When the Dark Horse series Blackwood concluded, a lover’s spat left a trail of bodies in her wake, and it was up to a reluctant gang of teenagers to set things right at the college. In Blackwood: The Mourning After, writer Evan Dorkin and artists Veronica and Andy Fish take care of unfinished business, with more magic, mysticism and mayhem in store for the teenage protectors of Blackwood College. They spoke to The Beat about their new miniseries and why magical spells are such a messy business.
Nancy Powell: The entire Blackwood series feels like this trippy nostalgic mix between Scooby-Doo, Archie and Harry Potter. Are you a fan of these series?
Evan Dorkin: I enjoyed the first four books in the Harry Potter series, and I’ve read plenty of old Archie comics. I was a big Scooby-Doo fan as a kid. But what I had in mind while developing Blackwood was 80’s horror comedies like Return of the Living Dead and Re-Animator, and school comedies like Real Genius and Animal House. The comic has a school setting, there’s magic, and there’s meddling kids, so I definitely get why those things come up a lot.
Veronica Fish: Honest to God, I was never a fan of any of those, haha!
Powell: How did Blackwood come about?
Evan: I wanted to write more horror-themed stuff, and I needed work because Beasts of Burden was on an unscheduled hiatus. So I started working on some pitches, and Blackwood was the first one I showed Daniel Chabon (Dark Horse Senior Editor). He asked for revisions and gave me some very specific notes to help me punch it up and get it to the point where we needed to find an artist. I saw Veronica’s work while walking the aisles at Heroes Con and thought she’d be an excellent choice on Blackwood. She agreed to come in as co-creator, and Andy came on board when we started the first series. Now we have Greg McKenna lettering so Veronica and Andy can spend more time on layouts, art and colors. It was a long process getting Blackwood into print but it was worth it, it’s been a lot of fun to work on.
Andy Fish: I saw what Evan and Veronica were working up and I blackmailed them into letting me in—this was the kind of series I really wanted to work on.
Powell: The series has a nostalgic, psychedelic look to it that comes from its color palette. Was that something you considered all along? Or was it a happy circumstance?
Veronica: When I paint I like to put down a hyper-saturated base layer of neon gouache, so I think that habit is coming through in the comics. Hopefully the colors have a bit of a “Susperia” vibe.
Evan: I love the palette. It’s kind of like a candy-coated Giallo approach that gives the series a very distinct look and style.
Powell: What goes into creating a typical issue of Blackwood?
Evan: I write too much and over-explain everything in my full script, and then Veronica and Andy break it down and make it into comics. Sometimes I send reference for specific things. Sometimes I’ll do a rough sketch of something because I’m unsure if the script is clear enough—the sketches aren’t a mandate, they’re just to put the idea over. Things get kicked back and forth at every stage—I’ll have notes, Veronica and Andy will have ideas, Daniel will have notes. We discuss whatever comes up and make revisions. Some ideas don’t come from the scripts. Andy had a great idea for Jamar’s character, while Veronica’s designs have sparked new plot points and changed how some characters are used. It’s a collaboration, there’s a lot of back and forth.
Veronica: Evan’s scripts come in and we have a great time reading it, doing thumbnails at the kitchen table. We’ll look at John Carpenter movies, some Eisner, Junji Ito, whatever helps resolve a panel. Andy will take a chunk of pages and start doing layouts and penciling. I’ll start penciling other pages. I do finished inks to give it a consolidated look. We send it in for feedback, and Andy will start color flats. I do final colors, Greg letters. I have a heart attack over what else can be done to make it better, and Andy tells me at some point you have to stop tweaking and move on. Repeat.
Andy: We are constantly fine tuning.
Powell: The well is an intriguing plot device — kind of like a Fountain of Youth or the pensive (the basin that reveals one’s past memories) in the Harry Potter books. And I suspect not for the good of the school?
Evan: Some time after I put the well into the storyline I realized it’s a lot like the Lazarus Pit that R’as Al Ghul has, and I got a little bummed out. I knew from the get-go it wasn’t a new idea, going back to the Fountain of Youth and mythology. I guess the difference with our well is that you’re resurrected into a new body, which I’m sure has also been done. But I think the interesting angle is that its use has been limited to a group of old control-freaks who didn’t trust handing Blackwood College over to anyone else. They all shared a very single-minded purpose, the reason for which we hope to reveal in a future story. And there’s a secret to the well itself, how it functions and what’s inside it, which will cause it to become a problem down the line. There should always be a downside to a resurrection device.
Powell: The two-headed monkey is a pretty wicked pair of personalities. What was the inspiration behind that?
Evan: Chimp Ho Tep was something I put in the pitch bible as a joke, a campus urban legend. It would be seen once in a while like a cryptid, but it ended up becoming a useful character.
Powell: Of the main characters, which do you identify with the most and why?
Evan: Stephen, because he’s scared and incompetent but tries to make a joke out of it all. Wren, because she’s angry, defensive and abrasive but deep down she wants everyone to be happy. And Chimp Ho Tep because it’s a sad little baby that argues with itself.
Veronica: I just love Jamar and totally get both his exasperation with the students and his drive to do the right thing.
Andy: My favorite character in the series (so far) is Professor Mortlake— the guy has style and he seems like exactly the kind of guy the school needs right now. Honestly I like so many characters in the series. Evan is an incredible writer.
Powell: Of all the characters in Blackwood: The Mourning After, which are your favorite to write and draw?
Evan: I enjoy writing the core students — Reiko, Wren, Stephen and Jamar. Colby is a lot of fun because he’s miserable. Mortlake is a new character in this arc that’s become fun to work with, as well. And Chimp Ho Tep is fun because the heads speak to one another in screwy stunted English. But I like writing just about all of the cast. Why introduce characters that you don’t enjoy writing?
Veronica: I really like everybody, mostly how they work as a unit. Evan has a real gift for making people distinctive; you can’t just swap their dialogue. And each combination of characters will yield a new and interesting result. Wren and Colby are fun to draw because they emote so much.
Andy: My favorite character to draw is Colby. In the first series we had him standing with a sort of dark cloud over his head and we made the stains on his shirt intentionally Charlie Brown like—as a sort of “Lucy moved the football again” kind of thing—perfect character to show emotion with. He’s got a great face.
Powell: Which aspects of the comic are the most difficult to write and draw?
Evan: I dislike writing exposition. I find it difficult to write it as naturally as I want to, to keep it from being “on the nose” dialogue. And I worry I’m not explaining things clearly. I also dislike writing things like magic spells or occult rituals. I avoid it or cut it down to as little as possible to sell the scene. I try to keep it from being too intrusive, pretentious or precious. It’s why a lot of the characters in Blackwood treat magic in a very pragmatic, matter of fact way, without a ton of spell-casting jargon. I also ache a lot of sound effects. I find writing difficult in general.
Veronica: There is a lot that we want to show, aspects of the school, details with the occult elements, so I think trying to work out how the reader can see it all is a puzzle.
Powell: Which comic book series has influenced you most in your work?
Evan: On Blackwood I’m not looking to comics, it’s pretty much all horror/weird fiction, folklore and horror movies. I do think about Junji Ito sometimes, because if you like his work you can’t help but flash to it when trying to work up a bit of creepy imagery. But I can’t touch him in that department, and we don’t have the page count to pace things out the way manga artists can, to really work up that dread. So I don’t even try. My fundamental comic book influences are probably Love and Rockets, MAD, Peanuts, The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. There are others. I can never pick a single anything as an influence, especially when it comes to comics.
Veronica: My favorites were Mai the Psychic Girl and Madman; those are probably influences.
Powell: So we’ve had a lot of deaths, insect attacks, reincarnations and a whole lot of mysteries to solve. Can you offer up some teasers of what’s to come in Blackwood: The Mourning After?
Evan: More death. More mysteries. More magic. More action. More beer. More Chimp Ho Tep. More faculty members. More townies. An organization called INS.PE.C.T., the Dark Wisdom Cult, blood text demons, body snatching, ghosts, masks, mirrors and the meat from space that eats your face.
Veronica: We have freaky new creatures, lots of new characters, a view of the library with it’s impressive tinted-glass skylight, an old morgue, Venetian masks, possessed mirrors and some sad prog rock. It’s gonna be good.
Powell: If the three of you had an opportunity to do another comic book series after Blackwood: The Mourning After, what would that be?
Evan: If you mean an established character or series–I think I know what Andy would say. So I’ll leave that to him if he wants to mention it. Off the top of my head…I don’t know. Maybe something like the old Teen Titans, or The Legion or The Doom Patrol. Something Silver Age with some zip and color. Dr. Strange and Clea. Mary Marvel and/or the Marvel Family. Dilton Doily: Re-Animator.
Veronica: I can’t think of anything more fun than this one, but whatever Evan is into and feels like writing I’m sure will be good and full of cool things to draw.
Andy: Kolchak The Nightstalker! We’d love to work on any series with Evan and Greg—this is a great team, from editorial down. We really enjoy working with everyone.