We at Multiversity are proud of our coverage of 2000AD. We are huge fans of the magazine (as well as the “Megazine”), and love it when a new strip emerges. Earlier this summer, 2000AD veterans T.C. Eglington and Simon Davis combined for “Thistlebone,” a new folk horror tale in the pages of the weekly Progs. We asked T.C. (Tom) and Simon and do a commentary for the first installment. Enjoy!
Written by T.C. Eglington
Illustrated and colored by Simon Davis
Lettered by Annie Parkhouse
England, 2019. The secluded rural village of Harrowvale holds a dark past – that years earlier, on a farm bordering the vast tracks of woodland, it hosted a cult that was seeking to escape civilization and find purity in the old ways, namely worshiping an ancient deity called Thistlebone. Led by the charismatic Japser Hillman, their pagan beliefs grew ever more radical to the point where they held the young Avril Eason captive with the intention of sacrificing her. But Avril escaped…
Simon Davis: [For the cover,] I wanted a strong film poster sort of image that would pique interest but not reveal too much so Thistlebone. Seema and Avril were included with a hint of the woods and sinister goings on therein.
Pages 1 and 2:
T.C. Eglington: Where better to start a folk horror tale than a pagan celebration of fertility? Music, a pregnant woman and a cult leader begin the flashback. The song they recite is an invention but is inspired by many folk songs and poems along similar lines, mixing fertility themes with references to the Wild Hunt. It soon becomes apparent that the happy revelers are up to no good and have imprisoned our protagonist and narrator, Avril. Right from the off, it was important to show the disturbing duality to the cult’s belief.
There were a couple of inspirations for the Hillman cult. The Manson clan is an obvious reference that most people will get. Here, instead of the hippy movement being subverted, it is eco ideals being turned into something nightmarish. I was also partly interested by a detail I had heard about the Mayan and Aztec cultures, how Aztecs had misread Mayan myths and had taken the symbology of blood sacrifice literally, leading to a violent culture, whereas the original Mayan myths were meant as spiritual metaphors. I’m not sure how true this is, but it does seem ironic that mystic Mayan poets might have unintentionally inspired one of the most bloodthirsty civilisations in history. I thought it might be a good way of explaining a cult turning bad, having pagan beliefs distorted in a similar way. In researching for “Thistlebone,” I had read up on various wiccan and pagan mythologies. A great book called Mask of Misrule proved invaluable, going into the various incarnations of the Horned God – Cernunnos, the Green Man, Herne the Hunter, Gwynn, Azazel – and its enduring influence across Europe. The Wild Hunt is a strong ritual associated with many of these deities, something that was largely symbolic and with profound metaphysical implications. “Thistlebone” was a synthesis of some of these belief systems, but with the rituals and beliefs degraded by the cult.
SD: As Tom says, setting up this pastoral idyll was key, so wanted the first page to be relatively cheerful to contrast with page 2’s change in palette. I spent a lot of time finding the right sort of barn to use to reinforce a kind of rural toil and the old country traditions.
Pages 3 and 4
TCE: Avril’s account of her ordeal as a teenager twenty years ago was an ideal way to tell the story. We wanted to create a strip where there were bizarre events but they could be rationally explained. Having events filtered through a single character’s recollections allowed us to play around with what was seen and heard, especially since the original experiences were already distorted due to her compromised mental state.
For the speaking-in-tongues by the cult members I used a Burroughs style cut up technique, chopping up words from famous phrases into smaller sections to create a convincing glossolalia. Some of the source material for this was lines cadged from famous folk horror films, then boiled down into babble. I ended up filling a couple of pages in my notebook with incoherent scribbles that were surprisingly satisfying to do. Little snippers can create convincing pseudo-words.Continued below
SD: I use models for my comics for continuity purposes. The two main characters are friends of mine, Sofia and Vaishali and it also adds to the fun, getting them to act out the scenes. Young Avril is my niece Sophia; weird that the older and younger Avril are modeled for by people with a similar name.
Pages 5 and 6
TCE: The Wild Hunt is conducted at the full moon, corresponding with pagan rituals surrounding the main festivals of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh. The lunar calendar is referenced later and is significant to the cult – the thirteen lunar months of the year being linked to several folkloric beliefs. There are many variations on the Wild Hunt myth, from the wonderfully named German Lord of the Wutanes Heer (furious host), the Devonshire Black Master of the Wish Hounds, or Auld Hornie the Midnight Hunter. The common thread was a chase at night, inducing liminal states where the spirit world and real world connect. We included similar elements in this sequence.
Before Simon and me began “Thistlebone,” we talked about various things we wanted in it thematically and visually. Simon had this vision of giant animals in woodland that he wanted to include. This was such a great image I worked this into the script from the beginning. As it turned out, having the totemic animals of stag, fox and hare was the perfect way to refine the story as a sort of short hand for the major characters.
This action sequence is some of my favourite art in the whole strip.
SD: Page 5 was full on Wicker Man homage and I wanted to have the masks realistic, as if the characters really were these animals. Almost like that Beatrix Potter ballet from the 1971 film that really freaked me out. From an early stage, I really liked the idea that at night, the woods were inhabited by giant animals that merged with the trees. Because this part of the story is Avril recounting it, there was a latitude with scale of the forest spectres, as she was a child and maybe drugged, so she could be exaggerating or even lying. So whether or not what she is recounting is true or not gave me freedom to ignore any continuity with what follows in the rest of the story.
Pages 7 and 8
TCE: The inspiration for Thistlebone’s look came from a deer bone mask found at Star Carr in Yorkshire. There were 33 deer skull headdresses discovered there, and although we’re a bit further North in “Thistlebone,” it seemed like a perfect fit. The deer bone masks have a very particular, unnerving aspect to them. Not much can be certain about the masks, whether they were used in ceremonies or as hunting disguises, but this adds to their allure. The rest of Thistlebone’s outfit is roughly based on shamanistic clothing.
The best folk horror tales are about people’s belief systems, without a need to make it clear if the things they believe are real. In fact, belief systems on the whole are frightening if they are not your own, and this is something that is referred to throughout the story, with Seema being the rationalist who discounts Avril’s more paranoid thinking. At a certain point, though, even if the gods are not real, the people believing in them are, and that can have consequences.
SD: I wanted page 7 to be the big reveal so it’s pretty symmetrical from a design point of view and Thistlebone’s size is maybe exaggerated or maybe not. The essence of folk horror is not necessarily an actual manifestation of something malevolent. It often is a human construct of fear that is contrived to exert control over others. So at this stage, I wanted the reader to maybe question “did this really happen?” Avril is the epitome of an unreliable witness.
Pages 9 and 10
TCE: Avril’s escape from the cult gives us a sense that she is not only resourceful but unpredictable. I wanted to avoid the usual female horror lead and have Avril much more ambiguous. In some respects, she has become a strong personality from her ordeal, but she is also extremely unstable, with some of Hillman’s strange beliefs having affected her.Continued below
The sigil is a visual echo seen in the barn where Avril was kept, recurring throughout the strip in other episodes, and representing a three into one philosophy adopted by the Hillman cult.
On a related note, I did have a bizarre experience due to this strip. A few weeks back I went to Simon’s birthday party in a pub in London and was introduced to the real Avril. Simon uses models for characters, but I only just realised this as I met the lady who had been posing as Avril. It was extremely disconcerting, like I was having some meta-breakdown where one of my characters had come to life and had stopped by for a pint and a chat.
SD: These to pages where reveal that Avril has received news that the cult is still active but once again we only have her word for it. Tom and I were very pleased to have 10 pages for this first episode which gave us some space to have slow reveals and pace it gently.
…and yes it was funny to see Tom meet Avril/Sofia and disappear into a worm hole of his own making!
“Thistlebone” is currently running in 2000AD, starting with Prog 2135. Part 5 drops on Wednesday.