interview by Vernon Miles, originally published in IMAGE+ #14
There's something grim at work in Florida. From the minds of Jordie Bellaire & Vanesa R. Del Rey, with lettering by Clayton Cowles, comes REDLANDS, a terrifying story of revenge as occult forces take over a town in the Everglades. Del Rey & Bellaire delve into the forces, both from this world and others, that led to the creation of REDLANDS.
VERNON MILES: One thing I loved about this book was the way there's virtually no exposition, but the reader still quickly understands, at least in a general sense, what's going on in these scenes. During the writing, was there any question about how much exposition you wanted to include? How did you come to the balance that's in the first issue?
JORDIE BELLAIRE: The first issue took some tweaking and time to get right, as it was originally something else entirely. When I first set out with the first issue, it began right in the middle of the story with these characters as you'll come to know them, but I switched gears and decided I wanted the first issue to flash back to when they begin their real journey in REDLANDS. It's almost an origin story, but given that the characters have such a deep history, this is really an origin story of the town Redlands for the readers.
MILES: This issue contains some extremely visually striking imagery. Did you have any favorites? In what ways was that imagery a collaboration between the writer’s and artist’s visions? And how did the distinct visual style of this book evolve?
BELLAIRE: Vanesa was perfect for this project, and my boyfriend/collaborator Declan Shalvey suggested I chance my arm and ask if she'd be willing to team up on it. I’ve been such a big fan of her work for years. We even attended the same art school, and I fell in love with her work then, long ago. Thankfully, when I approached her for the project, she didn’t run away!
Vanesa has brought her gnarly, beautiful scope of Florida to the book, and as REDLANDS is based in Florida, it works like a dream. We’ve both lived in Florida a lot of our lives, and we both love horror, so I think the visual style just naturally fell into place. There are some stunning visuals coming up in the series, from beautiful sex scenes in the outdoors to alligators devouring humans in the blackest of backyard lakes—Vanesa just gets it and fully realizes all the things I'm writing down. And as a colorist, I get to loop back around and also handle some of the visual art, just bringing all my love for Stanley Kubrick and David Fincher home. It's our love letter to Florida and the occult, and the imagery that comes from both of us really comes from a place of passion and full adoration or inspiration.
VANESA R DEL REY: The style for the book came from this image of old witchcraft and demonology books I saw when I was growing up. I’m very much into turn of the 19th century printmaking, and ink work, too. I wanted to try and imitate the look of these old story books. If we go back to something like Goya’s etchings, he used this technique called "aquatint," and what that does is give the image these grainy layers of grey washes that sort of look like watercolor. The images get this very rich and atmospheric look that is perfect for the tone we wanted for REDLANDS.
There’s also the work of Joseph Clement Coll and Charles Dana Gibson as big influences, thanks to their fine line work and deep blacks that take you far into the dark. There is something about being engulfed in all those lines and textures that make the story feel scarier, that there is something lurking in the dark spots, waiting...
I don’t think I have a favorite sequence yet. It has all been fun to draw! I usually get one script at a time from Jordie, and I’m given complete freedom to interpret the writing. Jordie usually describes a scene without specifying camera angles or panel shape, so I get to experiment and place things how I want, and then she gets back to me with some feedback (if there’s any), and we come to something we are both happy with.
MILES: REDLANDS follows three witches who are introduced to us as antagonists in someone else's story. Where did the idea for this perspective come from?
BELLAIRE: Witches are often seen as the antagonists in much of history's greatest literature, and if we boil that down to what witches represent, we're talking about women. Women have been weak, useless, knocked down, stoned to death, raped, bought and sold, or cheated in many of their represented archetypes. Witches, succubi, and other supernatural female powers are the iconic archetypes that define financial independence, free spirit, or sexual confidence in women.
After you explore this idea and come to understand it, it stands to reason that, going by the history of art, men are afraid of women. Eve taking the bite of the forbidden fruit began it all. Women represent knowledge, curiosity, and independence in art. While thinking about all of this, I just became angry and my characters became the truth behind the archetypes we've read for so long. They begin in a story about men, men who are afraid of women, and women who are using the fear projected on them to take what they need from the world, refusing punishment for their actions.
MILES: Stories dealing with the occult are always interesting because people come to them with their own backgrounds and interests in the subject. What kind of influences helped bring the witchcraft of REDLANDS to life for you?
BELLAIRE: I'm a strict atheist and have no real belief in anything supernatural, but I am absolutely fascinated by the science, psychology, physical symptoms, and history of the supernatural. I could talk about this for the rest of Image+, but I think it's easier to say I'm pretty obsessed with all things occult and supernatural and have been since I was a very young creature. My parents took me to see Bram Stoker's Dracula when I was only four years old, and after that, I was hooked by the magic and mystery of horror, the devil, and threesomes with vampire brides.
DEL REY: For me, the story with the occult started with music. I was really into metal music in my early teens and that whole thing with the bands using the image of the devil, hell, and the like because...well, it’s dark and impressive and grandiose in a twisted way. It’s rebellious and violent, with this heavy-energy charge that was different from all the established forms of thinking and behaving, especially for a girl in a third-world country. Though, I didn't delve too deep into the actual science and psychology behind the occult. There were but a few books available in the scant Cuban libraries and definitely no internet to do any research. The Dracula movie from around that time, along with The Craft and Interview with the Vampire, were some of the biggest visual influences.
I haven't encountered anything considered by most as supernatural in all my years of consciousness in this reality. I think it’s the big unknown, so really, anything goes, and that's what’s so enthralling about it. I’m definitely a skeptic.
MILES: What do you think makes stories about the occult, and witchcraft in particular, such an enduring subject?
DEL REY: It's the unknown. For most humans, it seems to be hard to let go of control. We seem to want to have all the answers...we’re so egotistical. I’m thinking it’s about curiosity and imagination. It’s the opportunity to be creative, to explore the possibilities of what we don’t know.
BELLAIRE: Horror is an essential part of the human experience; we all have fears. Fear of death or fear of the unknown will never die. The occult is wrapped up in that, the study of all things supernatural and unknown, and it is the unknown that keeps us awake at night or makes us wonder. Even if you're an atheist or someone who claims to have no fears, I think the occult and witchcraft will also endure the test of time because on the other hand, they represent the play of power and magic combined. Even Adolf Hitler kept one foot in the door of a fantasy world where he believed he was able to control supernatural forces. The occult has something for just about anyone.
MILES: A lot of the best horror plays on timely and very real-world cultural fears mixed with some indulgence in our darker natures: Dracula as Victorian fears of sexuality, Dawn of the Dead as fears about consumer culture, etc. What do you think REDLANDS says about 2017, in terms of fear and indulgences?
BELLAIRE: REDLANDS is not shy about police brutality or the failures of the criminal justice system. It will also examine the enduring and annoying task of being a woman in a leadership role while also having to juggle constant sexism or belittlement. And on top of all of it, Florida has seen endless amounts of social segregation, and I fear it's still an uphill battle in many parts of my home state. This will also be a theme that runs through the whole work: discrimination and unfair judgements based purely on ignorance. Unfortunately, all of the above are very much relevant to our problems today, political and personal.
MILES: Have you ever had any experiences you might consider supernatural?
DEL REY: To me, being alive is pretty supernatural. I feel just existing in this consciousness is a supernatural event. There are many theories and there’s speculation. Technologies have been developed to try to explain how we got here, but no one knows for sure. Our capacity to understand is too limited still as a species. Our existence is definitely a mystery to me.
BELLAIRE: I had a single mysterious and unexplained strange moment in a condemned hotel as a child, but I just look back on it fondly because I think it was me at the peak of my blooming curiosity and imagination, hoping to see the devil in the dark.
MILES: In earlier interviews, Jordie mentioned that she grew up in Florida and that Vanesa currently lives there. Jordie said there is a certain darkness and weirdness that seems to hang over the state (I was reminded of the @_FloridaMan twitter account). What do you think is the root of this dark weirdness, and how do you think it ties in with the art and writing of REDLANDS? What kind of unique opportunities does the story being set in Florida allow you to pursue?
DEL REY: I’m from Cuba. I was born there and lived there for most of my life. I have lived in Florida for about a decade or so. What has been most appealing to me about this series is that I get to explore Florida—I get to know this place better. It’s about exploring the rich visual landscape Florida has.
The swamp is the most alluring place. It’s so dense and humid, and there is darkness in the intricacy of the mangrove forest. There’s also a rich mixture of characters in Florida. There are people from a lot of places with different belief systems, different levels of education, different traditions. There are areas of Florida where opulence and shallowness rule, and there are other areas where people go to shrivel up and die. Florida is famous for hosting some of the hottest spots to have fun, where you can do fun things like really weird drugs or visit a theme park, or do both at the same time!
I feel a "pirate bay" is a good way to describe it. It is kind of part of the Caribbean...or like a Wild West in the sense that really anything could happen...
BELLAIRE: I'm not sure why Florida is such a beacon of weirdness. I often make the joke that it's because it's so hot and full of so many people from all over America and all over the world visiting all the tourist destinations. Florida is this humid, sexy, strange swamp that attracts the weirdest activity. This just led to the obvious conclusion that, man, this place needs some witches.
There's something magical and bizarre about Florida, and there's so much history too. The Coral Castle, Robert the Haunted Doll, Ted Bundy—all of this just sits on the surface of Florida and calls for us to crawl deeper into the "why, god no, seriously, why" of it, and it goes so far back, even before Florida became Florida. It's a very spiritual and unusual place. I think it's in the air and the earth, so you can't really avoid it. Maybe I love Florida more than I realized...!
MILES: How has the political culture of the last few years, including the rise of engaged activists and the threats to women's rights, impacted how this book developed?
DEL REY: I think this series is coming up from the growing pains of human evolution—just like the current political culture is changing. Women’s rights have never been safe. Our world has evolved as male-centric, and it’s just slowly (it’s been like a century) realizing there are other ways of doing things and different ways of thinking. That we all experience this world individually. That conflict, aggression, and imposition are not the answer. That perhaps collaboration with one another, compassion, and tolerance are probably the start and not the end goal. I think Jordie will have more to say about this since she has a broader sense of where the series is going and the themes she wants to touch on.
BELLAIRE: I think I'm sick of talking about women's rights. I don't understand why it's 2017 and we're still talking about women's rights, or any civil rights for that matter. This book developed out of that frustration. There's a lot to be said, and I think a lot of writers in this current climate are handling it—I do. But I do feel like, largely, this industry is run by the same problem that put us here in the first place: white men. White men aren't the devil, and if they were, as a white woman I'm a close second to that evil, but I want that voice and that anger to go beyond their experiences. With Vanesa and me telling this story, with a behind-the-scenes editor that's also a woman, I think we have the ability to bring our anger and our passions to the front of the line.
MILES: In one of the small towns I grew up in, thousands of arrests were invalidated when it became clear that one of the local deputies was not only the nephew of the sheriff but had an extensive list of criminal convictions that should have disqualified him from the position. This may have been reading too much into the subtext, but it seems like there are some similar elements of small-town corruption in the background of the first issue. Are there any personal experiences or fears layered into the corruption we see hinted at in REDLANDS?
DEL REY: It’s so scary to think how much power we give these people who are in charge of a large community, and we just trust they’re going to do their job well and serve and protect, and that there is a system in place to keep order. But in the end, they just end up falling into that instinctive human survival mode that is very selfish, so they end up corrupt and working towards their own special interest. It’s scary how much ignorance plays a part in manipulation, and we’re seeing that, for example, with the War on Drugs.
BELLAIRE: God yes, when I was in college, I had a bike stolen from my property. I was hesitant to involve the police at all, but knew it was important to report a crime since it was also essentially a B&E. I called the police and they came over. I had one very kind and sweet officer take his time filling out the report. He didn't blame me, he didn't accuse me of anything, he wasn't even mad I was basically wasting his time—when a bike is gone, it's just gone. I thanked him for his time as he left and explained that I was hesitant and scared to have him over and into my home but that I was glad he was such a professional kind person. He then said to me, "You're right to be scared of us. About 90 percent of us are no good."
Who the hell says that to someone?! I was 21 when I heard it, and I've never forgotten that moment. This, mixed with only bad experiences and stories of police in Florida, confirmed all my worst fears. We were really right to be cautious and afraid. We shouldn't be afraid of those who are paid to protect and serve.
MILES: On a similar note, there's a recurring theme in literature that every small town hides a dark secret. Can you give us any clues about what kind of dark secrets Redlands has buried?
BELLAIRE: Redlands is just a terrible place. I don't think that's a secret. The people who run it are terrible, the people who come to run it are terrible, and everything is terrible. I think the story is meant to be a very real-world depiction of how secrets really exist in the world. Someone may harbor a terrible hatred of minorities and think it's a secret, but it comes out in how they hire and speak to others unlike them. Therefore, not much of a secret—just a shitty lifestyle that festers out of an untold truth. That's what REDLANDS is. There are supernatural secrets, but they are more character-based, and that is a secret only in that I won't give away the story here...you have to read it!
DEL REY: Too many secrets...there’s a vampire/alligator man—wait, can I say that, Jordie?
REDLANDS #1 arrives 8/9 and is available for preorder now.
Vernon Miles is a reporter with the Alexandria Gazette and freelance writer for Image+. He lives in a crowded apartment in Washington, DC with two roommates and a lop-eared rabbit named George. IMAGE+ is an award-winning monthly comics magazine that's packed with interviews, essays, and features about all your favorite Image comics and your first look at upcoming releases.