“The Strain” should require no introduction. It’s a chilling contemporary horror story that sees the ancient mythology of the Vampire combined with the modern paranoia of viral outbreak. Together these things culminate into one of the most harrowing and bleak horror stories of our current generation. You may know it as a novel, a comic, or the forthcoming TV Show from FX. Recently I sat down with the artist of the Dark Horse Comic series to talk about why these three are not so different, and how the adaptation of “The Strain” is as unique as the series itself.
Hell, we just ran an article called “The Strain is a Perfect Modern Horror Comic.”
So get in before FX launches the show in a little over a week, and next week find the collected hardcover of the first story from Dark Horse. There is no better time to be a fan of Guillermo del Toro, and horror comics. Check out a fascinating about adaptation after the jump!
Bloody-Disgusting: How closely did you work with the books in designing the looks of the characters and creatures in The Strain?
Mike Huddleston: At the very beginning Dark Horse sent me the novels. I read a little of the first one and stopped reading. I worked with Guillermo pretty directly in the designing of everything. Everything, the vampires, the master’s coffin was the result of a direct back and forth between him and I. We would cast the comic by sending images back and forth of actors. I’m actually not that familiar with some of the details of the book because I worked so closely with Guillermo and David’s scripts.
It’s really surprised me how much del Toro has been personally involved in the project. When I signed on, I was excited about the story, but I didn’t really expect that he was going to be directing so much of everything. To the point that even my pencils and inks were approved by him, this is his vision all the way through.
BD: I was reading up about your relationship, and I found it interesting that during the preliminary preparation for the book Guillermo was so in love with one of your design choices that he ended up working it into the third novel “The Night Eternal.”
MH: I was really flattered about that. It doesn’t surprise me much because with every sketch that I did he was feeding me ideas all the way through. We’d have this back and forth. He was especially involved in the design of The Master. I would draw, he would draw on the drawing, and we’d keep sending them back.
BD: What intrigued you most about “The Strain?”
MH: Knowing that it was a Guillermo horror project meant it was going to be something really special. I knew there was going to be extra levels of mythology and strangeness to it. So I was excited to play around in that universe.
Once I saw the scope of it, this planet wide invasion, and now that we’re working on the third novel, the history and mythology is really exciting. This project is gigantic. I’m really curious to see how the show is going to handle immensity of this project on FX.
BD: How involved were you with the show?
MH: Directly, not much. Although there are a lot of shots that are seemingly lifted right from the comic. Design wise, there is a lot of my work. The Master’s coffin looks almost identical to what Guillermo art directed me to do. He serves as art director on the show. So the things we designed have fed back into the visuals for the show.
Guillermo’s mix of science and mysticism is really going to make the show something different. Going back to Cronos, if he can mix gears into horror then he’s tapped into a new way of thinking about old ideas.
BD: New York is essentially the most important character in The Strain, how well do you know the city?
MH: I’ve been there for business and spent a lot of time there. I’m by no means the expert on the city at all. When I was first drawing the book I was living in Paris. I didn’t really have any first hand experience to draw off. But that’s where Google Street View can save you as a comic book artist. When David would call out specific neighborhoods, parks, or buildings I could get that visual and place it inside the comic. It’s been challenging. It’s not like drawing Batman or Superman where you’re just making up anything that you want.
When Guillermo is calling out specific buildings in New York, it has to be that building. I’ve been using google a lot to make up for the fact that I’m not there.
BD: Many of the moments of pure terror in The Strain don’t come from the vampires themselves, but rather the moments where people are trying to figure out what the hell is going on. How did you make these moments just as “dreadful” as the creatures themselves?
MH: The scripts David’s giving me have the worst moments of horror in the human characters. There is a part in one of the scripts where our character is in the sewer deciding to kill their own mother. Reading that script was one of the most tense moments for me in the entire project and it was a purely human moment. I think those are much easier to be horrific because we understand them and they are relatable. As soon as you introduce vampire invasion and tentacles we stop having an immediate connection.
The scripts are really setting me up. I don’t really have to do that much other than draw it well and stage it dramatically. The emotion is already there.
BD: Doing a vampire book means thriving in darkness with heavy inking and black gutters. How did your style evolve as you became more comfortable in the world of The Strain?
MH: I did a book about ten years ago called “The Coffin” which is actually the book that started my relationship with Guillermo. That was a dark horror style that del Toro wanted. At the beginning of the book, I was so aware I was working on someone else’s project. I didn’t know how much of my own personal style I could inject into it. I played it a little safe. As time has gone on, any time I’ve stretched they’ve been super excited with what I’m doing. Now working on “The Night Eternal” I feel like it’s my project. Almost my creator owned book. Things have gotten much darker and much scarier. I’m more excited for this book than any of the others so far.
BD: What else can you tell us about “The Night Eternal?”
MH: You get a lot more of the backstory. In terms of where this plague started. This is real ancient history for The Master, and the vampires within the first couple of issues. I’ve been drawing ancient Native Americans, Intuits, Byzantine Empire Romans, and just all sorts of things all over the place.
That’s all I really know. I’m reading these books as I draw them. I’m about four or five issues in, and that’s all I’ve seen so far. We’re really diving into depths of the mythology. The vampire apocalypse has happened. We’re just now seeing our characters surviving where they didn’t stop things. It’s really a dark world.
BD: One of the biggest things I’ve noticed with your and David’s work on The Strain, is that hope isn’t really a concern. What was exciting about eliminating the hope of making things better from the story?
MH: I’m curious to see how this story ends. I don’t know how it ends. It gets really bleak by the third book. Our characters are still there and still fighting, so the fact that they’re still working, you feel like there has to be some sort of hope somewhere. But the odds are really against them.
BD: The process of The Strain’s adaptation is unique and awesome. Are you excited to see scenes you worked so closely on come to life?
MH: I don’t know how many times this has happened. Guillermo is so involved with all versions of The Strain. People always ask me how close the show will be to the comic, and the answer is they’re the same. David and I were just doing the show before the show. Guillermo is so involved in every version of this story. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the same person adapt material all the way through each process this is incredibly unique.
In the past when I’ve talked to Guillermo he was really open to bringing me into doing concept design on the show. With me handling art of the comic, and I’m already five hundred pages in with another some two hundred pages to go. They’d have to pull me off the comic to put me on the show. I’m happy to be doing to the book. I’m making my version of what I want it to be. I’m free of producers or anyone else other than del Toro to satisfy. I’m looking forward to relaxing and enjoying the show.
BD: The process of adaptation usually comes with certain constraints, but with The Strain it seems you were given blank cheque. How did that influence your storytelling?
MH: I think that’s why I held back at the beginning. I was feeling out where the limits were. Then I discovered there really weren’t many. There where things we pitched to Dark Horse that we felt needed to be slightly adjusted. Then other things about character designs that I brought to the table. Guillermo is the type of guy that if a good idea comes to him from somewhere he’s willing to run with it. So I feel really fortunate.
BD: What’s your favorite type of horror?
MH: This is going to sound like I’m kissing ass here, but it’s what Guillermo’s doing in something like Pan’s Labyrinthwhere it’s not just straightforward. I’m sure some people wouldn’t call it horror, but there are lots of terrible things that force emotional growth in characters. The mythological elements of horror are really compelling to me.
Horror really scares me. I listening to this old podcast about shadow people the other night and I had to sleep on my couch. I can’t handle it. I don’t watch a lot of it. I know that’s weird. Luckily a lot of people have reacted to The Strain and called it a scary experience. They think the book is disturbing. I must be getting something right.
BD: The vampires of The Strain are completely new, they even have this disgusting new appendage they use to drain their prey, how did you approach this lashing tongue and how did you try to innovate with this strange biology?
MH: The concept itself is entirely Guillermo’s. Having monsters with things coming out of their mouths is a real theme for him. There was some effort with this tongue. I had to think about at the beginning of how I used it. Once you start thinking about it as this darting tentacle that’s striking into people it starts opening up how you think about it. You try to use it compositionally. It’s a lot like someone swinging a sword, it’s already dynamic as long as it’s staged in a good way. It was about getting the best shots I can and making it gruesome as possible.
There is a scene in “The Night Eternal” where we see a proto-tongue coming out of one of the first people affected by this vampire plague and it was one of the only moments where Guillermo pulled me back. I went too far and I got too disturbing. So in the next book you get to see the development of that tongue.
When a Boeing 777 lands at JFK International Airport and goes dark on the runway, the Centers for Disease Control, fearing a terrorist attack, calls in Dr. Ephraim Goodweather and his team of expert biological-threat first responders. Only an elderly pawnbroker from Spanish Harlem suspects a darker purpose behind the event—an ancient threat intent on covering mankind in darkness. Collects issues #1-#11.
The hardcover hits July 9th. The series starts July 13. Get in before it infects everyone around you.