By Jarrod Jones. Black Crown is about to get spooky.
Announced at Emerald City Comic Con this past April, House Amok brings Christopher Sebela and Shawn McManus into the Black Crown fold. It tells the story of Dylan Sandifer, 10 years old and the only sane member of her family, who travels with her manic brood across the United States in search of answers concerning the most insane kind of conspiracies, the types that involve alien invasion and organ theft. For McManus — known for his storied history with Vertigo, and most notably for his run on Fables — it’s another chance to get up to some trouble with editor Shelly Bond. For Sebela, House Amok is a much-desired career opportunity realized.
“Working with Shelly has been on my short comics must-do list for awhile now,” he tells me, before underscoring the excitement that continues to swirl around Bond’s Black Crown imprint. “Once she had started Black Crown, I knew I definitely had to work with her there, in a place where she was kind of building a world of her own.”
Sebela, whose work in the horror genre included the devilishly entertaining Demonic for Skybound, is no stranger to Black Crown’s passion for music and comics. In Heartthrob, Sebela’s romantic crime thriller with artist Robert Wilson IV, the writer imbued the wild-at-heart-but-just-be-careful narrative with nods aplenty towards Fleetwood Mac. With House Amok, the sixth title for Black Crown and the imprint’s first horror book, Sebela gets to do what he does best: spin a terror-inducing yarn, this time backed by one of comics finest artists and one of its hardest-working editors.
“I sent [Bond] the ‘House Amok’ pitch one night, a little nervous, and she wrote me back either that night or the next, right after midnight, saying how much she loved it and wanted to do it,” Sebela continued. “So, it’s kinda been an amazing roller coaster the whole way through. Like, that night she’d already dropped Shawn’s name as being a good choice to draw it and, Shelly being the magic editor she is, she had it all lined up within a week.”
Christopher Sebela spoke with me about House Amok, the prospects of Black Crown’s first bonafide horror title, and his literal worst nightmare.
1. I’ve scanned all my snobby literary Rolodexes for a reference point and have come up short. Tell me, where did the name ‘House Amok’ come from?
Christopher Sebela: When I submitted the pitch to Shelly Bond, I couldn’t figure out a title so I tried to kiss a little butt and named it for a lyric in an old Bowie song called ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ and because I was trying out long titles. So the pitch I sent her was titled “And If The Devil May Be Here” — which Shelly hated. And she didn’t even get the reference.
So she told me to go figure out another one and I think I just really like the word “Amok” — it just evokes a lot about the more frenetic side of crazy, people running amok, etc. So I just merged this sloppy crazy word with a very proper lead-in like “House” which I think of in the sense of it evoking family in a sense of royalty and heritage. I think I assumed Shelly would hate it and I’d come up with something better but she didn’t and I never did, so now it’s stuck.
2. We know so little about the “damaged nuclear family” at the center of ‘House Amok’. What can you tell us about these characters and the threats they face?
CS: The mom and dad are George and Karen. George is a daddy blogger who has been living off the ad revenues of monetizing all this content about his family and all the trials that come with it. In a way, he values the family the most because of his love for them and the fact that just them being themselves allows him to still live “freely” without having to accept a lot of the responsibilities of fatherhood and adulthood. Karen works full-time as a book keeper for all the small businesses and farms in their area. She has to be the responsible one, the tough one. She can’t be the best friend of the family because she’s too worried that everything they’ve worked for will be whisked away from them.
Tyler is a teenager in high school who’s trying to live his life just as he’s coming into his own, doing his best to get distance from his family. After George and Karen moved the family out to the middle of nowhere Oregon, Tyler had to give up everything in his life and start over in the middle. He’s resentful and he’s kind of a typical teenager, but he’s doing his best to be his own person even as he can’t help but do what his parents say.
The heart of the family in our story is the twins, Olivia and Dylan. They’re identical twin girls and they have that kind of strange twin energy between them. They’re like a family within the family. They’re homeschooled by their Dad and so they’re not like typical kids in a lot of ways. They’re sort of the time bomb that starts all of this and has to fix it. Ollie and Dylan were the first characters I had in mind for this story and while it’s hard to write kids sometimes, they’re a lot of fun, even amongst all this strange and horrifying stuff swirling around them.
3. Shelly Bond set you up with artist Shawn McManus. How have you two gotten on in terms of collaboration?
CS: Great, honestly. It’s been very casual. Shawn’s a pro and he knows what he’s doing. I try to let every artist I work with on creator-owned stuff know that I’m not precious about my scripts and if they can see a better way to pull this off, they should do it. Shawn has been making great comics for decades now, so I just try to stay out of his way, answer any questions when he has them and gawk in awe at the pages as they come in. He’s just so dang good.
For the very first bit of art, which were supposed to be his simple character sketches, he drew this amazing illustration of the family, their schoolbus and the nightmares all around them. That was Shawn’s idea of character sketches, sending in this fully-done cover image. I didn’t have any doubts once Shelly suggested him, but when I saw that I knew this book was in some ridiculously talented hands. It takes any worries you might have as a writer and completely quashes them. Now I just write the book and know whatever I hand to Shawn, he’s going to come up with something twice as good.
4. You’re not known for holding back in your horror stories. Some of them end up becoming these real blood-baths, and yet — so far — all of Black Crown’s output has been relatively tame on the violence side. What’s going to be your and Shawn’s approach to violence in ‘House Amok’?
CS: We’re not here to do a splatter book; our book is much more about the horrors in your head. But there will be moments where things get wildly out of hand. With books like Demonic, I let loose and went for it in terms of violence and blood because it felt right for a book and a character like that. For House Amok, I want to have those moments be much more shocking and singular, so our horrors are going to be less direct than you might have seen from me in previous stories.
5. You seem to really thrive in horror. Where did your fascination with it come from, and what’s cemented your love affair with it over the years?
CS: Horror was the first genre I learned to love, I think. Fantasy never did it for me and while I liked sci-fi, horror just spoke to me in a very direct way. As a kid I’d go to the library and take out tons of books about monsters and aliens and cryptids, many of which treated them as a real thing. And one of the first experiences I remember having with horror movies is staying up late with a friend of mine and watching a double feature of Blood Beach and Friday the 13th Part 3 on cable. I think it was the forbidden nature of it, that they showed it so late and I knew I shouldn’t be watching that really sucked me in completely. From there, I’ve been a full-on horror nerd. Even as horror can wax and wane and the majority of the genre is a lot of really rough road, I keep hanging in because when I find a horror story that really speaks to me, it’s more special. Probably because I’ve had to do the digging to find the gems in all this dirt.
6. What kind of horror do you love to write? And when you’re writing it, do you construct limits to how far you’re willing to go for the sake of either your fellow creators, your editors, or your readers?
CS: With all my other stuff, I like my horror to be character based. I find it hard for myself to care about what happens to characters in a horror story if I know nothing about them and I find it hard to write characters if they’re just a series of clichés I’m setting up just so I can do a quality kill down the road. True horror, for me, comes from that realization that things have slipped off the track and none of the rules you live your daily life by apply anymore. And the best way to explore that is through the eyes and interactions of the people you’re trying to bring to life.
I try not to set limits on myself for how far I’m willing to go in horror. There’s definitely a limit in my head when I know I’ve gone too far and done something that’s just being vile for vile’s sake. So either I never write it or I write it and reconsider before I turn in a draft. So on that end, I’ve never had any pushback from fellow creators or editors or readers. I’ve had collaborators ask me how bloody a story is gonna get and let me know that they’re not super comfortable with gore, but that’s about it. But I definitely have a dream of down the road going beyond those limits just to see what I can do.
7. Tell us about your experience working with Shelly Bond, and with Black Crown as a whole so far.
CS: Working with Shelly has been on my short comics must-do list for awhile now. She’d contacted me after reading High Crimes and wanted to talk about working together, which blew my mind. And we sorta talked here and there about it after that, but once she had started Black Crown, I knew I definitely had to work with her there, in a place where she was kind of building a world of her own. I sent her the House Amok pitch one night, a little nervous, and she wrote me back either that night or the next, right after midnight, saying how much she loved it and wanted to do it. So, it’s kinda been an amazing roller coaster the whole way through. Like, that night she’d already dropped Shawn’s name as being a good choice to draw it and, Shelly being the magic editor she is, she had it all lined up within a week.
It’s been as magical an experience as I could’ve hoped for. Just talking with Shelly on the phone about story stuff really helps open up my ideas and my thinking about this comic and my approach to comics as a whole. Plus I get to be in a gang with Tini Howard, who I’ve been friends with for a few years now and have been excited to see her leapfrog her way into being a comics superstar in the making.
8. ‘House Amok’ puts the readers on the road with its central characters from Portland to the east coast. Do you have a horror story from your experiences as a creator on the road that you’d like to share with us?
CS: Hm. Not necessarily as a creator. I’ve done a lot of road trips in my life. I love to drive and I have a love/endurance relationship with really long road trips. I’ve stayed at my share of weird murder motels I wasn’t sure I would get out of alive. I once did an uninterrupted 23-hour drive from Omaha to Portland that sort of slowly drove me mad. All my biggest road trip horror stories are about those stretches of road where everything is pitch black and you’re the only car on the road, just desperately trying to get to the next sign of civilization and all you can think of is your car shooting off a switchback road and you dying out in the darkness, no one even aware you’re there. Fun stuff like that. Oh, and the Clown Motel. But I’ve said enough about that.
9. From the little I’ve seen, ‘House Amok’ looks and feels like survival horror set to a killer soundtrack. This being a book from Black Crown, an imprint very much influenced by music, did you have any particular artists or soundtracks you listened to while working on this book? Who do you think would put together the ultimate soundtrack for ‘House Amok’?
CS: I do. For simplicity’s sake, you can find the actual soundtrack here. I’m still constructing it as I write the book, but a lot of my songs are based either on titles, lyrical content, general feel or a heady combination of the three. I try to find songs that match the moods I’m most interested in exploring, or that will make me think about the story in ways I haven’t before when I’m not working on it. I like to put on soundtracks for books and go for a walk as a way to generate ideas or get over story humps.
As far as one particular band that would be best suited for a House Amok soundtrack, I can’t think of one in particular. Maybe the 13th Floor Elevators or their lead singer, Roky Erickson, who dealt a lot with madness in his life and writes songs that evoke the kind of paranoia and delusions that are the coin of the realm of our book.
10. Your worst nightmare, please.
CS: Hm. In terms of straight fears: I hate heights and bugs. So if I was perched on top of a very narrow tower and being swarmed by all manner of insects at the same time. In terms of actual worse nightmare, I have a recurring nightmare of a haunted house, like the kind you pay money to enter at Halloween, but this one is full of actual horrors and it lasts for hours until I finally wake up, exhausted. I’ve had it less and less over the last few years, but I dread it returning. Actually, me just bringing it up like this kinda ensures it’s gonna make a triumphant return. I hope you’re happy.
‘House Amok’ drops August 22. You can pre-order ‘House Amok’ #1 now.
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