Beyond Lovecraft is a portmanteau horror story that draws directly on the works of H. P Lovecraft. Drawn by award winning artist Rob Moran and written by award winning writer Jasper Bark, it's a 96 page graphic novel featuring four stand alone tales and one on going story that links them all together. This is a grim and cosmic love letter to the mythos that means so much to the creators.
Jasper Bark! Great to have you back with us! Let’s start with 2015. How’s it been for you so far? What have you gotten up to since last we talked?
The short answer is: writing and raising a family. The long answer is I’ve started a new novel, I’m doing final edits on another novel and a novella that are coming out early next year and I’m writing a play for Steampunk superstar Veronique Chevallier. I also joined an all female, topless bear wrestling team. But then I got thrown out. Partly for being too short and having a penis, but mostly because I couldn’t wrestle bears for shit. I think they were also having problems finding topless bears.
Sounds like fun...
Oh, and I launched a crowd-funding campaign for a graphic novel called ‘Beyond Lovecraft’, why don’t we talk about that?
Okay, let’s talk about Beyond Lovecraft - a project I am REALLY excited about. Can you remember where the idea for this project first bubbled to the surface?
It came from one of the regular and rambling phone conversations I have with the artist Rob Moran. I don’t chat much on the phone these days, and Rob’s a virtual recluse, so when we do talk, we seem to go on at great length. Rob mentioned to me that he’d always wanted to do a portmanteau horror comic called ‘Beyond Lovecraft’, set in the great Library of the Yith, a huge alien archive that contains the entire history of the universe, which is a key factor in The Shadow Out of Innsmouth. He suggested that we could use that as a hook to tell lots of different stories set in Lovecraft’s universe.
The minute he told me the idea I knew I wanted to work with him on it. I love portmanteau horror movies, and stories within stories, and this was a brilliant idea. After that I jotted down some ideas, sent them over to Rob and we began work on it.
Is this your first time working with the mythos, or have you written similar work before? If you have worked in the area previously, what’s different about this project? And were you intimidated by working on material from one of the undisputed masters of the genre? How did you approach that? And is that too many questions all at once?
I haven’t worked with the Cthulhu mythos before. Not directly, though working in horror it’s hard to escape the huge influence that Lovecraft has had on the field, so it’s touched some of the work I’ve done in the past.
I guess in some ways it is intimidating, working on material by an author who is so highly regarded. However, there is also an upside, in that if you’re building on work that’s already had such an impact on the field, then your foundations are pretty solid. You’re only adding to what is already considered a masterpiece. So a lot of the hard work has already been done for you. That said, because it is so good, you have nowhere to hide if your own ideas don’t measure up to the original.
Our approach to the whole mythos is one of reverent innovation. We have not tried to add anything to the canon, we haven’t tried to change or rewrite the events, as many other writers have. Everything that Lovecraft wrote is set in stone. However we didn’t want to simply replicate, or clone, the original stories, we wanted to take them in a new direction. Lovecraft was very innovative as an author, and he also made good use of modern technology and ideas. So we wanted to take a similar approach to the cosmic horror of the mythos. To take it in unfamiliar directions and to reveal it in a light that modern readers may not have seen before.
Can you talk a bit about the general differences between writing for comics as opposed to prose? What’s the biggest challenge for you about comics? What’s the best thing about it?
The major difference, and your biggest challenge as a writer, is letting the artist tell the majority of the story for you. So many of the techniques you rely upon, in prose, to convey mood, setting and character just aren’t available to you as a comic writer. You have to give your artist just enough info, within the panel description of the script, to allow them to convey all those things with a single static image. Learning how to choose that image and arrange each one in a sequence, so that it’s not only apparent to the artist how to draw them, but also instantly apparent to the reader, the minute they see the page, what is going on, takes an awful lot of time and study of the comics medium.
The other major challenge you face as a writer is brevity of language. You have a maximum of two word balloons per panel, and maybe one caption. A maximum of 25 words per caption or balloon and a maximum of 6 panels per page. That’s an absolute maximum of 450 words on a page, and that’s going to be a pretty crammed page so you often have only half that, to convey what you’d normally have around 2,000 to 3,000 words to cover in a piece of prose. For this reason you have to be incredibly concise in both the prose and the dialogue. There isn’t room for a single wasted word.
The best thing about writing for comics is the process of collaboration. Opening up your inbox to find a whole series of beautiful pages in them. To have an artist of Rob’s calibre take your stories and concepts and lift them to a whole new plane. To see your own work completely recreated by another person’s vision so that the end product is something that neither of you could ever have ever created by yourselves.
Given that process, how often are you surprised by what the artist produces? How important is the trust relationship with your collaborator?
The trust aspect is huge and it’s wonderful when you have it. If you’re writing professionally though, you don’t always know who’s going to draw your work. The editor can change that at the last minute, and they hire and fire your collaborators. In this instance you need to be very clear about what to include in each panel of the page, and why every detail is there, and most artists will understand this and work with you.
You are often surprised by your collaborators though. Working with artists like Rob, I’ll open the pdf they send me of the page and catch my breath. They’ll have portrayed the scene in ways I could never have guessed and will include all kinds of visual ideas I never saw, but love. In this instance I look so much cleverer than I actually am.
On the other hand sometimes artists miss stuff, or mess it up so badly you really can’t believe how they could have done that. You’ll have a script direction like: “Close up on JOE’S face, he is distraught as his whole world crumbles.” And instead of a close up, that was essential to the rhythm of the page and the flow of the story, they’ll draw a long shot with a ruddy great pot plant in the way, that completely blocks Joe’s face. Or you’ll write: “NB: It is essential that we show the smoking gun in this panel or none of the rest of this story makes any sense”. Will they show the smoking gun though? Nope! Instead they’ll draw a massive velociraptor in the background, even though the whole story is set in a lawyer’s office in Chicago and it makes no sense whatsoever. The artists just wanted to draw a velociraptor that day.
I am seriously not make this up either. Often you don’t even find this out until the comic has been printed and you’re standing in the middle of your local comic shop screaming “NOOOOOOO!!!” at the pages, as the other customers sidle awkwardly away from you. I’m afraid every writer who works in comics has these horror stories. They go with the territory.
What’s the working process with you and Rob Moran? He’s an exceptional artist…
HE is a formidable talent, which is why I try to stay out of his way as much as I can (although Rob may disagree with that). Some comic artists want a lot of direction, others want hardly any, Rob is in the latter camp. The layout and visual elements of the story are his domain and I try to give him the bare minimum that he needs.
Generally, our working method starts with a series of conversations, where we throw ideas back and forth, other until we’re happy with where we’re going. I’ll take these ideas and write a story outline and forward that to Rob. Having read the outline, Rob will then threaten to force feed me my own testicles if I ever send him a script with this story.
Buoyed up by the fact that it’s about a day and a half solid travel between the tiny Scottish island on which Rob resides, and the tiny west country town where I live, (and also the fact that Rob is partial to pinching the odd penny or two, so he’s unlikely to shell out for the airfare unless he is truly riled). I go ahead and write the story, safe in the knowledge that I won’t be tasting my own testes any time soon.
When he receives my script, Rob will read it while shaking his head and making soft, sorrowful noises. Then he’ll make a succession of tiny replicas of me, out of unspeakable and arcane material, that he will proceed to torture and mutilate as he lays out the preliminary pencils from my script. Once he’s inked each of the pages, using the black viscous fluid he milks from an army of mini shoggoths he’s been cultivating for years, he’ll e-mail them to me. And a thing of dark and terrible beauty they will undoubtedly be.
Then either Rob, or another letterer, will layout the word balloons on the page and letter each one.
You’ve set up some really impressive rewards for this campaign. Can you talk a bit about them, and how you came up with them?
The main thinking behind the contributor’s perks was that we wanted to create a unique experience for everyone who got involved with the campaign. We wanted to give them something that put them at the heart of the project and allowed them a sense of ownership. You know when you read a book or a comic and you think: ‘this was written just for me’. That’s what we want everyone who gets involved with Beyond Lovecraft to think. If you’re a fan of Lovecraft and great horror comics, then we’re creating this work just for you.
Our flagship perk, and the one thing that’s gotten us most coverage, in the comic and horror press, is the opportunity to own property in the Lovecraftian town of Innsmouth. That’s right, you can buy and own a home in what was previously only a fictional setting. When Rob told me he was building a scale diorama of Innsmouth as part of the background preparations for one of the stories (yes he really does put his heart and soul into his work and he goes to incredible lengths to get everything right), I was struck with the idea that we could sell some of the houses he’s building to contributors. Rob liked the idea and even created a local realtor who would handle the sale for you. Along with the house, and a ton of other perks, you get a letter from Hiram, the realtor, a deed of sale giving you full, legal ownership of the house and a unique brochure with many pictures and a detailed description, plus floorplans of your house. I think it’s an incredible investment and if the price of property in Innsmouth goes up as a result of the campaign, you could even sell it and make a profit!
Crowdfunding has exploded as a funding model for creative work in the last three years. How are you finding the campaign so far? What do you see as the upsides and downsides to crowdfunding?
So far it’s been hard work, but it’s rewarding (in many ways). One of the unexpected upsides has been that it’s put me back in touch with all kinds of people in my social network and it’s been great catching up with them as I’ve been sharing the campaign.
The other upside is that it gives you a certain freedom as an artist to follow a more personal vision. Most comics work is ‘work for hire’ and you are very much at the whim of the editorial staff (if you want to get paid that is). So much of the paid work is hack work. What’s more, due to reduced sales, page rates and royalties are much less than they were when I started in comics, over ten years ago, and there are less markets to sell to as well.
Some publishers can’t pay anything but royalties anymore, such as our current publisher Markosia. As they don’t pay page rates these days, what they do offer is creative freedom and a great royalty deal, plus lots of support. However, if comics are a big source of your income (like they are for Rob and me) that means you can only work on passion projects (such as this one) in the few scant days you get between the hack work. Crowdfunding offers us the opportunity to work, without interruption, or interference, on the projects that mean the most to us. So we can create our very best work. That’s a wonderful freedom and it’s down to the generosity of our fellow human beings. So it’s quite an amazing thing.
If there’s a downside, it’s that for the duration of the campaign, crowdfunding becomes your full time job. So I’ve been working eight to ten hours a day on the campaign since it started, and if I take time off to work on the other projects I’ve been commissioned to write, then I actually feel a bit guilty. Overall though, I guess that’s a small matter.
If this project is successful, do you imagine it could form part of a longer series? Do you and Rob have more Lovecraftian tales to explore together?
I won’t rule it out, but this is very much a self contained piece and all four stories, plus the wraparound tale, will be quite irrevocably concluded, with no room for sequels. We don’t want to repeat ourselves, so If we do something else after this, it will be a completely different concept and a whole new take on Lovecraft’s trademark cosmic horror.
So if people want to get involved in the campaign, what should they do next?
Go to this link:
and choose from a whole array of unique perks. There’s something to suit everyone’s taste and budget. We would also love it if you left us a comment to tell us what you think, and if you were to share the campaign on Facebook/Twitter or other social media we would be be incredibly grateful.
Always a pleasure to catch up, Jasper.
The pleasure has been mine Kit, and don’t forget that link again: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/beyond-lovecraft/x/9785467#/story We have lots of exciting new perks and all manner of updates planned, so make sure you keep checking in to see what’s new.