Meet the writer who’s helping to revive the dark art of horror comics

Marvel's rising star shares his thoughts on horror, the rise of independent comics, and serial killer fandoms.

Feb 29, 2020, 10:50 pm*

Internet Culture

 

Aja Romano

You might have noticed your life is a lot scarier these days. 

Thanks to recent films like The Babadook and It Follows, Hollywood has declared a resurgence in the horror genre. In addition to tons of buzz for upcoming films like M. Night Shyamalan‘s The Visit and Guillermo del Toro‘s Crimson Peak, new horror TV shows like Salem and Scream are all the rage. 

And horror comics are suddenly everywhere: Scott Snyder’s series Wytches is a bestseller with a feature film in the works. Comic-Con had numerous panels devoted to the subject of horror across multiple mediums. This month, comics legends Gail Simone and Warren Ellis joined the lineup of comics writers with new horror series.

But nothing about this is new to Joshua Williamson, who has quietly spent years building his craft as a writer of horror comics and weird fiction. Williamson, who has worked on series including Superman/Batman and the upcoming Illuminati, was recently dubbed a “rising star” when Marvel announced that he’ll be helming a limited run “What If?” series examining alternate outcomes from last year’s Infinity event.

Yet Williamson has spent over a decade working as an independent creator for Image and Walking Dead-creator Robert Kirkman’s Skybound Comics. After doing a supernatural heist series, Ghosted, about an attempt by a ring of thieves to steal a ghost from a haunted house, Williamson and collaborator artist Mike Henderson turned their minds to murder: specifically, to serial killing.

Image Comics

The result, Nailbiter, is a chilling and intriguing series about a small northwestern town, Buckaroo, Oregon, that has serve as home to an alarmingly high number of serial killers. Its title character is an alleged serial killer who never paid for his crimes, and may or not be reformed. As he wreaks chaos in the town where he still lives, its citizens struggle with the ominous question: Who will be next? They also have to grapple with the influx of detectives, media, and curiosity-seekers from outside their community—including a meta-filled visit from real-life comics creator Brian Michael Bendis, one of Williamson’s mentors.

Nailbiter is a fascinating comic, a self-aware exploration of familiar horror tropes and the way fans interact with them—even fans of serial killers—that’s also, well, nailbiting. As fans of the series, we figured Williamson would be the perfect person to talk to about the recent uptick in horror in comics. We tracked him down at Comic-Con and discussed everything from his long presence at Image Comics to why Season Two of True Detective sucks so much.

Obviously there’s been a lot of talk about the resurgence of the horror film the last few years, and I think that’s really bled over into comics. You have Wytches and the new Warren Ellis, Heartless, and The Woods, all this stuff. Is there something in the water?

I do think it’s in the water. The day we announced Nailbiter is the same day that Scott [Snyder] announced Wytches. We all kind of came up together, we had similar things we wanted to do. I don’t want to say horror was lacking, but there was a different kind of horror. I think for a long time the horror was very… carnage, it was very bloody.

Yes, because you still had the aftereffects of Saw and the torture-porn genre playing out.

Yes, I think that was a big part of it. And the big thing for Mike [Henderson] and I was we wanted to do something that was clever, that was a little more… I think horror isn’t always about what you see, it’s about what you don’t see. And I think for a long time it was show, don’t tell. And there still is that, what we’re doing, but it’s different—it’s about tricking the reader, not showing them every hand you have. Look at Locke & Key. Locke & Key is one of the best horror comics, period. A lot of stuff I did in Nailbiter and Birthright is stuff I thought about while reading Locke & Key. And I would read novels, and [think] a lot about movies. I was obsessed with watching documentaries about horror movies. I would watch things with John Carpenter talking about making Halloween. I think there was sort of this thing where it was about the blood and guts but then everybody took a step back, and so you get things like Nailbiter.

Not to knock that stuff. I still like Saw. One of my biggest SDCC regrets is I got a pass for a movie called “Saw”—quotation marks. Had no idea what it was about. We left our passes at the small press table by accident, and we were driving away from the con like, whatever. And then the con was over and we heard all this buzz about it, and then there was the trailer, and we were like, “Oh, man, we could have gone into that knowing nothing.”

Nailbiter hits close to where I live because I came to geek culture through fandom culture, and I’m really interested in that intersection between fans and creators and how they talk back to each other, because not only do you have that whole meta layer with Brian Michael Bendis, but there’s this awareness of the cult following, and—

And the tropes!

Yeah. Horror has to do new things with those tropes all the time, so horror has to get really meta, but I think there’s also something there about comics fandom, too, and how obsessive people can be.

You look at things past Scream. I think anything past Scream, there was very much a meta—it was very aware. Like it’s hard to go to a zombie movie and not know what a zombie is.

And you have things like [TV shows] The Cult and The Following.

The Cult’s weird, it came and went. Cause it came up in a bunch of conversations when we were talking about Nailbiter really early on. Because Nailbiter came out, we announced it in January 2014, it came out in May 2014. I started working on that book in 2011, and then really talking to people about it and getting rejections. Yeah, The Cult came up in those conversations, like why are we not doing it? I remember The Cult being used as an example of why the publisher didn’t want to use it. So it’s very much on my mind!

I think specifically the serial killer genre does that very well. Even with something like Death Note, it’s all about the cult following that develops around the serial killer.

And the obsession of it. Once we announced the book, it was interesting how so many people came to us after being like, I have weird connections, or I have weird thoughts—not about telling, and that’s happened, too, let me tell you—but thoughts about that world and the fascination. Not the sick fascination, but that fascination with that culture and the weirdness of it. And hearing the stories fueled [the narrative]—because by the time issue 1 came out, we were working on issue 6. There were changes that came into it. 

Every comic I work on, I think about it from a fan perspective first: When I was a fan, would I have bought this?

Like the murder store got burnt down early on, but we bring it back around—I think in issue 17—and more and more people become fascinated with the town. Things happen in 15 specifically that make people want to know. And I thought about people wanting to know more about Nailbiter and the interest in that idea. It’s interesting—you say you came to comics through fandom. I’m the same way. This is my 22nd Comic-Con, and I’m not an old man. I was going to Star Trek conventions when I was really young. And so everything to me is fandom. I remember going to Image panels. Now I’m doing some Marvel work, and I remember being in those panels as a fan. I think that’s where Nailbiter came from for me, is being obsessed with those ideas and the conversations. You need people having these ideas about it. And coming from a fan perspective before the pro perspective, that allowed me to have a different angle on it. 

Every comic I work on, I think about it from a fan perspective first: When I was a fan, would I have bought this? And I think the thing about Nailbiter, everything about it something I would have bought, and something that was kind of missing. I knew I wanted small town. I knew I wanted Warren. I wanted that angle of the charismatic serial killer who wasn’t Hannibal, who wasn’t Dexter, who kind of enjoyed what he was. I came from those angles, and I think that’s what attracts people to it. Issue 14 just came out, and we’re doing fine.

I feel like it’s really one of those word-of-mouth comics that’s steamrolled.

It’s crazy, isn’t it? I had a buddy who was taking an Uber drive, and he and his driver started talking about comics somehow, and the guy was like, yeah, I started reading comics because I read Nailbiter. I don’t know, I feel like we were able to tap into something that was very much something people are interested in.

Well I think if you come into it from the angle of, how would the community develop this narrative, which is really what Nailbiter is to me, the community [of Buckaroo] trying to deal with their own narrative.

Yes!

That’s something that is intrinsically fanon and something fans automatically go, yes, that’s what I want to read.

Same thing. Like I love Hannibal. Love it. If he’s here at some point, Bryan Fuller, I’m just gonna hug him. The visuals, the thought that goes into it. What we made with that book was like, we’re just gonna make this serial killer thing, we’re gonna play with the tropes. I don’t like using the word meta, but aware of things. People accused us of being Silence of the Lambs and it’s like, we know. I remember when issue 1 came out, everyone was accusing us of being True Detective, and it was like, are you kidding me? We’ve been working on this for so long.

It’s like when you say it’s set in a small town—’Oh, so it’s Twin Peaks.’

Well, you know we love Twin Peaks. And it was on my mind. Instead of saying—there’s this line in Breaking Bad, right, the half-measures thing. I think about that a lot. Like instead of doing half-measures, lean into it. These are things that influence me, and I’m not ashamed of my influences. I’m obviously influenced by Psycho, I’m obviously influenced by Silence of the Lambs. Instead of being like, oh, I’m some auteur, these things come out of the aether—the whole point, no.

Image Comics

The whole point about weird fiction—True Detective obviously is weird fiction, and Twin Peaks is weird fiction, too. The whole point of weird fiction is to be the collective community writing Lovecraft fanfic.

I’m definitely writing fanfic. I know people kind of bash on that stuff, but I’m like, aww, come on. I think about fanfic a lot.

It’s everywhere. Everything is fanfic. Penny Dreadful is fanfic, Scream, Teen Wolf are fanfic. Everything at this Comic-Con is fanfic.

Yeah! Penny Dreadful is big time fanfic! I mean that’s where it starts off. I think people get embarrassed by it. They want to somehow elevate themselves beyond it.

I think that has a lot to do with the fact that most fanfiction is written by women and there’s a whole lot of internalized shame and women are taught to devalue women’s narratives, but people don’t acknowledge the idea that all the comics industry is fanfiction, people writing fanfic about what came before them. I think there’s a deliberate separation they want to maintain.

Yeah. I’m not ashamed by it. Nailbiter is fanfic to a certain extent. I like these things—it’s one thing if you’re writing X-Men. It’s another if you’re not writing X-Men legally and you’re just like, I really want to write my Colussus/Kitty Pryde fanfic forever. That can evolve into something else. For me it was like, I really want to write serial killers and I really want to write small towns, and no one’s paying me to do it. And so I’m gonna write my little fanfic, and if someone eventually pays me to do it, that’s great. 

There’s a video game out right now called Bloodborne that has no comic book adaptation, and in my mind I’ve written it. That’s fanfic, right? I think for some people the difference is if you put it up online, and you’re kind of self-publishing? But we’re all writing ideas, we’re all having fun, getting ideas from people. I got lucky that Nailbiter came out when it did and hit the audience that it has. It’s interesting with horror and serial killers—I was like, yes, I’m gonna write this dark shit, but it’s gonna have humor. I was looking at things like Heathers and this black comedy, and a lot of horror where the serial killer narratives were taking themselves so seriously. And my fiancee, she used to be a parole tech, and her job was to interview horrible people all day long. She has a degree in criminal behavior. My library is one thing, her library is a whole other thing. She knows—our very first date, our blind date, we had one of the longest conversations about Charles Manson.

And you were like, it’s true love!

I was like, she knows a lot about Charles Manson, I know a lot about Jeffrey Dahmer, so I guess we’re gonna be all right here! But you meet her, and she’s not this super intense, dark person. It is no laughing matter, some of the horrible things that happen to people, but you have a different outlook on it. And then you look at some of the fiction. You look at Hannibal—it’s this beautiful show, it’s not dark and dreary. And then you look at Penny Dreadful, it’s the same way—it’s so fucking dark. Every time someone talks to me about Game of Thrones, I’m like, listen man, there’s an episode of Penny Dreadful where they killed a baby and turned it into a doll! That happened! That is dark as fuck! That is super-dark, but there’s something different humor, a certain energy that’s different to it. That’s what I’m trying to do with Nailbiter, with any book. I did a book called Ghosted with Skybound. The same way.

You have to, or else it’s what Film Critic Hulk says is having both feet in the concrete.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that’s the thing that separates the first season of True Detective from this new season. The first season, Matthew McConnaughey was super-dark all the time, it was dreary, whereas Woody Harrelson had this ‘shut up!’ attitude. As much as he was kind of dark he also had this humor. Whereas this season, everyone is dreary all the time, no one has humor.

The reason is that Harrelson added in all the humor. He ad-libbed all of it.

I want to go to [Nic Pizzolatto] and be like, listen, take the guy from Friday Night Lights [Taylor Kitsch], don’t make him so dark! Even if you look like Seven Psychopaths or In Bruges, that’s something where Colin Farrell has shown that he can add some kind of levity to the darkness.

I feel like something that is that dark and that violent, the more dark they get, the more melodramatic and ridiculous it gets. You have to have that break from taking it seriously.

Look at something like Dexter where Dexter made mistakes that were funny. There was a certain thing to it where you’d be like, oh, shit! but you’d kind of laugh. Season Two of True Detective, you don’t have that. Things are depressing. And the thing about Nailbiter is I try to add those funny beats. There’s a thing at the end of 15 where there’s a funny beat that’s also very serious. I’m wondering what people are gonna think when they get to it. I’m curious to see how things go down as each issue and each story arc gets darker. I can’t help myself, I can’t help but do something kind of silly or funny as we go.

You’re doing a panel about creating your own aesthetic in the rise of independent comics. I wondered how you felt about the rise of Image Comics, and what that aesthetic evolution is.

I’ve been doing Image books in some form or other since 2008. I remember a time when Image was doing okay, when it wasn’t what it was now. I’ve always been doing creator-owned books, and I’m thankful for the growth that it’s had. I think the stuff that Eric [Stephenson] has done and the stuff that Image has done as a whole is really good for the industry. For me, I was going through a learning curve that was rough. I feel like I’m the kind of person who always has to get hit over the head before I figure something out. I was in Brian Michael Bendis’ class at [Portland State], I was one of his first students. I was very career-minded, but I didn’t have my voice yet. It took some time. Some ups and downs. It took me working on Ghosted, and this book called Masks and Mobsters with Mike [Henderson], before I did Nailbiter. I was sort of figuring things out. I knew I wanted to do this dark, black humor horror thing. I got lucky that the time I figured it out was when Nailbiter was ready and when Image started having their boom again. I did do the work and I worked hard, but I was lucky with it. I was able to figure it out.

With that, with me figuring out what I liked about comics, again we come back to the fandom front. I figured out what I liked and what I was happy doing. Somewhere in there I found the style I liked doing to the point where it became muscle memory. Now when I write a script, I know what is me and I know what I like doing and what to fuel into it. I‘m lucky that the muscle memory that I learned ended up becoming my thing. I think a lot of people, they don’t know what their thing is. They kinda write comics to write comics, whereas I visualize the comic, I see it in front of me. I visualize the page turns, the panels. I think that aesthetic is what people are attracted to. 

Image Comics

I look at what I did with Ghosted and that led into Nailbiter and Birthright and now the Marvel stuff, and my future. I was thinking about something Scott Snyder told me. He said you should treat everything like it’s yours. Because why would you want to do someone else’s thing? It’s yours.

You’re the audience, that’s what it’s for.

I’m still figuring stuff out. Every day I’m writing and I’m still trying to figure out these things. My goals and the books I want to do. I think about Quentin Tarantino a lot. The other day I watched Inglourious Basterds and then True Romance, and I was thinking about Inglourious Basterds and was like, man, I wish I could do something this good. My fiancee was like, you know he spent like 10 years on that, right? I was like, yeah, I wish I had 10 years. I wish I had that time. The thing about Nailbiter, it took years to do. But then you watch something like True Romance and you can see the birth of Tarantino. I think about that a lot, about trying to get better. I never sit and go, I figured it out.

I think right now with Image, I’m glad people are enjoying what I’m doing, because I’m really trying to make it feel like there’s a tone that is mine. I feel like I live in a bubble sometimes, that I have no idea what’s going on. I remember one of the first comics I made was in 2001. I made like 10 copies and was giving them away here at San Diego Comic-Con. The fact that people buy my stuff now—it’s amazing. I’m very grateful. It’s very surreal.

There’s been a lot of talk about the Image “bubble” and when it will burst. Do you agree that there is an Image bubble? Is it gonna burst any time soon?

 Comics is one of the only markets that’s showing growth. The audience is growing. Aww, man, it’s beautiful.

I don’t know, I think we’re just getting started. I still feel like people are making good books. Image is so much smarter now. You have Eric, you have Corey [Murphy]. You have these people who are working at Image who are very thoughtful about the numbers. Because when the Image bubble happened in the past, it was because Image was printing more than they were selling. Because retailers are nervous and gunshy, rightfully so. And then you have people like Eric, who are very very thoughtful about the numbers. I don’t think it’s gonna happen the same way. It’s not like we’re printing tons more than we’re selling. They’re printing because they’re selling. The actual book market versus the direct market, even the direct market, they’re selling those books. We can barely keep up. And if we’re barely keeping up, and we’re selling all the time, that means there is no bubble. Comics is one of the only markets that’s showing growth. The audience is growing. Aww, man, it’s beautiful.

Can you talk about what you’re doing for Skybound?

I do this book called Birthright for them, which is about this little boy that gets kidnapped, taken to a fancy world and then he’s brought back.

People love Birthright.

Do they? I don’t know, I live in a bubble! I’m really happy working for Skybound. Kirkman has definitely been somebody I talk to about what I want to do with my career. I feel like Skybound kind of saved me for a while, because I was so unhappy with comics. In 2011, 2012, I was really floundering because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I kept trying to get Ghosted picked up and no one would do it, and then he picked it up. We were able to publish it in 2013 and everyone really liked it, and I was very like, OK, I was right all along. That company’s been amazing to work with. They’re great. I was just down there back in May. I came down for a day and talked about Birthright and our plans for the books. I love working with that company. I love Walking Dead, too, so it kind of works itself out. I’ve liked Kirkman for a really long time… working for him and seeing what he has built has been super inspirational. He’s so no-nonsense about things. I’m really happy with Skybound. They’ve treated me really well over the last few years. I miss Ghosted like no one will ever understand. I miss those characters. That’s the best thing about Nailbiter and Birthright—all those people that liked that are now discovering Ghosted. They ask me questions and I’m like, man, I miss those characters.

Do you think you’ll ever come back to it?

Yeah, I think so. It depends on a lot of factors, obviously. But I don’t even know what the story would be. I have ideas but no story. If I ever came back to that world, I’d want it to be worth it. I love those characters so much. I would want to do it justice. It was something that really helped me out with my career and my life. There wouldn’t be a Nailbiter, there wouldn’t be a Birthright, if it wasn’t for Ghosted. So I’m always thankful for the opportunity Skybound gave me. But I’m glad people like Birthright! I love writing that book, we have plans for years on it, it’s a really big story.

I’m doing some stuff for Marvel, I hope people read that. I’m doing an Illuminati comic, and that’s kind of the villain’s perspective on the Marvel universe, and that comes out in the fall. It’ll be cool, because of The Hood, and they’re letting me do this dark story. Which I was sort of worried about, I was worried they wouldn’t let me do—The Hood, he’s trying to build a new Illuminati with other villains, this strength in numbers, sort of union that will help other villains out. We’ll see what people think. I’m really excited about it.

One last question about Nailbiter. How much bloodier is it going to get?

We’re gonna get some blood. There’s a scene in 17 that’s pretty fucked up, so we’ll see.

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Illustration via Image Comics

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*First Published: Jul 27, 2015, 1:58 pm