One of my picks for creator to watch in 2014, Chris Sebela is already having a seemingly pretty good year. With “High Crimes” and “Ghost” both looking to make it big, Chris will be launching a new creator-owned ongoing at BOOM! Studios with artist Chris Visions, one that is sure to surprise and excite many of you. You just don’t know it.
Why? Because “Dead Letters” is right up the Weird Fiction alley that has just recently become repopularized thanks to HBO’s True Detective. And if that isn’t enough of a selling point alone, good news: we have a full interview with Chris about the book for you today so you can pre-order your copy of the book before the FOC this Thursday.
Read on as we talk all about “Dead Letters,” and see just how cagey Chris Sebela can be in not revealing any of the secrets or twists of the series.
So “Dead Letters” stars a guy who wakes up in a room in a hospital gown and no memory of who he is or why he’s there. This idea is something we’ve seen before, but how did you initially come about with your take on this kind of story?
Christopher Sebela: A lot of my stuff comes out of things I’m obsessed with, and DEAD LETTERS was the same. Initially, my approach was very much wearing the heart of my influences on my sleeve, the crime novels I got introduced to the genre with: James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and especially Dashiell Hammett. Then, if you’re me, you take those influences and you throw a bunch of other stuff that interests you like 1930s design styles and 1970s aesthetics, Chester Himes, Miller’s Crossing, Jay Reatard songs, and you melt them all together somehow, I don’t know how, I just know it happens (and more often, it totally does not and you cry a lot). You sort of know when you’ve hit that sweet spot where everything that shouldn’t fit together totally does somehow. I grew up on X-Men comics, so the idea of making mutants as your job is always more appealing to me.
The book is billed as noir and I know you’re a fan of crime, so what is it about this genre that you’re looking to explore, or even deconstruct?
CS: I’m not consciously setting out to explore or deconstruct, I think that stuff happens naturally and it’s best left to your subconscious to do the heavy lifting on that. But the most compelling part of the crime genre is they’re horror stories. Sort of as close as we can get to a realistic nightmare these days. No one really thinks ghosts are gonna come out of the fog to kill us all for some ancient wrong or that the great zombie apocalypse is going to kick in anytime soon, but crime is the monster outside our door all the time. And there’s so many terrifying variables. It’s not just violence done against you, but your loved ones, or maybe you get arrested for a crime you didn’t commit or you just get caught in the crossfire of someone else’s story. Maybe you just make friends with the wrong person and everything spirals out of control from there. I think the crime genre is all about control, and what happens when you lose it or when someone gets too much of it over on you, that loss of free will is probably more terrifying than anything we can conceive of in fiction.
I’ve also seen you tease that there are some supernatural elements involved. I know you don’t want to get too deep into specifics, but can you sort of tease how that fits into the book?
CS: There are totally eerie and unnormal things going on in this book, and that is about as much as I can confirm. The supernatural elements are both central to and incidental to the book, because at the end of the day, we wanna tell a story that’s a solid whodunit crime book, but we also gave ourselves permission to go as apeshit as possible in what we come up and having a world big enough to accomodate all these things that Chris Visions and I are bouncing off each other. I’ve never had a book where we’ve tried so hard to keep it secret and I’m amazed there can be anything kept secret in this day and age, but it seems appropriate for a book all about secrets, that we forced ourselves to keep this element hush hush. It’s almost like cosplaying in the world you’re building.Continued below
Is it perhaps fair to say you might be sort of verging into the Weird Fiction world a bit, perhaps along the lines of everyone’s favorite modern talking point, True Detective?
CS: Weird Fiction is my preferred neighborhood to live in, but compared to stuff like True Detective, I’m just squatting in a trailer on the edge of town. But yeah, I love that kind of stuff, where the atmosphere is almost just as important as the story it surrounds, where aesthetic does half the job. That’s why I’m such a big horror nerd, horror is all about setting the stage just enough to make you a little uncertain. I like things dark and mildly cynical and preferably with a liberal amount of blood splashed around, I like things that come out of the blue and mess with your expectations. I like it as a reader and as a writer, letting the story point you where it wants to go, and then you have to dutifully follow along and hope you can make sense of it.
But the only real comparison I can make without seeming like I’m in any way comparing our book to True Detective is that we’re also asking some Big Questions and delving into almost philosophical waters in between all the gunfire and the screaming.
It actually seems like with this book, you’re pushing yourself to try something that we haven’t seen from you too much. As your New, Big, Creator-Owned Ongoing, was there anything in particular you were hoping to do with the book to push your own limitations or writing habits?
CS: In my head, every book I work on is some sort of attempt to do things that I am uncomfortable with. Or, to be more accurate, wildly uncertain if I can pull off. I don’t want to do the same thing every time, I don’t want to settle into some comfort zone, I want to be terrified to even attempt to write a book and hopefully come out a better storyteller on the other side. I have a lot of ideas that I’m not ready to do yet, they’re sort of waiting their turn until I’m good enough to tackle them.
The whole writing thing can be frustrating sometimes, it feels like an RPG and you’re constantly trying to level up all your attributes at once, but sometimes you just have to grind away on getting your charisma up and then you go back in and build your magic missile skills, and each book is like a new dungeon to raid. You don’t really know what’s inside or what shape you’ll be in when you come out the other side, but it’s worth all the self-imposed pain and flagellation.
I read previously that BOOM! hooked up and Chris Visions up, but how has the collaboration with Chris influenced the series so far?
CS: It completely changed it. The comic you have in your head when you’re writing it is never the actual book, it’s just the best way you can make sense of it without being able to see it in front of you. When pages come in, for me at least, it changes everything, now you’re seeing your story though someone else’s eyes and it lets you see what works and what doesn’t in your original ideas and, if your collaborator is as awesome as Chris Visions, lets you really read your story for the very first time.
Chris is SUCH a strong voice he can’t help but change it, and for the better. From micro to macro, he shoves in little details that almost seem like an afterthought but then you step back and see the issue as a whole, you can make out Chris building it into something bigger. It’s really inspiring for me to write for him. I was a fan of Chris’ stuff from the moment Boom! sent me an email with some of his sequentials and portraits he’d done before, and writing this book specifically for him made me make a lot of choices I normally wouldn’t. But I’m never scared. Whatever you throw at Chris, he’ll throw it back at you 3 times better than you ever envisioned and make it seem like the easiest thing in the world.Continued below
So given the heavy mystery aspect of the book, how do you find the balance between how much you can reveal and how much you have to hide in between the lines? Is it a difficult balancing act, or does it sort of come naturally?
CS: It’s only hard talking about the book, at least until the first issue comes out. The big big thing, we’re trying to keep that under lock and key, but we let everyone in by the end of the first issue, at least to the big bigness. I think it’s best to get your big huge stuff out of the way first. I struggled forever with how to open High Crimes, since it’s all about climbing to the top of Everest, so eventually I realized, screw it, just get that out of the way from the start, here’s the top of Everest. Dead Letters isn’t exactly like that, but we don’t leave readers in the dark for very long. And once we get the big secret out of the way, it’s like lifting a log in a forest, all sorts of new secrets come scurrying out from under it.
Do you find that, at least for the mystery/supernatural/Weird Fiction aspect, heavy references are key? Or are you more taking your influences and weaving a new mythology out of it?
CS: I think you have to make your own mythology as best you can, otherwise why are you bothering? There’s always going to be some nods to influences and references, that’s inevitable. Some are blindingly obvious, some will only make sense to me, some will only make sense to Chris Visions, but I think there’s a danger in seeming like you’re just showing off all the cool stuff you’re into instead of, y’know, telling a good story. The reason everyone seems to have gone nuts over the Yellow King stuff in True Detective is because they didn’t draw attention to it, and if you didn’t know about the writings of Robert Chambers, you can still enjoy it because the few times they’ve talked about it, it just SOUNDS unsettling. But at no point does Cohle sit down and open up a copy of the book and walk the two detectives through what it all means, it’s just one bit of set dressing in a story packed with bits and pieces taken from all over.
Do both you and Chris know all the secrets? Or are you keeping some of things hidden? I know on other mystery books, one in particular, only the writer knows the true ending so that the artist can essentially lie to the reader a bit more easily.
CS: No, and it’s not because I’m keeping things hidden from Chris, but more that I’m figuring stuff out all the time, so when Chris read the outline of the first arc back when he came onboard, that’s not the book we’re doing now necessarily. The skeleton of it is still the same, but the organs and the meat are all moved around or been swapped out for different parts. We know the big stuff, we’re figuring out the smaller stuff and the teeny tiny stuff is always a mystery that sort of gets worked out in the process. You can’t know all the secrets of your book. I mean, you can, but that does tend to drain some of the fun out of the discovery of new things as you write, and I want to keep that around as long as possible.
Since this is an ongoing title, can you tell me a little bit about the structure of the series? How are you mapping things out?
CS: Well, I didn’t plan it this way initially, but it feels like when writers do a series of books with a character, like Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series of books. Each book is its own story, is self-contained to a degree, but it’s all part of a larger story, which is the story of Easy’s life and how it changes and how America changes alongside it. Not that we’re that lofty, but each arc will be a new book, with its own mysteries and conflicts native to it, but there’ll be the story of Sam and the story of Here that stretches across the whole run of the book, and as we go, the two will get indistinguishable, hopefully.Continued below
So it sounds like you and Chris have hit a nice rhythm on the series. How far are you guys looking to go down the line with it?
CS: We’re just banging out the second arc now. We know where it’s gonna end, the last moment of the book, so now it’s about finding out how deep down the rabbit hole we can go, how much we want to explore, and knowing when to get out before draining everything dry of what made it special in the first place. Which is a non-answer answer that translates to “as long as we can.”
And how have you found working with BOOM! on the series? Over the last year especially it seems like they’re really upping their game in trying to promote good, quality creator-owned comics.
CS: BOOM! has been awesome to work with. Editorially, I’ve worked really close with Eric Harburn and Chris Rosa, so this book wouldn’t be what it is without that. Plus they got the vibe right away, and they put me and Chris in touch, which earns them my gratitude from now until the apocalypse. Frankly, it all feels like some elaborate prank, how smoothly the book has come together, and the amount of support they’ve thrown behind me and Chris, who aren’t exactly well-known quantities yet. They’ve been unveiling one cool little surprise after another for the release of Dead Letters, stuff neither of us expected when we started on this. Plus the stuff they’re putting out now and what’s coming up, it’s exciting to be surrounded by so many people so excited about making comics.
So I know secrecy is the name of the game here, but all things considered what are you hoping people get from or out of the first issue?
CS: I hope people get hooked, intrigued, curious after they finish issue 1? I dunno, I want them to feel like it’s worth their time and attention, and in a perfect world, I hope they get annoyed that they have to wait a month to find out what happens next. But strictly as an art object, Chris and Ruth Redmond on colors and Steve Wands on letters have created a book that’s just gorgeous to look at. I hope people will linger over it, go back and stare at some of the amazingly beautiful stuff they’ve put together, because I haven’t gotten tired of doing that yet and I’m living inside it.
And, as a last question, I was wondering if we could touch on some of your other projects? How is High Crimes coming along, and Ghost — well, I mean, I loved the first issue, and I would’ve loved to love the second issue but it seems to have been a bit delayed?
CS: High Crimes is coming along well. We’re now in the back half, and everything’s getting nuts and Ibrahim and I are really giddy about where it’s all going. We’re trying to stick to a new issue every 2 months schedule until we wrap it all up at issue 12, sometime before the end of the year. Then we start working on the trade collection which’ll be out next year and collect the whole story and bonus material and it’s gonna be effin sweet.
As for Ghost, there’s been a couple snags that were sadly unavoidable and everyone’s been busting their butt to get the next year of stories all lined up so we won’t have any more delays. Hopefully this gives people time to pick up that first issue, because I’m really excited for what’s coming up on that book.
The FOC of “Dead Letters” is this Thursday, the 26th. The Diamond Order Code is FEB141035. You know what to do next.