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FireflySerenity Prequel Comics - Dazk Horse Writer Scott Allie Interview
By Rebecca Salek
Thursday 3 March 2005, by Webmaster
Ghosts! Ghouls! And Joss Whedon?!
An editor and a writer at Dark Horse, Scott Allie has plenty of projects up in the air right now. Between editing the new Dark Horse Book of the Dead, the on-going Conan series, and Hellboy, he’s also hard at work on a miniseries prequel to Joss Whedon’s Serenity. Fortunately, he devoted a few of his free moments to answering a few questions for Sequential Tart.
Sequential Tart: As both a writer and an editor, your schedule must be pretty full. When you have the time, which comics do you read?
Scott Allie: Stray Bullets came out this week ... that’s been one of my favorites for years. I read Jill Thompson and Evan Dorkin’s stuff with great interest whenever they do anything, even when Evan does superheroes. Scott Morse, if he’s writing for himself, is as good as comics get. I just read We3, and that blew me away. Sometimes Grant Morrison’s a little too abstract for me - and I’m a David Lynch fan, so I’m not sure what that says about Morrison or me, but I loved We3. Ex Machina is really good, although the stories seem to start incredibly strong and then not quite deliver at 100%. Vaughan’s other book, Y: The Last Man, is great - I read that when the trades come out, and usually bust through a whole collection in one night. Oh, and the other thing I read obsessively in the collections is Peanuts. I never liked Peanuts as a kid, but when the first hardcover came out, I swallowed it whole, and now can’t wait for the third.
ST: Most comic fans know what a writer does. But what do your duties as an editor at Dark Horse involve?
SA: There’s an alleyway behind the building here where we pile up drifters who roll into town, and I’m in charge of going through their pockets. When I’m not out there, I’m talking on the phone or trying to decipher Mignola’s handwriting. I find my job endlessly interesting to me - I love it, I’m obsessive about it - but I think no one knows what an editor does because it’s just not that interesting. Certainly not that romantic. Few of us have a bottle of whiskey under the desk, like old-time editors did.
ST: Some of the contributors to The Dark Horse Book of the Dead also worked on the Book of Hauntings and the Book of Witchcraft. How did you go about bribing them to return? ;)
SA: I’m not sure how this worked out, but after the first one, Hauntings, I sort of felt that certain of the contributors really defined for me what the book was. And I felt I needed them to return every volume. What Gianni did was real unique, the illustrated prose, and I think there’s no one else in comics that does what he does. So I needed him back, and fortunately his work on Prince Valiant in the funny papers makes it possible for him to squeeze in other gigs. Mignola has an endless wealth of short-story ideas, and he and I come up with the themes together, so that’s how I get him to return. I guess the bottom line is I’m only doing one of these a year. If you’re my friend and you spend any time at all doing comics, you’re probably willing to bust out ten pages or so a year for me. If I were doing this quarterly I wouldn’t be getting Jill Thompson every time. All of these guys have too much to do, I’m sure.
ST: There are also some new writers and artists this time around. How did you find them?
SA: Well, there’s new and there’s new. Kelley Jones and Guy Davis weren’t in the last volume, but they’ve been around a long time, and I’ve worked with them a long time. Kelley, Guy, Eric Powell, Pat McEown ... though perhaps not at the top of Wizard’s lists, these guys are really some of the most talented comics artists there are, and they all bring a very unique and perfect touch to horror comics. I don’t know why I didn’t tap them for earlier volumes, but it just worked out this way. I liked Jamie Rich’s first novel, Cut My Hair, and wanted to see what he’d do in a horror story if he kept true to himself, didn’t try to do someone else’s kind of story. I’m real proud of these little anthologies, and I think they get better each volume in one way or another. I think this volume is the one where I’ve got the most spot-on assembly of horror artists. I like breaking it up, varying tone, and I think Bob Fingerman’s one of the funniest writers in comics (Evan Dorkin’s the other, though his story here is not funny). And no one’s art makes me laugh as much as Roger Langridge’s. My boss presented me with an idea for a strip, Bob seemed the perfect guy to write it, and I think he suggested Roger. So that’s it for not-new new guys.
The only actual new guys are David Crouse and Todd Herman. David is an award-winning writer - not genre fiction or "popular" fiction. One of my side jobs is editing for a lit mag called Glimmer Train Stories, and that helps me keep one toe in the world of contemporary literature, sort of academic fiction. I knew Dave in college, and he wrote a story that really floored me for a magazine I was editing in those hallowed halls of li’l Bradford College, now closed down. He does comics on his website, or one of his friends’ websites or something, and I saw that, and wanted to give him a shot at doing it on a bigger scale. I wanted to bring a different sensibility to the book, a perspective from way out there, even further from mainstream comics than Evan and Mignola. Todd Herman’s an artist who’s dabbled in comics without ever making it happen, a local guy, part of the crowd that Dave Stewart and I go around with. He was a storyboard artist on The P.J.s - not his fault that the show wasn’t better. We’ve done some little things together over the years, but I think he’s finally ready to make it happen as a comics artist.
Well, so that’s how this volume came together.
ST: How much leeway did the creators have? Could they create any kind of story so long as it featured death and the dead?
SA: I’m really controlling of these books, but I try to front-load editing. Someone gave me hell for that phrase, that I sounded "Hollywood," but I got the term from Alan Moore, so stuff it. The main way I front-loaded the editing here, as in the previous volumes, was to pick the right guys, pick artists and writers who match my sensibilities and the sensibilities of these books. From there, some of them had carte-blanche, with some of them I worked more closely. Kelley and I wrote his story together. He told me what he wanted to do, laid out most of the action, and then we came up with some more details together, and then we batted the dialogue back and forth. That’s why I need to hire my friends for these books - I need extremely talented people whose egos won’t get in the way of me getting the book I want. There are people I’d love to work with who I wouldn’t hire for these books because I know they probably wouldn’t be willing to work the way I like. What Mignola, Gary, and Evan come up with sort of defines each volume, so they get a lot of room. Other writers, sometimes they hit on something that perfectly fits the mold first time out; others I edit more closely. I edited Dave Crouse pretty closely, only because he’d never written comics before - but what he gave me really fleshed out the theme. Pat McEown and I butted heads a little bit, but again, we’re pretty good friends in a professional sense, so he put up with me, and we like what came of it. I don’t steamroll anyone, I don’t disrespect them, but I try to push them to match a certain ill-defined aesthetic that I have in my head.
ST: Many of the stories - such as Kelley Jones’ "The Hungry Ghosts" - feature immortality and death as a double theme. What is it about immortality that humans find so appealing? To the point of committing horrible crimes to live forever?
SA: Well, I think that goes back to the ego thing. You can’t imagine a world without you. Is that ego or narcissism? All that matters in the world is you, so you’d do anything to perpetuate your own existence, like you say, to the point of committing atrocities. I mean, we’re all like that, right, Rebecca?
ST: Would I commit atrocities to live forever? I hope I’m not *that* narcissistic. But, you’re right that we tend to think that the world is about us, individually. Once upon a time, my great-grandmother was alive and now she’s dead and yet the world goes on - and it will go on after I’m gone. A terrifying realization.
ST: In "The Ditch," Crouse, Herman and Stewart tell a touching story about a dog that lies dying by the side of the road. It seems to me that humans can be rather callous about the death of a non-human/"lesser being." Thoughts?
SA: Oh, yeah, of course. In reality, that’s true, but I find it kind of interesting the way a lot of people react the opposite way in fiction. I mean, in Hauntings, Jill and Evan got half my staff bawling like babies over that dead dog, but did anyone cry for the kid who died in Stradley and Chadwick’s story? There’s something very weird in how people react to the deaths of animals in something they read. In reality, I think it’s different because we don’t recognize our own deaths in the deaths of animals - maybe it’s just ME who’s a narcissist? - but also that the emotional bonds some of us form with humans are so much deeper than those we can form with animals. Of course, right? That little bit of verbal soft shoe was me trying not to offend PETA. If Dave tried writing "The Ditch" about a human who’d been left for dead on the side of the road, the story would’ve completely focused on the evil of the driver - the murderer - but here we could see it as laziness on his part, and focus on more subtle aspects of the event and the characters. Had it been a man in the ditch, it would’ve turned into an EC story. Not a bad thing, but not what I hired Dave for.
ST: Fingerman and Langridge’s story is morbidly funny. I’m not sure what I would do if I could suddenly kill with a touch - but I’m sure we’ve all thought at some point that the world would be a better place if so-and-so were gone for good. Comments?
SA: Yeah, I think about it all the time. I’m horrible in that whenever someone puts forth a string of obstacles for me, I just start imagining them dead. Lazy thinking on my part. I couldn’t have written that story. As misanthropic as Fingerman may be, he kept his character struggling with the moral issues longer than I probably could have done - in reality or in the story ....
ST: Powell and Roshell’s "The Wallace Expedition" reminds me of some of the best of the old, creepy pulp stories from the 20s and 30s. What with the revival of Conan and the success of Planetary, there seems to be a pulp revival going on in comics, yes?
SA: I’ve been trying to revive the pulps since 1994. It’s partly Mignola’s influence, partly that of my grandfather. The pulps exploded with imagination and possibility in a way that American genre fiction has not done since. Hollywood went and made genres formulaic, when they goddamn fucking weren’t before then. The pulps could do anything, there weren’t rules - or rather, there weren’t boring rules. Eric Powell understands all this. You’ve hit upon the key of what I’m going for, not just in the Dark Horse Books of ... horror, but in the horror line in general. The pulps had a sense of mystery to them that came from the late 1800s and Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Machen, and Lovecraft and Howard knew all about that, and they advanced the cause, just in time for Hollywood to suck the life right out of it. Having Robert E. Howard in this volume was the best thing that could’ve happened to the book. Comics ARE the pulp revival. They always were. Every once in a while, you can see that clearly. The energy of the pulps was eventually lost, and some of it went in to the comics - when Bill Gaines turned EC into the horror house, Roy Thomas started doing Conan, when Warren started all their horror mags, when Bruce Jones started his - those were all highlights in the history of comic books acknowledging the pulps. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Mignola and Hellboy - this is the pulps coming to life. The stuff Geof Darrow and Steve Skroce - who I never would’ve taken for a pulp guy, but there’s Doc Frankenstein - these are great examples of bringing the pulps back. I can’t believe I left Doc Frankenstein off my list of must-reads ....
ST: So, which authors would you recommend for someone new to the pulp genre? Personally, I have only recently discovered the joys of Robert E Howard and A Merritt.
SA: Well, certainly H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith. William Hope Hodgson. M.R. James, who may have preceded the pulps, but fits in that group. I haven’t read Merritt, actually. I definitely would recommend Sax Rohmer, the nut behind the Fu Manchu stories. Rohmer had a real unique approach to the supernatural. And really, the authors who preceded the pulps, like Arthur Machen and Hawthorne. Weird Tales was really the perfect title for that magazine. That stuff was simply weird.
ST: Many of the stories in The Book of the Dead also feature morally conflicted characters and ambiguous endings, such as McEown’s "The Queen of Darkness." Why do death and moral ambiguity so often go together?
SA: Well, I’m biased, because I think moral ambivalence is the only realistic response to the world, so I’d say that death and moral ambiguity go hand in hand because death forces you to be honest. I always look for these kinds of stories - anyone who makes moral choices appear easy or obvious is writing children’s literature. I got so excited when Mignola started talking about Hellboy being given a chance to blow Roger up in Conqueror Worm, and I believe I helped push him to try to make it a hard choice for Hellboy. An easy choice isn’t a choice at all. So morality needs to be more complicated, or there’s no drama, only action. And making action more dramatic is the best way to elevate genre or pulp fiction.
ST: In one story set in old Japan, a husband summons his wife back from the dead, with tragic consequences. Do you think there are some things that are better left alone? Some things we just shouldn’t mess with?
SA: Unless I’m the one who’s dead.
ST: In your own story, "The Magicians," a son tries to get some answers out of his reluctant, long dead father. There was a definite lesson in this tale. Why do we wait until it’s too late to connect with those who are important to us?
SA: I’m not sure we got the same lesson out of that story. That’s cool, but I probably shouldn’t comment too much on this story. Writing something this exposed and personal was a risky proposition in a book that was supposed to be about zombies. All I can say is that more than any previous story I’d written, this one was done with the input and collaboration of the colorist, the artists, even Shawna, the editor on The Devil’s Footprints series. My own feelings on this topic are so complicated I thought the only way to write a story that might connect to other people would be to try to write it not just to my issues on the matter, but to get into Brian, Paul, and Dave’s feelings. We all got so close to the story that when I felt I needed some objectivity, I sent it to Kurt Busiek, and he gave me a couple little notes. I thought maybe I should hold back on some of the personal stuff, and he helped me to push forward, not bite it off. So much for not commenting on the story, but I don’t know if I answered the question ...
ST: I’ve really enjoyed Dorkin and Thompson’s run of dog stories in the Dark Horse Book of ... series. But as a cat lover, I feel mildly offended. ;) Where are the *good* cats?? (I mean, besides Orphan.)
SA: Well - Orphan. I think the fact that you have a cat swinging with these dogs is a real testament to the character of cats. Cat Lovers is one demographic I don’t think cartoonists can afford to offend, so I’ll suggest something for the next volume.
ST: So, what’s your favorite scary movie or TV show or book featuring the no-longer-living?
SA: Salem’s Lot. That book scared me so silly as a little boy, every time I reread it - I think I last read it five years ago - it gimme the willies. I also firmly believed, as a child, that it took place in my home town of Ipswich, and I’m perpetually homesick, so it helps in that regard too. Turn of the Screw is pretty haunting stuff too.
ST: What other projects are you working on? Will there be more creepy, cool Dark Horse anthologies?
SA: Getting started on one now, for next year. Right now I’m up to my eyeballs in Conan, some Hellboy stuff. Man, there’s so much. Just between those two titles I have my hands full, then I have about seven other books in the horror line, plus Joss Whedon’s Serenity. Sequential Tart must love Joss, right?
ST: *fangirl squeal of glee* A comic adaptation of Serenity? Details, please!
SA: Well, I wanna stress that it’s not an adaptation of the film. It’s a prequel. You know those little animated features like Animatrix and the one for Chronicles of Riddick? They wanted to do one of those for Serenity. Brett Matthews, an alumn of Joss’s TV shows, wrote Riddick, so they got him for Serenity. He and Joss came up with the story together, but then Universal decided not to do an animated feature. We were planning on doing a comic with Brett writing it, but when the plot for the animated film became available, we figured it would make a perfect fit. It gave us a very legitimate prequel to the film, a story with Joss’s fingerprints all over it, and a headstart. The story’s changed a lot in making it fit for comics, for a three-issue miniseries. Joss has stayed extremely involved, directing Brett through rewrites and coming up with a marketing scheme that helps make the thing feel like the event it ought to. Joss recruited a bunch of his buddies to do covers - nine in all, for just three comics. As Joss said, Color me Liefeld. Variant covers. But it’s cool - each of the crew members of Serenity gets a cover by an artist handpicked by Joss to convey their character. Josh Middleton’s doing River, Joe Quesada’s doing Zoe, Sean Phillips has done Wash, Bradstreet on Book. Will Conrad, who worked on Buffy for me, and has penciled some books for Marvel since then, is drawing this. We’re shooting for something real unique here, something totally faithful to Joss’s creation, but also uniquely suited for comics. Try to create for the comic a style as individual as the style of the show and the film. Anyway, here goes.
ST: What about some happy anthologies? When will we see The Dark Horse Book of Pretty Pretty Princess stories? :)
SA: As soon as Diana gets off her duff.