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    Death, Drugs, and Losing Control: M.L. Miller Talks “Gravetrancers”

    By | December 12th, 2017
    Posted in Interviews | % Comments

    Coming out this month from Black Mask Studios, “Gravetrancers” is a brand new horror mini-series that pulls out all the stops. Written by M.L. Miller, with art by James Michael Whynot and Dee Cunniffee, “Gravetrancers” follows siblings Maribel and Anthony as they stumble upon a macabre family of grave-robbers with a twisted drug addiction. We sat down with writer M.L. Miller to discuss the book’s central themes, his influences and the impact of the horror genre in comics.

    First off, I’d love to know your origin story, how did you get started in comics?

    M.L. Miller: I was born and raised in Lima, Ohio. Went to The Ohio State University, then on to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and still live in Chicago. I’ve been working as a therapist in Chicago for about fifteen years working with underprivileged kids but took time off to focus on writing and make ends meet as a bartender. All of these roles have given me countless stories to draw from. I also worked as the comics editor for Ain’t It Cool News since 2001 and continued to write for the site until very recently. While there, I reviewed thousands of comics and horror films (my two passions) and interviewed countless writers, artists, actors, directors, and genre people. I continue to review horror films on my own site MLMILLERWRITES.COM. My first comic was published in an anthology called “Muscles & Fights” in 2007. That was a goofy little story about two superheroes fighting each other for no reason. Ever since then, I have been writing. I created and wrote all three arcs for Zenescope’s “The Jungle Book” series and then moved on to Black Mask to do “Pirouette,” a horror series set in a circus, due out in 2018 and “Gravetrancers” which is coming out this month!

    I loved “Gravetrancers,” it’s such a twisted book that goes where you don’t expect it! Reading your words in the back of the issue, you were influenced by a real-life news story, so what’s the creative journey like from that to this, the final product?

    MLM: I am always taking little notes down that could be used in a story. I have a file on my computer full of all kinds of devious and weird things that I’ll write about one day and I always have them percolating in the back of my brain. After seeing the story about the cemetery that made extra money selling plots, I wondered about the semantics of what they did with the bodies. I know it is morbid, but I think of these things. Turns out, they tossed the bodies into a pit behind the graveyard, which leads to their downfall and arrest. Then a friend of mine was going through drug rehab and he told me about people he had met who would smoke all kinds of things, knowing they were toxic, in hopes to get some kind of high. If people will go that far to get high, it just felt like a logical, yet morbid step that they might smoke corpses with the hopes of the same kind of high. So immediately, this clicked with the story about the graveyard and provided a solution to the whole body disposal problem. That’s where the seeds of the story came from. Everything else comes from me wanting to set up a horror tale that looks typical but makes turns that aren’t normally expected in a horror tale. And that’s sort of how “Gravetrancers” was born.

    The old EC horror is what got me into comics in the first place. I loved the art. I loved that the stories were short, yet powerful and resonated in a few pages. I loved that there was a danger to those stories. I also loved the old “Beautiful Stories For Ugly Children” series which deserves to be collected some day. Alan Moore’s “From Hell” was extremely influential, as it really is a highly detailed and nuanced police procedural. “Faust” and all of its extreme imagery branded my brain as a kid. Currently, I think Rick Geary is making some of the most terrifying documentarian “real crime” horror stories today with the matter of factly, yet highly investigated tales of famous unsolved cases. Of course, modern horror comics like “30 Days Of Night,” “Sandman,” Swamp Thing,” “American Vampire,” and “Preacher” paved the way for current hits like “The Walking Dead,” Harrow County,” “Plastic,” “Evolution,” “The Spread,” “And Then Emily Was Gone,” and “Witches.” I’ve talked with tons of comics writers and artist about what they think is important in horror comics in a regular panel I do at SDCC, NYCC, C2E2, and other cons. So I’ve done a lot of homework as to what works and what doesn’t in comics. All of them influenced me in one way or another, simply because I respect what they do and don’t want to copy, but want to add to the genre.

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    James Michael Whynot feels like a perfect choice of artist for “Gravetrancers.” He’s got a very trippy style but not afraid to lean into the exaggeration to enhance the horror. How have you found collaborating with him as an artist?

    MLM: James is awesome. We talk at all hours of the day and night about tiny details. His work is extremely detailed and based in the real world, but still maintains a surreal and gritty quality I think matches the shifting realities that go on in this comic. The story starts out very grounded, but once the drugs are used, the story takes on a fantastical tone as we see what is going on through the user’s perception. James goes nuts in these panels and it’s a lot of fun seeing what he can come up with. Add in Dee Cunniffe’s colors and it’s the kind of imagery that you just don’t see every day. I’m really lucky to have this art team.

    There always seems to be a fine line in horror between having central core themes that resonate on a deeper level with an audience, and just good old-fashioned scares. What are some of the themes of “Gravetrancers,” and why were those important for you?

    MLM: I am always looking for metaphors in horror films and I think if you look hard enough, you can find just about anything. This isn’t a political comic, but it definitely has something to say about drugs, addiction, and the difficulty to keep control of one’s life. There are definite themes of family problems both with Maribel and Anthony (our two protagonists) and with the Malort family itself. I think it’s interesting that these siblings are facing a family that isn’t completely unlike their own in a broader sense. As I am wrapping up the series, I am thinking a lot about how I want to resonate these themes. The final issue is a whopper. It’s not your typical resolution. And I think that in itself is a statement about life and how hard it is to predict what is going to happen. But I didn’t want to become too buried in metaphor. Sometimes a shovel or a knife or a needle is just a needle and not some kind of Freudian metaphor. I wanted this story to never let up from start to finish, so don’t expect too much time to catch your breath in these short four issues.

    You mention some things that truly scare you and how they’ve played a part in this book, things like losing control and buried secrets. Why do you think these things scare you, and what’s it like to channel those fears into a creative work?

    MLM: I think most writers are sort of control freaks. They are in charge of creating an entire world on the page, so it’s no surprise that a kind of god complex comes in. I think everyone strives for some kind of control in their life. I think losing control is one of the things most people are afraid of doing, mainly because of the ramifications one might face if you do that. That said, I think that diving into situations where you aren’t in control is cathartic and extremely healthy when done with some sense. I dove into this story, not really knowing where it would end – which is something I don’t often do. But as I finished the initial blueprint of the story, the ending was staring me in the face. I wouldn’t have found that ending if I hadn’t taken a chance. So while it scares me to do so, I try to dive into the ether often just to challenge myself creatively.

    “Gravetrancers” is coming out from Black Mask Studios, which is a very exciting publisher. It’s got such a wide variety of content but finding a definite voice and aesthetic with the more we see. What’s been your experience working with them?

    MLM: I love those guys. I really do. They really are my family away from my real family. I only see the Black Mask folks at cons, but there is a group of us who have been walking the cons, discussing life, and trying to master the chaos that is the comics industry for years. Matteo Pizzolo, Matt Rosenberg, Tony Patrick, Amancay Nahuelpan, Vita Ayala, Tyler Boss – I sincerely and truly love those guys and we all celebrate when the other has success. As a writer, I love the company because it really lets you have a voice. It’s one of those companies that is constantly reinventing itself. There is no one way to do it and it respects and challenges its readers, knowing they are smart and want to read good comics. I think that’s why they are having the success they are having now. They respect the reader like few other companies out there today.

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    Finally, what are some things you want people to know about where “Gravetrancers” as a new series? Without spoiling anything, what does the future hold for the book?

    MLM: It’s pretty apparent in the first issue, you will be offended. You will be shocked. You will be unnerved. No one is safe in the story. I hate knowing what is coming in a story before it happens. I hope this comic will surprise you with the places it goes. I’m putting my all into every issue, as are the rest of Team “Gravetrancers.” I hope you like it and tell your friends about it. I’d love to write more with these characters, but that’s only if the word is spread. “Gravetrancers” is going to cause shakes, shudders, and nightmares and we aren’t sorry about it!

    “Gravetrancers” is a four issue mini-series written by M.L. Miller, illustrated by James Michael Whynot, colored by Dee Cunniffee and lettered by Jim Campbell. The first issue is out this month from Black Mask Studios.

    Matt Lune

    Born and raised in Birmingham, England, when Matt's not reading comics he's writing about them and hosting podcasts about them. From reading The Beano and The Dandy as a child, he first discovered American comics with Marvel's Heroes Reborn and, despite that questionable start, still fell in love and has never looked back. You can find him on Twitter @MattLune