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[Interview] Steve Niles & Dave Wachter Talk ‘Breath of Bones’, New ‘Criminal Macabre’, & ‘Guns of Shadow Valley’

The summer of 2013 saw a daring new comic series from Dark Horse called “Breath of Bones”, written by horror icon Steve Niles and illustrated by the deeply talented Dave Wachter. This comic tells the story of a small Jewish village during WWII that utilizes faith and overwhelming will to bring forth a Golem for protection.

This is a harrowing story, sincerely emotional and profoundly intelligent: a comic series that truly only comes along once in a while. Steve and Dave were kind enough to discuss this momentous comic with Bloody Disgusting in great depth. And Bloody Disgusting was rewarded with incomparable details as well as an exclusive look at the cover for Steve Niles’ new “Criminal Macabre” arc and a look into Dave Wachter’s upcoming graphic novel, “Guns of Shadow Valley”.

BD: Where either of you scared or hesitant at all to take on the heavy subject of Nazi invasion?

Steve: Scared? No. Cautious yes. The one thing I wanted to avoid was putting out another story that glamorized the Nazis. I think too many movies do this and I wanted to avoid that so we made a big effort to make them and keep them as monsters. They had very little dialogue and Dave hid their eyes from us. In this story they are not human, they are a force of evil. But it wasn’t only the Nazi’s I wanted to be respectful of, but also Jewish mysticism and religion. I am not Jewish so I thought it was very important to handle it right. I hope we did.

BD: This comic is quite the tour de force. When you two started this project, did you have any idea how profound a piece of work it would become?

Steve: I wanted it to be special. The subject matter sort of demanded it but all I was thinking at the time was to write a good comic.

Dave: Steve presented a strong concept and a quality script, it was my job to live up to that material. I thought we were making something worth reading, I think I was right. Whether it’s profound or not is hard for me to judge. I’m happy people seem to really like it.

BD: I’ve always been fond of the sentiment: “Fight monsters with monsters.” Or in the case of “Breath of Bones”: “Sometimes it takes monsters to stop monsters.” I’m curious, how do both of you personally define a monster?

Steve: In the classic sense monsters are big creatures who can be evil or good but are usually portrayed as bad. Monsters can also, and most often are, humans. Not because of their appearance but because of there actions. I think Breath of Bones plays of many sides of what a monster can be.

Dave: I’ve always thought that the ugliest monsters hide behind a handsome, smiling face. They have charm, are beloved, and wield influence. But what makes them a monster is how they treat people, the actions they take to hurt others. If what you are doing has no productive mission but to hurt others, or if you trample over the powerless for your own personal gain with no regard for those in your way, that’s my definition of a monster. The ugly guys we see on the screen and on the page, are usually a reflection of this side of humanity that’s in all of us.

BD: Steve, this storyline is a bit of a departure from some of your best-known work. Tell us how it felt to work on this project from conception to completion. Did it feel different than a lot of the other projects you’ve done?

Steve: If anything it’s more in the vein of “Freaks of the Heartland”. It’s sort of horror with heart, I guess. It’s something I’d like to hit more often. The difference is simple; I am going for an emotional reaction. I tend to put a lot more of myself into these kinds of stories and that can make it harder. In BoB I pulled a lot from my own experience with my father and grandfather in that I never had a chance to really know either. It’s something that has frustrated me a lot in my life so I used that in the story.

BD: You are best known for your work in the monster horror genre with comics like “Criminal Macabre” and “30 Days of Night”. What compelled you to take on the Jewish folklore of the Golem?

Steve: I’ve always been fascinated with the Golem but it is the one monster deeply steeped in religion. I was raised catholic but now as an adult I have no spiritual beliefs. I very much believe this is the one life we get and we should make the best of it. But when I take on stories about religion and the supernatural I get to explore all kinds of “what ifs” and that always fascinates me. The very idea that we could will a hunk of clay to life from sheer emotion is an amazing idea. What I did with BoB was find as many common threads, emotions and experiences and interwove them into the story in a way we can all relate. We can all relate to wanting someone back, who has died, so badly it feels like we CAN bring them back. I looked for the common threads while always being respectful of the characters.

BD: While writing about such a devastating time in history, did you hesitate on anything? What was your process?

Steve: I actually avoided too much research because of a decision I made early on. I didn’t want it to be about World War II and get all caught up in that. I wanted it to have an almost fable like quality so we never name the town or really say when it is happening. Luckily Dave added such a level of authenticity in the art that he saved me a lot of work. I’ve had several WWII buffs comment that Dave nailed the tanks, the plane and the village. This was one script I bounced off a lot of friends, which I almost never do.

BD: Dave, the art for BoB is breathtaking and phenomenal. The emotion you are able to evoke with your touching images of Noah and his grandfather, the Golem and Noah, it’s quite astonishing. Did you ever consider doing this work in color or was it black and white from the start, no question? Did you find any challenges in creating such a vivid environment, which you truly have, in black and white?

Dave: Thank you! I love working in black and white and have been searching for the right project that would allow for it. I knew right away that this was a perfect fit. Being a WWII period piece, it seemed like a no brainer, but it also turned out to set the perfect mood for this story. It allowed the raw content and emotional resonance to come forward unobstructed. Color would have only gotten in the way.

BD: How were you able to create such heart, mood, and emotion in the Golem’s expressions when you were dealing with an essentially non-sentient object? What mind frame did you have to be in to create that type of intense feeling?

Dave: It was important to have the Golem’s visage be nearly featureless. The golem is not a singular being on it’s own, it’s a conduit of emotions, a reflection. And not just of the other characters in the book, but also of the reader. So it needed to be easier to “see ourselves” so to speak, our own emotional energy as observers, in it’s image. And the emotions that it does express, come through stark portrayals on it’s furrowed brow in anger, the power and rage in it’s posture, and more subtle emotions in it’s body language.

BD: Your panels with the Golem attacking the tanks, they’re almost like Pollock paintings, so fierce and stunning. What did you hope to arouse in the reader with those images?

Dave: I’m just trying to convey the power, fury, and rage of the moment. It’s the release of all the tension built up throughout the story, and that frustration set forth in the most physical of forms. It is retribution.

BD: Can you tell us a bit about your artistic process for “Breath of Bones”, from sketch to finished panel?

Dave: Since this is a period piece, it starts with a lot research. Tanks, guns, uniforms, buildings, hairstyles, and then fill in the rest the best I know how when I come up short or run out of time. I sketch all my rough layouts on the computer in Photoshop. Then a more detailed “pencil” layer over top of that. I print that out in blue lines onto watercolor paper, where I ink and finish with the ink washes.

BD: When the golem awakes, it’s such an emotional, pivotal moment in the storyline. It’s a terrible moment for Noah, having just lost his grandfather, but in that moment, the worm’s eye view of Noah looking up at this creature that his grandfather had so much faith in, the panel just screams victory and hope. What did the two of you feel was the most important reader reaction to conjure at that point? What emotion did you want to leave that issue on?

Steve: I think most of us have felt helpless. In Noah’s situation, in real life, things would not have ended well, so that moment was important because it is that fantasy moment of hope. We don’t get many moments like that in real life so when it’s done right (and Dave did it right) we feel all those emotions we would if it really happened. That’s what you shoot for when you tell a story, to trigger a real emotion.

Dave: I was trying to give them a taste of what was to come in the next issue. All the tension and sacrifice up to this point, everything has led up to this. I wanted the reader to know we aren’t fooling around, this creature was going to do some damage.

BD: There is a scene in the very end of issue #3 where the Golem puts his finger to Noah’s chest. It’s a wonderful scene because it can be interpreted so many ways. I’m curious how you interpret that panel.

Steve: See now, that was left open on purpose. I am big believer in leaving certain things, especially in horror, to the imagination. I know EXACTLY what happened there but if yours is different, does that make it wrong? Of course not. I prefer not to say and let each person walk away with something slightly different.

BD: Steve, you have a new “Criminal Macabre” storyline in the works. I know you are keeping these cards very close to the chest, but what can you tell us about that?

Steve: Well, Cal isn’t in the best shape as you know. He has basically become everything he’s ever hated. This next arc deals with him confronting that head on and it’s going to get pretty intense.

BD: As Bloody-Disgusting’s own ShadowJayd pointed out in her review of “Criminal Macabre: The Eyes of Frankenstein” #4, that brilliant arc left us with “more questions than answers.” When we last saw Cal he was… a new supernatural being. One none of us are entirely sure of, including Cal himself. What can you tell us about the current state of Cal McDonald?

Steve: He’s not happy and one of the things I’ve been teasing at is Cal losing control. It’s one thing to look like a monster, but what happens inside that creates the soul of a monster? That’s a big part of the next arc.

BD: I have a pretty strong feeling you’re not going to give me this detail but I’ve got to ask: Will we see Hemlock again?

Steve: Yes. No. Maybe.

BD: From the looks of it, there is going to be a MUCH darker occult tone than normal for Criminal Macabre, dare I even say it appears there may be some satanic dealings in this new arc, would you concur?

Steve: It will be slightly darker but not because of the occult stuff. This time it’s because I’m going deeper into Cal’s past. It’s the real world stuff that will make it dark. I’m bringing back Cal’s family and examining his childhood a bit.

BD: Dave, you have an exciting new project releasing soon, “Guns of Shadow Valley”. You had an extremely exciting and successful Kickstarter to fund the project. Why did you choose Kickstarter instead of approaching publishers with it?

Dave: The webcomic had been on hiatus for quite a while, well over a year. It’s labor intensive, I co-write along with Jim Clark, I pencil, ink and color. I felt we had to finish this story, so Kickstarter seemed like the perfect opportunity. I needed to be able to work on it full time to finish the last half, some 100+ pages. I needed money up front in order to do that and Kickstarter was the only way that would be feasible. And as it turns out, we did manage to get a publisher, and Dark Horse will be releasing the hardcover in late summer of this year, which I’m really excited about.

BD: What compelled you to turn your extremely successful webcomic into a tangible graphic novel?

Dave: That was always the plan, having it go to print in some fashion. Jim and I began this project in 2007 as a potential comic book series. We approached publishers back then, got a few nibbles, but no deals that we were satisfied with, so we decided to make it into a webcomic and grow our own audience. And that worked. It took time, but word started to spread, and we got nominated for both the Eisner and the Harvey Awards. But we always wanted to bring it back to print, it was just a matter of how best to do that. A big collected hardcover is the best way I could have ever thought and I’m thrilled we get to finally do it right.

BD: Anything you can tell us about the graphic novel that followers of the webcomic might find surprising?

Dave: I think they’ll probably find that it reads better in print than it does on the screen. It’s going to look really nice on the printed page. And we’ve included some cool extras in the back that folks should like, stuff they’ve never seen before that spans the entire 6+ years we’ve been working on this.

BD: What has been the most exciting aspect of seeing your webcomic come to life in graphic novel form?

Dave: The most exciting thing about this process is all the incredible support we received through the Kickstarter campaign. It really showed us that people were wanting this, and that they believed in us and what we were doing. I was worried going in, whether we would be able to reach our goal. I was hopeful, but I was also trying to prepare myself for failure, and a public failure at that. Within hours of the Kickstarter launching, those fears were wiped away. It’s been more than 6 years since this project began, and it’s extremely satisfying to have it finally come to fruition.

BD: So for those who are unfamiliar with the webcomic, can you tell us a bit about “Guns of Shadow Valley”?

Dave: It’s an epic adventure set in the Wild West, that has its share of the supernatural, a dash of steam punk, a good helping of sci-fi, big action, weird characters, and mystery. If that sounds interesting, the webcomic is still going strong, we post two new pages per week, every Tuesday and Thursday, and then a complete hardcover collected edition will be out from Dark Horse in late August.

Look for the Breath of Bones collected hardcover edition out through Dark Horse Comics in mid-March. And keep your eyes peeled for both Steve and Dave’s exciting new graphic projects!

Interview by – Bree Ogden



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