Comic Crusaders: How did you break into comics?
ML. Miller: Well, it’s a weird story. I was a reviewer for Ain’t It Cool News since 2001 and helped run the comics section of that site. After doing a review for an indie book, the writer contacted me to thank me for my review. We got to chatting about some common likes and dislikes about comics and eventually the conversation lead to a collaboration. We ended up writing a few projects together that never really saw the light of day, but it did spark the creative writing bug in me that had laid dormant for way too long. I started writing for a small press company and had a few issues published, which gave me material to take to other people. One of those people was Raven Gregory, a great guy who ended up recommending me to Zenescope Entertainment and getting my idea for an iteration of the JUNGLE BOOK published there. That gave me material to take to other publishers and hit up conventions both as press, but also as a writer myself. The more I wrote scripts, the more I felt I was actually doing what I loved, so I stopped reviewing comics (yet I remained on as an editor for AICN COMICS until very recently) and started dedicating my time to making comics of my own. Having met Black Mask publisher Matt Pizzolo at conventions, again we got to talking about similar interests, and he ended up asking me if I had any ideas for his new company. So I contributed to Black Mask’s OCCUPY COMICS anthology and created/wrote PIROUETTE for the company as well. Once PIROUETTE was finished, Matt and I brainstormed as to what to do next and that brought me to GRAVETRANCERS.
CC: So there is hope for me yet then! What’s the difference between writing for Zenescope and writing for Black Mask?
MLM: I actually love both companies for the same reason. They both have great people working at each companies and both of them gave me complete control of what I am doing. Not many places allow that. Now, I am writing freelance at Zenescope and don’t own the characters I write in JUNGLE BOOK, but I still love them. At Black Mask, I own PIROUETTE and GRAVETRANCERS, so of course, I have a strong investment in those stories as well.
CC: Black Mask have been putting out high quality, if eclectic, books. How supportive are they in getting books that maybe don’t seem the most commercial out on the racks?
MLM: One of the reasons I love Black Mask is that they are not afraid to take risks. There’s a genuine dangerous feel to their books and there is a palpable coolness to their books that feels like they aren’t trying to be the coolest kids in the room, they simply ARE the coolest kids in the room. Through the years–and these are years before Black Mask was even formed, I have become great friends with the guys and gals at Black Mask. Those guys are family to me. We are extremely supportive of each other and while some of them have moved on to bigger companies, we always come back to Black Mask because of that connection we have. I love Black Mask books and love it that the books have found an audience. These are the types of comics I like to read because they are challenging, ballsy, and smart and any company that pushes that type of book is going to be successful. I think readers are smart and want to be challenged and Black Mask seems to somehow keep providing those qualities in their comics.
CC: What are the inspirations for Gravetrancers?
MLM: A while back, I read a news story about a cemetery in the southern Chicago suburbs that would resell the plots in their cemetery and toss the bodies into a body pit behind their property. That story struck me as the perfect setting for a horror story, but I never really knew how to use it until I began talking with a buddy of mine who went through a drug rehab program. He talked about a guy he met in rehab who would burn and smoke all kinds of different materials in order to get some kind of high. Immediately, my mind recalled that news story and I thought, “What if a corrupt graveyard got rid of the bodies they were supposed to be burying by turning the bodies into an addictive drug?” Doing some research, there have been instances of smoking human bodies throughout history and I incorporated those elements into the story as well. It all kind of came together and snowballed from the crashing together of those two completely separate stories.
CC: Who are your writing heroes?
MLM: I have a weird list of writing heroes. In books, I’m a fan of Joyce Carol Oates because of her amazing use of metaphor. I love Clive Barker for the way he uses different levels of evil in his stories, rather than just good versus evil. I read a lot of Ramsey Campbell, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, and read ANIMAL FARM at least once a year. In film, I love David Mamet, Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin for their gifted dialog and William Castle for the showmanship he put into his films. In comics, I’m a huge fan of Larry Hama, Geoff Darrow, Alan Moore, Chuck Dixon, Geoff Johns, Scott Snyder, John Arcudi, Peter Tomasi, Jim Shooter, Barry Windsor Smith, Ron Marz, Steve Gerber, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Mark Waid, the list goes on and on. The top of my list of writers is Peter David who injects humor, intellect, action, and most importantly character into his stories. You always know you’re reading a Peter David story. It just has a certain style to it that I can instantly recognize.
CC: Wow, that’ s a big list, and I certainly agree with Sorkin and David.How does the recent horror revival in cinema affect horror comics?
MLM: I hope it will push people to take more chances with horror comics. It’s weird that horror used to have a important place in comics with the old EC horror books and then a bit of a resurgence through the seventies with HOUSE OF MYSTERIES, WEIRD TALES, TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED, and the Marvel horror books like WEREWOLF BY NIGHT, TOMB OF DRACULA, MAN-THING, & GHOST RIDER. But somewhere along the line, horror was kind of shooed off into the periphery. Sure you have books like 30 DAYS OF NIGHT and THE GOON and the like, but for the most part, a lot of horror is super-humanized. Those old horror books at Marvel are now simply dark super heroes and not horror stories. But I’ve had this conversation with a lot of creators who feel that horror comics is just waiting to bubble over again, but that’ll only happen if it is true horror and not simply bathing superhero stories in blood and darkness. True horror unsettles you and makes your imagination go wild, but it can also be cathartic to read. In this day and age where there is so much uncertainty in the world, I think the catharsis one gets through horror stories would be appealing.
CC: I read somewhere of a writer, I think it was Grant Morrison before he started his X-Men run, that he wanted to make the comics “out-movie the movies”. Is that something that can be accomplished in horror, specifically with Gravetrancers? If so, how?
MLM: I don’t know if it can “out-movie” the movies, but I do think that if you understand the power of comics, you can make the comic as scary as any movie. You have to understand the power of the alley between panels and the tense power of the page turn. I think you can do a lot more in comics because there is no budget. You can literally draw and write anything whereas in movies, you’re worried about shoddy CG, running out of money, and the like. But on the other hand, the most effective horror stories are smaller stories. So while I think it is important that there are no limits to what you can do in comics, the real power is going to be letting loose that power in tension filled increments rather than all at once.
CC: How do you mix familiar tropes, the dysfunctional family etc., with new ideas?
MLM: I think the main thing is understanding your characters and knowing where you’re going to begin and where you’re going to end up. If you know those three things, it’s going to be interesting and unique no matter how familiar you are with the elements involved. I fleshed out the characters of GRAVETRANCERS first, came up with a backstory of both Maribel and Anthony as well as the Malort Family. Not all of it is in the story, but that backstory helps me understand what motivates them. That way, whatever hurdles are put up are going to be unique and make the story different than what would come before. You can tell the same story with Daredevil, Snake Eyes, and Red Sonja, but if you know what makes each of these characters tick, the stories are going to unfold in completely different ways depending on the character. So sure, one could say this is a version of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family, but instead of cannibalism, the Malorts make drugs from the dead. That little tweak makes the story completely different. Add in a pair of siblings with their own set of issues, and the story changes a little more. Seeing how a specific character tackles challenges is what makes writing stories so much fun.
CC: How was working with artist, James Michael Whynot?
MLM: This was a fun collaboration. James brings a lot of surreal and downright bizarre imagery to this story. I was very specific in the way the story is told in the beginning, but as I got to know James’ style, I started trusting him more and finally I knew just to let him go with some panels because I knew it would be trippy and cool. I think he is an artist you’re going to see a lot of in the future and I am so happy to have had the chance to work with him on this book.
CC: The colors of the book are flat out bonkers, in a good way. It adds to the unsettling nature of a couple of scenes. Was that in the plan for having Dee Cunniffe color the book?
MLM: Yeah, because there is a lot of hallucination going on in this book, I wanted things to look otherworldly. But really, as soon as Maribel and Anthony first make it into the graveyard, things begin to go crazy. I encouraged Dee to have fun with all kinds of twisted colors and he delivered pages that really surprised me. He’s such a talented dude.
CC: If I said “congrats – you got a Vertigo gig”, which character would you love to write?
MLM: I have a few characters I’d love to write. Ragman would be awesome. Detective Chimp would be a lot of fun. Deadman. Matter-Eater Lad. The Outsiders. Jack O’Lantern. I’d kill to do a horror book starring Aquaman. I have a Space Ranger story that I’d love to write. Over at Marvel, I’d love to take on Damian Hellstrom. Moon Knight and Jack of Hearts are two of my all-time favourite characters at Marvel.
CC: Whilst doing research, google seemed to have you mixed up with Mark Millar. Does that happen often?
MLM: Yes, hence the ML Miller. I get mistaken often for Mark Millar. I remember one instance when a guy sent his girlfriend to a signing I was at with a lot of KICK ASS and WANTED books for me to sign. I had to break it to her that I wasn’t that guy. One time Entertainment Weekly emailed to do a story on me. I was stoked, but then they realized I wasn’t the Mark Millar they were looking for. Talk about a blow to the ego. I’ve met Mark at a con in Chicago a while back and we laughed about us having basically the same name. One of these days we should arm wrestle or something to find out who can win the right to use the name. I think I can take him!
CC: What’s next for Maribel and Anthony and yourself?
MLM: I have the collected trade of PIROUETTE coming out in 2018 which will be the introduction to the character that people might have missed when it was released a few years ago. Because of some scheduling issues, the book wasn’t able to be put out in its entirety. So now people can read a collection of the four issue series and fall in love with Pirouette and her twisted circus horror story all over again. I have a new series that’ll be coming out from Black Mask later in the year as well and there’ll be more to read about that soon. I also continue to write about horror movies on my website MLMILLERWRITES.COM, so if you want to read my words there, I update my page daily. You can also follow me on Twitter @Mark_L_Miller
If the interview has piqued your curiosity, check here for an Advance Review of the Gravetrancers #1!