by Jarrod Jones. Nicnevin and the Bloody Queen, the first original graphic novel by filmmaker Helen Mullane, wants to lead you down a treacherous path. Let it.
For this being her first published comics work, Mullane has shown an incredible knack for compounding fear. I’ve read Nicnevin and I’m telling you: She’s good. Damn good. Mullane’s lifelong infatuation with the horror genre, coupled with the artistic strengths of artists Dom Reardon, Matthew Dow Smith, and Jock, has created a perfect storm for the best kind of dread.
The aesthetic of Nicnevin? Pure folk horror. Tree branches and mistletoe and scythes and border ballads. And at the center of all this arcane majesty lies Nicknevin Oswald, disaffected teenager, more in love with staring at her phone than seeing the evil things taking shape right in front of her. Nicnevin has been taken to the countryside for a summertime cool-down—her parent’s idea, given her academic and social behaviors—which sounds like it’s exactly what Nicnevin needs. But unbeknownst to her mum, or even to Nicnevin herself, these ancient lands are calling Nicnevin home, a song caught in the wind, conspiring against her.
All signs point to doom. But Nicnevin won’t be chastened, doesn’t want help, won’t heed warning. An opportunity for those who dabble in evil to cast a terrible shadow.
“I wanted to channel the feelings and attitudes that I remember so clearly from my own teenage years, the experiences of me and my friends,” Mullane said in Nicnevin‘s official press release from Humanoids Publishing. “We weren’t wholesome or chaste, or bothered about saving the day—we weren’t the Famous Five or the Teen Titans! We just wanted to hang around, maybe get a bit wasted, get crushes on whoever was around… I feel like that sort of teen experience is rarely explored in mainstream comics.”
Nicnevin and the Bloody Queen is available to order now. To mark the occasion, DoomRocket spoke with Helen Mullane about her first comics project, the comics scripting techniques she’s learned along the way, and how this all ties into, of all things, the Care Bears Movie.
1. Your work as producer of ‘Futureshock! The Story of 2000 AD’ (which is a terrific doc, by the way) led to you falling in with some of the creator droids who’ve worked on the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, chiefly artist Dom Reardon of ‘Caballistics Inc.’ fame. Did you know that you wanted to tell a story like ‘Nicnevin and the Bloody Queen’ with Dom from the start? How did you know you wanted to tell a folk horror story as your first comics outing?
Helen Mullane: Thanks very much, I’m glad you enjoyed it! No, I didn’t. I knew I wanted to create a pastoral, druidic horror story about a surly teen, but I thought I wanted to make it for TV. It wasn’t until Dom and I enjoyed an animated discussion one evening during the shooting of Futureshock that I discovered to my great delight that yes, I absolutely wanted to write a horror comic with Dom and that he was up for taking the plunge with me!
2. I believe this is your first comic script, is that right? How did you first go about drafting ‘Nicnevin’, and what did you learn from the experience?
This is my first bash at a comic script, yes. I read a bunch of comic scripts for books I like before I started, and found out that everyone does it pretty differently. I’m a bit of a planner, I made a series of timelines so I knew where every character was all the time, and made a big chart of each section and each page with notes about what was happening in each. From there I was able to write scene by scene with easy prompts from my notes.
Dom and I spoke and decided together on the level of granular detail I would aim for. Dom is a brilliant artist with much more experience than me so the layouts were rightly his domain, and I only stuck my oar in when I had an extremely clear vision for a page. The disadvantage of that is that sometimes I wrote too much on certain pages and we had to work around that later, or Dom and the wonderful Matthew Dow Smith had to rework pages a bit to make things fit.
I learnt so very much from this experience. I watched as things really came together layer by layer, with pencils and inks from Dom and Matthew to Lee’s spectacular colours and Robin’s insightful lettering choices to really show me the strengths and weaknesses of what I had delivered. There were times when I had to go back and rejig what I had written which was also a great learning experience.
I think the thing I learned most of all though was that I love writing comics. The whole process of making comics is just magical and I want to do it forever.
3. At one point you described your initial drafts as even “more minimal” than the finished product—did you want to leave much of this story, fantastic and horrifying as it is, more open to interpretation? What caused you to hit the brakes on this, and add more dialogue and lore to the story?
I am a really strong believer in ‘show don’t tell’. I’m not a big lover of explicit exposition in any medium and particularly not in this genre. My initial drafts were super minimal, with almost no writing for the reader beyond the dialogue. It was cool as a dreamy mood piece but there were two problems with it. One was that it was super ambiguous in a way many people would find off-putting. So one thing I had to do was find a way to set out lore and give insights into how Nissy is feeling for the reader but without it feeling expositional. The other problem was that it read much quicker than I had expected. And that’s purely my lack of experience not knowing that less writing means a faster-paced comic.
4. What can you tell me about Nicnevin, the book’s central character, in the lead-up to the story’s beginning? When we first meet her, she’s clearly been in a bit of trouble with her school and her folks, and has grown a colossal chip on her shoulder as a result. How does this inform her attitude heading into her summer vacation?
Her attitude heading to her summer holiday is appalling. I don’t think from her perspective she’s really done that much wrong. She won’t have done anything different to her mates, but she’s been caught and she’s being punished and she resents it. She thinks of herself as an adult who has the right to decide for herself how she should live her life. I purposely set up Nissy as a middle class teen whose parents have money, they live in one of the poshest neighbourhoods in London and her friend is ‘summering’ abroad, so the implication is that she’s a bit spoiled.
5. One thing I really appreciated about this story was how there are entire pages where characters are allowed to simply get lost on a summer’s day. Chatter is kept to an absolute minimum. Just vistas and nature and beauty. It gives ‘Nicniven’ a feel of being somewhere strange at dusk, the thrill that comes with not being in control of your surroundings. But Nicnevin, Nissy, is being reckless with her new experiences, getting in cars with strangers, leaving her little brother alone while she runs off to explore. What is it about this kind of blithe recklessness that makes such fertile ground for folk horror, do you think?
Thanks! That sense of atmosphere is exactly what we were trying for. Nissy is both disinterested and reckless, and that’s quite a dangerous combination. Her shortcomings create the fertile ground for horror to take root, like you say. If she was more careful she would not have gotten so close to Reggie, and if she was more interested in the world around her she would have realised there was something strange going on long before she did.
6. So let’s talk about Reggie, the older bloke who has a tendency to arrive before Nissy either in his sports car or without a shirt. He is the conduit through which Nissy comes to an awakening of sorts, one that is sensual as well as supernatural. You mentioned in an interview that the 1969 film ‘I Start Counting’ was an inspiration for this particular plot element—how did you want to approach the relationship between Reggie and Nissy, considering the major-league creep factor at play here? How does that film factor in?
I Start Counting is a fantastic movie that stars Jenny Agutter as a teen who has a crush on a guy that turns out to be villainous. I loved the fact that the protagonist didn’t really care that much about something that to the viewer is a really key part of the narrative. In our story you don’t really know how much Nissy does or doesn’t notice, but there are some big set pieces that we know she sees. The difference between us and her though is that we care and are invested in the mystery, while she is not.
As for the relationship between Nissy and Reggie, I wanted to make it clear that they are experiencing the same events in totally different ways. Any of us who have been love-sick teens (or indeed adults) with a crush who doesn’t even register us in that way have been in the same position as Nissy in this story. I don’t want to shy away from exploring complicated dynamics, especially ones that I deeply relate to, because of my understanding of those dynamics as problematic.
7. There’s a bit where Nissy’s mother says that “physics isn’t so far from magic.” It’s her way of rationally explaining away the claims that her own mother might have been a witch. But Nissy is surrounded by her grandmother’s old books, with protection spells and other such arcana, and it’s clear that her mother hasn’t quite kept an open mind concerning her family’s legacy. How do you juggle rationality and fantasy in the face of folklore? I mean, before long in stories such as these all common sense is inevitably peeled away, isn’t it?
I have my own ideas about the experiences Nissy’s mum has had, and where those words come from, which I would love to get the chance to explore in the future. I agree with her that physics, like subatomic and quantum physics where science loses its damn mind, is so close to magic as to be virtually indistinguishable. At the deepest levels of science we understand virtually nothing and the world presents us with mystery after mystery.
So I don’t know if you have to seperate rationality and fantasy. You have to create a world with rules and stick to those rules, or the whole thing is just a mess.
8. I loved the way you implemented actual British myths into the story, foundating the story’s fantastic elements with real-world legend—the juxtaposition of the telling of “The Ballad of True Thomas” with the location where Nissy first hears it being a stand-out sequence for me. It made for a truly immersive experience.
Thank you! I’m glad that resonated with you. Those moments of marrying the real and imagined are something I love so much and really wanted to include.
Did you discover anything else during the research process for ‘Nicnevin’ that you can’t wait to implement into future stories, should the mood to write them strike you?
Oh absolutely. As a rabid over-researcher, I found quite a lot of random tidbits! I learnt about bog bodies and border ballads (there are loads of cool ones, well worth looking into if you liked “The Ballad of True Thomas”) and that Northumberland folklore is absolutely riddled with fascinating beasties.
I also learnt some stuff that is in the book but might not initially look like it came from research, for example the way the sacrifices are carried out, and the many household charms that protect Nissy’s home.
9. You live in Sweden and when you’re not writing you’re a sled dog trainer. How does your life in this environment inform your writing? Is it easier to tap into a feeling of creeping dread when there’s often wide open spaces surrounding you?
My work is very inspiring. The mix of intense physicality and lots of time to think really is a magically creative combination.
Creeping dread is something I channel from my lifelong obsession with horror stories. Honestly the landscape here is so beautiful and driving a dog team long distance so transcendent that if you’re pulling specifically from that it pushes you in other directions, toward other worlds and epic tales. What those endless tundra and hours of peace have definitely done though, is broaden my spectrum of experience and emotion. I think I’m painting with a richer palate than I did before.
10. One last thing: You told SyFy that there’s a deep ‘Care Bears Movie’ reference in ‘Nicniven’, and I looked—I couldn’t find one. I was a huge nerd for ‘Care Bears Movie II: A New Generation’, however, and I noted similarities between the relationship with Nissy and Reggie and the ‘Care Bears II’ characters Christy and Dark Heart. Could this be what you meant? I know that movie had some serious dark fantasy elements in there that irked my grandmother something fierce when I first saw it.
It’s a single image. When Nissy opens the book in her vision and is scared awake by the face in it. It’s a literal recreation of the moment in the Care Bear Movie. I even put a screenshot in the script!
I’m happy to meet a fellow lover of that movie. An underrated classic.
‘Nicnevin and the Bloody Queen’ is available now.
Check out this 5-page preview of ‘Nicnevin and the Bloody Queen’ (including cover process work by Jock), courtesy of H1 Originals, an imprint of Humanoids Publishing!
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