Monkeys Fighting Robots

Earlier this month I had the chance to review Gravetrancers, an excellent new comic put out by Black Mask Studios. The horror series, written by M.L. Miller with pencils by James Michael Whynot, is out this week in comic shops everywhere. So it seemed like the perfect time to chat up scribe M.L. Miller and get a little background on the book. Miller sheds light on everything from his inspiration and influences, his background as a comics journalist, and why horror as a genre works so well in the medium of comics.

M.L. MIller
Writer M.L. Miller
Monkeys Fighting Robots: First off, for those who have not had the pleasure of reading Gravetrancers, describe it for our readers. 
M.L. Miller: GRAVETRANCERS is a story about a pair of kids (Maribel and Anthony Fallon) who are seeking out the grave of their estranged father.  That grave is in the Burwood Memorial Park, owned by the Malort Family–a clan of eccentrics who have a ghoulish operation going consisting of reselling graves and making a potent and addictive drug from the corpses.  Fun stuff for the entire family.
Gravetrancers has a very 80s horror movie feel to me. It brings to mind stuff like Re-Animator, From Beyond, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (especially part 2). Was this an influence? 
I can see where the RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND aspects come from with the needles and the hallucinations. And of course, the creepy family is inspired by TCM and its sequels.  There’s also an Indonesian film called MACABRE that I felt was very influential as well as a film by Joe D’Amato called BEYOND THE DARKNESS that has the tone I was going for rather than the content.  Believe it or not, the structure of the story is kind of based on APOCALYPSE NOW where these people are on a mission that leads them into a very dark and twisted world and they might not get out.  I’ve seen way too many horror films and absorbed them all into my head for so many years, I’m sure bits and pieces come from all of them in one way or another.  Still, since I’ve seen these films and read these stories before, I tried really hard to study the tropes, the clichés, and the well-worn stories and go a different route than the norm.  I wanted the story to be unpredictable and feel dangerous.  Those are the stories I love to see and that’s what I wanted to bring to this comic.
Cover to ‘Gravetrancers’ #1-art by James Michael Whynot
This is obviously a title with a huge fantastical element, but I know you have mentioned it is rooted in some real ideas some folks believe in. How did you come across this idea? 

Well, I wanted this comic to have that feeling of danger that could really happen, sort of the feel of the original THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN or THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, where there’s a disclaimer that this is a story based on true events.  I initially got the idea of GRAVETRANCERS after hearing about a news report of a cemetery that actually did resell the plots and even stacked some caskets on top of one another.  They had a huge body pit in the back of their property where the tossed all the bodies.  Later I had a conversation with a friend who had just gone through drug rehab and he told me all kinds of stories of people smoking all kinds of toxic substances in order to get high and that story of the cemetery came back into my head.  I kind of combined those two anecdotes and came up with GRAVETRANCERS.

Art by James Michael Whynot from Gravetrancers #1
Is this a story you have always wanted to tell? 
When I was in eighth grade, I wrote a story called GRAVEYARD.  It was a typical slasher story about an escaped lunatic who makes his way to a graveyard and kills a bunch of kids who were partying there.  It was a really generic story, but I always wanted to tell a story with a graveyard as the setting and now I am, I guess.
I love stories about siblings. Why did you choose to focus on a brother and sister duo for the book? 
I think a lot of that comes from having a brother two years younger than me and thinking about how our relationship is and has evolved over the years.  We lost our father at an early age and our relationship with him is based on the way Maribel and Anthony remember their father.  I remember details about him that my brother doesn’t because he was younger, though of course, the details are much more extreme and dramatic in GRAVETRANCERS, the heart of that dynamic is autobiographical.  I love stories about siblings as well.  It’s great to have this person in your life who was there all through your early life.  It’s a bond you really can’t share with anyone else.  They know you like few other people do.  It also amps up the drama in a dire situation like the one Maribel and Anthony find themselves in.
How did you hook up with artist James Michael Whynot?
I make a point to scour Facebook and Deviant Art to find new talented artists out there and happened across James’ page.  His work speaks for itself.  It’s got a grungy and detailed way about it.  It’s surreal in the right places and down to earth in others.  I loved the way he draws his faces and proportions and then plays with them with the hallucinations.  James was a real find and I’m really happy to have him on this book.  He understands the references and the weird little embellishments I put into the script and improves on them.
We have seen a HUGE resurgence of horror in the comics medium. Why do you think that is?

I think horror is a fantastic reflection of the world we live in.  If you look at horror films and books, it often is the best during troubling times. It’s kind of a creative mind’s reaction to the world around them and great stories come from that inspiration.  Look at the eighties, which everyone feels is a real golden age of horror.  You have films like FRIDAY THE 13TH, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, RE-ANIMATOR, ALIENS, THE FLY, THE THING.  Some great horror comes out of this era and there were a lot of troubling things that occurred during that time as well–AIDS, terrorism, the Challenger explosion, evangelical scandals, serial killers, some twisted stuff happened then.  I don’t want to qualify this as a good or bad era to live in, but I do think that the information overload we get these days makes those horrifying tales more accessible and noticeable.  I think the comics world is finally getting it that superheroes are not the end all be all in the medium.  THE WALKING DEAD paved the way for that and I think people who go to comic shops because of that book will be more likely to look for more horror comics.

Monkeys Fighting Robots Youtube
Art by James Michael Whynot from Gravetrancers #1
So what makes the comics medium such a good fit for horror?
I think there are some really powerful tools that one only finds in comics that make it a great fit.  Sure we don’t have sound or camera movement or the director’s pacing, but we have the page turn which can be really powerful.  Understanding the importance of the gutter between the panels is another really powerful tool that can increase tension and suspense when used properly.  I also think you can get a little deeper into characters with comics through thought bubbles and captions.  It’s also just as costly to do a conversation between two people in a car as it is to take a trip to around the world, the stars, or the deepest pits of hell.  There is no limit to the budget in comics like there is in film.
What are some of your favorite classic and current horror comics?
 I never miss an issue of THE WALKING DEAD.  I love Cullen Bunn’s HARROW COUNTY, Peter J. Tomasi’s HOUSE OF PENANCE, and Scott Snyder’s WYTCHESAND THEN EMILY WAS GONE was amazing.  One of the most influential horror series I read was BEAUTIFUL STORIES FOR UGLY CHILDREN.  Every issue of that series was simply divine.  I also think FAUST is responsible for really messing me up as a kid.  Anthology horror comics like HOUSE OF SECRETS, HOUSE OF MYSTERY, WEIRD TALES, CREEPY, and EERIE and others like that is what got me into comics and I love revisiting them when I can.
How much do you have planned?

 GRAVETRANCERS is a four-issue series.  I’ve written a back door to the story, so there’s a chance for another series if people want one.  But it’s all up to sales and demand.

Art by James Michael Whynot from Gravetrancers #1
Black Mask Studios has consistently put out some of the most original comics in years. How did you end up working with them?
I’ve known the guys at Black Mask for quite a while now.  Publisher Matt Pizzolo has been on my horror panels at various comic conventions for years.  They have a specific type of coolness to their books that evolves and even steers the industry.  They just love to take the right type of risks and they trust and challenge the reader to think for themselves about their books.  Plus they give a ton of freedom to their creators to tell their own stories, which is great.
Are you a fan of their other books?
Oh yeah, I’ve been a fan since the beginning.  I loved FOUR KIDS WALK INTO A BANK, CALEXIT, CLAN DESTINO, X’ED, THE DREGS, THERE’S NOTHING TO FEAR, YOUNG TERRORISTS.  The list goes on and on.  The company as a whole reminds me of what Vertigo was in the late eighties and nineties.  Just quality stuff all around.
I know you were also once a lowly comics journalist like me (ha). How did you make the jump from reporter to a creator?
It was a slow and careful jump.  I worked as a reviewer for Ain’t It Cool News originally and interviewed quite a few people in the comics and movie industry.  I did comic book reviews until about five years ago when I started trying to make comics seriously.  It was then that I took a backseat and started acting as an editor for the comics section of the site.  So I gathered the reviews, steered the ship, edited them, and coded them, but didn’t provide any content or opinions once I started making my own comics because I didn’t want any ethical muck blocking my vision or killing any opportunity I might require as a writer.  I then began to talk with editors and make submissions myself.  I listened very closely to the interviews I did, maybe for a selfish manner, trying to apply their advice to my own steps toward making a career in the medium.  My time as a reviewer was crucial in my understanding of the comics medium and applying the advice, the techniques, the successes, and the failures of other creators to my own process.
What made you fall in love with comics?
I think some of it is because comics has been a major part of my life since I learned to read.  I remember diving into the Marvel Universe and their characters and then discovering DC and all of those great characters and stories.  It really is a medium with no limits and I love both drawing from the rich history of comics and trying to come up with new stories to keep old characters interesting.  It’s been a lifelong passion and I really can’t think of what my life would be without them.
What’s your opinion on all the comics based films these days? Is this good for the medium you think?
 It’s a good time to be a geek.  All of the comics I remember reading as a kid are being brought to life in films.  I can differentiate between the comics and film and they don’t get everything perfect, but I know there needs to be some changes when it comes to adapting comics to film.  I’m there with everyone else when a new comic book movie comes out, waiting in line and giggling like a child when I see them on the screen.
What else do you have in the works?
I’ve got another Black Mask Studios comic in the works that I can’t talk about yet, but I also have a series that will be collected and completed for the first time called PIROUETTE that I am very excited about.  It’ll be in stores in 2018 and features art by up and coming superstar artist Carlos Granda.  Granda and I have put together a fantastic and chilling tale of a young clown named Pirouette who longs to be anything but a clown and searches for a new life outside of the circus but finds it difficult to leave it behind.  It’s got sad clowns, circus performances, murder, evil clowns, elephants, panthers, scary clowns, acrobats, sideshow barkers, and did I mention, clowns?  It’s just a chilling and thrilling little story that I can’t wait to have people check out.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us here at MFR! 
Thank you!  You can follow my ramblings on my site MLMILLERWRITES.COM and on Twitter @Mark_L_Miller.  I hope everyone sticks takes a chance on GRAVETRANCERS!  Tell your stores to stock up on it and if the first issue scares you, that’s only the tip of the iceberg with what to expect in this series!