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Winnebago Graveyard: Tour The Southwest. But Be Careful. [Interview]

feature by Henry Barajas, originally published in IMAGE+ 12

You have to thank the Internet for conjuring up the most unlikely (and demonic) teams in comics. Steve Niles & Alison Sampson have teamed up to remind you how traveling the spine-chilling parts of Texas are the worst way to spend a family vacation. They’re not alone, as colorists Jordie Bellaire and Stephane Paitreau help bring this new horror series WINNEBAGO GRAVEYARD to Image Comics. Here’s what to expect from their creator-owned series and why motels are the best place to stay if you want a devil-worshipping cult to kill you:

HENRY BARAJAS: You have mentioned that WINNEBAGO GRAVEYARD was influenced by Race with the Devil. But Alison Sampson’s art brings the story and concept to another level. What can we expect from this new horror series that we haven’t seen in your work before?
 
STEVE NILES: Not just Race with the Devil but also films like The Devil’s Rain and The Devil Rides Out and many more from that genre. I’ve always loved films with Satanic cults and the idea of whole towns being corrupted by evil. I’ve tried to capture the spirit of those films while trying to create something new, but I don’t want to give too much away at this point. I’ve always found the idea of a family being stuck in a town full of evil cultists really creepy, so hopefully we’ve managed to capture some of that.
 
BARAJAS: I appreciate the attention to detail you have in the rural setting. How does a Londoner like yourself capture the desert so closely?

ALISON SAMPSON: Place is part of telling a story and putting events in context. Also, landscape and architecture and places and spaces give lots of opportunities for storytelling, as people travel over, inside, and through things. They’re a useful and probably underused tool for interesting comics. Aside from that, I don’t travel much and live in the center of one of the largest cities on earth, so being able to be transported by the work is nice for me. There are all these motives for delving deeper.

As to the how, the internet is very useful. That said, nothing beats going to find out for oneself, and earlier this year, Steve and Monica took me ‘round the area where our book is set and showed me the strange, fragmented desert landscape outside of Los Angeles. I took lots of pictures. That said, lack of knowledge is a great thing. You don’t know what you don’t know, and that gave me lots of opportunity to make the comic look how we wanted it to look.

BARAJAS: I love how you don’t waste any time and start with the comic with a bang. What kind of research went into the type of witchcraft involved? Sidenote, why are motels places for murdering folks just trying to get a night’s sleep?

NILES: I have a pretty big library on the occult. I’ve always been fascinated by witchcraft and demonology. I’m not a believer, but I’ve always been struck by the imagery and symbolism. It still strikes fear in people’s hearts even today.

Honestly, I don’t know what it is about motels. I think it’s the easy access to victims. People on the road, either just going on a trip or on vacation or running away from something, they’re far from the safety of their homes.

SAMPSON: Steve gave me a long list of films to watch (which we may include in the backmatter at some stage) and I’ve talked to a few people. One of the big things is finding out what not to use. You can’t just appropriate symbols and things you find on the internet as these things are important to people in the real world. There’s an extremely thin line to tread.

Regarding the motels, traveling in a campervan is one of those times when you actually do need to be a bit paranoid—you’re on a budget, and if somewhere is a bit off, it is really going to affect you. Motels are where “the other” is. No questions are asked. Things happen. The films we watch tell us this. This is the world our book is set in, it is another reason why we include pieces of film crit in every issue.
 
BARAJAS: Alison, I understand Niles approached and pitched you this story. What sold you on this project?

SAMPSON: Steve is known as a writer of horror, but I think of him as a writer of humans, and I wanted to make something readers could be caught up by. There are people here to root for, who are flawed, who we know. There are monsters. The story is set in the real world. It is demanding work to make and it’s good to be pushed. And I’ve traveled a lot in a campervan, and I can relate to the experience of turning up somewhere and being so creeped out that you have to leave pretty much a few minutes after you arrive. It was odd, but very real.

So all of this and my experience with Steve’s other work like like Freaks of the Heartland made me want to do it. Also, I read a lot of James Herbert when I was really quite young and I wanted to make that kind of book—the first “adult” horror book a child might read, the kind of thing that gets passed around by schoolkids. I can still remember sequences in those books, how I felt. I told Steve not to hold back. 

BARAJAS: Steve, what was it about Sampson’s art that caught your eye?
 
NILES: The amazing detail and bizarre perspectives. I thought she would really add a layer of horror with her style and from the way the series is turning out, I think she’s done it. I’m so happy we’re doing this together.
 
BARAJAS: It’s good to see more letterers get more cover recognition. Aditya Bidikar has been busy lately, and WINNEBAGO GRAVEYARD is a good example. Why do you think it has taken so long for the industry to give letterers their due?
 
NILES: There was a time when even creators didn’t get full credit. I think it just takes time for people to catch up. I for one am glad to see colorists and letterers getting credit. They can really bring the pages to life.
 
BARAJAS: The cover is colored by Jordie Bellaire and the interiors by Stéphane Paitreau. The two really set the tone and complement your art beautifully. What is it like to see the two color your work, and how do you think they work tone-wise for the story?

SAMPSON: Thank you. It’s just totally exciting to see masters-of-what-they-do elevate my work. It has also been quite liberating to hand over the control and let them do their thing. Jordie’s work with the covers captures some of the abstract qualities of what we are trying to do—sometimes not being realistic is the most real thing you can be. Stéphane’s work organises my designs and makes quite complicated pages (this is effectively a team book, there’s lots of vehicles, it is mostly night time, and almost everyone has different skin colors...and then there’s the gore...) so much more readable. He has invented a painted style for our project that is a simplified version of his more elaborate bande dessinée work. Tonally what he does is quite subtle—it is tempting for me to want every page to be all bijoux in its coloring (probably going off-message in the process) and I think he reins the work in and keeps it on track.

BARAJAS: It’s refreshing to see all the women working on this book. I enjoyed the essays by Sarah Horrocks and Casey Gilly. Was this organic, or did you go out of your way to find these female voices and creators?

NILES: All credit goes to Alison for this. She has assembled an amazing team and I think she found the best voices for the themes in this book.

SAMPSON: Casey and Sarah were right for this book. Sarah’s film crit essays elaborate on themes that add to the tone of our book. She has a skill in talking about place and experience in a way that is very evocative, and the films she is writing about help transport our readers to a new place. Just as our book might be the first horror comic a reader has read, maybe they will also go and see a film they wouldn’t have seen otherwise .

Casey brings some quite specific knowledge and a particular humane sensibility along with her writing skills. I don’t want to spoil readers’ enjoyment of her work, so I’ll just say it’s an unusual, timely, and informed series of nonfiction essays. 

As to the artists involved, I haven’t had to go out of my way, and people have been very keen. I do think women have had less chance to draw horror, and to give people who are sometimes known for sunnier styles a chance to indulge their inner Junji Ito is fun for everyone. There are a number of guys involved—for example David Rubin, who is obvious for this—I just tried to think of people who could hit a certain tone. There wouldn’t be darkness without light, and we wanted the book to have some subtlety in that respect. Also satanism can be fun, possibly. 

The Asian-American artists on the project include Paulina Ganucheau, Jen Bartel, Mingjue Helen Chen, Emi Lenox, Irene Strychalski, and Annie Wu because they are the best people for the job (and you can get an idea of the tone I’m going for from this list), but the fact that we have a denim-clad mother who just happens to be Asian-American as our leading lady probably wasn’t an obstacle to them coming on board. Plus, everyone wants to work with Steve.

BARAJAS: Both of you are known for your bone-chilling stories. What keeps you up at night?

SAMPSON: Coffee, chocolate, cheese, urban foxes, inking...not much. I need my sleep to live to fight another day.

NILES: The news. Especially lately.

WINNEBAGO GRAVEYARD #1 arrives 6/14 and is available for preorder now.

Originally from the Old Pueblo, Henry Barajas works for Top Cow Productions and sells doughnuts in Hollywood. He writes comics, writes about comics, and collects comics. 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.