You may know David Dastmalchian as an actor, thanks to his roles in The Dark Knight and the Ant-Man movies; what you may not know is that in addition to taking up roles in comic book adaptations for the silver screen, Dastmalchian has been a fan of comics since he was just a child. And now, after 30 years of dreaming, his first comic book is slated to hit stores in October, uniting his love of writing, comic books, and horror in Count Crowley: Reluctant Midnight Monster Hunter from Dark Horse Comics.
Count Crowley is a four-issue mini-series set in 1983 that follows former TV journalist Jerri Bartman, a struggling alcoholic who returns, disgraced, to her midwest hometown and is then fired from the local TV news after an on-air incident. Her brother, the station owner, decides to keep her on the payroll by offering her a spot hosting the nightly creature feature after her predecessor goes missing. When she takes the job, she discovers that it comes with a secret, supernatural duty to hunt the monsters who are hell-bent on controlling the news and information that humans consume.
Tackling real-world events as well as story-specific frights, Count Crowley also deals with some of the writer’s personal demons. During his appearance at Rose City Comic Con 2019, The Beat sat down with David Dastmalchian to discuss the comic, his writing journey, and how it feels to make a 30-year dream into a reality.
Samantha Puc: To start off: I was at the panel this morning, so I did hear a little bit about how you got into comics as a creator, but tell me specifically about conceiving of this story and this character.
David Dastmalchian: Absolutely, so imagine me in elementary school in Kansas City, in a fairly religious household where things like comic books, horror movies, and rock ‘n roll were all kind of taboo, watching the previews and little teasers for the Friday Nightmare [TV special] with Cremation Mortem. It was always something I was really intrigued by, and I would sneak downstairs — I figured out, at a certain point, when my family was asleep and when it was good for me to go downstairs — and I would watch these movies that were so hypnotizing to me.
I was so entranced by the good monsters and the bad monsters; I think I had an odd amount — maybe it’s not odd; maybe it’s very normal — amount of sympathy and empathy for a lot of the creatures. I remember my first time seeing Oliver Reed in The Curse of the Werewolf and feeling so sad for him, but also terrified of him, and I loved that feeling. I was just devoted to it. Around that time, I was getting into comics, and I started to become really intrigued by this idea that probably was fertilized by movies like Monster Squad and The Lost Boys where I was thinking, “[Who is] someone in that world of horror hosts or creature features who actually battles monsters — like, who’s somebody that actually fights monsters?” That was the initial idea that I always had and that I always thought was going to be a cool idea that I would make a movie about someday, or something, but it didn’t amount to anything.
Then I became an adult and I battled addiction, and I battled depression, and I went into failed relationships and being broke and all of the real struggles of the human experience that at least were part of my particular journey as a still-privileged white male. Getting to go down the path of adulthood is hard for everybody, I believe; I believe that depression, anxiety, and addiction or addictive tendencies are so much more pervasive in our culture and our society than anything most people talk about. So then, that old idea of a monster hunter and a horror host started to take a different shape for me. I started to really think about narratives and plots and concepts and I created this character, Jerri Bartman.
For many years, Jerry was a man, J-e-r-r-y, and his older brother Ben ran this TV station. Even though Jerry’s drinking is so out of hand, they throw him on as the late night Creature Feature host and it turns out, the predecessor was a real monster hunter. Then we entered a time in the landscape in our nation where I just felt so overwhelmed by things that I was seeing and trying to make sense of, and this whole concept of “fake news” and really swaying the population’s understanding of truths through the manipulation of facts. That was very terrifying to me. All of that came together and I put it in a big blender, and that’s Jerri Bartman who is now Count Crowley, our reluctant midnight monster hunter.
Puc: You spoke about this a little bit with the changes in Jerri as a character, but since you originally conceived of the idea, in addition to it going from a screenplay concept to a comic concept, how else has the story shifted or changed?
Dastmalchian: I think that the biggest changes have taken place since [Count Crowley] became a collaborative process. When it turned into a reality, when it actually became something that could actually become a tangible comic book — the thing that changed was the addition of the world around Jerri and the honing in and the focus, for me, on the clarification of all of the details, which is a very fun part of the creative process for me. So, I went back and I found the towns that were the inspiration for what I wanted to be Beloit. I built my own kind of Wikipedia page for the history of Beloit, and I got to flesh out the characters that populated the town, and how all of that would connect to mythologies, monsters, and manifestations of things that were, to me as David, representational of something that I have either struggled with or fear. That could be as vague as insecurity or as specific as addiction.
It was a really general idea with a very specific purpose, and then all of that generality turned into hyper-specific portraiture, which is continuing to this day. We’ve only got four scripts done and we’re in the production of these [issues], and if my dreams have already come true sitting here and being under the reality that a comic book is going to be sitting on the shelf at Clint’s Comics on October 23rd, that I am going to walk in and buy, that’s the dream. I’m trying to just be present and enjoy this moment and not think too far ahead, but I have, right now, like five years of Jerri Bartman mapped out in my mind and on paper, at least two or three years of where these stories could go and what we can do with it, so we’ll see.
Puc: I’d like to ask about working with [artist] Lukas Ketner, [colorist] Lauren Affe, and [letterer] Frank Cvetkovic on the different elements of the comic. You said on the panel earlier today that seeing what you’ve envisioned in your head put down on the page by an artist is kind of mind-boggling, so what has the collaborative process been like? Is there a lot of exchange of ideas and notes beforehand, or do you just send off the script?
Dastmalchian: Yeah! The collaborative process begins from the moment I hand over my first treatment. My editor, Megan Walker, is just a phenomenal force in comic books right now. She gives me these great shapening ideas; all she’s done is help me focus and give better shape to each of my scripts. So I’ll get that approval — which is a bit of a back-and-forth where she gives me her input and I do rewrites on my treatment and then I give it back — and during that process, I am culling images and stills from movies, comic books, sometimes even real-life stuff. For example, I found a photo of the place where I went to my first [Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting that I could give as inspiration to Lukas for when Jerri’s going to go to her first A.A. meeting. Then, Megan says, “Okay, you’re good.”
What I do as well, is I’ve got a grid created because my story takes place in 1983 and there are specific events that are going to take place in real time that will connect to the story, including the advent of cable news and the birth of cable television. I have a really specific timeline with a calendar, where I keep track of the dates, so we get those lined up and then Lukas gets the script.
What has happened thus far, every time, for four issues in a row is: he sends his pencils and I just — my mind comes unglued with emotions and joy and it’s a fantastic feeling. I sit there and I really try to digest and I try to put my writer’s hat on and try to see if there’s anything missing or what’s needed. Sometimes he’ll have a little question, like, “Do you want the name of this store in this signage here?” But it’s always been — for lack of a better term — perfect, and then it gets better. He’ll send me suggested ideas, like, “How do you feel about me using a few less panels here?” or “How do you feel about me really focusing in on her eye here, since you really wanted us to see this element of her personality coming through right now?” They’ve always been such great ideas, and I say, “Yes!”
What’s also interesting — and I think this is important, when you’re talking to comic book readers, who will appreciate the value of economy when it comes to language and especially dialogue — ultimately, we’ll get the letters back after colors and Lauren Affe, who’s our colorist, has just nailed the tone. The tone is really specific and we went through a lot of conversations about that. I needed it to feel like you’re reading an ’80s comic but I also wanted it to have a sense of dread and darkness and foreboding about it. She just got it. Then when stuff goes to Frank and he sends it back, I’m finally for the first time seeing it all together. I always gasp and go, “Oh my God.” I’ve never changed the art, but I have said, “Why is she saying that line? We don’t need that word bubble.” That’s luckily easy to just erase, because — so much happens visually and I don’t think I trusted myself in the beginning, so I overwrote some dialogue. Then when you see it on page, you realize, you don’t need Jerri saying aloud, “Where did I put that thing?” when you see her digging into a couch. But I’m learning.
Puc: How does your background in film translate into comics? They’re both visual languages, but they’re so different.
Dastmalchian: [The difference] is huge. With film, as with theatre, I’ve always found that the most interesting work I can do as an actor and sometimes writer in those mediums was to create a road map for my collaborators. I’ve never written any text or tried to create a story that I felt biblically attached to some kind of canonic rules system. When I wrote for film, I found that to be the case — I would lay the map and then a director, actors, artists of all the different shapes would get involved and [the story] became its own beast. That’s happened with Count Crowley for certain. I think I created a world that has now come to life and is a living, breathing, hairy, snarling, beautiful animal.
I think that in my experience of just being a performer on stage and in front of the camera, I always found that audiences responded the most when I could find something as close to authentic as possible. That doesn’t change if you’re playing a big, fun, crazy villain or a really quiet, dramatic character. They can smell bullshit a mile away, so digging as deep as possible to find [the character’s motivation] is really vital. With comic books, you really leave so much to your reader to connect dots visually and emotionally. You’re forcing them to use their imaginations to string things together. If you have 5-8 panels per page [in] an 18-22 page comic book and you need a week to go by and so many journeys between locations and emotional states of being to take place, for that to feel authentic, you have to really learn how to write between the lines. I’m loving that.
I haven’t had one person that wasn’t someone in the press or a friend read the comic yet. I’ve yet to have somebody pick it up off of a wall and read it, but when that conversation starts, I can’t wait. I’m really excited.
Puc: Would you say that learning how to write comics has been a particular challenge?
Dastmalchian: The best kind of challenge. The most rewarding. Yes, absolutely. I think learning how to communicate my ideas in a way that is clear enough that people aren’t looking at the page going, “I have no idea what this guy’s talking about,” but also inviting enough that they can then throw their gifts into the manifestation of it in the most fulfilling way for them is challenging, but it’s so rewarding.
I just feel so proud of this book right now. When I get a PDF from Lukas and I open it, I always have to go for a walk. I always carry my laptop around with me and my wife always knows. She says, “Oh, pencils in?” The world stops! I go back to the beginning and I think, “How the fuck is this happening? How is he doing this? How is this real?” It’s an incredible feeling. And it’s incredible that I work in a medium in film and television where I’ve worked on so many projects and things that were inspired by the publishing houses or the actual properties of comic lore that I grew up addicted to. To now be in league with Dark Horse, who I have been a reader of and fan of for so long, is amazing. To have a story where I’m going to look at this horror host, this woman who had no interest in this path and wanted to be doing something else, but is now doing this thing and finds this incredible calling, and is told over and over, “You can’t do this. You aren’t cut out for this. This isn’t a woman’s job. You’re an alcoholic and a joke and you’re going to lose…” All that means so much to me.
Puc: A lot of the films and projects you’ve done have been comics-adjacent or adaptations from comics. Did you intentionally steer your career in that direction, or did it just happen that way?
Dastmalchian: As an actor, you’re at the mercy of the audition. I had gotten clean; I was in Chicago; I was working as a telemarketer by day and a movie theater usher at night and I got an opportunity where a friend cast me in a play. That play opened the door for me to go back into acting. Pretty quickly, I was then working some of the best stages in Chicago and I was getting to do amazing plays, but still going to Graham Crackers Comics downtown and buying my weekly [pull].
The Dark Knight came along and I thought, “This is meant to be. This is my dream. This is all I’ve been working and dreaming toward.” I auditioned and didn’t get cast for the part that I auditioned for, which was a bank robber at the beginning of the movie, and I was so devastated because I had really put everything I could into that audition. I then went back to theatre and was doing Shakespeare‘s Othello; I had an amazing, four-month experience doing that play. After the four months, the play closed, and I thought, “I’m going to have to go back to telemarketing.” It was my birthday and my agent called and said, “You’re going to be a thug. A Joker’s henchman.”
They wouldn’t give me any information about the character, any scenes, anything like that. I went to work and all those years of spending all that money and collecting comic books, I had created this whole profile for who would work for the Joker. I was so familiar with the Nolan-verse based on his Batman Begins, and that tone, and the Michael Manning dramatic quality. So I did that movie, and that was my break. It’s been a miracle. It’s been 12 years, now, that I’ve been a full-time actor. In that time, I’ve gotten to be a part of so many superhero and sci-fi cinematic works that are just incredible. I keep pinching myself.
Puc: Do you have a favorite role that you’ve done?
Dastmalchian: That’s tricky. I have so many. I played Tom Wingfield in a production of The Glass Menagerie in Chicago and that was a life-changing experience in many regards. I feel like the part that I got to play in Denis Villeneuve‘s Prisoners was a very special one to my heart, when I think back. They all are, in different ways. It’s like asking, “Who’s your favorite child?” I have two kids and I can’t imagine… There are certain days when one of them sucks and there are certain days when one of them is extra amazing, but I feel weird even saying that. The roles that I’ve written have been — I had such an incredible time performing in both Animals and All Creatures Here Below. That sounds so weirdly egotistical, like, “Oh, my favorite films are the ones that I wrote!” But they were so personal.
Someday, hopefully — I don’t know what’s going to happen with Count Crowley and like I said, no one may buy the book and this was just a dreamy, awesome experience I got to have. People may buy the book. The book may turn into something and there is definitely a role in that world that I would love to play if and when I could be so lucky.
Puc: Will you tell me who it is?
Dastmalchian: You haven’t seen this person yet. This person hasn’t been introduced yet; they’re coming down the line.
Puc: How old are your kids? How do they feel about all of this?
Dastmalchian: Five and two. My son is Arlo and my daughter is Penny. Luckily, they both are really drawn to comic books. I go to comic shops wherever we are, but I have my own shops at home. As a funny anecdote: my son came up with his own comic book. One day he came to my office and he said, “I have a comic book too! It’s Plant Man VS. Gax.” So we sat down and he drew Plant Man, who’s the hero, and Gax, the villain. They’re kind of like Superman and Lex, always at each other’s throats. He wanted every issue to just be Plant Man VS. Gax and then he started to create his side characters.
I would help write and he drew. He’s writing now, so he was writing some if not all of the words. We did kind of [the whole] process: we’d come up with the script, do pencils, then go in with crayons and do “inks.” For his birthday party, I took the loose pages to Staples and they made bound copies for us to hand out to all the kids and as a present for Arlo. I go to a comic shop in Los Angeles called Earth-2 Comics in Sherman Oaks and I went in ahead of Arlo one day, because he usually goes with me on one of my trips, and they put some on the kids’ rack. He walked in and he was like, “How did you get this?!” He stayed all day and would go up to every new customer and ask, “Do you know Plant Man VS. Gax? That’s my comic book!” He wouldn’t leave until I told him we had to go, so he signed a copy that they have above the counter.
On sets and stuff, they love to come and hang out. My daughter is only two and she’ll say, “Makeup? The makeup trailer? With the makeup?” I took her into the makeup trailer and she saw a really scary makeup one day; I was afraid it was going to freak her out, because I didn’t know this person was going to be getting their makeup done. She saw it and her eyes got so big. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a horror makeup artist, so I wonder if now she’s going to want to be a horror makeup artist. Wouldn’t that be cool?
Puc: What are some of your favorite horror movies or stories? Things that you pull inspiration from?
Dastmalchian: All the Universal stuff planted a lot of seeds, and the Hammer stuff. The biggest influences on the way I wanted the monsters to look, move, and feel in the world of Count Crowley were taken from The Wolfman, Dracula, Frankenstein — all of those 1930s-40s titles. With color, there was something really special to me in that 1960s-70s Hammer world. Also, I do find there’s something fun in the castle stuff and more of the B and Z stuff. Plucking imagery from all of that has peppered the look and feel of the monsters, but I also dug into ’50s, ’60s, even pre-Code stuff with Gold Key and EC Comics.
Lukas has created for me a series of Tales from the Crypt-like crypt-keepers for each issue. I didn’t want just one storyteller, because in the tradition of the older comics there were different ones that would host different stories. So we’ve come up with different ones who wrap up an issue or tease the next one.
And then I wanted the threat, the fear, the dread of what started happening in the ’70s and the ’80s, so definitely Texas Chainsaw Massacre and some of the grittier stuff. The American Werewolf, The Howling, stuff like that. As a horror fan and a lover of cinema in general, I’m so jazzed about the renaissance that’s happening right now with horror. None of that has really tapped into classic monster mythology; it’s more about new ideas, which is really exciting, and it’s a lot of dramas. I love that.
But I also pull imagery and stuff that isn’t even from horror, like I said. For characters, I will find imagery from you name it — not that I want his drawings to look like that, but if they evoke a kind of energy. I think the television show GLOW has so much of the vibe of what I’m trying to do with Count Crowley. Most of those women are like, “I’ll give this wrestling thing a try,” because they’re at their wits’ end, and they end up finding themselves through this process.
Shame is what drove me into so many of the worst decisions of my life and I think it’s some of what fueled my self-loathing and my depression. Shame is such a dark, dark force in our world and in the human experience. Jerri is someone who was assaulted and no one believed her; she was going to be the next big news anchor on a major city’s network-affiliate program, and because the star of that show assaulted her and no one believed her, she ends up back in her hometown and drinking her pain away. She’s riddled with shame, but now she has this calling. I hope for the world’s sake that she picks up the mantle. I can’t tell you if she will or not!
Puc: Have you done the con circuit as an actor? What’s the difference doing it as a comic book writer?
Dastmalchian: Can I be so honest with you right now? Today, I have been signing and doing stuff as a creator of a comic book and I have had the most fun I’ve had at a con. I started going to cons as a fan and I would spend my money. I’m always looking for classic comics and especially toys — I collect monster toys, vinyl Halloween records from the past — so cons are important to me. Horror cons as well as comic cons. Then I started working in the industry as an actor and would get these invitations where people would pay you to sit and sign pictures of yourself, and the way that works to me — I’m so happy there are people who have such a joyful experience doing it, but it was not something that I really derived a lot of joy from. I never got to actually talk to people about comics.
Puc: Autograph lines move so fast.
Dastmalchian: Yes! The way that it has to work, by its very nature, was just the opposite of what I hoped I was going to experience being a guest. So I stopped doing it because it was really hard on me. Then, when Count Crowley started to become a reality, I was like, “Oh my God! I’m not going to sign pictures of myself or Ant-Man memorabilia! I just don’t want to do that! I want to bring stacks of the comic book and anyone who gets a copy, I’ll sign it for free. Let’s do that.” So now I’m in pure joy.
Puc: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Dastmalchian: I’m just so proud of the comic and this opportunity and I hope people have even a fraction of as much fun reading it as I’ve had creating it, because it’s truly been the most rewarding creative experience of my career.
Count Crowley: Reluctant Midnight Monster Hunter #1 hits shelves Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. FOC is Monday, Sept. 30 using Diamond code AUG190245. You can pre-order at through Dark Horse or through Dark Horse.
To Keep up with David Dastmalchian online, follow him on Twitter @dastmalchian. If you are attending New York Comic Con, you can also catch Dastmalchian and Lauren Affe signing at Dark Horse Booth #1554 on Friday, Oct. 4 from 2:30 p.m. to 3:20 p.m. For the full lineup of Dark Horse happenings at NYCC, click here.