Nailbiter, out from Image in May, is one of those comics that inspires an unhealthy delight in the reader, recognizing a kind of condensed obsession with the whole history and cultural fascination with the origin, motivation, and operation of serial killers. But you'll be too caught up to question your fascination until the comic starts to question it for you. Then, afterwards, the fascination will remain, followed by a distinct afterburn as the details of the story and artwork really seep into your mind, and yes, it might even keep you up at night.
Writer Joshua Williamson (Ghosted, Masks and Mobsters, Captain Midnight), teams up again with Mike Henderson (Masks and Mobsters, Venom, TMNT) for this highly idiosyncratic, densely layered tale of pursuing a serial killer who bites and consumes the nails of his victims, but he's not alone. In fact, he derives from a town that has spawned a total of 16 different serial killers, making Buckaroo, Oregon a dark hub of deprivation. Humorous commentary on societal fixation, bordering on fandom, for serial killers spikes through the gloom of perpetual rain in Buckaroo, and a cast of distinctive characters captures your attention, each with their own strange pattern of connection to the Nailbiter killer. All this is contained within the first issue, making this a series to be reckoned with. It's going to be one of those obsessive purchases, as you, like the citizens and tourists of Buckaroo, find the mythology of the town just too much to resist.
Joshua Williamson bares his own serial killer fixation and sources of inspiration with us here at Bleeding Cool:
Hannah Means-Shannon: This book seems to build on so much of our American serial killer fascination and even history. Firstly, why a killer who targets people who bite their nails? Where did that come from as a concept?
Joshua Williamson: Sadly I'm a life-long finger nailbiter. It's an obvious sign of my own obsessive neurotic nature. The idea that a serial killer would target me based on that alone is an old fear of mine. Which is what the Nailbiter does. He kidnaps people who chew their nails, bites them for them, and then kills them when he is full. Gross, but yeah.
Most serial killers and their M.O.s are mundane and ugly. I knew that I wanted to try to do something that stood out and felt unique. And with a book like this, that does dive into this sick world, we knew we needed to create serial killers that felt unreal. It helps us strike a balance between the reality of the brutal nature of serial killers and … frankly, entertainment, y'know?
But the Nailbiter is just the start. There are sixteen… SIXTEEN serial killers all from that small town. Mike Henderson and I came up with some pretty twisted killers. Some worse than the Nailbiter. But I'm not sure if they are creepier.
HMS: One of the weirdest, most original things that stands out to me immediately about the book is the idea of setting it in a town that not only has a serial killer in its past, but a whole gang of them. A town that's a locus for serial killers. That just really ramps up the creepy and creates a huge amount of tension in the book. Can you tell us a little bit about magnifying the ideas of the story by using such a locale?
JW: Smalls towns are creepy. It's as simple as that.
When I first thought of this book I was living in the middle of nowhere in a small town. It was a bad period of my life and I very much felt trapped in that small town, so I'd ride my bike around town to try to plot comics and find some kind of mental escape. Something to keep my mind off of what was going on in my personal life. As I rode around I would see these run down houses out in these fields or deep in off road woods. It was the stuff nightmares were made of. It was like something out of a Stephen King novel. I knew I had to do a book in an environment like that. The idea that a place like that could give birth to horror really interested me, and so my hope is that it will interest other people as well.
One thing about serial killers is that the FBI says there are 30-50 serial killers operating in the US at any given time. And we hear about how many? Think about that. Where you live there could be a serial killer. And I was told recently that chances are one out of every five people have crossed paths with serial killer at some point in their lives. After Nailbiter was announced at Image Expo, tons of people have come up to me and talked about how they were connected to a serial killer. It's uncanny. And tragic.
When I was a kid I lived in Riverside, California. And there was a moment when the Feds thought the Zodiac killer lived there. And there were at least two others living there at the same time, and that always got me thinking. That sent me down the path of research to see if there were cities or towns with a concentration of serial killers. And there was! That was terrifying.
There is a twist in Issue One. Obviously I don't want to say what it is here. But there is a twist that to me a few years ago seemed impossible. But after some of the news of recent years doesn't seem that far fetched. It's a thing of real life horror.
HMS: I'm both amused and intrigued by the idea that a serial killer legacy in a town creates a morbid industry of sorts, like a memorabilia/history shop. That really resonates with our fascination for serial killer cases in American culture. Have you ever heard of any real-life examples of this? Why point out that a perverse fandom arises in society?
JW: Because it does. In some ways the idea of a "Murder Store" that celebrates serial killers seemed outlandish, but as I did more research it didn't seem so.
Many years ago there was still store at Universal Studios that sold all this Psycho Merch. A knife that screamed like Janet Leigh when you swung it down in a killing motion a shower curtain that the shadow silhouette of "Mother." And bloody Bates Motel door hangers. As a society we're fascinated by serial killers and the macabre. Why not combine them? Remember when Dark Horse put out a toy of Marv in an electric chair and we could pull the lever ourselves and listen to him die? And you know that is just the tip of the iceberg.
I wanted to bring attention to it because… I felt true to me. We as a society can't get enough of it. And so it felt real that someone would try to make money off of that.
HMS: The comic has an unfolding cast of characters. How would you describe our cop team as people: Carroll and Finch. If we met them in real life, what would they be like?
JW: FBI Agent Eliot Carroll is the man who first arrested the Nailbiter, and started to really investigate the strange connection with Buckaroo, Oregon. He's obsessed with the secret. Because at the end of the day Carroll is a good man, who believes in justice and can't just let a mystery like this one sit.
Carroll is a man on a mission but within the darkness of his job has found a sense of humor. I always see Carroll as everyone's buddy.
Nicholas Finch… less so. Intense. Tortured. Intimidating. No Nonsense. Finch is not a funny guy. Very straight and a man of few words…Unless you piss him off. Boy, does Finch have a temper. It's gotten him into trouble a few times, and we'll see that as the series goes on.
HMS: We have two female characters introduced in this issue, both in the town of Buckaroo, Oregon, and shaped by the history of the town: Alice, and Sheriff Crane. Can you tell us a little more about each of them, and tease a little about their roles in the story coming up?
JW: Alice has gone through a lot of changes as I've developed this book. Of all the character she has surprised me the most. Alice is… curious. In a small town like Buckaroo, anyone that seems a bit different is considered weird and is suspect. What I mean by that is that yes there have been 16 killers in Buckaroo, but that doesn't mean there won't be more. And since Alice is a different, some believe she will be the next killer. Mostly it's just kids being bullies. They call her "Alice in Horrorland." It still sucks for Alice but she's used to having to stand up for herself. As the series goes on Alice will evolve into a very interesting… character.
Sheriff Shannon Crane has a past tied directly into the Nailbiter. I don't want to ruin the surprise but it's twisted. It's given her a unique perspective on the mystery. Crane has a very aggressive personality, quickly became the co-star in the title, almost taking over at times. She has a lot in common with Finch but isn't afraid of confrontation. Strong. Independent. And actually annoyed that this is part of her job. But Crane is so greatly affected by the history of serial killers, and we'll reveal why in Issue Two.
HMS: Did you intentionally choose a geographical location, Oregon, for the story, for a moody setting to give more of a horror feel to the artwork? It rains all day (well almost) in the first issue, for instance. Come to think of it, there is mention of woods too. Why is the setting important to the comic?
JW: Oregon is where I call home. The Northwest is a creepy place. It rains all the time and some people can't handle it. It drives people nuts up here sometimes.
The rain itself is a character and will play an important part going forward. Same with the woods. It creates a sort of dark tension. People can associate with rain and understand how it makes everything feel gloomy, dark and depressing. It's a sort of emotional tether to bring the reader in and keep the book grounded.
And as you said, we wanted to create a visual difference in the book. Something that sets it apart from all the other horror comics out there. And the rain will help us do that.
HMS: Now, you've worked with Mike Henderson before. Did you all team up on the concept? In what ways has Mike been involved in influencing the development of the book?
JW: After Mike and I had worked on our digital series Masks and Mobsters we knew that we wanted to do something bigger and in print. After Image Expo last year we started talking and settled on Nailbiter. Nailbiter had been in development for years with another publisher you let us go for… reasons. It was a book I had wanted to do for years but it just wasn't coming together. BUT once Mike came on board the book really started to take shape. The characters in comics can never really begin to be developed until they are drawn. Once I saw Mike's designs I was finally able to get into the character's heads.
But Mike has been instrumental in Nailbiter. We go back and forth on scripts and art, every step of the way. Mike and I are 50/50 on everything.
Because Mike and I had worked with each other, we had created a sort of comic short hand and an understanding of each other, so this was easy to work up. In Nailbiter we do a few unusual comic book tricks, trying to create that feeling of horror and tension that we haven't seen a lot of. And because we had tested it on Masks and Mobsters we knew how to do it here. Mike gets horror and he gets comics.
HMS: Why get up close and personal with serial killers in a comic? Is it about giving people what they seem to want to know all about and turning the tables, like "Be careful what you wish for?" I only ask that because I was surprised that I felt a little freaked out myself after reading the first issue. And I'm a fan of Dexter, True Detective, and true crime shows. It still had that effect on me.
JW: For a long time I've been interested in serial killers. Psycho is my favorite movie. No idea that world fascinates me so much. No history with them. For me, this was a way of working all of that in my head.
I'm a fan of all those shows, too. There were times I worried we were getting to close to things that had come before but instead of running away, we twisted it. Leaned in and twisted the idea to make it something new.
There are few rules with making comics that I have for myself. Two of which are:
1) You better want to buy your own book.
2) Make the books you want to see.
Those two rules go hand in hand but are still important to me. I might be wrong but I felt like there were no serial killers comic books like this out there. And I wanted to read on. There are plenty of small town, or horror comics, but not one that focused on the mystery of serial killers. Nailbiter is the book I wanted to read.
The best kind of horror isn't the shock screams but the kind that haunts you after you're done reading. The kind that when you start to go to bed, you think about it and scare yourself with just your own thoughts on it.
So I'm really glad to hear that the first issue freaked you out a little. Nailbiter is a horror comic, and that was our goal. We're doing our job right.
Here are some more teaser images from the upcoming comic:
Nailbiter will arrive on shelves May 7th from Image Comics and will be available for $2.99. It can be pre-ordered using Diamond Code: MAR140480.