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The Agony of Creation: Ray Fawkes Presents Underwinter [Interview]

The line between musician and instrument blurs in UNDERWINTER: SYMPHONY, the new horror series from Ray Fawkes. A small group of musicians happen upon the gig of a lifetime, but soon find themselves enveloped in a web of cruelty, and at the mercy of people who have none. UNDERWINTER: SYMPHONY is located at the nexus of art and pain, and at the end of the road is a close look at the act of creation.

IMAGE COMICS: What was the original germ of an idea that led to UNDERWINTER?

RAY FAWKES: UNDERWINTER as a series is born of my fascination with the duality of our world: how it can be achingly beautiful and disgustingly horrifying all at once. "Everything is bittersweet" is, I think, the first line that went into my notebook when I was coming up with this series. SYMPHONY, as the first volume of the book, was conceived as the story that would introduce readers to the hauntingly bittersweet setting I wanted to explore: a visceral horror story in lush, ornate, beautiful dressing.

IC: Your independent works—One Soul, The People Inside, INTERSECT—tend to zero in on weighty ideas and dig deep into them, in addition to being visually impressive. What need do these kinds of project fulfill for you, creatively?

FAWKES: They fulfill THE creative need for me, really. It's the deep ideas, the experimental ones, that keep me up at night as a writer, so to speak: while I put as much as I can into all my work, the independent books are the only works that have no outside constraints on them, and I'm free to follow an urgent path of thought all the way, no holding back. All I dream of, as a writer, is to say whatever it is I think I have to say, whichever way I think would be best to say it, without hesitation, without diluting it. Books like One Soul or INTERSECT and UNDERWINTER are where I have the space to do exactly that. 

These are the books that can be unique, sincere, and, I like to think, powerful.

IC: Music is the art form that's front and center in UNDERWINTER. What made music the best fit for this story, rather than film, prose, or even comics?

FAWKES: Well, there are two answers to that question. The first is that, as an art-form that doesn't rely on words, it could be portrayed "silently," with just the art in comics form. The feeling of music can be conveyed visually and can breathe in art without narration getting in the way of it.

The second answer is critical to the plot of SYMPHONY and can't be given away here. Music is central to this story, and in a way, SYMPHONY is about the purpose of music in the world.

IC: UNDERWINTER juxtaposes pain and creation from the first page on. What role does pain play in this story?

FAWKES: Pain and art seem to go hand in hand in a lot of our narrative, right? There are all the stories about disturbed artists, addicts, and the insane, producing staggeringly beautiful, classic works of art. The relationship of art to passion, sin, glamour, and pain plays a strong role in SYMPHONY. 

IC: Horror is often cerebral, cathartic, titillating, or a way of exploring our fears about the world. How are you approaching UNDERWINTER as a horror tale?

FAWKES: It's definitely an exploration, an attempt to ask a couple of questions about our world, and why we treat it the way we do, and what it is that we're afraid of while we behave so badly. But, of course, it's also a work of fiction, so it's an attempt to entertain and hopefully provoke thought, and maybe, if I'm lucky and good enough at what I do, provoke a sense of wonder too.

UNDERWINTER: SYMPHONY: The Playlist

  1. Mozart - The Requiem Mass: This is a book about classical musicians, after all, and pain and death and beauty and horror, so I've had this on repeat more than once while I painted the pages.
  2. Bartók - String Quartet no. 5 (Allegro): This is a piece the musicians in the book play more than once, and it's, er, conducive to the kind of brushstrokes that some of the really horrifying scenes needed.
  3. Portishead - Only You: I listen to a lot of Portishead, when I'm writing or otherwise. This song in particular feels like the scenes outside of the performances in SYMPHONY to me.
  4. Phantogram - Cruel World: Just one of those songs on one of those albums that seems to fit the mindset of one of the protagonists of SYMPHONY perfectly.
  5. DJ Shadow with Run the Jewels - Nobody Speak: Just like the Phantogram songs: this one fits another one of the protagonists so well that it's on repeat whenever I paint the scenes that feature her.

UNDERWINTER #1, part one of the story arc "Symphony," is available for pre-order now. It debuts 3/22.