak out so much when I’d leave the final ‘g’ off of words.

In any writing I do, I try to give each person their own voice. In “North 40,” especially with the Sheriff, I have to get into the linguistic mindset of a man who has seen almost everything, dealt with it time and again, and expects to survive the day just so the next one can annoy him when he wakes up. And while that’s “work,” I’m glad to do it; I can sometimes detect when every character has the same vocabulary, delivery, and personality in a book or comic, and I try not to fall into the same trap.

On to some off-topic questions. Can you share a horror film or two that you would say are essential viewing for cinephiles and horror fans?

I’m sure there isn’t much I could add to the films your readers are already familiar with, but I’ve got a few things that have stuck with me over the years. The TV miniseries, “Storm of the Century” is a favorite of mine, not just because it has room to breathe as the plot unfolds, but for the great scene at the end where the villain, Andre Linoge confronts the populace of Little Tall Island as an all-seeing force of nature, cowing the people by revealing their darkest secrets. When accused of only seeing the bad, Linoge responds like the eons-old creature he is: “The good is an illusion. Little fables folks tell themselves so they can get through their days without screaming too much.” I love that scene. It’s basically a more erudite version of “listen up, you primitive screw-heads!”

Also from TV, and available on DVD, was the cancelled-too-soon series, “Miracles.” The episode that was of the “oh, crap” variety was the second episode, “The Friendly Skies.” A plane vanishes as it’s coming in for a landing, then suddenly reappears. Those on board “bring with them” what they were thinking of. For example, a little girl was dreaming about what she’d be when she grew up and came off the plane with her memories from years in the future (depressing ones). A flight attendant who was put upon by the passengers and just wanted them all to die came out speaking Aramaic backwards, and when translated, appeared to be equations for un-doing reality. But the one that made me squirm was a woman in the lavatory who was deathly afraid of dying in a burning plane crash. She was pulled from the restroom as a charred corpse. Her autopsy was consistent with crash and fireball… but then the effect of the plane started to fade. The girl began to forget her future, the flight attendant began speaking in English… and the body started to revert to healthy flesh. If they had played a choked scream as her hand became whole and they cut to commercial, it would have been perfect, and probably unfit for family viewing.

And probably the movie that was not only disturbing during but gave a nice unexpected ending was “Frailty.” If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look.

Good luck with North 40--I hope it goes past the planned six issues, and thanks for chatting with a drunken severed head!

You’re welcome!

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