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We Are But Ants: Mark Waid & Steve Niles Talk Lovecraft

A comics interview article by: Matthew McLean
Cthulhu Tales is not your average comic book fare. Based on the prose heavy and cerebral horror of H.P. Lovecraft, bringing the cosmic terror to everybody's favorite visual medium is challenging at best. However, after the initial success of the one shot Cthulhu Tales (such as "Tainted" and "The Rising") BOOM! Studio's editor-in-Cheeef Mark Waid has called upon leading horror writer Steve Niles to help lead the charge of a new monthly book. Both gentleman were kind enough and have a spirited conversation with Comics Bulletin about their work on the book, their take on the Mythos and communicating with their alien masters.

Matthew McLean (MM): Up till now, Cthulhu Tales has been a sporadic publication that focused on Lovecraftian tales of horror. What's going to be the difference between the one-shots and the on-going book? Other than it's on-going…

Mark Waid (MW): Other than frequency they are going to have a little more focus to them. The anthologies we have done so far have been great and they've been a little all over the map. Frankly, if you are putting together an anthology with six, seven, eight stories, they don't all have to be winners. But with the on-going we're doing three eight page stories an issue, so they all need to be strong. We've tightened the focus and tightened the creative pool; we made a concerted effort to find writers who are hip to and well versed in the Cthulhu Mythos rather than saying, "Hey, who do we know that wants to write an eight page story?" So we've done a bit more active talent-specific recruiting for this one and I think the results are paying off.

Steve Niles (SN): This is my first chance having to do with Lovecraft.

MW: You were familiar with it to some degree, right?

SN: Absolutely. From the books and all that. I was explaining it to someone as you have Batman people and you have Superman people. Well, there's also Poe people and Lovecraft people and I've always been a Poe guy. Not that I didn't enjoy Lovecraft, it's just my focus was on Poe. So when Mark called to invite me on this I got to re-read all the Lovecraft that I hadn't picked up for 10 or 15 years. It's such a unique world. I think doing a regular series this is a great idea 'cause the possibilities are virtually unlimited.

MW: The immediate beauty of Lovecraft is the language of it. It's almost impenetrable, yet the language is beautifully melodic, which you can't do as much with in a comic without pages becoming a giant wall of gray text. So we're going out of our way to find artists who have a more subtle touch to their work, art that’s not all about monsters, gore and goo, but rather that disquieting, eerie horror.

MM: Then, as a writer and an editor, how do you guide the artist in that regard? Or do you? Do you just hope that you picked the right person?

SN: We lucked out this time. Mark reunited me with an artist named Chee, who is actually an artist who got his start on my message board years ago. He ended up doing a book for me called Wake the Dead after he posted on my message board. So I'm reunited with him again. How do you explain him, Mark?

MW: Well, Chee's from Malaysia, so he knows how to not draw spandex. He comes from a culture where they don't learn to draw comics by just drawing super-hero stuff. His storytelling is impeccable and his people are real. His characters aren't fashion models, they aren't TV or billboard guys, they're really human people so you care more about what happens to them. You see Cloverfield yet?

MM: Sure.

MW: Well, I'm not spoiling anything by saying my big problem with it wast that it's the problems of people who have no problems.

SN: Yeah. It's give attractive teen-agers being chased around New York.

MW: I'm watching the movie, enjoying the craft of it but, holy crap, everyone of these characters is hotter than I am, younger than I am, and gets laid more often than I do. I have no empathy for them, whatsoever.

SN: I'm on the side of the monster.

MW: All of this is to say that Chee gives the opposite of that. He draws people that I give a rat's ass about so when horrible, horrible things happen to them it actually breaks my heart.

SN: I like to write flawed characters, Chee draws flawed characters. His people are not perfect which makes them very real, especially in a world where were accustom to everybody being chiseled and beautiful. Certainly in comics. And for horror, it works perfect, because if you don't care about the characters, forget it.

MM: Do you think that same mundane quality juxtaposed with the kind of unworldly horror that occasionally pops up in Lovecraftian stuff, do you think that will make it have a greater impact on the reader?

SN: I think it does what Lovecraft does; it's all about unseen worlds and secret evil that's basically standing right behind you and you're separated by only a wafer of energy. [Laughter] That's the way I like to think of it. And when Chee does it, that's what it feels like, like it's reality being affected instead of a comic book world. So for horror it's perfect.

MM: What can you tell readers about the first issue?

MW: You've got Steve and Chee leading off that first issue with a very poignant but gripping story about a priest. And, you know, priests in comics generally don't fare very well, that's all I'm gonna say.

SN: [Laughter] They really don't, do they?

MW: They really don't. Mike Nelson, who's sort of our in-house horror guru with his Fall of Cthulhu ongoing series, does a story in the first issue with an artist named Sunder Raj. It's a slightly lighter story that turns horribly, horribly wrong. It's all about kids digging around where they shouldn't be digging around. Then we finish off with another Chee job – that sounds kind of dirty

SN: I've had one of those. [Laughter] No!

MW: The last one, drawn by Chee, was written by Tom Peyer and it's a baseball story. It's not about Cthulhu playing baseball, it's about baseball fans and something horrible happening at the stadium. That's all we can say.

MM: Well, baseball fans are famous for getting obsessed.

MW: And they’re very big on ritual. Just sayin’.

MM: So we've got three stories in the first issue.

SN: Actually I'm working on my second one today. It's going to get even weirder this time. I live the idea of unseen worlds. The world of Cthulhu can exist all around us or in a jar, if that's how we want to do it. And in this there's a distinct possibility the Ancient Ones are hiding inside a corpse, or passing through a corpse. The whole story is going to take place during an autopsy.

MW: The nice thing about how we're approaching this material is that Cthulhu is the tie, but not necessarily the gothic sensibility of Lovecraft. I want stories that break a broader spectrum. As long as the Cthulhu element is strong in every story I don't care if it takes place in Victorian England or it takes place on Arcturus Prime under the triple sun. I just want a good story. Again, it's not about the in-your-face shocking horror. That's kind of what Zombie Tales is for us. Cthulhu Tales is our counterpoint. To be true to Lovecraft, it's more that quiet, eerie, subtle, macabre, unsettling sort of horror.

SN: Exactly. It's very cerebral. That's one thing that I just love about Lovecraft, you're virtually just playing with madness and insanity. That's such a fun world to write in. I know that's horrible.

MM: [Laughter]

SN: When you have characters that aren't sure if they're sane or not, boy, you can just go anywhere with it. It's such a tension builder.

MW: Given that I work in the BOOM! Studios I see this sort of behavior everyday.

SN: Minus the tentacles, hopefully.

MW: Have you met our new intern?

MM: So we've had a back and forth about what you two really enjoy about the Mythos in general. What made the decision to have Cthulhu Tales become an on-going title?

MW: It was just doing really well for us. It was one of our best selling anthology books so it only made sense. There was clearly a mandate from the readers. Also, I like how one of the things that BOOM! does is create a niche where there's not one. We're really not in the business of doing super-hero comics because the other guys do it better than we ever could. I don't know what we could contribute to that genre. But I do know that there's not a lot of really good horror out there, certainly not a lot of cerebral horror, so I like being able to carve out that little place.

SN: And the Lovecraft fans, they don't have a lot of movies. Most of the material available to them is prose. It's incredibly vibrant. The Cthulhu Lovecraft fans, there's a lot of them out there and other than prose they have not had a thing to go to. So now a steady comic is fantastic.

MW: Yeah, I can't wait until they invite Steve and me to their “convention” and nobody ever hears from us again.

SN: That's right they have Cthulhu conventions. Mark, you scout ahead and tell me how it goes.

MW: Yeah, I'll send you The Postcard Out Of Time.

SN: [Laughter] There's my story. I can hear your voice, floating through the air, "Where's my script?"

MM: With what you were talking about with super-hero stuff, comics, by and large, have been and continue to be associated with super-hero tales. For the most part, those are optimistic. However, Lovecraft's tales can be considered pessimistic.

MW: That depends on who's side you’re on, doesn't it?

SN: If you're on the side of evil they're very upbeat stories.

MW: I think evil is a bit broad, Steve. A chaotic sense of a new world order is perhaps a better way of speaking of it. At least, that’s what I’m told.

SN: [Laughter] Yes, yes I phrased it badly.

MW: That's what I'm saying.

MM: [Laughter] I think we could all agree for the majority of the human race, the Mythos is largely pessimistic. Particularly, as Steve pointed out, many times the best a protagonist can hope for is one more day.

SN: Yes. The whole idea of it is everything you know is in question. I think that's just fantastic. A lot of horror just pokes at one or two aspects of reality while Lovecraft just shreds the entire thing. Your entire view of the world is not safe.

MW: That element that there is such a bigger picture out there that we're only seeing a tiny bit of, that we're just bugs. We believe that we're in control of the world and our circumstances, but the running thread of all the Lovecraftian stuff is that we are but ants dwarfed by inexplicable Elder Gods.

Who I welcome! Who I welcome in our future. Print that so that I may live.

[Laughter]

SN: It's very bizarre and it might not make any sense, but I was watching The Matrix the other night and I realized it was like a sci-fi Lovecraft story in a lot of ways, if you really think about it. It's about these people that they're trying to wake up and say, "The world is not what you think it is." And trying to see what the real world is. That's what I love about the Lovecraft stuff is finding that world isn't always the greatest thing. There's a real parallel between the two stories.

MM: Particularly with the reveal at the end of the second movie.

SN: Exactly, yeah. We're all just hypnotized.

MM: So, given that this is kind of a nihilistic viewpoint, how do you think the book will keep readers interested in an on-going series that, ultimately, will always end the same way?

MW: Maybe, maybe not. Besides, they read Civil War for nine months, you wanna talk about nihilistic.

SN: [Laughter]

MW: I think we can keep 'em. The book’s limited only by the boundaries of imagination. If someone comes to me with an amazing, happy, optimistic, warm-puppy turn on the Cthulhu Mythos, then by all means let's publish it.

SN: There was one in an earlier Cthulhu Tales that was nice and optimistic. All I remember is the final panel with someone hugging a giant Cthulhu leg saying, "Thank God you're here."

MW: Yeah, see? There's positive ways to look at it.

MM: [Laughter]

MW: Some people understand that Cthulhu is not all that bad, he said again praising his alien masters.

SN: Seriously, I think Mark's right. Anything, Cthulhu, Spider-Man, Batman, it's only limited by your imagination. If people can figure out new Batman stories to tell with the basic equipment given there, I think we can do the same with Lovecraft.

MM: I certainly look forward to it. How did you two end up working on this together?

SN: Not an exciting story. Mark called me. Or maybe it was an email.

MW: [Laughter] Well it only made sense. Obviously we wanted to launch with some profile so went to a guy who had talent, a working relationship with us and, on top of that, a name that's associated with horror. Yet it gave a chance for Steve to do a different type of horror, so it worked to both our advantages. He got to flex muscles that he doesn't normally and we got to trade off his name, so everybody wins.

SN: That's true. In comics, writers don't get many opportunities to write short stories. Even 22 pages is just a segment of a story. It's a great challenge to put the beginning, middle and end into those eight pages. It's a great muscle to be able to flex.

MM: I could see how that was particularly challenging.

SN: I'd actually like to see some people do eight page Spider-Man stories.

MW: I wish there was more of an opportunity for that. It's a completely different skill.

MM: Obviously you'll be rotating who is working on this. Who's up for the second issue?

MW: We've got Steve again on the second issue. We've also got a guy named Eric Calderon, who was producing and writer on Afro Samurai.

MM: The name Calderon certainly sounds Lovecraftian.

MW: Of course it does. There's also George Krstic. Much like Cthulhu, very few vowels in that name.

MM: Did you pick these guys because of their last names? They sound like cultists.

SN: For the credits on the second issue we should just arbitrarily tag –cth on the end of all our last names.

MW: Please! Sure. Done and Done.

George is actually a writer on the Star Wars: Clone Wars. These are people I know, people I know who could deliver. That's second issue. Third issue, I'm very proud that we've roped William Messner-Loebs in to write and draw stuff. Not only is he one of comics' really good writers, but it turns out he's a huge, huge, huge Lovecraftian and Mythos freak. I've known Bill for 20 years and I couldn't have told you that.

That's the near future. We also have covers coming from Pop Art Studios, also from Shane Oakley. Shane sent me half a dozen covers and said, "Pick one." I was like, "I'll take them all."

MM: Out of curiousity, will this tie into The Fall of Cthulhu series or is it completely on its own?

MW: At first it's on its own. As we get towards the end of ’08, we're angling at…I don't want to say too much, but doing a little more with bringing The Fall of Cthulhu and the Cthulhu Tales and another book we've got coming out, bringing them together in a way that I haven't seen done before in comics. I'm stoked about that. From a format point of view and also from a content point of view. So more on that as it develops.

MM: Great. Thanks for taking the time.

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