Interview: Alan Robert On Crawl To Me

Alan Robert is a busy, busy man, balancing his comic work, his rock band, his film production company, and on top of it all, he’s a family man. When Robert’s band Life of Agony isn’t touring with bands like Ozzy, Korn, and Anthrax, he somehow manages to find the time to write and illustrate some of the most incredible horror comics around. Robert’s latest creation, Crawl to Me, is an honest-to-god horrifying tale that brings to light the true horrors that exist in our world. Seriously, this is one beautiful book with a concluding chapter that will shock you to the core. Luckily, Alan was able to make some time for BD in his hectic schedule to chat about Crawl to Me and his big plans for the coming year. Read on for the skinny…

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We can start off quite simply, how did the idea for “Crawl to Me” come to you? Was this a story that you’ve always wanted to tell, or did it just come to you one day? I also read that the story was influenced by your move from the city to the country. What was it particularly about this change brought about such a creepy story?

AR: At the end of 2010, I had just finished up my WIRE HANGERS comic series for IDW and it had received a lot of praise in the media, which was very encouraging for me. The whole experience gave me the confidence to continue creating horror comics, which has always been a life-long passion of mine. So soon after, the concept for CRAWL TO ME came quickly and organically.

It was the winter of 2010 and I had just moved out of New York City and into a rural house that was pretty isolated. It was a big change of lifestyle for me. I mean, I had grown up in Brooklyn, NY and had lived in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen for several years, so country living was a complete departure. The house we moved into was built in the ‘50s and had a basement straight out of the SAW movies. Stained concrete walls, a rusted metal drain in the middle of the floor and a crawl space that was once infested with mice — it was pretty disgusting. The rest of the house was renovated nicely, but this basement was a wreck. It had a lingering, musty odor and none of us ever wanted to go down there. We eventually hired a crew to come in and clean it out with their Hazmat suits and fix it up. Anyway, before it was cleaned, I remember looking into that pitch-black crawl space wondering where it led to, because I certainly couldn’t see the end of it. That was the initial spark that inspired CRAWL TO ME.

I came up with the ending of the book first. I felt that it would be a pretty powerful reveal if I could tell the story from the perspective of the protagonist. To really make the reader feel as if they were going through what the main character, Ryan, was experiencing. I outlined all four issues and prepared a pitch, which included character designs and rough painted backdrop for the environment, setting the tone. I began photographing my house, as it sit on top of the snowdrifts that winter for reference. It was a huge help for establishing the right look and feel for the series.

At the end of 2010, I sent the proposal to Chris Ryall, Editor-in-Chief at IDW Publishing (my favorite comics publisher), who dug the concept right away and gave me the green light by January 2011. I have to say, it happened super fast and I was grateful for that. I had learned so much from the whole WIRE HANGERS experience and I really wanted to keep that momentum going. This was my chance to dive right back into making horror comics while I was still in the groove.

I was super excited that this story was completely different than WIRE and it allowed me to branch out into different areas, more cerebral. I was psyched to attempt to pull off a twist ending in comics, too — something I haven’t seen too often recently. I’m a big fan of movies like The Sixth Sense and The Others, where the viewer doesn’t see the ending coming, so I my goal was to create that kind of impact with CRAWL TO ME. I methodically planned out the clues leading up to the final issue. This was very tricky to execute in a monthly comic format. I think it’s actually more powerful when reading the book in compiled graphic novel form.

I wanted CRAWL TO ME to have a completely different look and feel than WIRE HANGERS, so before I even penciled page one, I chose a new color palette, page background color, panel format and style of art. I took two or three weeks to refine this new art style before starting CRAWL TO ME. It was a huge challenge to teach myself some new tricks, but well worth it. If you compare WIRE to CRAWL, you’ll notice that the drawings in CRAWL have a lot harder edges to them as compared to the cartoony rounded edges in WIRE. This was a very conscious effort on my part to make the drawings look more mature and sophisticated in CRAWL, because the content called for it.

A major theme of the book seems to be that there truly exist real horrors in our world, and while we may look to movies of books for scares, there are really terrifying things happening in our world all the time. Can you speak to this; is this something that you have always found horrific?

AR: I’m a big horror movie buff, always have been. I grew up on Jaws, The Shining, Zombies, Freddy, Michael Myers and Jason and I always sit through them till the end when I catch ‘em midway on TV. My wife on the other hand, doesn’t have the stomach for those types of flicks anymore. But, somehow, she stays up late watching all of these documentaries on true crime, which essentially means I stay up late watching documentaries on true crime. But, I gotta say, the real stuff can be a bit too much for me to digest right before bed. Reality is always way more disturbing to me than the fictional stuff, especially when it involves the brutality of children.

One night, I remember seeing a heartfelt interview by Jaycee Dugard that really floored me. If you’re not familiar with her story, she was abducted by a child-predator when she was eleven and held in captivity for eighteen years. She bore two children while locked away in a shed on this sick bastard’s property before being discovered. The details of her story will literally keep you up at night. Being a new dad myself, it simply has to be the worst thing to ever happen to your family. I can’t even imagine the complete feeling of helplessness these families go through when children go missing. And for the abductees themselves, well, it’s just unthinkable.

With CRAWL TO ME, I wanted to create a psychological thriller that focused on the impact of abduction, but done in a very non-traditional way. I wanted the result to feel surreal and supernatural, keeping the reader guessing the whole time. The ending however, was meant to hit hard and knock the reader over the head with the real horrors of true crime. The abstract clues, told through the hallucinations in the book were meant to serve as puzzle pieces for the reader to collect. Each piece would give the reader more insight into what was really going on in the story. The drastic change in color palette at the end of chapter four was intentional, too. From bright, colorful flares of light to a bleak, monochromatic sepia tones helped to further drive home the gritty reality for the reader. I hope that in my little way, I could bring some awareness to the horrors of abduction through CRAWL TO ME’s story.

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A lot of horror stories tend to focus on either gore or scares, and often forget about having a meaningful story. How were you able to balance such a potent story with elements of gore and psychological thrills?

AR: Establishing the right pace and tone for CRAWL TO ME was something I was meticulous about. I knew that it would be detrimental to the storytelling as well as creating the right build for the big twist ending. I was striving for that “Whoa, I didn’t see that coming” reaction, while adding a cinematic feel to the material. Creating suspense in comics is tricky as compared to film, because there’s no audio to work with. You have to find other ways of building tension by using pacing tricks.

First of all, I created these custom page templates before starting the project. It’s a subtle thing, but if you notice, there are only about ten different types of page layouts throughout the series. This repetition of page layouts helped to establish a steady pace throughout the story. There are only a few moments in the series where I break that grid format and those points are naturally highlighted because they appear differently.

As far as gore/scares were concerned, I made sure that each issue had at least one jaw dropping moment. Sometimes, with psychological thrillers you can get hung up on a lot of inner monologues. I tried to avoid that all together. I tried to let the action tell the story instead of guiding the reader through by a bunch of inner thoughts. By showing more action, the pace naturally quickened, making it a fast read. So, when I wanted to create more suspense and slow down the pace, I added more dialogue to the panels or added more panels in between the scenes.

The final issue is one of the most shocking conclusions I’ve read in a while; you say that you came up with the ending for the series before anything else. Everything seems to fall into place perfectly; every little detail has some meaning in the end. How did the story develop once you had the conclusion?

AR: Thank you! I appreciate that, because having that kind of impact was one of my main goals. It’s true. The ending did come first. It was a matter of taking what I felt was a very strong ending and dissecting it into several puzzle pieces. I started the series off right smack dab in the middle of one of the most chaotic scenes, Edgar’s arrest. I wanted the reader to experience the story first hand as if he/she were Ryan, the main character witnessing all of this mayhem. I also wanted the story to unfold naturally, instead of spoon-feeding the reader with all the different plot twists. I think at a quick glance, this story may have appeared to be some sort of haunted house story, which ultimately it is not. I think that’s a good thing. I wanted to keep the readers guessing from start to finish and allow them to piece together the bits of information they found from scene to scene. The ending is way more powerful when the reader can see how all of those hints fall into place in the end.

Your art style is quite unique, and very beautiful by the way, what made you decide to use such a vibrant array of colors in a horror book?

AR: Thanks so much. Well, the color palette kind of chose itself in a way. I was experimenting with different digital color techniques throughout the process. For instance, the initial exterior shot of the first scene of the book took place in the dead of winter. I introduced the white snow and blue hues with silhouettes of bare trees to create this overbearing feeling of isolation. But, as the bright police lights entered the scene, I began to use these psychedelic lens flares that really seemed to enhance the chaos of the material. I also made certain that all of the characters’ eyes were only seen in shadow or through some sort of reflection, until the big reveal in chapter four (everyone but Timmy, I should say — who had red splatters for eyes). So, lighting was key in order to pull off that trick. Avoiding showing the characters’ eyes was a big challenge in itself, because eyes can add so much emotion to the visual. But, having an entire book without eyes adds a whole feeling of despair to it. It is subtle and really powerful, I feel.

I was very careful not to repeat color palettes in scenes unless it really lent itself to the storytelling. I wanted the reader to be able to flip through the book randomly and be able to see an array of colors painting the scenes. This also worked to my advantage when building toward the end climax, where I extracted the color; leaving only blood red and de-saturated sepia tones. This stark contrast allowed the reader to decipher fantasy from reality.

I’d like to give major props and thanks to my friend and super-talented painter, Menton3, who provided amazing cover art for the series. His paintings really brought the sophistication and maturity to the series that I was looking to capture and inspired me to put all I had into the interior pages. I loved his depiction of my character Ryan so much, that I recently got it tattooed on my leg (as seen on the NY Ink episode “Kings of NY” on TLC, inked by tattoo artist Megan Massacre). If you haven’t picked up his MONOCYTE series yet… seriously, stop reading this interview and head to your nearest comic book shop!

I also hand picked the super-talented UK artist, David Lupton, to watercolor alternative covers (which can be seen on the inside backpages of the graphic novel), which added a deep-rooted feeling of loneliness and despair. I feel that all of these artistic choices really helped to create the atmosphere necessary to tell this story, and I’m really proud of everyone’s contributions.

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The mental state of your characters is really brought out through the artwork, as if what you draw represents his inner feelings and emotions. How hard is it to communicate inner states through the artwork for you?

AR: This whole book is based on mood and atmosphere and I admit I took a lot of chances trying to convey the layers of feelings experienced by the characters. One would think that if you decided to add bright, vibrant colors to a horror book that it would be a recipe for disaster, but here, somehow I feel it works. It made the darker scenes even more ominous, I think. Depicting the characters’ emotions was so important in CRAWL TO ME, one, because the material was so personal in nature and two, because there was such a limited cast. There are basically only three main characters — Ryan, Jessica and Edgar. It was important for me to define those characters and show their motivations and their different, layered personalities.

Throughout the story, you can physically see Ryan get more and more agitated, as he struggles for answers to the point of breakdown. At the same time, there are moments where Ryan is forced to act strong for his wife Jessica who is clearly falling apart at the seams. This was a deliberate decision to add depth to Ryan’s character. I really wanted the reader to empathize with him and to build an emotional bond to his character. By doing so, the impact of the ending reveal is that much more personal for the reader.

Since this book is all you, you take on both scripting and art duties, could you talk about your creative process?

AR: By taking on all of the art and writing duties it allowed me to adjust nuances of the story on the fly, which is a freedom that most writers don’t normally get to experience. Once a writer sends off a script to their artist or team of artists, it becomes very expensive and time consuming to start changing things after the fact. By doing everything myself, I can alter the artwork or entire scenes for that matter if I feel that it will benefit the story. Sometimes, the only way to see how a scene will play out is by actually drawing it. That’s the positive side of doing it all yourself. The negative side is you ACTUALLY HAVE’TA DO IT ALL YOUSELF! This means lots of sleepless nights and time away from your family, etc., etc. All of a sudden you don’t have anyone else to blame if you can’t hit a print deadline. This also means you become victim to your own worst critic… yourself.

However, doing it all yourself can be extremely rewarding. I’m very proud of my books for that reason. This time around, I even tackled lettering duties, which was a very cool experience and something I plan on doing moving forward. In fact, because the whole story was already brewing in my head, I never actually wrote a script for CRAWL TO ME. It’s true. I only wrote a brief story outline, which I then broke down into issues. I sketched thumbnails for each page and figured out where the word balloons would go, but I never actually wrote a word of dialogue until all of the artwork was complete. I think most writers would probably perceive this creative process as completely insane, but for some reason it really works for me.

Now before Crawl to Me, you had Wire Hangers, which was a pretty big hit with our readers and earlier in the year, there was talk of a film adaptation. Is this coming to fruition any time soon or is it still in the planning stage? What can you tell us about the movie so far?

AR: Yes, Wire Hangers is currently in development to become a feature film and we will be shooting a live-action trailer for it in the coming months. It has been a long process meeting with several talented visual FX houses these last bunch of months, but I think we finally have the team together to make this happen the way we envision it. As you may have heard, I launched my own production company last year called Wasted Talent Entertainment and since then, I’ve partnered up with producers Jeff Mazzola (Descent) and Chris White (My Super-Psycho Sweet 16, The Truth Below). Together we’ve been working on several television and film projects, including Wire Hangers. I should mention that we currently also have a popular director attached to adapt Crawl to Me for the big screen, so that is something very exciting. More on that real soon…

Now that Crawl to Me is done, and it’s been such a huge success with horror fans, what plans do you have next? Are you staying in the horror genre?

AR: Absolutely! I just signed another deal with IDW to publish a new horror mini-series to hit this August. I’ll be writing and illustrating that one as well. I’m so stoked about this new series, but unfortunately I can’t reveal too much just yet. The one thing I can share with you is the title and give ya a super brief synopsis… it’s called “KILLOGY” and it’s a three-part horror story involving three murderers. There are some big things in the works and I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as I can announce it.

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us Alan, I speak for all of us at BD when I say we are really looking forward to what you have coming in the new year.

AR: Thank you for the interview and big thanks to BD for all the support with my different projects. It means more than you know. Check my site for updates: http://www.alanrobert.com and follow me on Twitter: @arobert

The Crawl to Me Graphic Novel is available now from IDW! Check out the BD review right here