Saturday, 9 August 2014

And Then Emily Was Gone - An Interview with John Lees and Iain Laurie

I'm going to refrain from saying much about And Then Emily Was Gone as I've already delivered a five star review of the first three issues in the current issue of Scream Magazine and I fully intend to review the complete saga for Afraid of the Dark when all five issues are in the bag.  What I will say is that it's the kind of comic that comes along only once in a blue moon.  When I cast my eyes over the self published issue #1 some months ago with its wonderfully macabre artwork courtesy of Iain Laurie filtered through the dark imagination of writer John Lees I knew instantly that I was witnessing the birth of something special.  Publisher Comix Tribe evidently agreed and jumped at the opportunity to publish And Then Emily Was Gone.  Issue #1 is now on the shelves (BUY IT!!!) and having been met with universal critical praise and stellar sales I felt it was a good time to approach the creative minds behind this compelling work with some questions. Here's how that went:

AOTD: Tell us a little bit about how AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE came about? Did the idea arrive fully formed or was it something that grew from a small seed into the masterpiece of the macabre I consider it to be?

JOHN: A masterpiece of the macabre!  I like that!  Ideas for stories are weird, as one they are fully formed it does kinda feel like they were always that way, and it's hard to go back and unpick how it all came together.  I'd say the first small seeds came when an anthology project Iain and I had been working on fell through, and we decided to do something together on our own.  Iain sent me a bunch of comic ideas, and I took elements from all of them, mixed and matched them, and jumbled them all into this combined pitch for AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE.  And the story as it is quickly took shape from there as Iain and I riffed off one another and threw ideas back and forth.  It helps that the two of us have similar interests and so draw our inspiration from similar sources.

AOTD: This question goes out to both of you. I'm curious about what inspired EMILY both in terms of story and also in terms of the overall aesthetic.

IAIN: So much... Danish cop shows, TWIN PEAKS, KILL LIST, THE WICKER MAN, European animation. All thrown in the mix.

JOHN: Yeah, the stuff Iain brings up definitely all plays into the influences for the project.  But there are so many influences, I almost feel like I can give a different answer every time someone asks me this question.  You're a fan of horror, Stephen, you'll perhaps remember that "History of Horror" documentary series that aired the BBC a couple of years ago, hosted by Mark Gatiss.  The middle episode - my favourite one, which I've rewatched several times - was called "Home Counties Horror," talking about Hammer Horror and the distinct brand of British horror cinema that sprang up around it, from NIGHT OF THE DEMON to BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW to the aforementioned THE WICKER MAN.  That show touched on a very striking notion, that the horror of these films were given more power in their understated Britishness, how everything felt more grounded and closer to the real world than it might in a polished Hollywood production, giving it a more unsettlingly eerie quality.  I definitely imagine AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE sitting comfortably within that brand of "Home Counties Horror."

AOTD: Question for Iain. The artwork in EMILY was originally B&W. How did Megan come on board and what was your initial reaction when you first saw some coloured pages?

IAIN: Originally this was just an experiment for me to see if i could draw a comic book with a proper narrative that was more accessible than my usual stuff. I never expected it to be anything more than a small run small press book. Nick Pitarra, who draws THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS, has been a big supporter of mine so I sent him the pages and he got really excited and hooked us up with Megan and she came on board and that's when things started changing. Her contribution has been epic. She's made my stuff look really professional.  She's a wee genius and I owe her loads.

AOTD: At what point did you guys realise that you had something special with EMILY and tell us a little bit about how ComixTribe came on board?

 IAIN: For me it was when people like Nick Pitarra and Riley Rossmo (who drew the amazing #1 cover) said how much they liked it as they are proper comics people.

 JOHN: For me it was much earlier in the process.... it was when Iain Laurie's pages started hitting my inbox.  I immediately knew this was going to be something very special right from then.  As for ComixTribe coming onboard, I already had a good relationship with them based on them publishing my debut comic, THE STANDARD.  I knew they were dedicated, stand-up guys, and that they produced quality comics.  I believe the germ of the idea that they could publish AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE was first planted at New York Comic Con last year, when  publisher Tyler James kindly offered to let me put some copies of my black-and-white small press edition of AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE #1 on the ComixTribe table, and it ended up being one of the hottest-selling items at the table.  I think that showed that ComixTribe's existing readership was interested in a weird little comic like EMILY, and that something so starkly different from the rest of their output could also perhaps attract a different demographic.  And I knew from my past dealings with them that ComixTribe are an absolute pleasure to work with, so the deal came together quite quickly from there.

AOTD: There's a dark and twisted imagination at work in EMILY both in terms of the narrative and the visuals. It feels like a very singular, cohesive vision. How does the collaborative process work for you guys?

JOHN: Our collaborative process has been pretty interesting.  At the earliest stages of the comic's development, Iain and I talked to each other at length about the story as a whole, hitting the broad strokes of the beginning, middle and end and honing in on who the major characters would be.  As such, AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE is very much both our creation in terms of this world and its narrative.  But from there, once I got to actually writing the script and developing out the plot beats in detail, Iain didn't want to read ahead.  He'd only read the scripts as he was drawing them, I believe so that it felt fresh and he could be more "in the moment" with the scene he was drawing rather than thinking too far ahead.  On my end, with my scripting I tried to tailor my writing to Iain more than I've tailored to any other artist before, trying to work in motifs and imagery that recurs in Iain's work and consciously attempting to create a piece of work which could read as an "Iain Laurie's Greatest Hits" collection for those familiar with his work, while also stretching him and letting him try stuff he's not had the chance to do explore before.  We have a very symbiotic collaborative relationship.

 IAIN: We work on the principal that Johns the screenwriter and I'm the director. I like that as it lets me change things and stuff but I always run it past John. We're lucky in that we have very similar tastes and references. There's a character who when i read it I went 'Laura's mum from TWIN PEAKS and that's how John had seen it in his head. So were very much on the same page.

AOTD: Do either of you ever get something down on the page and take a step back to think, "What the fuck is going on in my head?"

JOHN: Periodically, yes.  There's one sequence in issue #4 in particular that I read back after I'd written it and thought, "What is wrong with me!?"  And the story certainly goes to some dark, horrifying places.  But generally speaking, if I write something so vile that I have this gut instinct to pull back from it, that weirdly tells me I'm going in the right direction and I go ahead with it.  Because if I'm creeping myself out, then hopefully it'll terrify readers! 

 IAIN: I think if I tipped that domino over I'd be in trouble. But I get asked that a lot and it's just that I've always been drawn to the dark and the weird. David Lynch is my hero but people like Francis Bacon, Stephen King, Chris Morris, Reeves and Mortimer are all in the mix in my head and they are all do odd stuff.

AOTD: Is your creative relationship something that's likely to bear further fruit? What's next for each of you ether collaboratively or otherwise?

IAIN: After EMILY finishes I'm doing a wee strip with Sam Read(EXIT GENERATION) and then I'll see if there’s anything out there. There are a few writers who've approached me so I might give John peace for a bit but we have two pretty solid projects lined up and one that's a bit sketchier. But I will do more with John definitely. The next thing we're talking about is so much weirder than EMILY.

JOHN: Oh yes, I've started tentatively plotting out my next collaboration with Iain, and I'm very excited indeed about how it's shaping up!  But before that, I have OXYMORON: THE LOVELIEST NIGHTMARE for ComixTribe, a 4-issue miniseries taking a serial killer thriller/crime procedural type spin on The Oxymoron, the popular supervillain from THE RED TEN.  The incredible Alex Cormack is the artist on that book, and I can tell you now that will be going to some really dark places.  And I also have a couple of other things in various stages of development and production. 

AOTD: Question for both of you. Are there any other writers/artists with whom you guys would like to work?

JOHN: Nick Pitarra is an answer that jumps to mind.  He's one of my favourite artists working today as it is, and on top of that his support for EMILY has shown him to be a true gentleman and a sound, decent guy.  He's doing the variant cover for AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE #2, out at the end of this month, and it feels great having the two of us even share a title credits page.  I'd love the chance to work with him on something in future.  Another guy I'd love to work with is Will Robson.  He's a really gifted up-and-coming artist who stepped in as co-artist with Jonathan Rector for the final two issues of THE STANDARD.  He did a fantastic job and crafted some beautiful pages, but obviously the visuals of THE STANDARD are always going to be thought of as Jon Rector's baby.  So I'd love the chance to work with Will on something that was our own, that he could really put his own visual stamp on.  Finally, my dream comics project (aside from working with Iain on BATMAN!) is working with the great Ramon Marcus Villilabos on a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY comic for Marvel one day, so I need to start gathering blackmail material to make that happen!

IAIN: Political answer! I haven't written anything since a project i wrote for Garry Brown(IRON PATRIOT,CATWOMAN) ages ago that didn't happen. I'd like to try writing some more HORROR MOUNTAIN-y stuff. But there are a few writers who've approached me and all of them are doing really interesting stuff.

AOTD: Comic book movies are big news these days. If you were in a position to choose any director to bring EMILY to life on the big (or small) screen who would you choose and why?

 IAIN: Well since everything I do is a tribute to David Lynch he'd be ideal but there are a few-Denis Villeneuve, Jonathan Glazer and Ben Wheatley would be great. Tim Burton 'Sleepy Hollow' era was a big influence so him at that time would be ideal if he was still that good.

JOHN: I'll echo Ben Wheatley, I think he'd absolutely knock it out of the park.  Another couple of suggestions is Marc Munden, director of most episodes of TV's UTOPIA.  That show has a really weird, off-kilter aesthetic which I think would work really well with AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE.

AOTD: What do you guys think of digital comics? Are they the future of the industry and, if so, does this cause you some dismay?

 IAIN: I'm ok with them. I don't really care so long as people are reading them.

JOHN: I'm with Iain on this one.  Plenty of people were proclaiming digital comics as the death of print comics, but people have been proclaiming the death of print comics for one reason or another for over half a century now.  And yet, looking at recent trends, the print market has actually grown over the past year or so, as has ComiXology, suggesting that both markets are finding new fans, and one needn't necessarily impede on the other.  I'm a fan of print.  I go to the comic shop and dutifully buy my new releases every week.  But I love browsing the ComiXology offers, and use it to buy older comics I've always wanted to try but might not have splashed out the cash to have in a print edition.  ComiXology is where I house my ever-growing Marvel Cosmic collection!

AOTD: Afraid of the Dark is, predominantly, a blog that focuses on horror films. What do you guys think of the state of horror cinema today? Is there a particular decade you consider to be the golden age?

JOHN: I'd say the golden age of horror is the 1970s.  Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, The Exorcist, The Wicker Man, Alien, we could probably squeeze in The Shining from 1980.  So many of the greatest horror movies of all time fell within that decade.  And while there are still some quality horror movies being made today, and there are some talented filmmakers like Scott Derrickson and Ti West working in the genre, largely it feels like horror cinema is in a bit of a slump these days.  Putting my finger on just why that might be the case is quite difficult to describe, but I think it could even be right down to their aesthetic.  Historically, some of the most inventive, influential horror has been low budget fare, and these pictures had this grainy, murky film stock that to this day gives them a kind of strange gravitas.  But when you look at the low budget horror market these days, it's all done on digital cameras that make everything feel pristine and bloodless, like you're watching a soap opera on TV.  For me, some of the most exciting horror is happening outside of cinema these days, with a whole wave of horror comics making a big impression on readers. 

IAIN: This is a John question, I think. I don't keep up with horror as much as I used to. I hate the whole torture porn arena and shock horror HUMAN CENTIPEDE stuff. My favourite horror films are stuff like THE SHINING, THE MIST, THE THING, 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, KILL LIST, DEAD OF NIGHT, DAWN OF THE DEAD. I still think MULHOLLAND DRIVE is one of the scariest films I've seen.

AOTD: I'd just like to finish up by thanking John and Iain for taking the times to provide such entertaining and well considered answers to my questions.  I wish you both continued (and well deserved) success with Emily.

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