Dynamite has sent over a new writer's commentary featuring Chris Sebela talking about KISS/Vampirella #1 with a cover by Juan Doe and interiors by Annapaola Martello.
When my editor at Dynamite sent me an email to ask what my thoughts were about a KISS/Vampirella book, I have to admit I drew a blank at first. They're both things that I'm familiar with but both of them have decades of continuity that I haven't memorized, so for those first few moments I was lost in a sea of possibility.
But after we talked for a bit, he suggested we could set it in the 1970s and suddenly everything made complete sense. I went off, did some research and by that night had the rough beats of this story all sketched out. Taking everything back to when both KISS and Vampirella were unknown quantities to some degree, that made pretty much everything possible.
– I don't usually do cold opens, but this felt like a good way to start the story, a big off-kilter moment to get everyone nice and disoriented. Plus this is the first time I got to write song lyrics for a comic. Apologies to John Denver, but it seemed like the best template for soft rock stylings I could come up with. Making the lyrics fit our doomed couple driving off the cliff, that's the fun stuff you get to do sometimes.
– And here's Vampi. I figured everyone knows who KISS is, so the heavy lifting was going to be making Vampi track for anyone who had no idea who she is. Plus everyone loves a fight, so having her kick the crap out of some creep in a back alley felt like a nice note about who she is and why she's here. I figured we'd throw in a KISS poster in case anyone was worried they weren't going to be in this.
Sunset Boulevard is the setting, btw, because if you're gonna do a rock 'n' roll story set in L.A., go right to the heart of things. For research, I just watched DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART 2: THE METAL YEARS. I mean, I was going to watch it anyway, but it's a good glimpse into how much of a scene that scene really was.
– More than anything I wanted Vampi to seem normal. She's not wearing her usual costume, she's not using any powers per se, minus some added strength and speed. Other than sporting the name Vampirella, she's totally normal at first glance. Then we offset it by having our damsel no longer in distress freak out because she recognizes Vampi. Not for being a badass alien monsterkiller but for being in Witchkraft.
– Coming up with fake club names was hard. I dunno the legalities of using the name of a real place but I didn't want to get us sued by the grandkids of the Whiskey-A-Go-Go estate, so Tequila Sunset seemed like a nice riff. Here we set up Lily a bit, the typical wide-eyed kid fresh off the bus from the Midwest. Like the opening of the "Welcome to the Jungle" video. Or maybe not. You'll have to keep reading, I guess.
Ending on our first look at Witchkraft. I gotta say, if you get the chance to do a book about a rock band you come up with yourself? Go for it, it's so much fun to design a witch-themed rock band. Why put Vampi in a band? I took some inspiration from Kate Leth's run in 2015 where Vampi was working in movies, I liked the idea that she was just trying out new lives all the time. And being that she's new to the planet, this is like her teenage band phase.
Also, here come the captions. I'm a big fan of internal thoughts on the page, it's one of the bits of comics that I think works so perfectly, and writing in Vampi's voice was a bit of a challenge, but once I got into her head, it all spilled out pretty easily.
– Witchkraft's logo is a traditional Wiccan symbol known as the 'Spiral Goddess.' The spiral represents life, death and rebirth. So I figured, let's put a guitar in this goddess' hands. Any Wiccans out there are hopefully chuckling.
Can I take a second here to talk about how freaking amazing Annapaola Martello is? Seeing these pages in particular come in were where I kinda sat back in awe that she was working on this book. I gave her some rough notes on how the band should look and she nailed it, then seeing how she draws a rock show? I was smitten from this point in.
– I figured I'd slip in some of her reasoning here while we got to watch a cool rock show. Writing lyrics for Witchkraft was surprisingly easy and now I think I want to start a band. And okay, maybe it's a bit anachronistic to slip in a reference to THE VVITCH here but since that took place in olden times, technically it's correct. Plus that's a pretty cool thing to imagine a witch-themed rock band blasting into your face.
– I start to slowly make some of Vampi's abilities a bit more evident as we go. I figure it's a sign of comfort with her. The more comfortable she feels with someone, the more of her actual self she's willing to let them see. Also, having fans is probably pretty neat, so showing off in front of them is not something she'd be beyond. Alien or not.
Anyhow, all of this set up, I send Lily and Vampi off to make nice with each other and we turn our attention to this KISS flyer on a lamp post.
– KISS has arrived. I picked 1974 because I went thru their history and saw that they
came to Los Angeles to record their second album and thought there was something interesting about KISS as a band with just one album under their belts and having been touring non-stop and now they're in a strange town to record a new album. It throws them off their game a bit, makes them unsteady, and that lack of balance is always fun.
Also we meet Denny, typical sleazy record company guy and the driver, Ulysses. He'll be important later.
Also also? I actually went and looked up temperature reports for L.A. in August of 1974. It was not atypically hot, but I figure no one was gonna remember, so I fudged that because I wanted this place to be as hellish feeling on the surface as possible.
– Village Recorder Studios is where KISS actually recorded "Hotter Than Hell" and it actually used to be a Masonic temple. Little details like that that I can yank from actual history to back up this fantastical story we're about to get hip deep in, it just helps make everything seem a little easier to swallow.
I wanted to tease a KISS jam and then make you wait for a little bit on it after all. I'm a jerk like that. Mostly I was working on getting their voices and personalities down. Which you would think would be easier when it's based on real people, but you have to pick moments of who they are to capture, it can be a little trickier than just making stuff up.
– Some more Ulysses here and some mapping out how decimated the L.A. rock scene was at that point. Another point of research I did that fit perfectly into this story was how 1974 was roundly considered a terrible year for music. It was a revolving door of top 10 songs that ranged from early disco to novelty songs to soft rock jams. There was just a lack of consistency there. Finding out stuff like that and being able to slot it into your narrative is one of the best things about doing research and why I don't regret wasting hours at it when I come up with stuff like that.
Also Ulysses has a box of weird stuff. This probably won't be important or anything.
And here's our first Satanist!
– When I wrote the scripts, I just called these guys SATANISTS. That's not necessarily their exact belief system, but that felt like the vibe I was going for. Not the weird robed, mystical type of Satanists but the kind from the Kenneth Anger side of the visual fence. Tough guy Satanists. Anyhow, they've just stolen Paul's flying V guitar. This is another historical fact. Right after KISS got to L.A. to record their album, someone walked in the studio and walked out with Paul's guitar. No one was paying attention, it was just a casual theft, but as soon as I read that, I knew I had to use it somehow and it ended up becoming a minor story point.
– KISS hanging out. I feel like that's not a thing that happens enough. One of the nice perks of doing a "historical" comic is you can explore these moments where KISS are just being a pack of dudes out for some fun, talking with people they know, not being a band but just human beings.
And we unpack a bit more about what's happening to the rock scene in town. Coming up with these sucky lyrics at the top of the page and the band names were the hardest part about this page. Fun fact: The Dobermen is a band name I came up with when I was like 14. I still think it's pretty badass.
– I figured since Vampi's story starts off with a blast, I'd make the KISS part a bit more of a slow burn. Vampi lives in a world of weirdness, so dumping some more on top isn't going to phase her much but KISS being used to a more normal kind of weirdness, slowly unfolding this sinister air around them felt like the best way to go. That old adage about how if you slowly raise the temperature, you can boil a frog without it noticing came to mind. Anyhow, the frog is officially about to boil.
– Which makes this the perfect time to go back to Vampi and Lily. Lily is our fresh set of eyes into this whole world, but she's not a dummy, so instead of dancing around Vampi and what she really is, I figured she'd be pretty direct. I mean, she's still learning this world, so soft-pedaling strange news is probably not something she's fully gotten the hang of yet.
I really like how subtle Annapaola went with the fang reveal, they're just barely peeking out. Tiny confirmation to Lily who's already guessed that there's something really different about Vampi.
– I like people becoming friends in books. And friends overcoming adversity. And I guess finding out your new friend and semi-idol is a vampire is a pretty steep speed bump. But one benefit of setting the book in Los Angeles is weirdness is pretty well implied by the location, so it's easier to get people to swallow even weirder stuff on top of that.
– I figured people would wanna see Vampi in her traditional costume, so here you go, a couple flashbacks. That's all you get. I mean, at least I had her stabbing the crap out of a werewolf at the same time.
Setting up some more of why Vampi is hiring Lily to help out. It's basically the same role for the band as it is for the monster killing, just be the removed, slightly more impartial set of eyes and point out the mistakes. I mean, there surely couldn't be any other reason that Vampi recruited Lily. Nope. Probably not.
– But enough of all this talking, people want some violence, right? I did my best to balance stuff out, but with this issue especially, there is a lot of unpacking that needs to be done, a geography to establish, characters that people love and some people don't know at all need to be figured out, but I wanted to at least drizzle a lot of dread over everything. It's like any good horror movie, I think, everything is anticipation about how bad it might get. So having this cat and mouse game is a good way to keep that going.
– KISS at the Continental Hyatt House. In its heyday, it was known as the Riot House. All the biggest bands stayed there and lived there and trashed rooms there. Getting to slip stuff like that in is one of the big perks. It makes me feel like I have all this useless knowledge in my head for a reason, at least.
Plus they have a pool, which is going to prove useful in getting KISS' babbling and slightly violent friend to make sense.
– This page is pretty much all about the last panel. And this last panel can kinda sum up some of what this book is about. I love it. Annapaola and Valentina and Troy all came together perfect on this one.
– Another bit of 70s mood is bikers and I could write Vampi trashing dudes all day long so this page was pretty easy to knock out.
– Finally we start bringing some threads together. Vampi and the Satanists are in the same place, though what they have to do with each other is still up in the air. And I wanted to bring it all together in a location that kind of brought a lot of mood with it. LA. 1974. The house on Cielo Drive is where Manson sent his followers to kill everyone there. I wrestled with including it, I didn't want to exploit these murders for fiction, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. For a group of weird bootleg Satanists in LA, they'd be drawn to a place like that for how "dark" it is. Stuff like this is hard to judge, but it felt like the biggest flashing red light I could throw in Vampi's path.
– Putting KISS up at the Riot House means I could write rooftop room service at 2am. A place like that is used to orders like this.
Having that rooftop pool wasn't just for waking Frankie up, but so we could have this last moment of him being yanked over the edge of the building by someone. Seemed as creepy a way to wrap this opening number and drag KISS right down the rabbit hole.
And that's issue 1. Thanks for reading this far. Issue 2 busts everything wide open, so come on back for lots of swords and demons and devil music.
For more on KISS / Vampirella #1 click here.