By Mickey Rivera. To refer to Her Infernal Descent as Alighieri-esque is to belabor the obvious. The latest series from AfterShock Comics doesn’t want to merely emulate Dante’s work, it wants to inhabit it, inhabit the space of his Inferno, see what’s popping in the Underworld as the denizens of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries begin to fill its various levels. In the place of Virgil and King Minos are the likes of William Blake and Franz Kafka and, in the latest issue out this week, Andy Warhol. And Lynn, always Lynn, the mother who lost her family and will walk through every square-inch of Hell to bring them home.
For Lonnie Nadler, Her Infernal Descent is another opportunity to work with frequent collaborator Zac Thompson. After The Dregs, which was a big critical hit for Black Mask Studios, the writing duo found themselves on the radar of some of comics biggest editors, including the X-bullpen at Marvel (who tapped the team for a recent run on Cable) and AfterShock’s own EiC, Mike Marts.
“We told ourselves early on that if we’re going to do horror, it has to be somewhat daring and challenging conceptions of the genre,” Nadler tells DoomRocket. “We’d been talking to AfterShock for a while at this point, probably a few months, and we both wanted to work with each other, but it was just a matter of finding the right project. We sent in the two-page pitch for Her Infernal Descent, originally titled Contrapasso, to Mike Marts, and it was greenlit not long after that.”
One the eve of the release of Her Infernal Descent‘s third issue, Lonnie Nadler spoke with DoomRocket contributing writer Mickey Rivera about his latest collaboration with Thompson, writing in the shadow of Dante Alighieri and what, if any, are his mortal sins.
1. How was the story of Her Infernal Descent born, and how did it work its way from idea to an active project at AfterShock?
Lonnie Nadler: Zac and I sat down one day trying to figure out some new ideas that we wanted to explore and develop into bigger pitches. I believe we started off thinking about what kind of horror story we’d like to see, and that brought us to the conclusion that we wanted to make something that wasn’t generic or easy to fit into a box, similar to how we did The Dregs. We both love horror but hate clichés and it can be really tough to stray from them when you confine yourself to the genre box.
We told ourselves early on that if we’re going to do horror, it has to be somewhat daring and challenging conceptions of the genre. We had a few ideas that we toyed with but nothing really stuck until Zac said he’d had this idea for a while of sending a middle aged mom into Hell to retrieve her family. Just this image of a mom in a world akin to the Diablo games. I loved the central image and the emotions of a mother going to Hell for her family and immediately thought it would be great to do it as a weird re-write of Dante’s Inferno so that we’re deviating as much as possible from the standard fire and brimstone version of Hell you see all too often. Zac was also a big fan of the Inferno so it snowballed from there. I think what really landed for both Zac and myself is that we have very deep connections with our mothers in similar but different ways. Our moms also actually both have the same first name, Lynn, which was a strange coincidence. That familial element allowed us to fall further in love with the idea and we kept building it out until it felt right and we were able to turn it into a pitch.
We’d been talking to AfterShock for a while at this point, probably a few months, and we both wanted to work with each other, but it was just a matter of finding the right project. We sent in the two-page pitch for Her Infernal Descent, originally titled Contrapasso, to Mike Marts, our editor, and it was greenlit not long after that.
2. How did you bring Kyle Charles, Dee Cunniffe, and Ryan Ferrier into the mix?
LN: Kyle came on board very early on. We had him in mind right away for the artist on the series because he’s able to do such detailed backgrounds, he experiments with page layouts, and has great character design. He just felt like a perfect fit. We sent him the pitch and thankfully he was available and also connected with the subject matter in a similar manner that Zac and I did. He just understood exactly what we were going for immediately. I remember him sending in his first sketches of William Blake and Agatha Christie and we knew right away that nobody else could do this book.
We had another colorist on the series initially, but they had some personal issues to attend to and unfortunately couldn’t work on the book and so we went to Dee right away after that. Dee colored The Dregs for us and did such a stunning job. We loved all of Dee’s recent work and we knew he was a big Sandman fan, and since this book draws a lot of inspiration from that literary style, we thought he’d be a perfect fit. Zac and I can be very demanding of our collaborators in that we often ask for very pedantic changes, and Dee puts up with our bullshit. He’s as pro as they come in comics.
Ryan pretty much letters everything we do now and he’s amazing. He’s fast, talented, and just a great guy to work with. He makes our books so much better and more comprehensive because understands things from a reader’s perspective when he’s lettering. There’s a lot of different lettering styles in Her Infernal Descent and he nails it every time. So, suffice it to say, we couldn’t ask for a better team on this book.
3. Is there someone you drew on as inspiration for Lynn, the curmudgeonly, foul-mouthed yet determined old lady at the heart of ‘Her Infernal Descent’?
LN: It’s funny you mention that she’s curmudgeonly because that’s not what Zac and I initially intended, though it seems to be how so many readers perceive her. To us, Lynn is a sweet, no-bullshit mother who has some darkness in her past and all of her anger or curmudgeonlyness comes from the fact that she’s just lost her entire family. They were her life and now they’re gone. I’d be pretty damn angry, too. In terms of inspiration, we draw a lot from our own moms. I lost my mom a few years back and so, in part, this is my way of dealing with that loss but also expressing gratitude for the amazing mother she was. It’s similar for Zac, so we pull a lot of Lynn’s speech directly from the way our moms talk. Almost all of the turns of phrase and momisms she uses are, straight-up, the way our moms say things. We wanted to capture this homeliness and a semi-antiquated dialect in her speech, but one that felt real as opposed to stylish or cool. We wanted her to feel like a real mom, not just some cardboard cutout or romanticized soccer mom. The only other inspiration we used for Lynn was Frances McDormand in her rolls in Three Billboards and Fargo. She’s so good at playing the strong mother figure but it’s never derivative. Probably because she’s a badass mom in real life.
4. Is this the same Hell that Dante wrote about with but new employees, or is this a place all its own?
LN: This is the same Hell from Dante’s Inferno, but it’s changed quite a bit since he wrote it in the 14th century. Our thought process is that Earth has changed so much since Dante was writing this and so Hell would change drastically, too. We get into this idea more and more as the issues progress but like those in power up here, the people in power down there get a bit bored as well and have to shift with the current, so to speak. It was pretty wild to us that nobody had really done an updated version of Hell, at least that we’re aware of.
5. Aside from her aforementioned curmudgeonly tendency, there’s a sweet and sad undertone to Lynn’s desperate search for the family she lost. That sweet sadness replaces Dante’s love for Beatrice in the ‘Inferno’ as the driving force for the protagonist’s trudge through Hell. They say in Heaven, love comes first, but there’s actually a lot of stories about people allowing their love to lead them through figurative and literal Hell. What do you think it is about Hell that seems to attract so many lovers?
LN: That’s a very good question, and I think it’s one the great poets have been trying to answer for age eternal. It’s one of the mysteries of life that this grand thing we all strive for also has this dark side to it and makes people do irrational, often horrific, things. I suppose it’s the idea that having love, being in love, can feel rather divine or paradisal or heavenly, and the absence of such can only lead to its opposite. It’s especially bad if you have that love and then it feels as though it’s been torn away. It’s also the simple romantic notion that if you truly love someone, you’d be willing to go through figurative – or in our case literal – hell to prove just how strong it is. It’s the ultimate sacrifice for another human being, to throw yourself into the most “evil” thing we know of as a society just for the affection of another. It’s all quite twisted.
6. The notion of “sin” doesn’t have the same bite that it did in Dante’s time — there’s people who are “conservative” relative to the cultural average, but on the whole we’re a much more permissive society. How have you adapted the notion of sin and guilt to our times?
LN: This was a big question for us going into the series and again it’s something we address later in the series, but you’re absolutely right. Generally speaking, in Western culture, our notion of sin has changed immensely over the years. We’re sort of asking how and why are people still punished for things that most people consider to be pastimes now. Everyone’s Instagram feed is pretty much just scrolling through the sins of gluttony and lust. Most people commit these “sins” every single day, and yet there’s still this fascination with them as seen in our media with movies like Se7en and shows like Full Metal Alchemist. It’s a rather intense topic to delve into and begs so many moral and religious questions so we’re trying to be sort of tongue-in-cheek about it all rather than offering actual answers to these questions because that would feel sort of pretentious. We’re not cultural theorists so we don’t have the answers, but we do like to make people think when they read our books. So in our version of Hell all of the original sins are very much still part of the descent into Hell, but we’ve tried to update them for a modern world by asking “What does the sin of gluttony look like on Earth?” And so we’ve amended some of the punishments Dante laid out and completely changed some of the other levels altogether.
7. It was surprising to see what you did with Cerberus. In typical treatments of the ‘Inferno’ you get a standard issue three-headed hell dog. You guys took it up several notches: five heads, each with its own terrifying thing going on. One is a decrepit pig’s head, another is some kind of gross fleshworm wearing a top hat, and there’s another that’s just a 2-dimensional Anubis. The whole thing is angry and slimy and all around pretty disturbing. What’s the story behind deciding to do Cerberus this way, and your overall design of how Lynn’s Hell looks?
LN: Yeah, I’m glad you noticed that change! We changed from 3 heads to five because the number five holds a lot of significance throughout the series. There are references to it everywhere. We’d also read multiple translations of how Cerberus is described in the Inferno and they all differ. Sometimes he’s referred to as a worm, sometimes as a beast, and sometimes as a dog. We wanted something that captured all these different interpretations in one, to make something that was rather absurd and fit with the in the general excess in the circle of gluttony. A three-headed dog just doesn’t cut it anymore in terms of imagery because we’ve seen it so frequently. We gave each of the heads their own look to show that this monster is not just one being, but multiple trying to exist together. He is an embodiment of excess. So we sent Kyle our ideas in the script and he made some changes and came up with this incredible, disgusting design that just fits in that world.
8. So far you’ve dropped a lot of famous and/or infamous faces into the book, sometimes replacing major figures from the original ‘Inferno’, like Virgil and King Minos, with different figures from history and literature, like William Blake and Franz Kafka. How did you figure out who to bring into the plot and who to kick out? Who’s deciding which literary and otherwise artistic celebrities to bring in?
LN: Well when Dante was writing The Divine Comedy, as you mention, he included a lot of public figures from his time that he either admired or hated. Since we were updating Hell but staying true to his vision, it made sense to us that there would be all new public figures populating these levels. We didn’t want to retread too much of what Dante did because that’s a bit too derivative, and it also doesn’t account for the sheer amount of souls in this place.
As for deciding who makes the cut and who doesn’t, it’s a long process of research and Zac and I go back and forth on it quite a bit until it feels right. We didn’t want to just throw anyone in these levels of Hell. Dante uses this notion of “contrapasso” in the Inferno to determine how souls are punished. Basically it means that each person belongs in whatever circle they find themselves in based on the “sins” they’ve committed in life, and their punishments directly reflect or contrast those sins. We tried to honor that notion as best we could. So with Kafka, for example, he was an intensely anxious person who was so fearful of the judgement of others and his father to the point that he published only one or two stories in his lifetime. Everything of his work we know today was unpublished. So it made perfect sense that Kafka’s punishment would be to eternally judge others under the eye of his father.
As for Blake, I’m a big fan of his poetry and I knew he was obsessed with Dante during his lifetime. Blake also wrote The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and the themes he deals with in that are similar to those we are dealing with. Growing up, he also allegedly had visions of angels and demons and such. At a certain point it was just like, “How can William Blake not be the guide in this book?”
9. Do you have a favorite scene or passage from ‘Inferno’, and if so will it find a place in ‘Her Infernal Descent’?
LN: That’s such a tough question to ask! The Inferno as a whole is just a masterpiece and it all flows together in such a beautiful and bizarre way. It’s simultaneously so modern and not modern at all. If I had to pick a single scene that stuck with me, it’s probably the Gluttonous and the storm of putrefaction in that circle that leaves the souls to wallow, consume, and bathe in their own filth. It’s such a nasty, imaginative picture that Dante paints. I’m also rather fond of the Wood of Suicides in the circle of Violence. And yes, you’ll see versions of both of those in Her Infernal Descent.
10. I’m sure you are a very upright and moral citizen, but let’s suppose we’re all in one of those fun religious denominations that believe you may be damned anyway. What circle of Hell would you think you belonged in, and what would your eternal punishment be?
LN: I imagine my sin would be Wrath, and I’d be eternally damned to arguing with trolls about movies and books.
‘Her Infernal Descent’ #3 is in stores this Wednesday.
Check out this eight-page preview of ‘Her Infernal Descent’ #3, courtesy of AfterShock Comics!