Inspired by a trip to the Pacific Northwest and its "Twin Peaks" vibe, Blackcross, written by Warren Ellis, with art by Colton Worley, is a story about seemingly ordinary people haunted by something "Other" and identities that want to be "let in". Blackcross is part of Project Superpowers at Dynamite, a hark back to Golden Age heroes, but Ellis makes it clear that in many ways the ghost story comes first, reminding us that superhero stories have always been a hybrid form of many genre elements that keep them vital. Secrets, ghosts, a possible serial killer, you'll find them all in Blackcross, arriving March 4th from Dynamite, along with Warren Ellis' ability to scare you even when he's talking quite sensibly about human nature.
Hannah Means-Shannon: There were so many superheroes and adventure characters created during the Golden Age of comics, does the fact that many have been largely forgotten about engage you emotionally? Does giving them some new form of life feel like a positive thing?
Warren Ellis: In this case, I think that doesn't especially apply, as this stable of characters, having fallen into the public domain, have had a string of revivals over the years. But I found this odd group of properties strangely fascinating since I tripped over them doing research in the 90s. They had that patina of genuine pulp peculiarity that I associate with the superhero comics of that era.
HMS: Why did it occur to you to set Black Cross in the Pacific Northwest in a small town? What kind of advantages or influences does that location have for creating a story like this?
WE: Honestly, I think a big part of it was that I was travelling in the PNW when I came up with the idea. Twin Peaks also comes into play at some point, because, once you cross a little town at the foot of Mount Hood with big fir trees everywhere, you can't help but think about Twin Peaks. Or even northwest Portland, really, with the fog rolling off the forested mountainous overlook on the other side of the Willamette. Beautiful, cold, remote. Great place for a ghost story.
WE: It's probably been there since beyond Jack the Ripper, right? We look for patterns in everything, as a species, and we need to understand why a serial killer behaves in that specific way, so we tend to invent patterns for it. "Occult" means hidden and secret. There is little more occult than serial killing.
HMS: In the first issue of Black Cross we have some eerie resonances between having associated symbols and names for killers and having symbols and names for superheroes. Is it a fine line to distinguish between the two, in your opinion?
WE: No villain is a villain in their own minds. Everybody is the hero of their own story. The differences are in their needs and the distance they're prepared to go to meet them. I have this half-serious idea – I talked about it in New York a year or two back – that murder is all about the killer improving their own quality of life.
HMS: Is Black Cross a horror comic? The phrase "You have to let us in" is enough to keep one up at night, for sure…
WE: I think it probably is. It is certainly a story about haunting. On some level, it's probably also a story about identity, but that also ties into the element of possession. I'm being a bit vague, I know, but I'm trying to avoid explaining the whole thing before it's published…!
HMS: The first issue of Black Cross seems almost super-charged with fear of various kinds. Do you think fear is a limiting or motivating factor in life?
WE: This is something I've been turning around in my head for a few years, in small ways. I think it is limiting. It's paralyzing. It makes it difficult to think. Paul Virilio has this notion is that fear is society's administrative tool over the populace – and further, that speed is the agency of fear. Patterns and methods iterate so quickly that their speed eventually makes their actions appear random to the populace. And when we can't discern a pattern, then we begin to fear random action from the heavens. From drone strikes to financial events. Small events of fear can be motivating and even productive, sure. But it eventually becomes dread – the acceleration of fear, as Juha van't Zelfde had it — and dread freezes and depresses.
Sorry. It's first thing in the morning for me, and that's when I usually think about these things instead of answering interviews, so you got the full half-formed cod-philosophical ramble there…
Can you tell us any more about the characters who are going to be central to this book? How did you settle on this group of people to stand at the center of this "superheroic ghost story"?
WE: Well, that was the simple part, as it came out of a conversation about using that stable of characters, and then me looking for an idea which would fit them. All the clues are in the original text. Bob Benton, The Black Terror, was a pharmacist, for instance, and a small town needs a pharmacist. It was about finding the real people buried in those characters and developing those, because it is very much about a group of ordinary people being haunted by strange figures from The Other World. A different kind of "origin story," perhaps.
HMS: Do you think superhero stories could or should be combined with many other genres for more diverse storytelling?
WE: Well, they always have been. Superhero fiction itself started out as the combination of three or four other fictional forms. I don't think there's a "pure" form of superhero fiction, and if it's going to continue, it will need to take on new fuel. I think of Blackcross itself as the reverse – it's a ghost story using elements of superhero fiction. Just to see if I can get a new sound out of it.
Here's our extended preview of Blackcross #1 courtesy of Dynamite: