The end of HERETICS... for now!
+ an interview with GINGER SNAPS screenwriter Karen Walton
|P M Buchan||Sep 26, 2020|
BLOOD MOON Chapter Two, SNIFF GLUE, WORSHIP SATAN, is now available for John Pearson’s Patreon subscribers in its entirety, with the full chapter one still free to read at http://bloodmooncomic.com if you need to catch up.
Contemporary English folk-horror set on the eve of the UK’s divisive Brexit referendum. Something terrible happened to lapsed Christian-punk singer Owen Fitzwilliam’s family. His wife’s coven are reluctant to help, but now, with a little borrowed power, Owen is out for blood. Created by me, John Pearson, Aditya Bidikar and Hannah Means-Shannon, this is already fifty pages of witchcraft, bloodshed and remorse set in one of the UK’s most isolated and deprived counties. Two chapters down, four still to go.
Moving on to other things, the majority of this newsletter is going to be about one of the most professionally and personally difficult periods of my life. I hope that you can learn something from it. Last time, I documented the creation of HERETICS, my comic-book series with Martin Simmonds, Michael Stock, Rob Talbot, John Pearson and editor Kasra Ghanbari. I wouldn’t normally expect you to read every newsletter in order, but just this one time I’m going to recommend that you go back and read that one if you haven’t already, so that you don’t join our story midway.
HERETICS issue zero wraparound cover by Martin Simmonds
Tldr: When I teamed up with Martin to create HERETICS, which I pitched to publishers as what it would look like if Rob Zombie directed THE WICKER MAN, we promised ourselves we’d put everything into creating the best comic either of us would ever work on. No compromises, painstakingly-intricate art, telling stories through the panel boundaries, the bleeds, the colour schemes, the covers, everything. And then we found a publishing deal to match. Full editorial control, guaranteed full page advertising us in Previews, plus an oversized hardcover collection at the end. We gambled everything on making HERETICS a success. This is the story of how it fell apart.
After signing contracts with 44FLOOD and another mainstream US publisher, and it was time to get on with the work. I wrote scripts for all six issues, averaging 26 sequential pages per comic, working with Martin and Kasra to polish them. Kasra insisted that we read through the scripts together over video calls to get a feel for how well the dialogue worked, which helped to refine and define the characters in whole new ways.
Alongside the scripts, I worked with Kasra on a promotional plan. 44FLOOD had an incredible track record on Kickstarter, but we couldn’t assume that the same audience would transfer over to Diamond distribution pre-orders and sales figures in specialist comic-book stores. So we worked out a schedule for announcements, how we would incentivise variant covers and how to raise awareness of the series. The plan revolved around two key elements.
First, we’d create a preview issue zero, because we knew that Martin’s artwork was our strongest asset, and once people saw how good it looked, half the battle would be won. HERETICS is a generational story based in part on what it looks like when the sins of the past spill into the present, so there was no problem in changing the scope of the narrative to include a preview story that sets up the protagonist. Those pages transitioned directly into the opening of issue one, so we weren’t creating too much extra work for ourselves. We rounded out the package with a back-up feature about folk-horror cinema by Rob Talbot and John Pearson and, because the story is so firmly rooted in the year 1999, we persuaded then KERRANG! editor George Garner to write a rundown of his top songs from that year, signposting our intention that comics and music would intersect in HERETICS. It was perfect.
HERETICS exhibition 2016 - Photo by Kirsty Garland
The second element was a launch exhibition – a physical event to act as the focus for our announcement, unifying the disparate folk-horror elements that combined to create HERETICS. It would give us a deadline to work towards, an opportunity to work with similar artists and show where we fitted in alongside our peers, and a great photo opportunity to ensure that we had photography of people to go alongside sequential artwork when we were chasing publicity across different magazines and websites. Comic art itself is the primary element needed for comic websites, but for other journalists, the people involved are the story, and so not having photos of me and Martin together would have been a limiting factor in chasing press coverage.
The icing on the cake was that of all UK-based comic conventions, Thought Bubble in Leeds was the one that was most widely recognised and internationally acclaimed at the time. John Pearson had a track record for having thrown hugely successful Thought Bubble fringe parties for the previous two years, giving us an incredible platform to try something new and host an exhibition launching HERETICS as part of the official programme for the UK’s best-loved comic convention. There were some delays with the artwork at Martin’s end, so we wouldn’t quite be able to run the official publisher’s announcements followed by Diamond solicitation that we had hoped for, but we knew that we couldn’t afford to wait another year and squander such a big opportunity.
So we agreed to launch HERETICS issue zero at Thought Bubble 2016, followed by an official publisher announcement and solicitation to comic-book stores through Previews magazine shortly after. It was a risk, but it was the best way to make the biggest splash we could, taking advantage of our connections and abilities without spending money that we didn’t have. With the twin goals of getting HERETICS issue zero finished, printed and self-funded, plus throwing a launch exhibition that could match the quality of our intent, we had our work cut out for us. I called in literally every favour that I could, or at least expended any goodwill that I’d earned from years of unpaid writing about other people’s comics. The list of people who agreed to contribute original artwork to the exhibition was humbling.
Featured artists at the exhibition included: Martin Simmonds, Caspar Wijngaard, John Pearson, M D Penman, Stevie-Leigh Smith, Luke Axworthy, Sarah Gordon, Alisdair Wood, Anna Fitzpatrick, Conor Boyle, Will Kirkby, James Usill, and Andrew Tunney (aka 2hands), with live art on the opening night from Tasha Wild and Steve Myles from Pyre Climber, and a musical setlist from Rue Morgue Radio's Tomb Dragomir.
Sarah Gordon at the HERETICS exhibition - Photo by Kirsty Garland
To top it all off, we’d always hoped to have Ben Templesmith create a variant cover for HERETICS. Seeing this opportunity, he not only created the cover, he shipped the original artwork to England in time for the exhibition. On a personal level, after reading a lot of comics growing up as a kid and but dropping off as a teenager, seeing Ben’s cover to 30 DAYS OF NIGHT was one of the things that brought me back into comic-book stores when I was at university and looking for an incentive to quit smoking. I figured I’d spend the money that I saved from cigarettes on comics and it worked, thanks to Ashley Wood’s POPBOT and Ben and Steve Niles 30 DAYS OF NIGHT. Having an original cover created by one of my art heroes was a milestone in my life that will always be a high point.
The one missing piece was funding. This was a time when I’d recently relocated from the North West of England to the far South West, in a move that nearly ruined me because among other things, the removal company vastly underestimated the weight of my hardback graphic novel collection (seriously) and more than doubled the removal cost halfway through the move, almost tipping us over the edge. I had practically nothing left to pay for the printing, but based on the strength of the work we had to show so far however, I was able to persuade one of the UK’s best-known sci-fi, fantasy and horror stores to buy half of our planned print-run outright, which funded the printing and left us with plenty of comics to sell. To finish it all off, Martin and I spent our last spare cash on a double-width convention banner to take to Thought Bubble with us.
L to R - Rob Talbot, Martin Simmonds, P M Buchan & John Pearson - Photo by Kirsty Garland
The exhibition was a resounding success. We got coverage across a wide range of news sites online. We had fliers distributed across the city. We had a great turnout on the night, with support from comic creators and friends such as Leah Moore, David Hine and John Lees coming down to support us. The professional photography that we commissioned came out great (though a note to anybody thinking about doing anything like this in future – remember to write a shoot list in advance for the photographer and make sure that they prioritise getting posed shots of you with your creative team, not looking like an idiot). The exhibition did everything that we needed it to, and as a bonus it had given us an opportunity to generate some spectacular images by famous comic-book artists like Caspar Wijngaard that could be used as variant covers to incentivise comic shops to place high order numbers. We’d gambled by revealing so much before the official publisher launch announcement, but it had paid off. Or so we thought.
What happened next felt like nothing less than a professional tragedy. Life happened. Making a creator-owned comic like HERETICS means that the creative team usually need to have enough money saved to cover their bills whilst making the series, because you won’t see any money coming your way until after it has been solicited and often after the issues have hit the shelves of comic stores. It could be anything up to nine months after your series has been announced before you see a penny, and that’s with the publisher paying print costs, distribution and promotion up front, which they’ll deduct from any money made. Add to that the time that it takes you to make the comic, to give to the publisher before they’ll agree to solicit it. It was less of an issue to me, with a career in PR alongside comics that gives me the leeway to take on additional work. But drawing a comic like HERETICS is too involved to be anything less than a full-time job.
Martin Simmonds - Photo by Kirsty Garland
Martin had enough money saved before starting to cover his bills, knowing that the quality would mean more paying work coming his way as soon as he was finished. But life got in the way. Something unforeseeable not only drastically slowed Martin’s ability to draw what we’d planned as the most detailed and intricate comic of our careers, it also ate most of his savings, to the point where he had no choice but to look for new ongoing paid projects. Which led to his work on PUNKS NOT DEAD for IDW and FRIENDO for Vault. And that was that.
It sounds simple, but it didn’t feel simple. The demise of HERETICS was a half-year window during which Martin carried the weight of the world on his shoulders and had no space left mentally or physically to create the artwork that would be needed to make our publisher announcement. If HERETICS had happened at a different point in our lives, I might have found a way to keep things afloat longer, but the move from Stockport to Plymouth had wiped out any financial wriggle-room that I’d have for a couple of years, so instead me and Martin were both in a hole. We watched a dream slip between our fingers until we could no longer avoid the fact that in order to support his family, Martin would have to move on to projects with guaranteed pay-cheques.
Rob Talbot and John Pearson - Photo by Kirsty Garland
Time passed and by necessity we moved on. After FRIENDO and PUNKS NOT DEAD, Martin’s next gig was on DYING IS EASY with Joe Hill, a writer with a massive, loyal audience whose LOCKE AND KEY series for IDW is one of the high points in the history of Western comics and whose novels have been adapted into movies, as in the case of HORNS. And now the first issue of Martin’s current Image series, THE DEPARTMENT OF TRUTH, has already topped 100,000 orders. The greatest writers in the comic-book industry are taking note of Martin’s talent now and no-doubt wondering how to entice him to collaborate. One thing I know about the speed at which Martin works is that he’s not the kind of artist that could somehow find time to draw the remaining five issues of HERETICS around these other commitments. However much we’d love to make it happen, I’m not at a place yet where I could offer the same return to Martin on his time as the other options that have opened up since we started.
The period following the HERETICS launch exhibition window was the most depressing experience of my professional life. I’d spent years working towards a position where I could team up with an artist with the time and skills to pull off a sustained adult narrative like this one together. I called in every favour imaginable to make the announcement a success. I wrote every script in advance, focussing solely on making HERETICS the best story that I’d ever worked on, at the expense of developing anything else during that period, which I see in hindsight was a schoolboy error to make. Aside from the disappointment of not getting to share the story that we’d envisaged with the world yet, I think that the hardest part for me personally has been thinking back to all the hours we talked about commissioning variant covers from artists that we admire, and seeing Martin tick off that list on the other series that he has worked on since!
However, with so much development work completed, so many pages of character and concept art, sequential artwork, lettering, layouts, synopsis, scripts, pitch documents and more, I don’t think that the world has seen the last of HERETICS. Regardless of anything else, I maintain that the script probably contains the most depressing sequence that I’ll ever write. After the dust had settled, Martin and I sat down with BLOOD MOON co-creator John Pearson and developed a new art style that merges both of their work together and see the book completed. At the time we couldn’t find a publisher willing to take a chance on it, but that was before PUNKS NOT DEAD, before DYING IS EASY, before BLOOD MOON, and before THE DEPARTMENT OF TRUTH topped 100,000 pre-orders. With so much work already completed, in some ways it feels like HERETICS is a story that we’ve already told. You just haven’t had the opportunity to read it yet.
HERETICS preview by Martin Simmonds, John Pearson and Michael Stock
And despite the pain and disappointment that accompanied the experience, HERETICS has also led to some of the best things in my life. I’ve seen friendships shatter at far less, but because of the things we’ve been through together and our commitment to *not* letting shitty circumstances drive a wedge between us, I’ve got a lifelong friend in Martin, one of the most talented comic-book artists in the world. I got to co-curate an exhibition of folk-horror at one of the world’s most highly-respected comic conventions, packing an exhibition space with bone and feather jewellery, glitch art, 3D-printed skulls and original artwork by Ben Templesmith. And after John Pearson’s frankly herculean work to make the exhibition a success and to illustrate all of the backup features, we sat down together and started talking about the idea of a story about someone that allowed themselves to be consumed by vengeance, about whether that was something that could ever be glorified or if it was in fact the ultimate act of selfishness. And so BLOOD MOON was born.
For this newsletter, I was incredibly excited to interview Karen Walton, an award-winning Canadian screenwriter who won the won the Best Film Writing Canadian Comedy Award in 2002 for writing GINGER SNAPS and who has worked as a writer and producer on television series including QUEER AS FOLK, FLASHPOINT, THE LISTENER and ORPHAN BLACK. Karen is also credited with establishing the online community inkcanada – Canadian Screenwriters and their Sketchy Friends, a digital venue where Canadian and international screenwriters share their ideas. In the interest of transparency, this interview actually took place back in July, but let’s be honest. Time has been pretty fluid in 2020!
To understand why this interview meant so much to me, let’s circle back to how much of my life has revolved around horror. I make no secret of my unashamed love of horror. Some of my earliest memories are of drawing skeletons and monsters, hinting at passions that I’ve carried throughout my life. What can I say? I love to be scared. I love ghost stories and kaiju wrestling matches. I love subtle reimaginings of classic movie monsters and I love tactless torture porn. I’m a relentless gorehound and a lover of doomed Gothic romance. As a teenager growing up, there was a point where I voraciously watched every horror film that I could get my hands on, and there was a decade period from about 1995 onwards where slasher films gave birth to a teen-horror renaissance that included stories like SCREAM, THE CRAFT, IDLE HANDS, THE FACULTY and FINAL DESTINATION. Most of these movies complemented and built on the work being done on television alongside them in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, the 1997-premiering series based on the 1992 movie of the same name, in many cases sharing cast members and an irreverent love of classic horror tropes like vampires and zombies.
The best examples of teen horror at the time used these tropes as visual metaphors for other things, but none did so with such transcendental brilliance as GINGER SNAPS, a coming-of-age story about two sisters on the verge of being visited by “the curse”. This was a movie that tackled the messier elements of adolescence whilst portraying teen nihilism and the perils of intense teen friendships with relentless honesty and wicked humour. GINGER SNAPS is unquestionably one of my favourite films and for me one of the things that takes it beyond a good to a great movie is the way that it doesn’t shy away from following the themes and ideas being explored to their natural conclusions, ending in a catastrophic bloodbath that seems inevitable from the opening frame. It was a privilege to speak to GINGER SNAPS screenwriter Karen Walton for the first, but hopefully not last, time:
1/ What first motivated you to write and have you found over the course of your career that your reasons for writing have changed?
As a child of a Canadian Navy officer, I actually only knew most of my extended biological family by the handwritten letters we exchanged, growing up. So I was never so much ‘motivated’ to write but rather, personal writing was just ‘normal’ to me always. I never intended to write professionally. Screenwriting was a mad notion suggested to me by some independent filmmakers I met at my local filmmaking co-operative, when I was sort of at loose ends after graduating. I had a degree in Drama, but no clear career path before me. The local filmmakers had all kinds of interesting backgrounds and invited me to assist with their scripts, as my studies focussed on Dramaturgy. Truly, I was motivated by curiosity about films, and what other artists were up to, back then.
Over the decades, my reasons for writing have evolved from sheer curiosity re. how it’s done, to whether I could do it myself, to keeping it up and still eat, to — Okay I can do it and eat but then… how much control do I have over what’s happening to what I write and how best to use the stories I tell, for Good. Now when I write, I’m doing it fully aware of my privilege to do so, and am pretty intent on changing the world for all sorts of social underdogs and outliers, one odd little story at a time.
2/ What piece of artwork, in any medium, has most inspired you and why?
Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN has inspired me since I was in a grade-school class that read the book and then went to see its stage adaptation… at a rather impressionable age. I think of it constantly when I’m writing, and when I’m looking at anybody else’s work. It made me addicted to the ‘making of monsters’ socially - who decides what a ‘monster’ really is, what ‘horror’ really is, to whom. Add the context in which that woman wrote that story, the unnerving experiences the book and the play gave me as a young girl. Gradually FRANKENSTEIN became my bar for what a good story does: you can’t finish one without feeling something, viscerally, about the beliefs you came to it with. From all the infinite subsequent adaptations of it, I keep learning how potent and unpredictable Interpretation is. That guides what I’m looking for in stories, and looking to achieve with stories, myself.
3/ What does your creative process look like from conception to the finished piece? I’m particularly interested in what that early stage looks like for you, when ideas are forming, before they begin to crystallise.
Each project is different for me, creative process-wise. If I’m working-for-hire, it’s a bit dull: there are standard steps to creating a screen- or teleplay by contract. A lot of formal conversations, informal drafts debated, in between. My focus there is on clarity of execution; most of my time is devoted to a war with words, while seeking consensus with my partners on what we’re actually after. Accuracy is the aim: endless rewriting and editing toward a Common Goal. Literally, lots of typing and talking and retyping.
If I’m working on my own originals, I work the way I prefer to:
research the life out of it (reading, art, films, TV, history, what else is out there)
talk to as many strangers who have lived experience of/like it as possible
let it rest. keep a notebook dedicated to it: pen and paper, stickies in my handbag for random associations and untimely ideas at other project meetings
I never have the ending. I won’t start writing though until I have the First Sequence, The Way In. I write for audiences, so I’m looking for Tone and Experience first.
Then it’s super-sticky notes up on a window looking out on a brick wall in my home office. Colour-coded by Character, I’m a Character-Driven Writer. Plot for me comes from building Who We’re With, not from Pop Hit Templating. I like Originals. To be Original, they actually need to be second-guessed to death, for me anyway.
Start putting together the soundtrack that puts me In the Main Character’s world. I am often hopping in and out of several projects at once. The right music takes me to the feelings that most excited me about each. A sensory shortcut: if I wait for ‘the mood to strike me’, frankly I’d starve.
Block off the Time, begin Outline. This is the first time, early stage, typing my actual story. I’m a careful worker, a sloppy typist, and I read slowly: I need more time than many in my line do, to produce anything worth reading. Never fall in love with the first-blush idea of anything; usually means it has already been done to death. Question every word, every conceit, unconscious assumption. Walk around what I have - or don’t yet have - in every single character’s shoes.
Enlist a Friend to Read and Proof Read, in progress - at Outline. These I pay when possible. We trade work when we can’t afford to pay. All the best results come for me before I’m ever at Script, when a colleague and I look at what I’m really saying.
4/ What have you learned through experience that you wish you knew at the start of your career?
To value my own voice, my own point of view, and to make room, learn from others’ too; to recognize the difference between being used as a means to others’ ends, versus being a true creative partner and an unflinching stakeholder in my own work. To know, state, and stand by my own creative values upfront, to honour those all the way through. To say Yes only to opportunities with those prepared to do the same.
5/ If you woke tomorrow and were no longer constrained by time, budgets or even skills that you haven’t learned yet, what would you make?
Easy: I would become a producing-patron to those who traditionally have not had my dumb luck and/or my harder-won opportunities, I’d make their stories. If I could do that, I wouldn’t write another word, quite happily.
Each newsletter I share a link to a Spotify playlist of music that I love. So many of the previous playlists have been ones that I listen to when I need to tap into the right mood for a particular project, but this week is a little different.
…to Walk Someone Home takes its title from a track by Mocklove, one of my favourite bands, and it collects not so much music that’s project or mood-specific, but is more of a factory reset button for me when I’m writing. These are songs new and old, by bands I’ve loved for years and bands I’ve just discovered that make me think of difficult relationships, fractured friendships and broken hearts. It’s a short, focused list that probably hints at the sort of thing I want to write next. Give it a listen
That’s it from me. I’m P M Buchan, co-creator of comic-books series including Gothic romance LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI, and the horror-comix anthology about alcoholism, death-by-misadventure and necrophilia, BLACKOUT. I’m a former columnist for STARBURST, the world’s longest-running magazine of sci-fi, fantasy and horror, and SCREAM: The Horror Magazine. I’ve also written for publications including THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT, MODERN LANGUAGE REVIEW and BLEEDING COOL, as well as being called an “authority on the UK comic-book industry” by THE GUARDIAN. My comics have been featured by RUE MORGUE, KERRANG! and FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND.
If you want to talk about anything in this newsletter, hit me up on Twitter @PMBuchan. The next time I send you a newsletter, it will be to let you know that the complete BLOOD MOON Chapter Two, SNIFF GLUE, WORSHIP SATAN, is free to read online, and after that I’m going to take a small break until we have news to announce about Chapter Three. There are lots of other ideas and projects in the pipeline and I think we’ll both get more out of this relationship if I spent the time working on those projects rather than writing to you to tell you about the things I’m going to write but haven’t found time for yet!