THIS INTERVIEW CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS FOR ‘SOMETHING IS KILLING THE CHILDREN’ #1 & #2.
by Jarrod Jones. A series of brutal slayings have rocked the quiet Wisconsin hamlet of Archer’s Peak. Parents are terrified for their children, the police are overwhelmed—it seems like the entire town is frozen in a panic that it collectively cannot escape. Then one day via Greyhound, a stranger arrives to town. Her name is Erica Slaughter, and she’s ready and willing to find the source of the killing—and definitely get a bit of killing done herself.
Erica is a warrior. Decked out with twin machetes and a ghoulish bandanna tied tight across her face, Erica is a rictus-grinning monster slayer that will alter your perceptions of the “youth-in-peril” horror fable. Something is Killing the Children is a Midwestern drama of tragedy and a horror story engineered to haunt, and Erica is a proper shock to the genre’s system. Then there’s the twin shadows permanently set under her eyes, a grim sort of domino mask owed to countless nights where she was denied sleep from remembering the day’s dark deeds. Erica’s slaughters have long taken their toll. Her plight is damn-near mythic.
Add all this to the spectacle of Erica taking on the supernatural, and Erica could be confused by some as a kind of superhero. And wouldn’t you know it? She’s the creation of James Tynion IV, an A-list comics writer who is certainly no stranger to horror or superheroes. He assures me that the disparity is intentional. “I want that strange feeling like a comic book character walked into the wrong comic book,” he says. “Like this was meant to be a sad, small town drama, but now there’s this badass monster hunter character.”
BOOM! Studios’ Something is Killing the Children is something of a coming-home for James. The book, recently promoted to an ongoing series, reunites James with his editor of The Woods, Eric Harburn. And even though some time has passed between the two (say nothing of advancements in career), Eric makes it sound as though Something could be treated as a spiritual successor to The Woods, if not in tone than certainly in creative harmony. Says Eric: “After all these years of working together, I think James and I have built up a level of mutual trust that allows us to collaborate in a very raw, instinctual way.”
“This is the series where I think I started to discover the writer I think I’m going to be for this next part of my career, and I find that incredibly exciting, but also very frightening!” James says about Something, which is illustrated by Werther Dell’edera and Miquel Muerto with letters by Andworld Design. “But that’s good. It’s good to be frightened as a writer. I think too much comfort breeds complacency, and I want to keep pushing myself and keep changing.”
James Tynion IV and Eric Harburn spoke with DoomRocket about Something is Killing the Children, the art team behind it that makes it sing, and the future of BOOM! Studios’ latest horror sensation.
1. James, you’ve returned to tell another horror story and you’re back at BOOM! Studios. It feels right. If you would, tell our readers why you’re telling ‘Something is Killing the Children’ now, at this point in your career.
James Tynion IV: That is a very good question, with a lot of answers to it. I made a decision a few years ago to put all my time and effort into my work at DC Comics. I spent two years without a single new creator-owned title released. That’s a long time in comics. And outside of comics, it had been even longer. My 2017 titles, Backstagers and Eugenic, had been pitched in 2015. There is a long road between having a kernel of an idea and it hitting the stands. So it was a little over a year ago that I was drowning in titles. I was writing two events simultaneously (The Witching Hour, spinning out of Justice League Dark, and Drowned Earth, spinning out of Justice League). I was writing constantly, all day and night, but there was this itch… It felt like I was using a lot of the same storytelling muscles on all my work, and I was neglecting the storytelling muscles that brought me into this industry to begin with.
I love superhero comics, and I always have, but it was original series at Vertigo like The Sandman, V for Vendetta, and Transmetropolitan that made me want to write comic books for a living. And so, I started having a series of conversations that would spawn a whole new batch of creator-owned titles, of which Something is Killing the Children is only the first. And honestly, these books were a bit of a revelation to me. I think my early creator-owned titles were me dealing with a lot of my angst from high school and college. They were the stories and themes that I was obsessed with then, finally taking shape and taking form… But these new books are the first concepts that feel like they’re coming from the adult James Tynion IV. They tap into my current fears a lot more than the ones that consumed me when I was 18. And I think from the first issue of Something is Killing the Children, you can see a different voice on the title.
This is the series where I think I started to discover the writer I think I’m going to be for this next part of my career, and I find that incredibly exciting, but also very frightening! But that’s good. It’s good to be frightened as a writer. I think too much comfort breeds complacency, and I want to keep pushing myself and keep changing. I started in this industry when I was only 23 years old, and now I’m 31, and I am a very different person than I was then, and I’m sure I’ll be a very different person another 8-10 years down the road.
2. ‘Something is Killing the Children’ has been shifted to an ongoing series by BOOM! Studios before the first issue even dropped. What was the impetus behind this decision, and what has changed for you in terms of shaping this story?
JTIV: I mean, I’m sure from a publishing perspective it’s because that first issue did very well, which I am incredibly, incredibly grateful for. SIKTC is such a weird book to talk about because normally when I’m talking about a series, I have a lot to say about the plan. Normally, I have something a lot more intricately designed. A roadmap. With SIKTC I had something a lot looser, a lot less formed. When I first pitched the series, I saw it as a series of standalone one-shots. Vignettes where Erica Slaughter appeared in small towns all across America, killed a monster, and then disappeared before the town realized what really happened. I had a rough sketch of the series, how it would play out in five different settings, and how Erica would feature, but stay very much in the background. Strange and unknowable…
I was about five pages into writing the first issue when I realized that my initial plan was wrong. That wasn’t the comic book I was writing. I knew pretty immediately that the story of Archer’s Peak, WI was going to need all five issues to be done right. And it was when I started writing the third issue that I texted Eric again and told him that this was bigger than even that. I had started writing my first horror novel, in comic book form. But at that point, we didn’t have the sales numbers in, and there was no telling whether there would be the consumer support for doing this book as an ongoing. Eric gave me a very diplomatic “I would love that, but let’s wait and see.”
And then the numbers came in for the first issue, and we got word. Ongoing status was ours if we wanted it. I think it took me all of five minutes to outline how I would expand the story from what it was into what it is today. And the exciting thing to me is that it’s still changing. I know the shape of my story, but I had some conversations at New York Comic Con that may evolve it even further.
Bringing in Eric, what’s changed since the days of ‘The Woods’ in terms of how the two of you collaborate?
JTIV: I think I used to be a lot shier about texting Eric at all hours of the day and night when I had a new idea about something. He probably prefers the old days! But honestly, I trust Eric’s instincts as an editor more than anyone I’ve worked with in the industry. He has always guided me toward writing a better book. When I need to fight back on a note, he understands and listens, and we take it all from there.
Eric Harburn: Editor pro tip: never give creators your cell. (Kidding!) After all these years of working together, I think James and I have built up a level of mutual trust that allows us to collaborate in a very raw, instinctual way—as James said earlier, there was no true SIKTC roadmap at the beginning. We had a dynamite title and what we thought could be an iconic lead character, but past that the exact details were a bit murky. I trust James implicitly, though, so I knew this was a “hold on loosely” situation—lo and behold, he came back out of the story mines with what I believe is one of the best debut issues this decade. Actual editor pro tip: know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, and know when to just get out of your creators’ way.
3. Flipping through Werther Dell’Edera’s work on this book gives me proper Halloween, Tim Sale vibes. It’s atmospheric and dynamic, characteristic and pastoral, the perfect fit for this book. At what point did Dell’Edera come into this project?
JTIV: It was pretty early this year, if I remember correctly.
EH: January/February 2019, to be exact!
JTIV: We’d had a few conversations about artists and the style we wanted for the series, and the sticking point for me was that we needed someone atmospheric who could do good setting work. More than anything else, I think it was a page of another Werther project where he drew a gas station that sold me on him as a collaborator. It’s funny… I’ve been writing such ludicrous cosmic and magical stuff at DC for the last few years, that it was something so mundane that excited me. I knew the book would only work if we could juxtapose the horror and the strangeness of Erica Slaughter against a very real world. I was happy with the decision, but when the pages really started coming in, I was absolutely stunned. Like, holy shit, these were good pages. Writing a first issue is always hard, because you’re testing the bounds of an artist, to see what’s in their wheelhouse and what isn’t. It’s finding the balance between them and you… but once I saw the world he was drawing, and doubly so when the first incredible colors came in from Miquel Muerto… I knew we had something special, and that just fueled me to push even harder. I needed to write a book worthy of this incredible art.
EH: I’ve wanted to work with Werther since way, way back in 2010 when I first started as an Assistant Editor here at BOOM! There is this kind of raw, controlled chaos to Werther’s art that is intoxicating (and one of the highest degrees of difficulty to pull off in comics). After Werther drew Erica for the first time, I couldn’t imagine SIKTC being drawn by anyone else.
James, what has Dell-Edera brought to the characters of this book? How has your impression of these characters changed since you’ve seen Werther’s designs?
JTIV: One of the first things Werther did when sketching Erica was add her iconic bandanna, which I think is now her most defining feature. There were parts of her that I’d imagined before, but the bandanna defined her and her world more succinctly than anything I’d been playing with in my head. When we got that sketch, I knew we had the character. Werther had brought her to life, and now she was ready to be unleashed upon the world.
Eric, how have you fostered the collaboration between Werther and colorist Miquel Muerto? Was there a conscious decision to give the book a watercolor painterly approach?
EH: Miquel is one of comics’ hidden gems (well, maybe not quite so hidden anymore, after SIKTC!). He and I worked together last year on a great book called Low Road West with Phillip Kennedy Johnson & Flaviano, and as Miquel was finishing up the recent OGN Bury the Lede, we got back in touch to see if he’d be interested in coming aboard Team SIKTC. Miquel’s approach to Werther’s lines is like no one else—he knows exactly when to pull back and when to be additive, and has been instrumental in building the visual identity of the series.
4. I’d like to know a bit more about James, the central character of ‘Something is Killing the Children’. Dark-haired boy with glasses and a bat-emblem t-shirt? Now where have I seen that before?
JTIV: [Laughs] I gave this answer in another interview, but it’s the honest truth. It all started as a bit of lazy writing. It’s a shorthand I’ll use sometime when I’m just in the flow and writing, and I know I want to tap into a specific kind of feeling. I was trying to find the flow of the first issue, and I knew it started with a truth-or-dare session, so rather than mess around, I just plugged in the names of me and my friends from when I was this character’s age… But then I kept writing.
I think it’s pretty usual for writers to find foils of themselves in their protagonists, but up to the last week before we finalized the PDF, it was still my intent to change his name. But every option read false to me. The character’s name was James, and everything else felt wrong. So I kept it. I want to be clear about something, though. I might be tapping into a bit of my younger self, but this isn’t an autobiographical comic. I don’t want to pretend that any of my middle school, or high school angst was anything like what James experiences in that first issue, or the rest of the book.
This is like me doing whatever the opposite of a Mary-Sue situation is. Like I’m writing my own Erica Slaughter fanfiction starring myself from 8th Grade, but I am putting myself through the fucking ringer. I am casting my younger self as the inept kid in way over their head. He’s going to fuck up a bunch, and bad things are going to happen to him.
We have a great moment between James and his school principal, John, in this first issue. Strong character work is crucial when horror is on this scale; what work goes into fleshing out side characters like Principal John?
JTIV: Actually, that was the scene that really put me over the edge in terms of the format of the series. In a version where Erica killed the monster and left Archer’s Peak by the end of issue #1, there was no way in hell we had room for that scene. But that scene felt so crucial to me. Side characters help define a world, and they show different sides of your character. I think sometimes in horror you see a small town that has experienced unspeakable trauma, and you never get a chance to linger in what that trauma would actually do to that town. That shaking uncertainty that would color every aspect of your life. There are a lot of sequences like that one throughout the book, and the Principal is a character who will likely pop up again… But mostly I wanted to show James from a few different sides, and show how the rest of Archer’s Peak view him. The guilt and suspicion that comes from being the survivor of something terrible.
5. Archer’s Peak, with its eclectic group of characters and iconic splashes of mundane Americana, is already taking shape to be the next great horror hamlet. Let’s talk about world-building. How do you construct an entire town without getting lost in the minutiae? How important is it to have the place where the story happens function as though it were a character itself?
JTIV: I know the feel of the town more than anything. It’s like a lot of towns up in Northern Wisconsin, or the towns that I visit with my partner’s family in Western Pennsylvania. It’s a town that’s seen better days, and is mostly ignored by the rest of the world, but still has a vibrant life of its own. Small towns are perfect breeding grounds for horror, because they’re insular. People know each other. Even if they don’t know you directly they know somebody you know. A lot of the specifics of Archer’s Peak are still taking shape in my mind, but every element that builds with the story is built from a familiar core.
6. Tell me about the genesis of Erica Slaughter, this marauder of monster-killing might.
JTIV: I’m going to come at this answer sideways. Because the first thing to know is that I have been pitching BOOM! a series called Something is Killing the Children since about 2014. And the title even predates that. I think I tried pitching a short story called that to Vertigo when I was still an intern there. It started with a short story I wrote in college, one that has nothing to do with the comic out today. The story wasn’t worthy of its title, and over the years I came back to it, again and again, and I knew that there was more to it. When I pitched it to BOOM! for the first time, it was kind of a generic monster-themed X-Files, complete with a despondent FBI agent (she had a stuffed octopus, though… one through-line that carried forward to this iteration). But there wasn’t really a story there, and I ultimately let it go.
Last fall, I had this image in my mind around New York Comic Con of an unassuming young woman on a run-down greyhound bus, with blonde hair, and these big sunken eyes with shadows under them. The eyes of someone who hasn’t gotten a full night’s sleep as long as she can remember. I imagined her arriving in small towns across America, where mysterious deaths were rampant. She was a monster hunter, and after killing every monster she would get back on the bus and go to the next town, and the next, and the next. Her mission never ending, and harrowing. But she needs to do it. Because something is killing the children, and she has the power to stop them.
When I had Erica, I had the book. And while it’s changed a lot since then, the core of it is still built around those pieces, and that feel. The story we’re seeing play out in Archer’s Peak? That’s only one of Erica’s stories. One of hundreds.
Who’s on the other end of that flip-phone?
JTIV: That’s a great question. Erica is monster hunter. If you look closely, she has a tattoo on her arm, and a scar on her temple at the side of her head. The scar, the tattoo, the bandanna, and the cell phone are all connected. The stuffed octopus, too… If this was a superhero comic, I would be very much more “wait and see”—but these are all pieces of the mysterious order of monster hunters that Erica Slaughter is a part of. The Order of St. George. We’ll be learning a lot more about them as the series develops, but their world is very different from the world that Erica operates in, day-to-day.
7. Let’s talk about content. ‘Something is Killing the Children’ is an incredibly provocative title. How do you tell a story like this, which depicts graphic violence against kids, without addressing the violence that’s actually happening to real-life American schools every year? Was there a discussion about how far you could, or should, go?
JTIV: As the story developed there were a few points where we kind of checked in with one another, about how far we wanted to go. But I was firm from the beginning that this was a Hard-R story. I wasn’t writing a YA comic book, or something PG-13. The issues at the heart of Something is Killing the Children are dark horror concepts, and I needed to be unfettered in pursuing that. I also wanted to do it all responsibly. I think this is another reason the story needed to be expanded. The only way to show that kind of violence responsibly is, I think, to live in the aftermath and see the very human reaction to it as it effects this town. There will be extreme violence in this book, but the human moments define it for me.
Eric, one of your jobs as an editor is to make sure the creator has the support needed to tell the story they want to tell. But was there any push-back in terms of the hard R-rated content in this story, considering the age of its characters?
EH: As James was writing issue #1, one of the main discussion points was just how far we should push that climactic monster attack scene, and rather than reining things back after the first draft, we actually decided to take it a step further. Not to have violence for the sake of violence, but so that readers could experience first-hand the type of visceral trauma James went through, and why it’s affecting him so strongly throughout the story. We never want to trivialize violence, especially when it’s happening to children—but as you’ve noted, it’s an unfortunate fact of life in today’s society and something we’re aiming to depict responsibly and with eyes wide open.
8. Horror often reflects contemporary fears whether it means to or not—fears of terrorism and the erosion of authority are explicit in ‘28 Days Later’, while one could read Cold War paranoia as the subtext of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, etc. Could one say that ‘Something is Killing the Children’, unsubtle title very much included, is reflective of fears that our society may not be able to stop this ceaseless wave mass shootings from utterly destroying our lives?
JTIV: I think gun violence is a part of it, but not the whole. I don’t see SIKTC as a book about school shootings, though I think mass shootings are very much a part of the cultural moment that created this book. The horror is beyond the mass shootings. It’s mass shootings, social unrest, political injustice, and outright genocide being perpetrated in the world around us.
We live in a world of abject constant horror that exists in so many forms that it can make you feel like you’re going insane. The more you pay attention to what’s happening, the more helpless you feel, and the more the malaise and trauma just sets in. The horror of the world hurts people. It hurts people every single day, and takes their lives in ways too horrible to really even process. Societally, I don’t think we’ve been at this moment of instability in my lifetime. Culturally, though I wasn’t alive to see it, it feels like we’re back in the 70s, with all the knobs dialed up to 11. To the adults living in this world, that horror is something abstract. It’s a million little horrible cuts every single day to the point you can’t even describe what specific cultural anxiety is bringing you down moment to moment.
But kids see the world in more absolute terms than adults. The abstract horror of the world doesn’t feel so abstract at a young age. It feels like something solid. Something that might kill you, if you come face to face with it. This is a monster comic, and in this story monsters are built from the abstract fears of the world, but focused through the eyes of children who can believe these monsters into existence. Adults, in general, cannot see these monsters, even if they’re killing children right in front of their eyes. Erica can see them, and Erica can kill them, but she can’t stop the root of the problem. She can only fight the symptoms of the horror of the world. That’s why she looks so tired.
9. James, you’ve mentioned that Junji Ito is a big influence on ‘Something’ and you want to evoke his work in this series. Ito’s craft is noteworthy for a great many reasons, but chief in my mind is his mastery of the page-turn shocker. There’s tension, it builds, you turn the page, and it’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen. I want to dig into this a little bit. What stands out to you about Ito, and how has his work pushed you to dig deeper when it comes to writing horror comics?
JTIV: Horror in comics is a very tricky proposition. Because the reader controls the pace with which they read any given book, you’re not really ever going to get away with a jump scare like you can in a movie, or even a book. The eye tracks what’s coming next before you get to the panel, because it takes in the full comic page first before it takes it in, panel to panel. You can just say fuck it and rely on how your characters react in every setting, and sure, you can use a page-turn to your advantage… But you really spoke to the heart of it with Ito. It’s the tension and the shocking page turn. In my mind those are the two great tools at your disposal when making a horror comic, and Junji Ito is the master of both of those tools. I’m pretty sure I’m paraphrasing and mangling a bit Stephen King wrote in Danse Macabre with this next bit, but he wasn’t talking comics, so I’m going to mangle away at it.
The first tool is DREAD. Ito is a genius at creating an unsettling unease that just grows slowly but steadily as the comic moves along. It’s just increasing the sense of wrongness that’s happening. Characters reacting to things in a way they should not. Discordance between the rules of the world as established and the way the story is playing out. If your reader is captivated by the wrongness of a story, and can sense it getting wronger, and wronger as they keep reading, you have them. Uzumaki is a masterclass in dread, and it escalates that dread to an apocalyptic level.
The second tool is REVULSION. Comics are a visual medium, and if you’ve got the reader captivated, and feeling the dread, you can dial it up with a truly horrific image. Something jarring that encapsulates the dread you’re feeling. Stephen King called this the gross-out, but I think it’s very different in comics than it is in prose or in film. In comics, you can linger on an image, so you want something intricate in its revolting qualities. A complex image you want to sit with and parse out, that heightens all those feelings of dread. You can’t overdo it, but when you do it right, it’ll keep the mood intense.
I don’t think anyone does it as well as Ito (Though the Gou Tanabe Lovecraft adaptions also have it in spades), but I try to think of that a lot when I’m working on my own horror. How to capture a feeling of dread and provide touchstones that blossom that dread into revulsion and horror.
How does the Ito influence factor in to ‘Something is Killing the Children’?
JTIV: I think there’s an inherent discordant feeling any time Erica Slaughter is in the book. She almost feels like a late 90s comic horror lead, in the mode of a Cassie Hack, but dropped into the middle of a more contemporary indie horror comic. She’s almost a superhero, down to the fact that she effectively has a costume… I want that strange feeling like a comic book character walked into the wrong comic book. Like this was meant to be a sad, small town drama, but now there’s this badass monster hunter character. I know it’s strange to call that an Ito influence (I think the better answer might be how we held back on the visceral horror until the very end of the issue, and then hit it hard), but I spend a lot of time thinking about how to play with the discordance between Erica and her surroundings, and I think that’s one of the things I find most interesting about the book.
10. Where do you see ‘Something is Killing the Children’ a year from now? Five?
EH: As James said earlier, Archer’s Peak is just one of the stops on Erica’s journey… If/when Erica gets that mysterious call sending her to the next town, we very much hope that we’ll be able to follow her there. Stay tuned!
JTIV: I see a multi-billion dollar film and TV empire, that I oversee from my mountains and mountains of money! No. I have no idea. Honestly, at this point I’m just excited that people see this world as having legs. There was a great Warren Ellis quote that made the rounds from his newsletter at the beginning of this year, right when Something is Killing the Children was finally coming together into what it is now. He said that “comics should always have a scattered coterie of nomad lunatics who are just running towards the horizon, leaving little signposts and monuments on the way, all about the strange pleasure of the journey and putting off the destination for as long as they want to.”
I think I may have seen that as a bit of a challenge. Erica Slaughter as a character feels bigger than the story I’m currently writing, and her world is one I very much want to explore, from many different angles. As long as readers are interested, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ll be telling them. But first, let’s see if people like issue #2.
We can take it from there.
‘Something is Killing the Children’ #1 & 2 are in stores now. Issue #3 drops November 20. You can pre-order it now. (Diamond Code: SEP191292)
Check out this 5-page preview of ‘Something is Killing the Children’ #2, including a variant cover by Ian Bertram and Miquel Muerto, courtesy of BOOM! Studios!
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