If there ever has been a long-anticipated book, this is it. Wytches by Scott Snyder and Jock arrives this week from Image Comics on October 8th, clocking in at 30 pages with no ad space used. You can grab a copy at New York Comic Con, speed-read it, then read it again as a chill creeps up your spine, then go and stare at Scott Snyder at the con and wonder what goes on in his mind to create a story like this. But if you're going to do that, you'll get a good idea of where this is all coming from by reading this massive interview here on Bleeding Cool first.
Here Snyder talks about his research methods and concerns in addressing the history of Witchcraft, why even as an outdoors-lover he's still scared of the woods, and to what extent this is a "family" focused book and why. Oh, and he'll give you the full run-down on the visual design and ideas behind the Wytches themselves as creatures so alien that there's simply nothing human about them. This almost certainly isn't the book you thought it would be but much, much more than you thought you'd read this year in a horror comic that's really all about the drama and the potential for human selfishness.
Scott Snyder talks with us about what looks to be a massive story, already potentially charted in its second and third arcs by the creators, and what he finds scary in horror traditions, too.
HMS: To ask an obvious question, since it's one that interests me: With all the history and discussion of Witchcraft, what did you have to trawl through to decide what you wanted to use? Or did you try to stay away from that because it would just end up being too much research?
Scott Snyder: I think it was already a trap for me because I'm so obsessive, and not in a good way, and it's easy for me to get neurotic and anxious about not knowing enough about a subject. And so I try to draw a pretty broad line between the research that you need to do and the research that's actually procrastination disguised as research.
HMS: I do that. Yep.
SS: For me, I know you must do some historical research in order to tell your story, so I'm trying to do just enough that you know you need to do for the story, but nothing beyond that. I did do a bunch of research for it. And there are a lot of traditions out there from different cultures. There are witches who are disembodied and then suck your soul through your toe while you are sleeping. Much scarier ones than people know about. Ultimately, what we wound up doing was not using so much of the folklore and mythology but cutting close to some of the history, which was tricky. Without giving too much away, what we wanted to do was really divest our book from the terrible things that have happened to people in the name of witch hunting and so on over the years. The last thing that we wanted to do was have our witches be the witches people were worshipping, which somehow justifies the persecution of people.
So, instead, there's a flip, there's an inversion where secretly, the ones who worship the Wytches are the ones who persecute the people that were actually trying to expose the fact that there are these creatures in the woods. So there's an inversion of the history in a way that undoes, I think, any justification you could find for certain witch hunts and so on in a story about witchcraft. It was really interesting and horrifying, honestly, doing the historical research and trying to find a way of using it that would be potent, make sense for the story, and also be subversive in terms of the horrible things that have been done to people in the name of hunting witches over the years.
HMS: I was actually going to ask about that. Because when you think of the horror tradition and witchcraft, the behavior against witchcraft is actually the dark element. It's the horrifying thing.
SS: That's one of the things that's really important to me about the book, honestly, that I hope that people who pick it up will realize, that the terror in the book really comes from human action. What the Wytches are to us is that they are these ancient, silent, skeletal creatures who live deep, deep in the woods in these burrows. And essentially they are just there waiting for us to come to them and pledge someone to them. And by pledging someone, that means to put a scent on somebody to let the Wytches know that they've been given to the Wytches to eat. Because they can only eat and digest human flesh. And if you give someone to them, they'll give you what you've come looking for in the way of any kind of tincture or mixture that they can make. And they have this incredible knowledge of natural science, their own brand of natural science, that goes far beyond the reach of modern science and medicine. So they can cure all kinds of things from cancer to dementia. They can extend your life, make you forget things you don't want to remember, and so what it really boils down to is showing that the real horror in the story comes down to the human potential for evil, for selfishness. The history of the persecution of witches is something that kind of funnels into that as well since the Wytches are just there waiting. They are waiting for people to come to them.
HMS: So they are kind of a barometer of human beings in a way, because trying to have power, or power over other people is this human tendency that's going to be the real evil there?
SS: Yes, very much. And sometimes there are varying degrees of human selfishness. When I first pitched the idea to Jock, I remember him saying, "Well, that's silly. Who would ever feed somebody to the Wytches to get what they want?"
HMS: [Laughter] Hmmm…
SS: Yeah, well I said, "Imagine your child is sick. Imagine your child has a terminal illness. Now imagine that the guy next-door is someone who beats his animals, beats his wife, is a drunk, a terrible person. Would it be so bad to pledge that person so that your kid lives and has a chance at life?" And he said, "You're evil". [Laughter] But from there you can kind of creep towards more and more selfish behavior. You can creep into really scary, evil things that people could do to each other, too, you know? Competitive things and such.
I knew that I had a book I couldn't wait to do but I understood right away that the monsters weren't just scary monsters, but a total alien reflection of the human characters in the book. When you see them, physically, in Issue #2, when you see their faces, and the way that they look…they are designed physiologically in a profile that really fits the way they hunt. They are very distinctive in the way they look. They are very spooky, but at the same time, they also need to look very alien. Their eyes are very black. They are very expressionless, and there's that sense of them being other. That sense of them being unknowable. They are not scary, snarling, evil, growling things, but things that just stare and wait from the woods and wait for you to come to them.
HMS: One of the things that makes them so scary in their initial introduction in Issue #1, I felt, were all the weird sound effects that you were doing. The little clicking and the weird sounds. That's alien feeling. It doesn't sound like a particular animal. It feels like the woods but it's not what you're familiar with.
SS: Thank you. Actually, for a tiny little sound, it took a long time to decide on that one. Because we wanted something specific. For example, one of the things we were asked to do for publicity for the book was to make a Spotify list of songs that spoke to Wytches. And I made this list of funny things, different songs about the devil. It was so wrong, so I threw it out. And instead we came up with a list for each character, for Sail, for Charlie, for Lucy, and we came up with things they would like. And for the Wytches' view, I just put through night sounds. It's just chirping sounds in the woods. And I knew that was right. We didn't want them to have anything human about them. We didn't want them to have personality or charisma in any way in what they said or how they acted. They are not human like that.
Not to get too far afield, but there was a book I read a while ago called Cold Skin. Albert Sanchez, I think. It's a book about manning this island after World War I, and the guy before him kind of went crazy. At night he discovers these creatures come out of the water and he captures one. He thinks it's kind of female. What I loved about the book, and what I loved about the film Alien also, is that the creature is just so unknowably unfamiliar and yet so oddly physiologically familiar enough that it makes you think you can talk to it and relate to it. It's predatory in the way that it's totally different and oddly unknowable.
And that's what I wanted to do with the Wytches here too, is to have them be scary in a way that wasn't fangs, and growling, and all of that stuff, but animalistic, quiet, and until they attack you—just watching.
HMS: I'm glad it's daytime right now while I'm listening to this! Because actually right now, at the moment, I am kind of in the woods where I'm staying. And last night there were bears howling, like growling, loudly outside all night. And I was kind of freaked out. Because I kept thinking, "They'll stop soon". And I went back outside onto the porch at like 3AM and they were still doing it. It was getting to be too much for me.
SS: That's what people forget. You know, it doesn't take much to get off the path of the familiar, civilized world that you know. You go to places like the Southwest. I love the Southwest. I'm planning a trip with my older kid to go to Utah in the Spring. You can go to these places that are vast and unpeopled. But even here in New York, you just step off the road, start to walk a little further back into the woods and you just realize that there are miles of forest, untouched for weeks or months. Who knows when the last time someone walked back there was? And suddenly you're like a kid again and you realize you could get lost in the woods. All of these things you never really believed existed could exist. And that stuff becomes very real very fast.
HMS: Believe it or not, I wrote down a question to ask you about a line that Lucy says in Issue #1, something like, "The woods are full of horrors". And I was going to say, "Wait a second, Scott, I thought you kind of liked the outdoors. Why do you find that scary still?" So you just answered that.
SS: And I do! I love the outdoors. One of the things that's inspiring about the outdoors, and though this doesn't really speak to Wytches too much, is that so many American cities are so modern in wonderful ways. You go to LA, for instance. And I grew up on the Lower East Side of New York and there's the Seaport. Even New York is such a modern city that you can go places and feel the entire city is built for you. It's not like overseas. Here you go to these places a little bit further north, a little bit further west, a little bit further south, and you see this incredible breadth of landscape. And it's so humbling, and it makes you suddenly realize, as corny as it sounds, how small you are.
There's something incredibly calming to me about that, as weird as it sounds. Your problems are small. You feel a part of something that's much bigger than yourself. And there's something very inspiring about that. But there's also something that can suddenly become very terrifying as well. When the actual, physical landscape becomes something challenging. When you get lost on a hiking trail. When you're out in the middle of the ocean and suddenly you realize that you're not quite where you thought you were. It's concerning, and it's scary, but it's a place where you get outside of your comfort zone. Outside of the city, outside of your house, outside of the familiar territory, and it's somewhere where primal emotion and conflicts can emerge sometimes. When you're out there on your own or in a group of people where all the emotion can become very raw.
HMS: The old word for that, and I think I heard it in a lecture on German Romantic art, is the Sublime. When you become aware of something becoming so much bigger. So in these paintings they would depict human beings as being really small, like hiking in the Alps. And they'd have these massive mountain landscapes as opposed to the fact that city dwellers loved these paintings because it would give them a feeling they couldn't get.
SS: Actually, I remember learning a little bit about that in a class in college as well. It was talking about the popularity of what led to Impressionism, but it was talking about the original popularity of landscape leading into industrialization. For people that could afford fine art in their house, there was a rise in the popularity of landscapes for that reason. They were trying to, not just capture nature because you lived in a city, but to feel like you were able to lose yourself again in something. Being able to look at something that was vast, even if, ironically, it was in this tiny frame. That sense of trying to feel something that was inspiring and terrifying, and all of those things at once, by making yourself feel infinitesimal.
HMS: It seems like something that human beings have been dealing with this for a long time, that attraction to something that we may have lost, that we probably experienced much more commonly in earlier stages of culture.
SS: I think it's also just something outside of a system. For me, living in the suburbs, the thing that gets under my skin so much is that you become aware of little, mundane things that take up your day and you wrestle with. There's a line at Target. It's important in the sense that that's part of life. But when they become overwhelming and smothering, and you feel so apart from anything bigger than yourself, and all your concerns are things that you have created for yourself, when you step back from yourself, they become so prosaic and silly. You can get to the point of vibrating with frustration over those things and I think sometimes you have that need to get out. And that restlessness inspires and engenders can be both a really positive and creative thing and it can also be incredibly disruptive at other times when it just turns dark and you just get frustrated and turn inward about this stuff.
HMS: It's like an echo-chamber.
HMS: I was thinking…You mention primal conflicts and stuff. And this is maybe a bizarre question. But I look at Sailor in this story and I can't help but notice that she's the different one. And obviously she's been the target of horrific bullying in the past. She's concerned about the future and her reputation, and what people think of her now. And you're addressing bullying in what I think is a great way because you take it pretty far. You show that essentially it's the first step toward greater violence.
But why, as people, do we still have this knee-jerk reaction, if we see the isolated person who is different, to just totally kick the shit out of them? To just remove them from our field of view? I'm not saying that everyone does that, but obviously it's still happening in our society. That's what bullying is. It's scapegoating, and picking an individual, and just going after them.
SS: I know. And I think that in some ways, all of us have stories where we've either participated in something that we that we feel terrible about as children, or we were the target of those things. I can think of instances for me on both sides. Like when I was a kid, one of the few Hispanic children in our class arrived, and this was when we were about 8 years old. Actually, we're friendly on Facebook now still, but I remember everyone picking on him, and me not saying anything, and feeling complicit in that. And that sense of incredible shame that comes with that later. And even in that moment you know you're doing something terrible.
Even if you won't admit it and you're laughing at those things. There's something beneath the skin. And my wife has a similar story. There was a kid that she didn't stand up for in Elementary School, and she still remembers it. She still talks about it. Those moments are so formative for us, in terrible ways, and inspiring ways, both. When you do something or do something bad in that form, you remember. I remember 30 years later. I can visually remember me being cruel with the other kids to this kid. And how terrible it felt. Those feelings.
And you see it in your children. My kids are 7 and 3 years old, and they have this openness. You see them see someone who's different, and they say something funny, like "Oh, look at that. Isn't that funny". And you could go either way. You could either make fun of it, and make it something incredibly cruel and horrifying, or you could turn it the other way. I don't know what it is about those instincts, other than that deep down, the scariest thing out there, and this is the same as what we were talking about in terms of landscape, is embracing things that are unfamiliar and unknown.
We talked about this a lot in The Wake, as one of the engines of the book. And not cowering from it, but embracing the idea that what you're about to experience could be scary and different, whether it's people you're coming into contact with, or the landscape, or an adventure. And as corny as it sounds, or hokey, it's the greatest human instinct, to embrace the unknown, and that's part of The Wake. And when you retreat from it, you draw walls up, and that inspires the worst elements of human nature. It's interesting for me, now, just having the Wytches watching from the woods in that way. They watch who behaves well or who behaves poorly.
HMS: What made you want this to be a family story? Why is the family unit important here?
SS: I really felt that, for me, it was that it was about a family unit struggling through something and trying to be there for each other during the worst moment so far in their history together. And that that kind of a situation allows me, the writer, to show the best and worst in these characters. Each of them has a secret in different ways. Lucy has things in her past, especially about the night of her accident, that she feels certain things about that she doesn't want to say, that will come out later. And the same with Charlie—he has things in his past that I think in some ways he's embarrassed by. And they are all conflicted. They are rich characters for me, personally, and for Jock.
Charlie is a good father, but deep down that doesn't mean that deep down he doesn't have moments where he wants to be selfish, and not be a father. And Lucy is one of the toughest characters in the book. She's a nurse—and a lot of that is built on my wife, who is a doctor. She often talks about how she respects the heavy lifting that a lot of the nurses do. So I wanted to create a character who at the same time has this extra challenge [of being disabled]. She's constantly overcoming different obstacles, and yet deep down she has things that are selfish, and that she's very afraid of.
And so for me, I'm at a certain point in my life and marriage. My kids are young. We're 10 years into our marriage and we're doing well. I feel we're at a very good point, though we've had our ups and downs. I've been very depressed, and she's had a hard time sometimes with the kids, who can be a lot of trouble. But I feel we're at a good moment, and these characters are coming into what they hope is a good moment. But they are under a tremendous pressure. And I'm hoping to explore them as richly as possible, and even within the context of horror, keep it really about them in ways that will allow me to be more exploratory, I think, than I have been able to be in some of the books that I've done. In terms of the psychology of the characters.
HMS: There's more room for it, because you've put the drama first.
SS: We're really trying to. You'll see that in Issue #2 also. Issue #2 begins with a scene where, after you see the book Charlie is working on, you see he and his agent trying to get an electric chair lift system to work, that can go up and down the stairs for Lucy. And there are little things like that where you just see little human dramas that actually have a lot of significance. It's like fixing a light in a house, but actually it's a light you've been asked four times to fix and you've put it off. Maybe it's some boyish resistance that you don't want to be a husband or a father that day, and you just want to forget about it. Well, maybe you should just fix the light. It's trying to have those moments that give the richness of life in different ways, and the undercurrent of meaning that could be there or not.
HMS: Well, I'm seeing something tie together here, because if the reader is seeing little elements of their character brought out by these acts and these daily things, you're constructing a profile of them psychologically that will relate to determining what kind of people they are when they are given the power, like you said, to feed someone to the Wytches just to get something they want. They are going to be tested, right?
SS: Oh, yes! Very much. And that's the thing—this is just the first family. We have the second arc in mind too, and without giving away who makes it out and who doesn't, it's a big exploration. This story, I think, is "tight". It is very much about someone's first experience with this horror they didn't know was out there. In the second and third arcs, you get to see people who have more of a history with knowing this, and it becomes a little bit more extreme, more about darkness and heroism. This one is really meant to be about people who you can relate to, who know nothing about this whole mythology, suddenly discovering it and falling victim to it in different ways.
HMS: They can therefore be an identification group for us, as we enter the mythology as readers.
SS: For me, what makes a story scary, always, whether it's horror or it's drama, is when characters are facing something, either in the form of a monster or in the form of a challenge, that ends up being something that they are afraid is true about themselves. So, when you're talking about a story like Batman, the Joker is saying to him, "Deep down, you want your Bat Family dead. It's clear. You just want to go back to being Peter Pan, to it being you and me". That's scary to me because he's looking at and seeing something that might be true, that there's a kernel of truth to, but isn't true overall. But he's preying on that. For me, that's real horror. When the monster is somehow a representation, a reflection, of the things you are afraid are true about yourself. Or they put pressure on a character in a way that the character acts in a way that they are most afraid they ultimately will act.
HMS: Can you give a couple examples of stories by other people that have made you afraid, either films, or books, or comics? Where you've thought, "This is scary".
SS: Oh, sure. The scariest thing I have ever read was Pet Sematary. Easily. I think it's the fact that the Pet Sematary is just out there. And are you willing to take the risk, and bury this person because you so selfishly love them that you want to bring them back? That to me is horror. Night of the Living Dead was a film that I found so scary as a kid. I rented it, and I was so disappointed when I found out that it was black and white. I was like, "Oh man. This movie sucks!" And that movie scared me so much. And thinking about it, I think it's the hopelessness. The fact that no character makes it out. Not the young couple. Not the little girl you think is going to recover. Not the hero. All of that because we can't keep it together in the face of this march of death, because of our failings. That stayed with me. The cruelty and hopelessness of that.
So, those are examples to me of horror. Those are my favorites. Frankenstein also. That was my favorite book as a kid that I read on my own for the same reason. You create this monster out of your own selfish desire not to let people go. And who can't relate to that? That's the kind of thing we're trying to do in Wytches. Who can't relate to wanting to save your child or wanting to do something for the ones you love, even if it means you're doing something monstrous?
Wytches arrives from Image Comics October 8th at 30 pages with no ads. You can also check out our advance review of Wytches #1 here at Bleeding Cool.
Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter