News Article

News Article

Author James Chambers on Comics and Horror


James ChambersJames Chambers’ tales of horror, crime, fantasy, and science fiction have been published in numerous anthologies and magazines. In 2011 Dark Regions Press published his collection of four Lovecraftian-inspired novellas, The Engines of Sacrifice. Publisher’s Weekly described it as “chillingly evocative.” Most recently, Dark Quest Books has published his zombie novellas, The Dead Bear Witness and Tears of Blood, the first two volumes in the Corpse Fauna novella series. 

Chambers is also the author of the short story collections Resurrection House, published in 2009 by Dark Regions Press, and The Midnight Hour: Saint Lawn Hill and Other Tales with illustrator Jason Whitley. His stories have appeared in Allen K’s Inhuman, Bare Bone, Deep Cuts, The Green Hornet Chronicles, Hardboiled Cthulhu, Walrus Tales, and many other anthologies and magazines. He has also written numerous comic books including Leonard Nimoy’s Primortals, the critically acclaimed The Revenant in Shadow House, the Web comic Tabula Rasa, a forthcoming mini-series The Wrath, and The Midnight Hour, which has been published in the comics anthology Negative Burn. He was the editor of Isaac Asimov's I-Bots, Gene Roddenberry's Lost Universe, and the graphic novel adaptation of From Dusk Till Dawn, published by Tekno*Comix. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association and the chairman of its membership committee. His website is:

You've worked in comics for some time now. What personal projects are you currently working on?

I've been bouncing around the comics industry since the early nineties when I started as an editor and journalist for Comic Book Collector (later Combo Magazine) -- so yes, I guess that counts as some time [laughing]. I love comics, and I've tried my hand at almost every aspect of the industry. When I started out, in addition to editing and writing, I also sold advertising for the magazine, which had a very small, tight-knit staff.

When I made the jump to full-time editor at Tekno*Comix, I contributed to publicity and sales efforts. Then I transitioned to writing at Tekno and from there to being an independent comic book writer, which I've been doing ever since. The thing about indy comic book writing, though, is you need to be comfortable as a jack-of-all trades. To get my work out there, I've had to become at times a publisher, a salesman, a publicist, a letterer, and of course, an editor. And that's where I find myself now with comics.

I'm working on The Midnight Hour, a series I do with artist Jason Whitley, and coordinating coloring and production of that work to be published in the forthcoming series Evil Jester Presents from Evil Jester Comics. Jason and I have been doing Midnight Hour comic book stories and illustrated short stories since about 2004. I'm also working on a cycle of short horror stories which I hope to produce and publish with a group of artists, and I'm developing a graphic novel script involving magic in a contemporary setting.

With all that going on, though, these days I write many more short stories and novellas than comic book scripts. Last week I finished a dark urban fantasy novella, Three Chords of Chaos, which Dark Quest Books will publish later this year as well as edits on a steampunk fairy tale short story, and now I'm on to revisions for The Dead in their Masses, the third volume in my Corpse Fauna series. Most recently, my story "Lost Daughters," was published in the anthology Deep Cuts.

So, in your opinion, how has the comics industry changed over the years?

Okay, if the time period when I started nudging my way into comics -- the late eighties -- equals Earth-1 then let's say today equals something like, say, Earth-Xyleg. I was going to say it's like being on another planet, but really the industry has become a totally new and brilliant universe. The comics industry reinvents itself on a regular basis. That's one of the reasons it's more vital and rife with potential today than it ever has been in the past (and its past is pretty amazing).

For comic book readers, this is a true golden era when it seems like almost every comic book ever published is now available in snazzy reprint editions or digital formats. I still remember stalking my local comic shops for months to fill in my run of New Mutants years ago; in digital formats, those books would be at my fingertips today. One of my favorite series from last year was IDW's Classic Popeye. But the change is much deeper and more significant for publishers and creators.

For publishers, it's a more challenging and seemingly less stable environment where they have to be nimble to take advantage of new technology and to respond to reader expectations. For creators, the industry seems more open and accessible to independents and original, creator-owned work in a way that is fostering a Renaissance. If I made a list of my favorite series from the past couple years, almost every title on it would be creator-owned or something that started life online and few books from the major publishers Then you also have Kickstarter putting the power to create new comics directly into the hands of readers and the creators, which is pretty awesome. So I'd say among the many changes the industry has seen, the biggest is growing access for new ideas and creators.

Resurrection HouseYou write fiction as well. As a horror writer also, how do you see the two mediums as being different?

The ultimate goal is the same: to tell great stories. Beyond that, though, they're different on many levels. There are the fundamental differences between prose and graphic storytelling. Also, comics are a primarily collaborative medium where prose fiction is much less so. In prose fiction, the writer is usually the most important creator in the mix, but in comics that's not always true even for major talents like Grant Morrison and Alan Moore.

But if looking at the question only in terms of horror writing then the big difference is what is most successful as "horror" in each medium is often different. Hellboy is one of the most successful horror comics running today -- but it's not strictly horror. It's horror blended with more traditional comic book elements, such as super-hero action and secret government agencies. Compare that with horror fiction writers such as Jack Ketchum or Peter Straub, where there are elements of gritty realism or literary traditions in their fiction that you don't often find on comic books. Many horror comics work in a vein similar to Hellboy. Exceptions are series like the sadly cancelled Hellblazer and, of course, the EC horror comics and all the comics they inspired over the years (Creepy, Doomed, Eerie, Taboo, and so on). But horror anthology comics remain a tough sell in today's market whereas in horror fiction, they're an essential part of the DNA for the specialty press and a major channel through which new horror writers come into the fold.

Aside from all that, the "scares" are different too. In prose, I can write in great detail about disturbing or gory scenes but ultimately, it's up to the reader to paint that picture in their imagination and decide how graphic they want it to be. In comics, the artist shows you a concrete version of that scene, and he or she makes that decision. Depending on how that ability is used, it can strengthen or weaken a story. I guess that's my long-winded way of saying the two mediums are as completely different in the horror genre as they are in any genre.

Speaking of digital comics, where do you see comics being in the next few years, especially with those technologies coming out?

In a really great place. I see now more creators taking steps to bring their creator-owned work to the public via the Web or through Kickstarter or other non-traditional channels. The more good work that is published that way, the more influence it will have on the industry. If it tips the balance a bit in favor of creators looking to bring new ideas and original creations and stories into the industry -- if it ups the ante on creativity and storytelling -- that's a good thing.

What do you do when you start working on a comic?

The first thing I do is answer this question: Is this a story that can be better told or told equally well in any other medium? If the answer is no, then I get to work. Call it a personal bias, but I see comic book storytelling as unique and special and worthy of respect, and I want to write stories that can only be told in comics. I've read too many comics over the years that read like novels or screenplays cut and pasted onto pictures, treating the medium as simple illustration. But illustration is very different than sequential art.

There have to be elements of a story that can only be realized through sequential art or through the freedom of the comics format for me to commit to a comic book project. After that I do my research and spend a lot of time thinking about the story and the characters, visualizing them, letting the tone and structure of the story fall into place mentally so that I've got a good grip on the story when I sit down to write. I rarely do written outlines for comics because I do multiple drafts of my scripts.

Very often, I write the first draft with panel descriptions only, no captions, no dialogue to map the story visually. Once that's done, I write as sparingly as I can so as to let the art tell as much of the story as possible. If I know the artist I'll be working with ahead of time, I research their work to get a sense for their storytelling style and try to write to it. I may even talk through some ideas with them. Best case scenario, I then get to revise the script after the art is done so I can edit out redundancies or polish things.

Any advice for new comic writers?

There's a ton of advice out there from comic writers much more accomplished than I am, so my first piece of advice is to go listen to what people like Denny O'Neill, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Ed Brubaker, Terry Moore, Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Joe Hill, and all the other incredibly talented writers working in comics today have to say about it. For my two cents, read voraciously and especially read outside your comfort zone and outside the comics industry; if your only frame of reference as a writer is the last ten years of X-Men comics, you're putting yourself at a disadvantage.

Also, writing comics is not the same as writing screenplays or teleplays; understand the differences among these mediums. And lastly, I'd say if you really want to write comics, learn to stick to your guns. The industry can be a tough nut to crack. You will have ups and downs, discouragements and successes. Try to take a long view and never lose sight of what made you want to write comics in the first place.

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Nancy O. Greene started writing at the age of nine. Her short story collection, Portraits in the Dark, received a brief mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2007. Other works have appeared or will appear in ChiZine; Lovecraft eZine; Cemetery Dance; Tales of Blood and Roses; Haunted: 11 Tales of Ghostly Horror; Shroud Publishing's The Terror at Miskatonic Falls; Dark Recesses; Flames Rising; Smile, Hon, You're in Baltimore!; and others. She has a BA in Cinema (Critical Studies) and a minor in English (Creative Writing) from the University of Southern California, and is a Film Independent: Project Involve Fellow.