Mark L. Miller: Vampires Face the "Twilight" of Eternity

A comics interview article by: Danny Djeljosevic
Listen, I know you’re sick of vampires, but have you noticed that most vampires are pretty old but very few of them are actually elderly? What’s up with that? Are vampires attracted to youth? Surely old people are easy to catch. Does fogey blood taste funny?

Bluewater Comics’ new miniseries, Nanny & Hank seeks to shatter the stereotype of the sexy young vampire when its eponymous characters, a spry pair of geriatrics, are turned into bloodsuckers of the night. Sounds fun, right?

I emailed a bit with series writer Mark L. Miller, who’s quite the productive fellow. I’ll let him explain.

Danny Djeljosevic: Why don't you tell us a bit about yourself for the people reading at home?

Mark L. Miller: Well, I'm a man of many hats. By day, I'm an art therapist working with children in Chicago (been doing that for about a decade). I also work for Ain't It Cool News as the comics editor and reviewer under the pen name Ambush Bug (been doing that for about nine years).

Over the last year or so, I've been writing comics. First with a small publisher called Cream City Comics on their anthologies Muscles & Fights and Muscles & Frights, and currently with Bluewater Comics, known for their bio comics. At Bluewater, I wrote Vincent Price Presents The Tinglers, a direct sequel to the cult classic. I also have a Vincent Price Presents comic focusing on another one of Price's movies, Witchfinder General in July with issue #21 of that series. Finally, I've been working on two miniseries for Bluewater, Roger Corman Presents Deathsport (released in Fall 2010) and the book we're talking about, Nanny & Hank.

I keep myself busy to stay out of trouble.

Djeljosevic: We're all very aware of your early days as a poster boy for delinquency and youthful recklessness. How'd you make the jump into comic king?

Miller: A writing friend of mine, Martin Fisher (who wrote Risers) told me about Bluewater attaining the permission to write sequels/prequel/continuations of some old Roger Corman and Vincent Price movies. I'm a huge fan of old horror, so he got me in touch with Darren G. Davis and Darren knew me from AICN. He asked me to write some pitches up. I did. He liked them. And a year later, now they're all coming out. I've been writing for years, but never really took it seriously, but I had so many stories, I figured I'd give it a try. So far it's been great!

Djeljosevic: Since you seem to be doing a lot of horror/genre work, what are your influences, be they horror, comics, or horror comics? And do you closely study the movies you're working from? I promise we'll get to Nanny & Hank soon.

Miller: Yeah, even before I was able to do the Vincent Price stuff, I was a huge fan of genre films, comics, books, and anything else horror. I remember watching those old movies on Saturday afternoons on TV in Ohio when I was a kid. I've seen The Tingler tons of times and always thought it was one of those films that should never be remade because it's such a product of its time with the drugs and the gimmicks and the hokey science. That's why I was excited about doing the comic book sequel because you could do a direct sequel for fans of the original without having to replace actors or anything like that.

Same goes for Witchfinder General. I have always loved that movie because it is so, so wicked. My single issue coming out in July is a prequel where we see Matthew Hopkins, the infamous witch hunter, first getting ideas of what he wants to do with his life. It's a twisted love story. I feel both Vincent Price Presents stories honor the originals. Being a huge horror fan, I am the first to roll my eyes at re-imaginings. But these stories directly tie into the source material and hopefully add to it.

With Deathsport, it was a little different. I had seen the Roger Corman film with David Carradine, but didn't remember much other than it was pretty low budget and had a lot of motorbikes with extra metal to make them look futuristic. I always had a cool idea of a Road Warrior meets the Olympics style story and the Winter Olympics were on a while back, so that influenced my take on Deathsport which is sort of a reimagining, but I work it out in the end to be a kind of prequel to the original for the die-hard Deathsport fans out there. Plus in honor of the late great David Carradine, I named my main characters David, Carrie, and Dean.

As far as influences, Clive Barker, George Orwell, and Joyce Carol Oates were probably my top three as far as favorite authors. I've been an avid comic book reader all my life, so the old Creepy and Eerie Magazines were always good at inspiration. My love of films rivals my love of comics, so everything from Charlie Chapin's City Lights to Jodorovsky's El Topo to newer stuff like Martyrs and Let the Right One In have all taken up space in my head and influence my writing.

Djeljosevic: El Topo! A man after my own heart. Anyway, onto Nanny & Hank, like I promised. I think it's rare to see a story about elderly vampires since vampirism is all about sexy immortality (among about a billion other things), and seeing people becoming vampires in their twilight (heh) years quashes that fantasy a bit. Is the comic a conscious reaction to this new wave of pretty soap opera vampires?

Miller: I wanted to write a strong story, first and foremost. Darren G. Davis from Bluewater approached me with an idea of elderly vampires and wanted to base them on his own grandparents. After talking with him for an afternoon, I got enough info to sit down and bang out a story. I know that vampires and zombies are at the height of popularity right now, but I also know there's a lot of people who groan every time they hear about a new vampire project. So I wanted to be conscious of that and make sure that this was an original and strong story, so that even though this is a genre that's been well tread, the story and premise isn't. Every time I got to a scene, I made sure to ask myself, "Have I seen this before?" If the answer was yes, I scrapped it. If no, then it went in. Having seen a ton of movies and read a lot of books on vampires, I had a lot to compare it to. But in the end, I wanted to make this a story where you care about the characters because I knew that without that, it would be lumped into the rest of the pile with all the other vamp stories.

Djeljosevic: I've always wondered about the process of projects where one writer scripts off of someone else's general idea like that. What was there originally and what did you contribute to it? How much collaboration was there between you and Davis during the scripting phase?

Miller: Basically, I went off of that initial conversation. Darren provided a handful of funny/quirky/interesting stories from his childhood. More like observations. He then told me to go nuts with it, which I did. After I finished the first script, Darren had about three minor suggestions, but for the most part he loved the script. By issue three, I had a handle on the characters and Darren knew what I had in store for the characters from my initial pitch. So I would say the spark was provided by Darren and the story wouldn't be what it is without his contributions regarding the characters of Nanny and Hank, but the way it all played out and everything else was from me. It really was a seamless collaboration because Darren, Steve Babb (the artist) and I seemed to really be on the same page with pretty much everything.

Djeljosevic: How did Steven Babb come aboard this project? What does he bring to the table, in your opinion?

Miller: Darren brought Steve in as I was writing issue #2. I really liked his style, which to me looked like a cross between Mike Mignola and the Muppets with a pinch of Chris Bachalo, but his style is so different from what is normally out there, I honestly was taken aback for a second. Then I saw the pages for issue #1 and he did such a fantastic job of translating my script and his character designs really brought the characters to life. His work on the first issue helped me "see" the characters I was writing and it made writing the scripts for issues #3 and #4 all the more easy. By then, I knew what Steve could do, so I was able to plan my panel descriptions to fit his style.

Steve brings a lot to the table. His art is very kinetic and playful. And so is the script. Scenes go from horrific to comedic to deadly serious to very sad on a dime. Steve does a great job of toning his panels down for the more serious scenes and amping them up for the action or horror scenes. We worked hard on specific panels to get them just right. I've never met him, but we've shared tons of emails. It's the wonders of modern technology. You can make a whole comic without ever seeing someone face to face.

Djeljosevic: Good call on the Chris Bachalo comparison! My favorite example of tone is how Steve renders the vampire as a silly character in the first scene and later as a very threatening character in the climax. A lot of artists can't juggle tone like that.

Back to your writing. Many first issues tend to consist of setup, so people should generally need to read a couple of issues before really "getting" what the book is about. What do you consider when writing a first issue? Or do you just think about how everything will look in a collected edition?

Miller: I grew up before the whole cinematic approach that Marvel took in the 2000's. My favorite comics as a kid were Marvel Two-in-One and Marvel Team-Up where you get right into the action and catch the reader up as they go along. Nothing frustrates me more than picking up a comic and reading it and realizing that essentially nothing has happened and it's all set up to the next issue or whatever big event is going on. Every comic should be an event. If I wanted to consider how it looked for trade, I would have written a trade. First things first. If the single issue doesn't sell, there will be no trade. So the first issue has to be good.

I also consider that this is a first issue from an independent comic publisher and if someone is willing to take a chance with my comic, it had better win them over with issue one or they won't be back. So give them a lot of bang for their buck in every issue, Marvel can afford to slow their stories down and lead up to big events, they have the readership. Smaller publishers don't.

So what I wanted to do in this first issue was introduce some solid characters, a good premise, and a hell of a cliffhanger. I think we accomplished that with this first issue, but I don't slow down there. This is a miniseries with unwavering direction. All of the characters (Nanny and Hank and the two vamps from issue #1, O'Neil and Rondo) have a mission and a course. The status quo changes with every issue and each one (even the last issue) hopefully ends with the reader wanting more. That was my goal anyway.

Djeljosevic: Finally, do you have any other work coming down the line that we should look forward to?

Miller: Well, I'm currently working on some secret projects with Martin Fisher who wrote the awesome Risers minseries. I also am fiddling together the second half of my Tinglers arc for Vincent Price Presents. I ended the last issue on a cliffhanger and am completing the series as I write this.

Finally, I just wanted to make sure to look for Nanny & Hank #1 in stores the last week of August and also be on the lookout for Vincent Price Presents: Witchfinder General #21 in stores at the end of July.

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