Feature: Steeple #1 (textless) Interviews 

John Allison Heads to Cornwall to Battle Satan’s Minions in “Steeple”

By | September 23rd, 2019
Posted in Interviews | % Comments

Last week, John Allison (“Bad Machinery,” “Giant Days,” “By Night”) kicked off his new series, “Steeple,” from Dark Horse Comics. We couldn’t resist the chance to sit down and chat with him about it; “Steeple” sees Allison both writing and drawing, after all. This one is something special.

If you haven’t picked up the issue yet, just be warned, we discuss spoilers for the first issue.

“Steeple” #1
cover by John Allison

In “Steeple,” Reverend Penrose and newcomer Billie Baker have the task of keeping a Cornish village town from the clutches of the Devil. So I suppose I should start with the obvious question. You’ve committed sacrilege—how could you destroy a Dyson?

John Allison: James Dyson was hugely pro-Brexit, then as soon as it was announced, he moved his company to the tax haven of Singapore. Dysons are overpriced and if I may be so bold, maybe not much better than other vacuum cleaners. Sure, it’s great industrial design, but it was time someone smashed a bloody Dyson in a comic. If you think you’ve seen the last of it in issue #1, be warned: there’s a lot more Dyson to come. Thank you for giving me a platform for my ill-advised war on Dyson.

My pleasure.

You’ve described “Steeple” as a cross between Parks and Recreation and Preacher, though I couldn’t help but feel a bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in it too, especially since Tredregyn is in essence sitting on a Hellmouth. Are there any other touchstones for you plot-wise or tonally you’re drawing from for the series?

John: Buffy was a big touchstone for me when I started making comics in earnest around the turn of the millennium but I don’t think I could watch it now! My touchstones were ’70s British horror like the Wicker Man, but also the wobbly monsters and sense of dread of a lot of British TV of that era—even Dr Who in the John Pertwee years. That whole school of “hauntology”. I feel a deep attachment to it, that’s my Britain. Spoopy Britane.

The Parks and Recreation angle really excites me. You’ve said in other interviews how that show is about living with each other, and I think taking that idea and applying it to the Church of England and the Church of Satan sounds like tremendous fun.

John: I’m just a sucker for people getting along. I don’t like entertainment where people just get along, it makes me feel nauseous, but the payoff for me in any drama is when two characters resolve their issues and learn to get along—even if only for a moment. I get a bit teary. It’s pathetic.

I was listening to a podcast interview with you recently in which you said that you “despair at single issues,” and lamented how an action sequence can eat up a sizeable chunk of storytelling real estate. So when you approach your own single issues, how do you tackle this problem? How do you make an issue of “Steeple” pass the John Allison approval stage?

John: I think if Marvel and DC Comics as they are now didn’t exist, and you invented them, you know, a $4/$5 twenty-page story that doesn’t make any sense, contradicts multiple other versions of the same story, may feature multiple pages that can be read in seconds, feature a non-continuous numbering system, are so labour-intensive to produce that the same person can’t manage to draw two issues in a row, and are aimed at an audience largely consisting of middle-aged men, I’d say you’d have a difficult sell.

Maybe I’m being a little harsh. I have no problem with action scenes. I love them. I aim for a what I think of as a 1980s level of visual economy and readability in my comics. I can say with some authority that most of the contemporary creators that other comics creators like best are the ones who shoot for the same. You can probably guess who they are. I could write paragraphs more but the long and short of it is that I don’t think someone should feel swindled when they buy a comic.

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I don’t think anyone could feel swindled by “Steeple.” You paint such vivid characters that they live beyond the page and in the reader’s head. Without having read “Steeple” #2, I already have some strong opinions already about how Billie will react to certain things. I think that happens because you use humour driven by character, never at the expense of character. Your humour makes the characters more real. So when you’re introducing a new character, how do you approach those first few scenes with them? How do you make them come to life in the reader’s head?

John: At the start, it’s really hard if I haven’t lived with the character for a while. I spent months drawing the principals of “Steeple” before I started the series, just to get to know them. You can’t always do that, so I tend to start with a placeholder for the character in my head—someone I know, or a character I like, just a shell, a little bit of shape that I can start to fill out. A cool design is worthless if there isn’t a character to go inside it.

I think you found a strong image to introduce the dynamic between Billie and Maggie. Billie, stiff as a board, head in a helmet, and Maggie with her hair wild in the wind.

John: I’m glad you liked that. Billie is a stiff old stick. One of my great regrets is that nowhere in the five issues did I have space to draw her dancing.

“Steeple” is full of Britishisms, yet the series is published by Dark Horse, an American publisher. Do you give much thought to how the American audience will understand terms like “NIMBYs” and “neds”? The version that we get in “Steeple” #1, is that the reined in version? Personally, I love that the only explanation the reader gets for these terms is contextual. It makes the world feel more real than it would if we’d had a little asterisk in the dialogue and an editor’s note at the bottom of the page, for example.

John: I think NIMBYs are universal to English-speaking countries at this point—“Not in my back yard!” But yes, a lot of other terms are idiosyncratic and I know they are. You can go in too hard, and I may have been guilty of that, but there’s no harm in giving the reader a little homework. The dictionary is on their phone now, the answers are not far away. Also, Americans have foisted their weird made-up new words for things on us for long enough, this has to be a cultural exchange and I am willing to be the consulate in charge of that.

Well, you taught “Giant Days” readers the lesser known Australian “g’night,” so you’re doing noble work. I felt so seen.

John: I love Kath & Kim and many other slices of Australiana, it was my dream to write an Australian story.

I didn’t Google this one, but my guess for DFL is “Down From London”. Fingers crossed I got it on my own.

John: Correct! I only learned that from my Cornish girlfriend.

From what I hear, you’ve been quite industrious—you’d finished the fifth issue before “Steeple” #1 even came out! However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re done with the series. I hear you may have hopes for “Steeple” beyond this first miniseries.

John: I really hope that there can be another run of issues. These are fun characters to spend time with, and I sow seeds in the first five issues that I know can only grow into unruly weeds if we get to come back for more. Every project I’ve worked on has expanded with time into something I couldn’t have expected. I try to build things to last.

Well, as you said, we still need to see Billie dance. Before we wrap up, is there anything you’d care to tease about next month’s issue?

John: Issue #2 is very extreme. It’s got drill music, a quite confusing black mass, one extremely low cut neckline, and a lot of tidying up. I had to draw a lot of bicycles. It’s everything the Direct Market has promised since its earliest days but failed to deliver because no one was brave enough to go there—until now.

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“Steeple” #2 comes out October 16. Final order cut-off is today, so don’t forget to pre-order!

“Steeple” #2
cover by John Allison
Written and illustrated by John Allison
Colored by Sarah Stern
Lettered by Jim Campbell

A supernatural tale of friendship, the devil, and moral gray areas.

New curate Billie Baker does her best to reach out to the small coastal parishs wayward youth, but when a supernatural rain brings forth an aquatic demon, she finds that she doesnt see eye-to-eye with her bosss way of dealing with things.

Mark Tweedale

Mark writes Haunted Trails, The Harrow County Observer, The Damned Speakeasy, and a bunch of stuff for Mignolaversity. An animator and an eternal Tintin fan, he spends his free time reading comics, listening to film scores, watching far too many video essays, and consuming the finest dark chocolates. You can find him on BlueSky.