The anthology Meanwhile, now in its third issue from Soaring Penguin Press (in the UK, with #2 having just reached the USA) is mightily impressive and contains a wide range of innovative comics. Among those comics being serialized is David Hine and Mark Stafford's story The Bad, Bad Place. Because they are generous folks, they have provided us with not only a writer's commentary on Issue #2's comic, but also an artist's commentary. I'm not even sure we've managed to publish both of those in a single article on Bleeding Cool before, much less with the pages included. This is very much set to give us a deeper appreciation of the comics medium through seeing how these creators operate.
Without further ado, I give you David Hine and Mark Stafford re-creating their comic for us:
David Hine: The Bad, Bad Place is my third collaboration with Mark Stafford, following an adaptation of HP Lovecraft's The Colour Out Of Space and The Man Who Laughs adapted from the novel by Victor Hugo, both published by SelfMadeHero. I enjoy working with Mark very much. We think in a very similar way, laugh and cringe at a lot of the same things. Mark is known for his humorous strips but there has always been a generous dose of bitter cynicism in there, which for me always makes the work even funnier.
Applied to a dark horror story, Mark's style conjures a deadly black humour that is totally unique. We're planning a massive graphic novel in the near future. No more adaptations, Lip Hook is an original graphic novel of epic proportions. Or it will be, when we get around to it. Meanwhile we wanted to do something a little shorter – an original horror story. Mark wanted to do the Ultimate Haunted House Story and that seemed like a good idea. The story of a house so bad we named it twice. The Bad, Bad Place started out as a warm-up for Lip Hook but it has grown like a mutant love child into a creature of larger and stranger proportions than we planned – a tragicomedy in the vein of Shaun Of The Dead or Macbeth. John Anderson, publisher of Soaring Penguin Press, offered a place for it in his new bi-monthly anthology Meanwhile. Ten parts of ten pages, more or less, which Soaring Penguin will be publishing as a graphic novel when it's done.
Writing episodically for a bi-monthly has its challenges. I didn't want to leave readers feeling unsatisfied at the end of each episode. Like the best TV serials, each episode should feel like a story told, with a little bit of closure at the end, while also leaving the plot teetering on a cliff edge to get everyone back in their seats for the next part.
The basic plot is this… there is a new town called Faraway Hills, built on the site of ancient village called Crouch Heath. It's a bland and boring kind of a place until one night a house appears on the derelict plot of land on the edge of town. Yes, an entire freaking house. Soon people start to disappear, apparently drawn to the house by some mysterious force. Later in the story we'll get to the whys and wherefores of the house's history, but for now we're having a lot of fun telling the stories of the individuals who step across the threshold of the Castavette house. With this third episode I set myself a challenge to tell three interlocking stories of three mutual acquaintances who each have their own reasons for going to the decrepit old mansion. The house makes promises you see, and it usually keeps them. It's that old adage "Beware what you wish for…"
Mark Stafford: The idea I talked to Dave about which kind of started this off was that every shiny new town kind of needs a bad old place for it to function, in some way, that every village or conurbation needs a creepy house where something bad once happened, and that if there isn't one, then one has to be built, or one will spontaneously appear. I'm not sure that idea is what The Bad, Bad Place is about any more, but that's its seed. I also said that a town needs shopping trolleys in its canals, and a crazy bloke on the high street banging on about moral peril. The trolleys haven't turned up yet.
This is the first time one of our stories has been set in contemporary Britain. So I can pretty much do my research by walking through Streatham. I'm enjoying depicting a certain crappiness about Faraway Hills, It's all loan shops and phone shops and bad public art, which makes the Castavette house's allure all the more understandable.
DH: You're about to see pages 6 to 9-and-a-half of episode three. Each character has a little over two pages. I've told their stories like fables or fairy tales, cramming backstory, character, drama and pathos into a few panels. It wouldn't be possible without Mark's genius for characterization and, it must be said, the hand-drawn calligraphy. A rare sight in modern comics, Mark's letters really do speak to you. There's elocution, passion, and drama in that penmanship. I can imagine Mark hunched over his drawing board acting out the dialogue while he's lettering. (I'm told he cackles a lot while he's working).
MS: True, I do the lettering in a little pad with a brushpen, it's the one part of the process I can take anywhere, I'm pretty sure I lettered this episode whilst lying around in Brockwell park on an idyllic day. Cackling to myself.
DH: Okay, here's the first page (actually page 6 of this episode…)
DH: Griffin's story is one of unrequited love. He yearns for the Lovely Leslie and he knows that if he could only learn to strum a tune she would fall for him in a moment. There are a lot of tropes from fairy tales in here – elements of The Red Shoes, or of the legend of the blues guitarist Robert Johnson, who was said to have sold his soul to the devil in return for mastering the guitar.
Okay… the truth is that indie comic book creator Philip Buchan once told my son he should practice the guitar until his fingers bled. That's where it comes from.
MS: Griffin, the poor bastard, is one of what I imagine is a fairly small population of hipsters in Faraway Hills, so I gave him the regulation asymmetrical haircut, plaid shirt, knitwear, pink trousers, and of course, brown brogues with no socks. You can barely see them, in panel 4, but I know they're there, justifying his fate…
DH: This is real stripped down story telling: Panel 1: Griffin sees the ad. Panel 2: the jealousy, the hurt. Panel 3: The house. Panel 4: The lesson. Panel 5: The obsession begins. Panel 6: The fingers bleed.
I enjoy writing these short episodes because it forces you to cut and cut until there isn't a superfluous panel or line of dialogue in there.
MS: It's pretty compressed storytelling, so each panel has to do a lot of work. Griffin is only around for these two pages, I want him to leave an impression.
DH: Here's the script for the first four panels of the second page…
Full figure shot of Griffin in tortured pose, head back and eyes closed, teeth clenched, strumming away at the guitar with bloody hands.
Caption (Trench): "THE MELODIES BECAME FRAUGHT. THEY EXPRESSED THE AGONY OF UNREQUITED LOVE."
SFX: The notes are more coherent but still angular and expressive of his tortured soul, goddammit!
Another shot of his hands. Quite grotesquely disfigured now. The flesh is completely gone from his fingertips and we can see the bones protruding. The left hand leaves streaks of blood as the digits slide up and down the frets.
Caption (Trench): "THE STEEL STRINGS FLAYED HIS FINGERS TO THE BONE."
SFX: More Tortured Soul kind of notes.
Many days have gone by – yes, he's learning to play in one lesson, but no one told him just how long the lesson would last… He looks starved and manic, feverish eyes, unshaven, pale…
Caption (Trench): "YET HE PLAYED ON, STOPPING NEITHER FOR FOOD NOR DRINK."
SFX: Music continues…
As Griffin plays, Serena stands in the open doorway, smiling with a trace of affection for the poor boy.
Caption (Trench): "AS THE DAYS PASSED, THE TUNES BECAME EXQUISITE. THE SOUND WOULD DOUBTLESS HAVE SEDUCED THE LOVELY LESLEY HAD SHE EVER HEARD IT…"
SFX: Music continues. The notes are elegantly perfect now.
DH: As usual I met up with Mark in the pub after he read the script and we talked a bit about the acting for Griffin on this page. I didn't want naturalism here. I wanted German Expressionism, Tim Burton, Robert Crumb level angst! And by golly, I got it…
MS: Part of me wants to push the drawings to a Steadman/Searle extreme, another part seems determined to apply more realist shading and painting effects to the results. It's madness, I tell you. But hey, the presence of a guitar seems to bring out some dormant gurning gene in even the most inexpressive of us, so it's all justified….
DH: I did quite a bit of research on plastic surgery for this next page. Horrible stuff it was. I wouldn't recommend you Google 'Plastic Surgery' unless you have a strong stomach. I'll be honest, I think cosmetic plastic surgery is usually a bit daft. Okay, I can see that a nose job in certain circumstances could be a real confidence booster but there's more than a whiff of Dr Frankenstein about a lot of these body butchers.
MS: I often work on whatever I'm working on in the young artists gallery at the Cartoon Museum, so visitors can have a shufty and ask me questions about what I'm doing, and the process of creating comics. But I didn't work on these pages up there for fear of traumatizing a curious six year old. Yeeeuch. It t may surprise the reader to know that I'm a bit of a wuss when it comes to real life unpleasantness, and I certainly don't seek it out. But this bit demanded that I work surrounded by printouts of all manner of icky imagery that Dave sent me. Again, yeeeuch.
DH: Here's a taster of the script:
Maybe have Dr Polidori himself, looming over the proceedings like some Hammer Horror mad doctor. He may well be one of the monstrous creatures that have been summoned from the depths, but his features are hidden by a surgical gown, surgical mask and one of those caps that surgeons wear. Also a reflective mirror thing on his head and thick round bottle glasses that completely distort his eyes. Scalpel and clamp clutched in his gloved hands. All we see of Lesley are the separate parts of her body – she has been reduced to the individual elements – breasts, buttocks, lips etc.
I've supplied some reference for the surgical procedures – some of them will put you off your dinner, so be warned. It's up to you how gory you make them. I think the nose job should probably show the actual operation as seen in the pics.
DH: I sent Mark a whole bunch of photos of cosmetic surgery so the procedures would be relatively authentic, at least at the start. Doctor Polidori is of course the name of the author who shared a wet weekend on Lake Geneva with Byron and the Shelleys and went away to write the seminal horror story The Vampyre.
And this page is a beauty…
[*Note: This image has been altered since we can't show genitalia on Bleeding Cool]
DH: I had the words to Dem Dry Bones running through my head the whole time I was writing this page. I deliberately wrote the captions with that kind of musical rhythm that was intended to complement the abstraction of the art. This from the script:
Once again a collage of images. Here, I think they need to be more abstract as if the individual parts are becoming ideas of aesthetic perfection. There's something about plastic surgery where people become obsessed to a point where they no longer see the overall effect and how grotesque it can be (Michael Jackson for instance) because they are so focussed on the individual elements, so here, let's focus on those elements so they lose their identity as part of a human being…
DH: I set Mark the challenge of making this page both horrific and beautiful and he did a fabulous job. That vagina is a real work of art. Great colours on this page too. I know Mark spends a lot of time selecting the appropriate colours to match the mood of a scene.
MS: Let it be always said of me" he gives good vagina." This page was tricky in getting all the elements to work together, for the art and captions to lead your eye across the page without the structure of a panel grid to lean back on. I had to change the order of a couple of Dave's captions to make it work. The page before was fairly realistic, this is decidedly more psychedelic and freaky. I had to do a lot of colour adjustments, a lot of tweaking the saturation and balance until I got the right shades of lurid.
DH: And here's the punch line of Leslie's very modern horror story…
[*Note: This image has been altered by Bleeding Cool also]
DH: It occurs to me, looking at this panel again, that Mark has turned Lesley into a Gorgon (as painted by Margaret Keane). Just can't take my eyes off her…
MS: And it occurs to me that I could have actually gone much further with this, given the Kim Kardashians and Pete Burns of this world. But I think I got it about right. She doesn't look so much like a plastic surgery disaster as she does a whole new species. And she's going to keep on going…
Find the previous installment to The Bad, Bad Place in Meanwhile #2 as well, from Soaring Penguin Press.