The creative team of Sarah Dyer and Evan Dorkin are closing in on the end of the first chapter of their new Stela series “Calla Cthulhu.” The series has followed the story of Calla as she faced the trials of being a teenage as well as the trials of being a descended from the Elder Gods of Lovecraftian lore. The team of Sarah and Evan along with artist Erin Humiston have brought to life Calla and her adventures in this young adult comic on the Stela Comics app. With the first chapter nearing its end, we were able to correspond with Sarah and Evan about the series, Lovecraft, working as a writing team and what we might expect in the future. A big thanks to Sarah and Evan for taking the time to answer our questions and you can find “Calla Cthulhu” out now on the Stela App.
In addition, after the interview, scroll down for an exclusive look at the next chapter.
First off, thanks so much Evan and Sarah for taking the time to talk about the really enjoyable series Calla Cthulhu. What was the initial idea the gave birth to Calla Cthulhu? How much as the story/series evolved since its inception?
Sarah Dyer: You’re welcome!! Calla was a character I came up with while having a talk with our daughter one night last year. We were bemoaning the lack of good girl characters in horror/action books (most “horror” for middle grade and YA is really paranormal romance, which is fine but not what our then 10-year-old was looking for), and that led to us cracking wise about Lovecraft’s infamous fictional family tree showing his Mythos ancestry. I asked her, “what if Cthulhu had a descendant who was a girl? And she FOUGHT the other monsters?” She thought this sounded great and after working details out overnight, I pitched the idea to Evan the next morning.
Evan Dorkin: Stela had already accepted a previous series idea we submitted, but we realized Calla was a better fit for the format. The concept was better defined and Calla was a stronger central character. It also seemed like it would be more fun to write. The same day Sarah told me her idea we did some brainstorming and put a pitch together, sent it off, and got it accepted. Everything fell together very quickly and felt right. The initial concept has stayed consistent since we put it together, we haven’t had to abandon any plans, we haven’t hit any brick walls. We’ve only had more ideas for stories expanding Calla’s world.
As a creative team who have a closer relationship than most, how do you guys approach the actual writing/plotting of the comic? You both have a lot of experience and success on your own as writers, how do you combine that to work as an effective creative team?
SD: While we have different strengths, we also can easily swap out duties when we write. So it’s different every time, even within the same project. A typical scenario would be us sitting down together to plot out the overall direction and maybe do chapter-by-chapter outlines. Then either of us will do the first draft and expand the outline. Then we’ll take turns on a couple of drafts, then sit down together for the final pass.
ED: This is how we usually work on our tv and animation script jobs, as well, moving things closer to a finished draft through a series of solo passes and then both of us sitting down for polishing and refining. Having two sets of eyes on things covers our backs pretty well. Sarah’s editing skills are also a big part of the equation, especially when I go on an exposition tear or try to shoehorn in a lame joke that seemed funny when I typed it.
Obviously the Stela format is very unique and I have to imagine requires a very specific approach. How fluid of a transition was it to the format and what’s been the biggest benefit you didn’t account for initially?
SD: Errr, not that fluid at first! When we first became involved it was very early in the process, and there wasn’t even a working demo. We all struggled a bit at first, trying to imagine how it would work. But as the app progressed and we could see other people’s work, as well as demo our own tests, we were able to grasp it pretty well. As far as the biggest benefit – I think it would have to be the continuity of action. Each chapter just keeps going, no page turns, no eye hopping around – it’s just a continuous flow and I think that’s a great boost to the storytelling.Continued below
EVAN: I had a lot of trouble adapting to the vertical scroll, as well as adjusting to how small the images could be on some devices, and how dialog had to be cut down to accommodate that per-panel. I’m used to the page turn and how reveals work in print, and breaking from that was difficult. The first two or three chapters of Calla were hard going for me, but eventually working for the scroll became more natural. It allows more control over the information flow, even within a single panel. You don’t have to worry about where panels or visual elements fall on the page. It tends to make pacing easier because you’re not dealing with physical page and panel limitations. I love print, but Stela’s format has its advantages.
There often is a very specific look and tone associated with Lovecraft and Cthulhu. Calla Cthulhu’s bright look and coming of age themes are a stark contrast to that norm. How do you balance your goal and aesthetics for the series alongside the larger lore and history you fold into the story?
SD: We really wanted to have our own take on the Mythos, and use an approach that appealed more to us personally. We don’t really try to incorporate anything from the existing literature unless it makes sense in our particular version. For example, we’ll take just what we think are the defining characteristics of a creature and then leap from that in our own direction.
ED: There’s room for all kinds of approaches. It’s all make-believe. We’re being respectful to the Mythos material, but there’s no cosmic law that says you can’t play around with it. We’re using an art style that’s not generally associated with Mythos depictions. Calla and the other protagonists have more agency than Lovecraft’s characters, they’re heroes, young women with different racial backgrounds, to boot. That changes the tone and approach to the standard Mythos story right there. All that being said, it’s very much a “serious” Mythos series, we’re leaning heavily on established Mythos lore and writing, and taking a lot of inspiration from the public domain library’s Weird Fiction section. You won’t have to know your Azathoth from your Abhoth to follow the story, but if you do know these things, hopefully it’ll make Calla an even more enjoyable reading experience.
Calla as a character is being pulled in many directions and battling her past,present and future. Not only a young woman coming into her own she is tasked with internal and external battles, family conflict and just growing up. How do you try to capture that very distinct struggle in Calla? Was she an easy voice to find as your guys wrote her or like most people coming of age is she still difficult to understand?
SD: Having been a teenage girl I think she’s a little easier for me to write, but really, the dysfunctional family struggle is pretty universal.
ED: Developing a voice and personality for your characters is what you do as a writer. Otherwise they’re they’re just empty costumes. At this point, we have a pretty good grasp of who Calla is after working with her for a while, but I’m sure she’ll surprise us at some point. She’s going to grow up and face harsher challenges over the course of the series. It’s hard to predict the future, even for fictional characters.
Erin’s style plays such a pivotal role in capturing the lighter tone among action and monsters. What has he brought to the series and how much freedom does he has in the series, especially with Stela really lending itself to visual storytelling?
SD: Erin brings so much! Foremost is probably his design sense; being unfamiliar with the Mythos he didn’t bring a lot of visual baggage along. I give him the important aspects for any new character or creature but then he comes up with his own take. I think the only exception is Cthulhu himself, we wanted to hew pretty closely to the accepted portrayal there. But other than that, his versions have been really great. I especially love his interpretation of Hastur.
ED: We wanted an artist that wouldn’t give us the same basic take that you see when you Google “Cthulhu” or “Deep Ones” or “R’yleh”. I love looking at traditional Mythos art, but it becomes a big green-black blur of tentacles, towers and monsters after a while. Erin has an animation background, and he brings a lot of strengths to Calla, character design, acting, storytelling, composition, an ability to depict action. We’re super happy with Erin’s work, as well as how it comes together with Mario Gonzalez’ inks and Bill Mudron’s coloring work. And Nate Piekos’ lettering, for that matter. We have a great team on Calla.Continued below
How much actually research and reference are you tapping into for the series?
SD: I actually have sworn completely off reading actual Mythos fiction (although I did cheat and read one recent anthology, She Walks In Shadows) – I am sort of…the Mythos anthropologist, I guess. I mainly research details and try and find interesting takes on them for us to work with.
ED: Sarah’s the academic, and I’m the cultist. The geek. I collect Mythos stuff and read as much of this stuff as I can. For Calla I’ve been re-reading Lovecraft and critical books about Lovecraft, and as much Machen, Blackwood, Bierce, Chambers, Hodgson, M.R. James and company as I can get my brain around. I’m also reading contemporary Mythos anthologies and related writers like Laird Barron. I have a lot of blind spots, both good and bad, but good or bad, I’m a nerd and I kind of want to read it all. I’m also listening to audiobooks and related lore and Weird Fiction podcasts when I’m drawing, like the M.R James-focused Podcast for the Curious, the H.P. Podcraft podcast(the free episodes, sadly, I’m a typical freelancer/freeloader), the Friends of Jackson Elias podcast which revolves around the Call of Cthulhu RPG. And all of it gets funneled into Calla, as well as Beasts of Burden and other projects we’re involved with. So, I guess the short answer is – a lot.
What has been your favorite moment/aspect of working on the series so far?
SD: I think every time we get new art, especially when Erin designs a new character or we get some color back from Bill. That’s always exciting!
ED: I’ll second that. Just having a regularly scheduled series that we’re getting out there on time is a really big deal for me. Also, when our daughter gets excited about a new chapter going up or new art coming in. Anytime we get a comment on the app is a kick. Louise Simonson left a few very nice comments about Calla that made me really, really happy.
With Stela being a subscription service does that take a bit of pressure off as creators to “hook” readers in a first issue? Are you able to focus more on telling your story from start to finish?
SD: Definitely – we were able to tackle it as a whole without worrying about the issue-to-issue breakdown; essentially we were able to write a whole book without worrying about the single issues.
ED: We still tried to hook people with chapter one, but, yeah, there’s a different dynamic, for sure. And being able to do comics without the pressures and prejudices of the direct market on your back is kind of awesome.
What can readers expect from “Calla Cthulhu” as this story finishes up and possible going forward?
SD: Well, this week chapter 6 wraps up part one of the first series; part two is actually getting close to completion so there are another seven chapters coming later this year! In part two Calla will meet a lot of the other interested parties that have been watching her, and find out more about what they all want from her. After that, we actually have do a long range plan for at least the next three story arcs but…don’t want to jinx it!
ED: Solid stories, fun characters, deep-cut Mythos elements, intentional humor, attractive art, a lot of action. And monsters. If nothing else, they can expect monsters. Guaranteed.