Beneath the Trees Where Nobody Sees is undoubtedly one of IDW’s best comics today. Set in a seemingly simple town of innocent anthropomorphized animal critters, this gripping serial killer story has caught the attention of many by presenting something horrifyingly original while hacking away at traditional conventions. 

The series is also up for an Eisner right now and has a serious chance of winning. We chatted yet again with author Patrick Horvath at The Beat for an in-depth interview about the series and its creation. We also discussed some Beneath the Trees revelations and got into details of the San Diego Comic-Con exclusive at the end.

Comics Reviews

CHRISTIAN ANGELES: First, and please be honest, are you a serial killer and/or a grizzly bear? And if not, just where did this story come from?

PATRICK HORVATH: Ha! I’m happy to report that I’m not! The idea just sort of materialized after I had done a random drawing of an anthropomorphic bear walking along with a bloody axe. As I was looking at it, it struck me that it would be interesting if they were a serial killer living in some cute little children’s book town like Richard Scarry’s BUSYTOWN. After thinking about that for a while, I had the idea that it would be even more interesting if there was another serial killer who also lived in town and they were rocking the boat for them. Something about all of that set against the inherent cuteness of a place like that seemed like such a great and sort of obscene idea.

ANGELES: From what I gathered, you’re also a self-trained artist who likes paint and also worked in film. Can you tell us how these skills translated onto the comics page? 

HORVATH: I’ve been working on writing for over twenty years (with most of that being on screenplays), and I’ve been drawing since I was around five. I never had any formal art training other than art classes in public school, and to be honest, there was a huge chunk of my life for a little over a decade where I didn’t draw much other than doodles.

ANGELES: Impressive. Now, many people say Beneath the Trees reminds them of Dexter but I also like the Richard Scarry aesthetic. A real scary world of Richard Scarry. Why was creating the wholesome town of Woodbrook this way so important?

HORVATH: It’s interesting because when I first started wrapping my head around the story, I realized that having all of this play out in this cute little storybook town was going to require a specific approach to the violence. It struck me that all of the horrible elements and their consequences needed to be pretty grounded in reality as opposed to treated in some other way that would undercut their effects. As a result it feels like for the reader, a lot of the horror resonates much stronger than if it were the same story set in the real world. And as an unintended side-effect, I felt horrible bringing all this trauma to the cute little folks!

ANGELES: You also used a unique approach to each issue. Some were more mysterious, while others, investigative in getting to know the characters in town. What were you trying to do with this narrative technique and how’d it affect the ending you had in mind?

HORVATH: Ultimately, I wanted to give each issue its own identity so that the monthly experience felt a little more complete instead of just hitting “pause” at the end of each one. I don’t know how successful it was, but the goal was to thread the needle of bringing each issue to a somewhat satisfying close while still ending on something compelling enough that the reader had to get their hands on the next one immediately. It felt like this approach served the ending really well, especially in terms of giving it a very distinct feel. I knew pretty early on that issue 6 was going to be a very A/B issue, launching right into what Woodbrook is shaping up to be with Nigel running around unchallenged in the first half, and then taking a hard turn into Samantha regaining control for the rest of it. Again, it was all a new approach to me, but I’m pretty happy with how all the issues worked out.

ANGELES: I like the surface versus in-depth level of tension in the story. How Sam’s murders were overshadowed by the animal people living out their mundane lives. How did anthropomorphizing animals play into their characterizations and did you think this made the audience remorse even more when some animals inevitably meet their end?

HORVATH: When you’re telling a story with anthropomorphic animals, you realize pretty quickly that there’s a lot you can do in terms of character and world-building. You’re immediately going to start making decisions of either playing into or against common stereotypes that are held for the animals and there’s always a strong argument for both depending on how they’re going to operate in the story. As I mentioned earlier, there’s definitely an effect that you’re going to have on the audience just by the use of the animals at all. Animals carry a lot of presupposed innocence, and the children’s book setting fosters that even further. It really creates that stark relief when the grounded violence of our own world makes its way into the story.

ANGELES: Speaking of violence, Sam versus Nigel represents two very different sides of evil. One chaotic. One organized. You emphasize their differences in the series, I’d even say that’s even the story’s true conflict by the end, but what makes them similar? They’re both serial killers, why does Sam get a pass despite being far worse of a murderer?

HORVATH: The lawful-evil vs. chaotic-evil angle felt like the easiest way to put them at odds for sure, and it felt like one of the strongest ways to get our readers onto Samantha’s side was to establish an orderly life (regardless of how macabre it is) and then have it upended. Your question is a great one though. Why does she get a pass? Should she get a pass? She’s arguably much more evil than Nigel. Yes, he’s chaotic, but she’s ruined the lives of dozens of other families over decades. The sheer scope should give everyone pause, and yet I can’t help catching myself thinking that she’d be a great friend if it wasn’t for all of the killing. Though there’s a big pitfall in wrapping your head around Sam, and it’s that the life that she portrays to every one is just an illusion in service of her maintaining the exact life that she wants for herself. That said, I feel like we all want to believe in the illusion against all of our better judgement.

ANGELES: It’s a brilliant play on the reader. Speaking of illusions, the nightmare Sam has fighting the bear as her world is imploding, you left it up to the readers to figure out what that meant. How scary was it to get into the mind of a serial killer? What were your hard limits in Sam’s humanization and the responsibility of not justifying her actions? 

HORVATH: It wasn’t too scary trying to figure out her psychology, but the amount of research I did looking into various serial killers left me pretty dispirited for a while. Once you start to get an idea of just how bleak and inventively heinous the human capacity for violence is, it sort of takes the wind out of your sails. I didn’t want to have any kind of definitive reasons as to why Samantha does what she does, but I sort of had guard rails that led my thinking. One of the big missteps that I didn’t want to make was to give her any justifiable reason for her being the way she is. In so many cases, there may be contributing factors, but I think that there are some key elements that are ultimately unknowable.

ANGELES: Now for a sentimental question… Did Lola truly mean nothing to Sam or is she just lying to both herself and to us the audience? Is Sam truly a reliable narrator, because most serial killers tend not to be?

HORVATH: It’s fair to say that she’s definitely not a reliable narrator. She may think she’s relating what she considers to be an objective view point, but it’s very much problematic. And yeah, when it comes to Lola and all the rest, I don’t think Sam has any capacity for emotional connection. She’s just not wired for it. She understands it intellectually, but she’ll never know what that means. I think for Sam, her relationship to Lola (and some select few other folks in Woodbrook) was completely for its social appearance and benefit. The key to Sam being able to hide in plain sight is for everyone to think they know her (which was something that I obviously dove into in a broader sense with other characters throughout the issues). It felt like she’d do just about anything to paint the picture that she was one of the upstanding pillars of the community that they all assume her to be.

ANGELES: Finally, congratulations on the Eisner nomination for Beneath the Trees. Given its immense success, if you could continue in this universe with IDW… what’s next? Would you like to explore Sam’s story more or perhaps even pursue a prequel?

HORVATH: Thank you very much! As a matter of fact, a special project that I’m currently working on with IDW is going to be a bit of a prelude to Beneath the Trees. It’s going to dive into the moment when a young Samantha crossed the threshold for the first time and gave into her compulsions. It’ll be an ashcan that I’m doing as an exclusive for SDCC, and I can’t wait for everyone to sink their teeth into it.

You can read here for details on the recently announced San Diego Comic-Con prequel ashcan of Beneath the Trees Where Nobody Sees. The series is limited to just 1,000 copies, found at the IDW booth (#2729). Here’s the story solicit summary:

Cold-hearted serial killer Samantha Strong is the picture of control and precision—but her hand wasn’t always so steady, her path not always so clear. Join us under the canopy of the Black Forest in 1962 for a trip down memory lane and witness the moment when young Sam’s lost soul locked eyes with its grisly new direction.