Megan Hutchison and Tom Hammock: The Spark of the Will o'the WispA comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
One of the loveliest graphic novels I've read recently is Will o'the Wisp, the story of Aurora Grimeon, a gothic heroine who is pulled into a mystery that forces her deep into the mysterious swamps. Written and drawn with a filmic eye for detail, this graphic novel from Archaia/BOOM! was a surprising treat for me as an adult reader and would make teens and tweens happy as well. I caught up with them at this year's Emerald City Comicon for this wonderful chat.
Megan Hutchison: I left the film industry. I do graphic design to pay the bills, but my day job is doing illustration full time.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Have you done other graphic novels before?
Hutchison: No. This was our first. We're developing the next one. We have another project that we're working on. I have another project with another writer that I'm working on too so there's a lot of things in the mix.
CB: Have you always been a fan of comics?
Hutchison: Yes. Since I was a kid.
CB: Okay, so it's something that you've always wanted to do?
Hutchison: Mhm, yeah definitely.
CB: How did you guys work out your storyline to create your book? It's a very unique book.
Tom Hammock: Basically we met at film school and I actually started in on the storyline back in film school, thinking that it would become a graphic novel and we ended up shifting it to fit the style of Megan's art, and it kind of came together around it.
CB: There's a very interesting setting, in the bayou Want to talk about that a little bit?
Hammock: So my dad is from Louisiana, and shares some of the same voodoo traditions that are featured in the book. Including sort of everyone's favorite character the pet raccoon, my dad owned a pet raccoon named Willy. So all of Missy's antics in the book are kind of based on what his raccoon would do. Like eating buttons off of shirts, for instance. Those sorts of things.
CB: Yeah that was a thing in America for a while. Having raccoons as pets. There was a picture of Teddy Roosevelt's wife with a pet raccoon.
Hutchison: Oh yeah that's right. I've seen that.
Hammock: Totally, there was a First Raccoon and they would bring them back to Europe too. That was a big thing amongst the aristocracy in Europe, but not anymore.
CB: I don't want those things even near me. Why don't you talk a little about the plot of the book?
Hammock: The book is basically sort of a southern-Gothic Nancy Drew type story about this girl Aurora who solves mysteries with her raccoon, Missy. She starts out in the big city and her parents have died from mushroom poisoning and she gets sent off to the ends of the Earth to this island in the swamps that's a cemetery island to live with the grandfather she's never met. While she's there people start dying and she thrusts herself in to solve the mystery.
CB: And she's a very distinctive character. With big white hair and her gothic-type clothes. She really stands out in the page. How did you conceive of her character like that?
Hammock: A little bit of it is my sister Francis, who is very head strong. That's kind of the character side, and Megan just ran with her visually. Megan could talk about the fashion for sure.
Hutchison: Oh yeah, well that was a big part of it. We knew that we wanted her to be alternative, being from the city. We wanted to basically come to this island and she just sticks out like a sore thumb. As a former goth kid I was very interested in what it was about her that we wanted to represent. So I gave her white hair not only because aesthetically it looks really cool, but that's kind of like a cool, unique, goth thing that people can associate with. I actually used to do some work in the fashion industry and I got out of that and moved into film. I've always been interested in it, and I still am, so I designed her wardrobe. All of her pieces were designed.
CB: It's something that's really noticeable about the book is that she looks like a regular girl. She's not wearing a costume or looking like a Scooby Doo character, she's someone who I can imagine going to my daughter's high school.
Hutchison: Yeah! That's what we wanted. We gave her some iconic, you know she's always wearing the choker- the hair obviously is iconic. So we wanted her to have an element of her character that was something that would stand out, but as far as -- throughout the whole book we really wanted it to look authentic. So there's always costume changes and natural lighting.
Hammock: But to me she always feels identifiable.
CB: What makes her identifiable?
Hammock: I think besides the wardrobe I think just her attitude in this place, and she feels very much like my sister and all of her friends and so on, and yet she changes over the course of the book and as an interesting arc cause this place, and the science, and the hoodoo magic changes her life and her outlook.
CB: A little bit of an origin story, but also like a filmic approach to it also.
Hammock: Exactly. You know you always want your characters to be changing and evolving.
CB: Do you come to that a bit from your background in film where it's very much about the self-contained character arc as opposed to the comic storyline where she has adventures after her origin?
Hammock: Exactly, I design films so it's always thinking very carefully. Not just about the world, but how that character's going to change and how you represent that change visually within the movie.
CB: Yeah I notice that it's a very designed world. With very specific character's backgrounds. The apparitions that almost kind of flow out of the ground in a way.
Hammock: They're actually the creepiest things, like I still remember them from when I was little. Like a will-o'-the-wisp is is an actual phenomenon. Obviously hence my dad part of being the inspiration for this is he always grew up with all these folk legends and he would tell us stories growing up, and one of them was about this evil man who was carrying this piece of Hell with him through the swamps and that's what a will-o'-the-wisp was. Not that it's a pocket of methane that gets lit by lightning which is what it actually is, but the more phantasmal style.
CB: So you brought that to the story.
CB: It's sounds like you had all these ideas in mind, and they're all kind of organically shaped is that fair to say?
Hammock: Totally. And then Megan and I spent three or four months together doing visual research to build the world before we started down the path of the book itself.
CB: What kind of research did you do, like the world of the bayou?
Hammock: Yeah I mean, I had obviously spent a lot of time there and everything from having Megan watch films that took place there, documentaries, to going through and pulling photographs together from our favorite cemeteries from around the world. I made up with that picture of that dense cemetery in Prague with all the tombstones and try to take the best of each place and build this world from that.
Hutchison: We were real specific as well, like the house is very specific. All the rooms are very specific, all the artifacts in the house are very specific. We went through and found all of these things. All of the trees are designed after really specific trees. So we were pretty meticulous when it came to putting all of those elements together.
CB: It's very ambitious for comics in particular.
Hutchison: Yeah, well I think that's just our nature. Just coming from film that's what you do. You spend a lot of time doing research to put it on the screen. Both of us have been doing that. He's still doing that. We're here so that came. We're like "We can't not do this."
Hammock: Totally and just cause there's so much personal stuff in the book. A lot of it was easier like my dad growing up with a pet raccoon. It's like, "Megan, here's a picture of my dad and Willy." and that just makes it go quicker.
CB: How was it working on, you are married is that correct or just friends?
Hutchison: It's just business, well we're just friends.
CB: Beause you have this great comfortable kind of thing together.
Hammock: Well we've made like ten or twelve movies together, and there's nothing like making a movie together to bring people together. Because movies are the crew. It's like it's own little family.
CB: I did some plays back in the day.
Hutchison: Yeah my background's in theater.
Hammock: Exactly, so you know what we're talking about.
CB: Yeah it's a very tight group.
CB: Did you two work on any films that I would know? That's always the Hollywood question
Hammock: We worked on a film called You're Next. With the animal masks that was everywhere last August. That film called All the Boys Love Mandy Lane that the Weinsteins put out last Halloween which was a big hit, but within the art house circuit. Also the VHS series of horror films, and our most recent film that we worked on together was called The Guest that just played Sundance where it was one of the big acquisitions out of the festival. It just finished playing in South by Southwest. So I don't know, maybe!
CB: That's cool!
Hutchison: A lot of horror movies.
CB: Does that kind of set your expectations in a way through working for an independent comics publisher where you're not expecting to sell a million copies, but at the same time you have that certain amount of freedom within your boundaries, I guess? Is that fair to say?
Hammock: Exactly. I mean part of the motivation is that within film… we work on great films but their independent and so there's a certain scope that they fall within and this was an opportunity for us to design a world from the ground up and to do whatever we wanted in that world.
CB: It's not held back by a small budget or anything?
Hutchison: That was a lot of our motivation for wanting to do graphic novels in the first place.
Hammock: If we want an entire room that's just grasshoppers, we can do an entire room of just grasshoppers.
Hutchison: And we did.
CB: That's another reason why comics are more and more popular these days, is because you can see a full world right there on page.
Hutchison: Yeah, and when you're making a film there's so many people putting their input in what they think should be in the film kind of watering down the vision. Comics seem to be a purer form. We can have a strong sense of voice and theme and stay true to it in a graphic novel.
CB: I write about that a lot actually. I write a lot of reviews and the thing I think is very special about comics is really virtually the only art form where you can have one or two creators and present an entire vision. You can have everyone see the vision the same way and have it there on a printed page. You can compare to novels or music, but they're always filtered through some way through the production quality or through your vision of the print. In comics, especially in a book like yours where every element of the page is specifically planned, you're telling an exact story where you want to tell exactly the way you want to tell it.
Hammock: Yeah it's pretty awesome.
Hammock: We're really lucky, but that's what pairs so nicely with them for us.
CB: So what's next? Is she going to come back? Is she going to have a sequel?
Hammock: Yes, we're aiming to do three of the Aurora books together, and we're actually working together on sort of a gothic ninja book as well for the moment. About a pregnant ninja.
Hutchison: A gothic pregnant ninja.
CB: It tells itself doesn't it?
Hammock: Or maybe not at all. We're gutting to find out.
Hutchison: My mom likes it. I pitched it to her and she likes it.
Hammock: If your mom likes it that's a great barometer.
CB: Yeah, if it doesn't work in our house. If dad likes it, dad likes a lot of things. Mom? Yeah..
Hutchison: No my mom does not, although she loves the book. She's very happy with it.
Hammock: And the last movie we did together, The Guest is coming out Halloween this year which should be a lot of fun.
CB: Sounds like it could be huge for you guys.
Hutchison: Yeah we're going to be busy. Which is good. It keeps us out of trouble. Kind of -- not really.
CB: No not really.
Hutchison: We still manage to get in trouble.