Aaron Williams & Fiona Staples: Taking a Drive Down North 40

A comics interview article by: Charles Webb
Recently, Charles Webb got the chance to sit down with Aaron Williams and Fiona Staples, the creative team behind Wildstorm’s hit series North 40.


Charles Webb: First, could you give our readers some insight into the plot of North 40?

Aaron Williams: In a rural Midwestern county, some kids get a hold of an old book that, legend has it, belonged to a local witch. After opening it, everyone (well, most everyone) wakes up the following morning to find Conover County, along with a lot of its population, has changed, mostly along terrifying lines. Those who aren’t now creatures out of nightmares, struggle to stay alive. While a select few find they have abilities that might actually help save their fellow Conoverites…if they choose to. And then there’s whatever lurks beneath the crater that used to be the Lufton Public Library…

CW: It’s set in Conover County, an undefined corner of the Midwest. What made you decide to keep the setting general?

AW: A desire to be able to visit my home town again? :) Seriously, from a technical standpoint, it allows a bit more freedom to incorporate a lot of facets from what I’d generally call “rural America.” It also meant I didn’t have to send Fiona a bunch of pictures and video tape of some of the places I was familiar with as a kid, and she did a fantastic job of creating Conover County and its environs from the descriptions I wrote. What I really wanted to capture were some of the dynamics I saw growing up in a small (10,000-15,000 population) town surrounded by farms, highways, and truck stops.

Fiona Staples: There are certain characteristics shared by small towns all over America, and Canada for that matter... I took a lot of photo reference of rural Alberta and used that in combination with Aaron's descriptions to create the look of the place.

CW: Will we get a chance to see the state of things outside of Conover County?

AW: Not too much, but a little. The isolation of Conover is an intentional act on the part of one character. That’s not to say that any future stories won’t have people unable to get in. In fact, we’ll get a glimpse of one group who would very much like to visit.

CW: With so many titles referring to the sort of Lovecraft-ian mythos, how did you approach this project in terms of keeping it fresh?

AW: I think the setting and the characters are what make a good Lovecraft-ian story, or any story for that matter. So I started thinking about what might happen if the Mythos had dropped in on a small area in the Bible Belt. It’s kind of how Stephen King stories work with rural Maine; the monster(s) are secondary to the cast and how they interact. If the reader can care about the people, then the slavering beasts take care of themselves.

I also think we’re bringing in something new in that the “magic” of a Lovecraft-type story is almost infectious (acting almost like radiation in old sci-fi stories, granting powers and making monsters), but usually only in a negative way. There’s a glimpse in the story where we see the pursuit of this madness-inducing mystic art might not only be desirable, but something that humanity must pursue if it wants to move beyond what it currently is.

FS: In terms of the visuals, I tried to make it interesting but still consistent with existing ideas of Cthulhu by throwing in a lot of sea-creature parts; not only octopus tentacles, but squid eyes and beaks, sea urchins, starfish, and shark mouths.

CW: There seems to be almost a “superhero” aspect to it -- with some of the characters getting abilities. The character of Amanda even seems to be tapped as some kind of “chosen one” figure. Were you intentionally drawing on superhero elements to bring the story to life?

AW: Somewhat. I freely admit that one of the early thoughts I had was “imagine what Superman could do with a gun.” Meaning, that with his super-reflexes and everything, he’d be able to literally part someone’s hair with a single shot, or snap a rope with a bullet from five hundred feet, etc. How this character, Wyatt, comes to get his powers and why they’re so comic-book-like is something I think everyone will get a kick out of when it’s explained.

Amanda is a bit of a chosen one, but I fear she’s more of my D&D geekiness showing through, as she’s becoming a bit of a magician’s apprentice. That’s not to say that there isn’t a reason the scythe she takes up was where it was (we’ll see how it got there soon), and if we get a chance I do have a bit of back-story that gives her bloodline a bit of what is sometimes called “the touch.”

But in a way, the best “hero” in the book is Sheriff Morgan, who’s only apparent power is the ability to handle people and get what he wants through wit, guile, and years of experience dealing with the local folk. He’s also great fun to write dialogue for, combining the wisdom of the experienced with the sometimes clever and sometimes blunt mode of speaking one gets from living around cows, wheat, and too many bar fights.

CW: What determined the look of the book? How much of it was in the description and how much of it did Fiona bring out?

AW: Fiona is 99.9% responsible for how the book looks, and she’s a phenomenon. Very often, I’d just give what I’d call a “functional” description of something, and she’d manage to make it so much more than I’d ever imagined. We’ve got these really great monsters that we refer to in the scripts as “junkbots,” which are huge mechanical horrors made from cars, cast-off scrap metal, and, later on, “unwilling donors.” Anyway, Fiona made these things into flame-spouting leviathans of mechanical madness. If they make action figures or statues of these, I so want one, rigged up with LED lights!

She also got the characters incredibly true to life. I think the only reference we went over together was some of the Lovecraft-ian elements common to the genre (tentacles, lots and lots of tentacles) and maybe adding more trees to Conover County’s skyline. Beyond that, it was all Fiona, and it just blows everyone away.

FS: Aaron's descriptions might not be overly flowery, but his scripts definitely do evoke an atmosphere, so I usually get a pretty good sense of what mood we should be going for in any particular scene. The dialogue alone is so vibrant and colourful that you can't help but visualize these characters just by reading it.

The junkbots were a lot more fun to draw than the average robot, seeing as how they're just piles of scrap metal held together by evil magic, and therefore don't have to look too functional or mechanically plausible!

CW: What were some of the points of inspiration both story-wise as well as visually?

AW: I drew from not only where I lived as a kid, but from some of the legends that floated around our town about the people and the history our county had. One example is how my home town has this story about how it resisted efforts by the Union and Confederate armies to come in and take over during the Civil War. The legend has it that the people cut down trees, painted them black, put them on wheels, and arranged them along the tree lines and ridges as “cannon.” These were supposedly used as a deterrent to either army, and the county remained safe and neutral during the conflict. I took a slightly different spin on what “protected” Conover County from incursion, and that protection leads to what sets everything in motion from issue 1.

I also have noticed, since I’ve lived in major cities, how vastly different the rural country looks and how underrepresented it’s been in comic books, at least traditionally. Small towns are also such an area of contrasts between the old and new, rich and poor, and minorities and majorities (of several types, not just based on race) that there was an opportunity for some really interesting dynamics among the cast that an outside threat could exacerbate.

FS: I was really inspired by older horror comics, like EC Comics and Creepy and Eerie. Not only do they really evoke a mood -- like horrible tension or alternately, campy fun -- but those artists knew how to use body language and facial expressions to full effect. For Conover County, I was also really inspired by William Eggleston's photography, which is generally of mundane, small-town scenes and objects but with haunting and beautiful colour schemes.

CW: Will the current cast of characters remain pretty stable or are we going to be seeing more brought in as the story goes on?

AW: The central cast are the core movers and shakers for the time being, though this is a setting that could easily lend itself to other stories happening independently of the current main cast. We’ve barely touched on some of the events that could be and are going on elsewhere in the county as new creatures arise and stake out territory, hunt their former neighbors, or cause things to happen “what just aint’ent oughtta be!”

We also see, by the end, that there have been a few background characters that have been influencing things all along, and what their goals are…

CW: Did the story ever go anywhere you didn’t expect it to?

AW: The aforementioned part about humanity’s destiny was something that did arise a bit unexpectedly, though it makes sense in retrospect. The “non-Euclidian” magic of Lovecraft and the creatures from his stories have always been presented as nothing but hostile to humanity, which they still are for the most part. But I wondered if it was also a question of us not being ready to experience what they represented, as if we were cavemen who happened upon a nuclear reactor: We found lots of neat stuff, but when Og pulled on this, there was fire and he died, and when we broke into this room there was this glow and now Grok’s hair is falling out. So maybe, if we’re lucky and find some clever people, we might be able to figure these creatures and where they’re from out, but it’s not going to be easy and a lot of us are probably going to wind up as monster chow.

CW: Any breakout characters for either of you?

AW: Definitely the Sheriff. He’s become so much more than just a simple mentor. He’s almost like a tired god, a force that keeps trying to hold civilization together in spite of the monkey-wrenches tossed into the works by the people he’s sworn to protect. But no matter how bad things get and how far he’s been stretched, there’s nothing for it but to put the badge back on and go see what them boys from ‘round the trailer park done with the Boone farm’s propane tank…

FS: The Sheriff is my favourite too! Not only does he have most of the best lines, but he's the one heroic figure who doesn't have any special powers. Amanda's pretty great too- she's had a rough life but doesn't abuse the power that's suddenly been handed to her. Instead, she learns a sense of duty really quickly.

CW: I want to thank you both for taking the time to chat with me about North 40.

AW: Thanks for the opportunity!

FS: Thank you!

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