Bill Morrison has had an eclectic career. I mean the man co-founded Bongo comics with Matt Groening, served as an illustrator at Disney, and even designed the iconic poster for 1986’s House. So it’s rather cool for me to announce that in 2015 Morrison will be launching a creator owned comic at Dark Horse. This book is a complete labour of love that combines Morrison’s passion for horror, with his passion for history.
This unique mix promises something completely unique called “Dead Vengeance.” As described by Dark Horse: It’s 1940 and a phony body on exhibit in a carnival sideshow suddenly springs to life and shambles away. Not so phony after all, he is John Doe, radio commentator and archenemy of Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang. But why did he disappear in 1930, and why did the mayor, the mob, and the cops all want him dead?
Bloody-Disgusting caught up with Bill to talk about his exciting return to horror and squeezed some intriguing details out of him about this amazing new project. So check out Bill talking about the allure of the forties, pulp crime fighters, and why horror is in his veins.
Bloody-Disgusting: The 1940’s were a vulnerable time, but also a world before modern science and technology, what interests you most about the timeframe and why set your story in it?
Bill Morrison: I think I was born too late because I’ve always been fascinated by the 40’s. I wear 40’s clothes, I own a 1948 Buick, and my favorite Batman is the 1940’s version. I love the way everything looked back then, the fashion, cars, architecture, signage, etc. And I also love the movies, the music, the slang – – basically everything in the popular culture from that time turns me on. Originally I had planned to draw Dead Vengeance myself, and like most artists I wanted to have fun drawing the sort of things that are eye candy to me, so that was one reason.
But I think the main reason I chose this time period for this particular story is because I initially wanted to create a new twist on the pulp adventure characters of the ’30’s and ’40’s like the Shadow and the Spider. As I developed the story, the character sort of wandered away from the idea of being a masked adventurer, but the time period stuck.
BD: John Doe is a name that carries a surprising amount of weight, we know many missing person’s get saddled with it when we can’t dig up their past, why give that name to your main character?
BM: John Doe’s real name is Johnny Dover, and he’s a radio commentator in Detroit in 1930. Sort of a local Walter Winchell. He uses the moniker “John Doe, the everyman” on his radio program as a way of connecting with his audience. It’s a generic term for an average guy…sort of like John Q. Public. Also as you pointed out, it’s a name that is used to identify a person who’s past is a mystery or who’s identity is unknown. And of course, we refer to an unidentified male corpse as John Doe. Throughout the course of this story, the name John Doe fits Johnny Dover in all three of those definitions.
BM: First there’s Joe Preston, a childhood friend of Johnny Dover and small town cop in a suburb south of Detroit. Joe helps Johnny break out of jail in 1930, and then in 1940 it’s Joe, now a mechanic and inventor, who helps Johnny remember his past. He’s based loosely on Preston Tucker who was actually a cop during prohibition in my home town of Lincoln Park. He used to run down bootleggers who brought illegal booze over from Canada across the Detroit River in small boats. He went on to become a car designer and inventor, and is most famous for the ill-fated Tucker automobile.
The female lead is the exotic Madame Cansino, a beautiful carnival fortune teller. Johnny meets her after his jail break while he’s lying low. They have a steamy love affair and she teaches him the secret of astral time travel.
The main villain of the story is Clarence Bowden, the mayor of Detroit in 1930, and owner of the hot Detroit night spot the “Aztec Club” in 1940. Bowden is in league with the Purple Gang, Detroit’s notorious mob who had their fingers in every criminal activity you could think of back in the early part of the 20th century. When John Doe gets evidence of the Mayor’s connection to the Purple Gang’s bootlegging activities and threatens to expose him on his radio program, the Mayor retaliates resulting in Johnny being framed for his wife’s murder and sentenced to death in the electric chair.
BD:What were your sources of inspiration for the story?
BM: As I mentioned, I was inspired by the pulp crime fighters of the 1930’s, but also Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer always seems to influence me. It was a big inspiration for me when I was developing my Roswell series, and even though it may not be apparent, it inspired Dead Vengeance as well. Todd Browning’s 1932 film “Freaks” also had an impact on the story, likewise Bruce Jones and Bernie Wrightson’s “Freakshow” graphic novel. And because I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, the city itself was an inspiration. Dead Vengeance is set in Detroit which seems to be a punchline more than a city to most Americans these days. But back in the ’30’s and ’40’s it was a major city, right up there with Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, and I’m excited to have the story play out in that version of my town.
BD: How does your comedic past at Bongo work into telling this story, which seems much more horrific?
BM: My first work in comics, both writing and drawing came when we started Bongo, so most of my work as a writer since then has been in humor. But I was never a natural at writing comedy. I could come up with interesting story ideas pretty easily, but then had to work very hard when it came to adding the jokes.
But I grew up reading Creepy and Eerie magazines and watching horror movies. When I was nine or ten I kept a running list of all the monster movies I had seen, so horror is in my veins. Not many know this but prior to Bongo I was an illustrator and painted a lot of movie posters. Many of those were for Disney animated films, but I also did a lot of low and medium budget horror movie posters. One of the most famous is the poster for “House,” which depicted a severed rotting hand pressing a door bell. So I guess I’d have to say that writing horror actually comes easier to me than comedy, even though I’ve devoted so much of my career to humor.
BD: What goes into weaving a good and complex conspiracy story like “Dead Vengeance?”
BM: I think the story started out reasonably simple, but because it’s a time travel story I eventually realized that I had a whole set of paradoxical problems that had to be solved in a logical way. My wife, Kayre was instrumental in helping me with that. She gave me a lot of notes about things that weren’t working or didn’t make sense and offered solutions. I finally realized that I needed to give her credit as co-creator because she added so much to the integrity of the story by making sure that everything was solid.
I also think you have to dislike your hero enough to make things difficult for him. You have your basic story that goes logically from A to B to C, but if it happens too easily it’s not satisfying. I tend to like my characters too much and want them to have an easy time, but that’s boring so I have to force myself to be a jerk and put obstacles in their way.
Another thing that I think that adds interest to this story are the limitations that existed back then. Earlier you mentioned that the story takes place in an era before modern science and technology, and that fact creates more problems for the characters. In 1940 there was no internet, cell phones, DNA identification, etc., so the characters have to work harder to fulfill the needs of the story. I was watching 24 the other night, and in the current season Jack Bauer and everyone he’s working with all have these wireless com-link devices in their ears so they can talk to each other no matter where they are. I don’t know if that’s real technology or just something the writer invented out of convenience to keep the story moving, but in 1940 they didn’t even have cell phones so if a character in my story needs to contact another character he has to find a pay phone and hope he has a dime because guess what? Pay phones didn’t take credit cards back then. And by the way, the credit card as we know it today didn’t even exist!
BD: What else can we look forward to with this series?
BM: Well, I haven’t even mentioned the art work yet, which is fantastic! Like I said earlier, I was originally planning to draw the series myself. Well Scott Allie at Dark Horse took the series on in 2008 with that in mind, but I was so busy that I couldn’t seem to find time to start drawing and the project languished and was eventually shelved. Scott graciously invited me to pitch it again if I ever found the time to commit to it, but years went by and I never did.
But last year at Comic-Con I had the good fortune to get a dinner invitation from my pal Paul Dini, and one of our fellow diners was Paul’s friend and collaborator Stephane Roux. We were seated side by side and got to know each other, and by the end of the evening I felt that he, not me, might be the perfect artist to draw Dead Vengeance. He loves the ’30’s and 40’s like I do and is also a huge fan of Dave Stevens and the Rocketeer. I briefly explained the idea for Dead Vengeance to his jaw dropped. He loved it! Later I sent him my full outline for the story and his level of enthusiasm was so high I decided to pitch it to Dark Horse again with Stephane as the artist. So that’s what else you have to look forward to! Stephane’s art is just stunning. He’s doing pencils, inks, and colors, and you can tell it’s a labor of love. He’s having a fantastic time and it shows!
BD: You’ve got me intrigued. What did you say to Stephane, what was your pitch?
BM: Well, you might want to issue a SPOILER ALERT here, but the thing that takes this crime story into the realm of horror is this; Johnny’s lover, Madame Cansino learns of his desire to get revenge on his wife’s killer and to clear himself of the murder charge, but unfortunately the real murderer, Izzy Shapiro, has been sentenced to ten years in Joliet prison for having sex with a minor during a party thrown by Al Capone. She convinces him that he can project his spirit ten years into the future to inhabit his future body. Then he can get his revenge on Shapiro, clear his name, do whatever he needs to do in 1940, and come back to his body in 1930 just seconds after he left. After some demonstrations, Johnny is convinced and decides to try it, but in his haste he fails to consider one devastating thing. In 1940, his body is dead and when his spirit arrives at its destination, Johnny reanimates his own corpse.
BD: Surely you had conceived of a specific look and feel for the book when you planned to draw it, how did that look evolve once Stephane came in? and how do you two collaborate on creating this world?
BM: Yes, the look I had in mind was along the lines of the 1950’s Harvey horror comics by Lee Elias. I have many horror heroes like Bernie Wrightson, Steve Ditko, Graham Ingels, Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Michael Kaluta…but I’m aware of my own capabilities and felt that the Caniff-like style of Elias was something I could get close to.
Once I brought Stephane in and saw some of his preliminary designs for the characters I realized that this book was going to look WAY better than what I could do on my own. It’s more lush and realistic, and very cinematic. When the movie version comes out I know it’s going to look exactly the way Stephane drew it!
The collaborative process is that when I’m scripting I gather reference that I think will be helpful, basically what I would use myself if I was drawing it. Then I send it to him or send him links to web pages. He’s free to use what I send him or gather his own reference, but he does send me his roughs so I can give him input and let him know if something isn’t right. Because it’s an historical piece, I’m concerned with things like fashions of the time, hair styles, autos, local Detroit buildings, etc. I want it to be authentic and accurate, so I’m a bit of a stickler on those things. But beyond that I want Stephane to have fun and not feel restricted. I know from experience that if you’re having fun as an artist, the work will look fantastic, and that’s what we all want!
Dead Vengeance #1 is Written by Bill Morrison with Art by Stephane Roux and hits finer comic shops on 01/21/2015