Graphic Novel Friday: Nerd-ing Out with the Survivors' Club Writers

Alex Carr on December 04, 2015
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Survivors.club_cv1This fall, DC Comics' Vertigo imprint launched 12 new comics series, and one such title is Survivors' Club [available digitally via comiXology and Kindle] by writers Lauren Beukes, Dale Halvorsen and artist Ryan Kelly. At first glance, it's a horror series about six characters drawn to one another under mysterious circumstances. A closer look, however, reveals plenty of gallows humor and knowing winks to classic '80s horror films and video games, making it a multi-media journey down the dark path of fear. On the (Hallow's) eve of its third issue, Lauren and Dale answered questions about their process, characters, and favorite genre influences.

Alex Carr: There is a lot going on in just the first two issues of Survivors' Club. What was your pitch like for such a complex plot?

Dale Halvorsen: The elevator pitch was basically, “What if the ’80s horror movies were real...and where are those kids today.” It started on Lauren’s sofa (where I pitched her the initial idea) and ended with Lauren making a pitch to Shelly Bond in a literal elevator at the DC offices. Where, like a Ceti Alpha V earworm from hell, it burrowed into her brain and laid its eggs. Shelly loved the idea (thanks, Ceti Alpha V earworm from hell). Lauren and I then built on the idea and put together a proper pitch document for Vertigo, which they green-lit. Initially we did an ambitious 50-issue story arc! So we have all the pieces in place and, more importantly, an ending.

Lauren Beukes: We are regretting having six damn main characters, not including their monsters or our antagonist, whom we haven’t seen much of yet—-but it’s been so much fun to play with the different genres and tropes and get to unpack everyone’s secret histories a little bit at a time. It’s slow-burn horror, rather than gore-porn. We’re aiming to crank up the tension over the first six-issue arc and make the audience complicit in the secrets and only glimpse the monsters at first. Alien rather than Sharknado.

AC: How does the writing process work between the two of you? Are certain scenes or themes reserved for one while the other tackles, say, dialogue?

DH: Lauren is an accomplished writer, so she is well versed in all its dark arts. When it comes to writing, she’s season six Walter White, while I’m more season one Jesse Pinkman. It’s been an interesting learning curve for me. We figured out quickly that we have way more fun and are more productive when we work together in the same room. Our process tends to be very fluid. Depending on our work schedules, sometimes I plot out the bare bones of an issue by myself—-sometimes it’s Lauren. After which we get together and lay out the broad strokes of an issue, try to creep each other out and then act out scenes and record it. We call it “creepy playtime.” Lauren is the dark queen of dialogue (and screams), while I’m the wizard of wit (and gore).

LB: When so much of my life as a novelist is spent alone with the imaginary people in my head, it’s very refreshing to be co-writing with someone real. At least I think Dale is real.

It means you share the pressure of making the story work. We push each other to darker and deeper places and up the stakes at every twisted turn.

Dale is amazing at digging up weird research (it helps that his day job as an award-winning illustrator and cover designer allows him to work-watch and work-listen to things in the background.) He regularly brings in clips from lunatic documentaries or true crime podcasts that I wouldn’t have found on my own, although I do worry about both our search histories.

AC: Which came first, your collaboration or this project?

Survivors_Club_cv_2DH: Our collaboration. Lauren’s first book was my first ever book cover! Since then I’ve done all the covers for the South African editions of her books. During all those years, Lauren has discussed her novel ideas with me and we’ve thrown around a few ideas for a comic book series. Before realizing I’m no Daniel Clowes or Charles Burns, I rather ambitiously wanted to write and illustrate an entire graphic novel. So I was discussing a lot of ideas with Lauren. One of those ideas eventually mutated into Survivors’ Club.

LB: We’ve been talking about doing something together for ages. We still have a very dark untimely-deaths-of-superhero-kids book we want to do featuring the tragic tales of the likes of Ebola Boy, and Dale’s been freaking me out telling me the plots for the short horror comics he’s wanted to write and draw for ages. We just haven’t been able to pull it together until now, thanks to Vertigo and having deadlines we have to deliver for.

AC: We quickly learn that the lead characters are linked by something terrible that happened to them, individually, in 1987. Genre fans will recognize this year as a particularly potent one for horror cinema. What are some of your favorite horror films from the ’80s?

DH: So, so many. When asked about this, I generally base my choices on repeated viewings. The Thing, Child’s Play, The Shining, Possession, Angel Heart, Evil Dead, Wicked City, American Werewolf in London, Hellraiser, Alien, Halloween, The Fly, Videodrome, and—in the guilty pleasure category—-Basketcase, House and The Return of the Living Dead. I could go on and on.

LB: The Thing, Nightmare On Elm Street, The Shining, Angel Heart, Hellraiser, The Fly, Alien, Videodrome, Lost Boys, Vengeance the Demon (also known as Pumpkinhead), Jaws, Amityville Horror, Fright Night, Lost Boys, Rosemary’s Baby. Although I know I’m stretching the definition of the ’80s a little to include ’70s and early ’90s. I have a real fondness for terrifying monsters over samey-slashers.

AC: Each of these characters represents an archetype in horror—how did you decide what concepts made the cut?

DH: We pitted them together in a Battle Royale-type scenario and saw which could come out on top. (Spoiler: Alice emerged wearing the other Survivors’ entrails as a scarf.) Each character is a riff on a genre or a subgenre of horror. Very loosely…we have cursed object/video games, haunted house/possession, slasher, cannibal/vampire, killer doll/doppelganger and J-horror. It’s a menagerie of the macabre. We chose the ones we felt we could have the most ghoulish fun with, as well as ones horror fans think they know well. Almost everyone knows the story of The Exorcist, Nightmare On Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Fright Night and so on. In their own way, they have become our generation’s dark fairy tales or mythology. There is a set formula to a lot of horror, which makes it interesting for us to play with those expectations. Like two mad scientists in a lab. We draw a lot on that mythology in Survivors' Club but try to subvert it in interesting and unexpected ways.

We have also considered how these genres/subgenres would mix, which you don’t often see in horror. What happens when the haunted house meets slasher? When body horror meets gothic horror? Killer doll meets zombies? What if Sadako (The Ring) dated Freddy?

AC: Is there a favorite character to write between the two of you?

SURCL_3_6DH: We’ve had a lot of fun with Alice and Simon in the first few issues. It would be a close tie between those two. As we get further into the story, it’s becoming harder and harder to choose. We needed to pace the reveals and flashbacks to 1987 for each character. As you learn more about the Survivors, you get to see them in a new light…...and the horror escalates along with that. For example, issue #3 Kiri is much, much, much darker than issue #1 Kiri. I personally have a soft spot for Chenzira. The video game part of her story speaks to my inner geek. By the end of issue #7, I think readers will see why. We get to have a lot of geeky fun with her dialogue and reactions to situations. Her arc is a moving and tragic one. Plus, you know, video games.

LB: Simon and Alice are the most fun to write because they’re a--holes in their own ways. And we both identify with Chenzira because she’s geeky-witty and loves video games.

I was most surprised by Harvey, who is our slasher. I was worried that we weren’t going to be able to do anything interesting with him, but he’s turned into one of the most sympathetic characters and we’ve seen the most of his backstory so far. No one wants an imaginary friend like Mr. Empty.

Teo and Kiri are the dark horses at the moment, and we’re going to be revealing a lot more of what happened to them in 1987 in issue #6.

Dale and I want to subvert expectations wherever we can. You think you know this story? We’re going to pull the rug out from under your feet, and then you look down and see that the rug is made out of human skin and hair…and those aren’t your feet.

AC: I loved the scene at the horror convention, where a ghoulish Harley Quinn cosplayer makes a cameo, as does a breathless uber-fan. These comedic moments provide a breather for readers—but how do you communicate them to the artist, Ryan Kelly, so that the pages do not become farcical?

DH: Lauren has done many-a convention—-as has Ryan, I believe. So for that scene we drew on our collective experiences. We also sent along some visual references of some convention-goers. We try to keep those moments grounded in reality as much as we can, a counterweight to the darker, more otherworldly parts of the series. Horror and comedy are strange bedfellows, but when done right, it’s fantastic.

LB: We love horror comedy, but it’s hard to pull off. Shaun of the Dead, Tremors, Severance all work because they know laughter is a relief. You need that balance between horror and humanity.

AC: The in-world video game Akheron plays a key role in Survivors' Club—given its fiery introduction, I have to believe there is a real-world inspiration. What video games led to its inclusion here?

DH: We spent a fair amount of time pulling a pixelated Mulder and Scully and investigating the weird and mysterious of the video game world. Both real and rrban legend. Since Akheron had its genesis in 1987, there are a few ’80s influences in there. Everything from Polybius, Killswitch (1989), Timothy Leary's Mind Mirror, The Legend Of Zelda, Double Dragon, Splatterhouse, The Hall of Tortured Souls (the secret Windows 95 Excel mini-game), Ghosts ’n Goblins, Sweet Home (1989) to Do Not Believe His Lies and Silent Hill. Recently Lauren and I were in New York. We visited the Barcade (an arcade/bar) and finished Double Dragon (at the end where the two protagonists have to fight, Lauren handed me a beating of a lifetime). It made me realize how much I miss arcades!

LB: All of the above. My first real job was as a games expert at my local computer shop, which I parsed into my first writing job, reviewing games for a South African computer magazine. Yep, I was that guy who got paid to play games. It was awesome.

Other inspirations: I worked on a fun team-building corporate ARG a few years ago (you can still find some of the videos on YouTube under Studguy515), where a haptic hologram came to life and unleashed all of the internet into the real world, so I had some of that in mind.

Akheron is also partly inspired by Ringu and the killer video game, and the Necronomicon and Hellraiser puzzle box—this cursed artifact of power that opens a terrible gate, that finds a way to resurface in the strangest places when you think it’s dead and buried. In Akheron’s case, it’s in the real-life electronic waste dumps in Ghana, where scavengers mine the rubbish for precious metals like gold and coltan and things they can sell.

--

Our thanks to Vertigo and Lauren and Dale for their time!

--Alex

 


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