You might know Tom Hammock for his production design work on some of the biggest independent horror films in recent years including You’re Next, V/H/S/2, and All The Boys Love Mandy Lane. But when Tom’s not busy with his movie projects, he’s writing graphic novels. Recently released from Archaia and BOOM! Studios is “Will O’ The Wisp”, from Hammock and artist Megan Hutchison. The story follows a peculiar young girl, Aurora Grimeon, who is forced to move to Ossuary Isle after her parents die from eating strange mushrooms. What ensues is a dark young adult adventure that combines elements of the supernatural with the slasher genre. It’s a unique concoction, and the creative team has built a world that is magical and grim to go along with it. There’s also an adorably bizarre pet raccoon named Missy.
I spoke with Hammock and Hutchison about the release of their first graphic novel. Hammock goes into detail about the history of the story, his special blend of horror, and potential future work with Hutchison.
BD: You open the book with an interesting forward explaining how important storytelling and tradition was in your family – specifically, Hoodoo. Can you tell us a bit more about this aspect of your childhood? Do you continue any of those traditions yourself?
Tom Hammock: I’m afraid I don’t have any kids to read to, but I think that was really a great way to grow up. As far as Hoodoo goes, just a few things continue with me. For example burning a green bayberry candle on New years day and having your Christmas decorations all put away to ensure good luck for the coming year. Those sorts of simple traditions for luck are mostly what I stick to.
BD: Was it difficult to stay true to the traditions of Hoodoo while trying to write a fictional story?
TH: Interestingly, it was very easy to stay true. For every story point that required Hoodoo to be used there was always at least one traditional choice we could verify from multiple sources, and often several choices for the given situation (like putting out a fire, or protecting a house).
BD: Do you struggle between your scientific beliefs and your religious beliefs? Why do you think this divide is one that comes up time and time again in horror stories?
TH: For me personally there isn’t any struggle. It’s all science. Hoodoo functions more as an interesting occasional ritual. One needs good luck of course. Burning a green bayberry candle on New Years day doesn’t necessarily cross over to religion. But this divide really is prevalent in horror stories. I think it’s because horror so often deals with the unknown as a threat and the protagonists trying to explain that unknown; questioning their own beliefs, or embracing new beliefs in the face of something that turns their world upside down. That’s what makes horror so great, it gives the opportunity to push characters into the most extreme of situations.
BD: The book combines elements of dark fantasy, horror, and young adult fiction. How do you strike a balance between them all? Are there times when you want to go darker, but reel it back to maintain that sense of innocence?
TH: There were certainly times when we wanted to go darker, but that sense of innocence really is key to the story and Aurora’s character. She can’t be too jaded. Striking that balance was tough, but we just gave it our best shot. We did track each element to make sure the storyline got the elements in approximately equal doses.
BD: YALSA recently nominate the book for Great Graphic Novels for Teens. Did you expect that kind of reaction from the YA community?
TH: To be quite honest we were floored. We had no idea we were even being considered.
BD: Aurora Grimeon appears quite gloomy upon first glance with her stark white hair and striped clothing, but she’s actually quite gleeful underneath it all. Was this contrast something you planned or did it just come out naturally?
TH: Thanks for noticing. We wanted to explore that contrast and planned it from the beginning. There’s something fascinating about having a character in that type of environment be a little gleeful around the macabre. Plus it makes her more fun.
BD: You combine a lot of horror elements in the story; it’s a slow-burning supernatural slasher without all the gore. That’s a rather unique combination…
TH: I love that combination. As great as gore can be in the right project, I thought that the little piece of hell the antagonist carries had the possibility to be very scary in its own right and something that I hadn’t seen before. Gore didn’t seem to be necessary and was a step away from the rules of the world that seemed to fall naturally into place with the flame as the slasher weapon.
BD: Will O’ the Wisp is also a coming of age story in a lot of ways. What made you want to tell a story within that genre?
TH: Coming of age forms a really rich place to explore a character. You have Aurora transforming; on the threshold of becoming a woman. Then you add to that the transformative attributes of Hoodoo. It makes for a really interesting point in her life for the audience to meet her.
BD: Okay, I have to ask about Missy the raccoon because she is just awesome. Megan, you portray her perfectly and she adds so much to the story. Why a pet raccoon? Please tell me one of you has one.
TH: I’m afraid neither of us have a pet raccoon. However, my father had a pet raccoon named Willy when he was growing up, and he always had such great stories about Willy and his antics that it seemed like a natural fit. Many of the details of what Missy does are things Willy used to do. For instance he loved jam, but would insist on washing it in water, which would always end in an upset raccoon. In addition, many things on the isle are like real life, only one step removed to put Aurora on edge. Having a raccoon instead of a cat or dog seemed perfect.
BD: Tom, you do production design when you’re not writing comics and you’ve worked on some major horror movies including, You’re Next, All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, and V/H/S/2. I imagine that must help with your comics writing in terms of being able to envision the world.
TH: Absolutely. This really ties into the next question quite elegantly. Megan and I actually use the film making process that I used while working with Adam (Wingard) and Jon (Levine). We spent a lot of time building a reference book of paintings and photos of all aspects of the world to get ourselves on the same page and to establish the rules of the world before doing any writing or drawing. Then I go out and start writing and Megan starts in on the drawings.
BD: The book’s landscape is very dark and Gothic. How did you go about creating this world?
Megan Hutchison: Tom and I did tons of research. We spent weeks pulling photo references for the island, architecture, flora, graves etc. I think my art tends to be on the darker/gothic side, which lends itself to the tone we wanted. We also wanted to make sure that the island itself was an important character for the book – so we invested a lot of time establishing the world.
BD: Megan, your art style fits perfectly with the story. What was your collaborative process like?
MH:I did a lot of sketching and tests to figure out the look of the book. Though all my research and character development, the style came though. Since Tom and I have been collaborating on films for years, our process was pretty seamless. Once we knew what visual direction we wanted to take, he would hand me the script and then just let me do my thing.
BD: And with the full title of the book being “An Aurora Grimeon Story: Will O’ the Wisp”, is it safe to assume we’ll be seeing more of her?
TH: There will be more for sure. We’re excited to take Aurora and Missy on other adventures.
BD: Anything else you’d like readers to know?
MH: I’m a Sagittarius and I am rather fond of cookies and baby pandas.
TH: You can’t be too careful choosing which mushrooms you eat.