Monkeys Fighting Robots spoke with writer Ryan O’Sullivan about his new series A DARK INTERLUDE, the first issue of which drops November 18th from Vault Comics.
O’Sullivan works on the series with artist Andrea Mutti, colorist Vladimir Popov, and letterer AndWorld Design. The masterful Tim Daniel is the book’s designer.
A DARK INTERLUDE is the “not-quite-a-sequel” to 2018’s FEARSCAPE (and O’Sullivan speaks more to what that means below). It continues the story of unreliable narrator Henry Henry and the Fearscape, a magical realm where mankind’s greatest fears take corporeal form.
We’ve read the first issue, and all we can say is that if you liked FEARSCAPE, or you enjoy entertaining dark fantasy stories with smart, witty metacommentary (à la Sandman), you will love A DARK INTERLUDE. The series has a unique narrative voice and a fearlessness to take risks. It’s one of those comics that reinvigorates your love for the medium.
Check out the first 8 pages of A DARK INTERLUDE #1 right here:
And read on for our interview with Ryan O’Sullivan:
Monkeys Fighting Robots: Ryan, thanks for taking the time to talk with me (though I’m sure Henry Henry won’t approve of you speaking with press).
Ryan O’Sullivan: I don’t think Henry Henry really cares what I do. He took over the Vault Comics Twitter last week and couldn’t even remember my name. (Though he also blocked me. So maybe he wasn’t being entirely honest.)
MFR: A DARK INTERLUDE is being called the “not-quite-a-sequel” to FEARSCAPE — what exactly does that mean?
O’Sullivan: It means that it’s not quite a sequel. Explaining it any better than that might give the game away too much. (Especially given that one of the chief conceits of the book is that it is a “sequel” mocking the culture of never-ending sequels/reboots/shared universes we’re currently blighted with.) It’s set in the same Dark Fantasy (think Sandman) world as FEARSCAPE, with the same cast of characters, and takes place 18 months after it, so I could see why some people might think it’s a sequel. I respect their opinion, even if it’s not one I personally hold.
I will say this – you don’t need to have read FEARSCAPE to enjoy A DARK INTERLUDE. (It will add to the experience, though! Just like each Fast and the Furious film adds another layer to the deep mythos of the film series.)
MFR: And where will readers find themselves when they pick up the first issue? How have things changed for your characters since the end of FEARSCAPE?
O’Sullivan: A DARK INTERLUDE begins with our narrator, Henry Henry, locked up in a mental health hospital in the real world. Comics’ most unreliable narrator is trying to reform himself, but the supernatural creatures from the Fearscape have other ideas.
As for the rest of the cast? Issue #1 will reveal all!
MFR: One of the signatures of FEARSCAPE was the way you called out tropes (like grid layouts or exposition dumps) while executing those exact tropes yourselves. Where did the idea to do that come from, and how are you keeping it fresh, funny, and interesting for DARK INTERLUDE?
O’Sullivan: Keeping something fresh just requires you don’t end up flanderising yourself/consuming yourself. If the entire story was just Henry Henry complaining about tropes then people would get bored, and the work would read as indulgent/vain/etc. At some point you have to pivot away from deconstruction and actually start constructing something.
A DARK INTERLUDE is a character-driven story. You may not notice it at first, because of the formalism in the storytelling, or the acridity in the narration, or other deliberately antagonizing/distracting narrative elements, but the thing you’re coming back for issue after issue is the characters. If a story has characters in it that don’t feel like people – full of flaws, contradictions, and death drive, then you won’t care about it. You might find it entertaining, and think the writer is smart for having people jump out of panels or whatever, but unless you populate your story with characters that have an inner consciousness the reader won’t really care about it. (A good story needs to excite both hearts and minds.)
And I think that’s why readers enjoy A DARK INTERLUDE – they care about Henry Henry. Not in the sense that they like him, or that they empathize with him, or that they treat him as some sort of vicarious stand in for their baser instincts, but because he feels like a real human being. And in comics, that sort of thing is rare. Most characters in comics just have the personality of Xander from Buffy. (Quip quip quip…stand around being sad saying their feelings out loud…quip quip quip…stand around being sad saying their feelings out loud….)
As an aside: I’ve never understood why writers in a visual medium are so scared of leaving things unsaid. Of allowing things to be implied. This is why I adore Inio Asano. He doesn’t spell things out. I love “Iceberg” writers such as Carver and Hemingway. Comics needs more of them. (If you’re reading this and you know any – @ryanosullivan is my twitter handle. Hit me up. Seriously.)
MFR: I also love the way you call out the “other side” of comics, specifically reviewers and readers who love to overanalyze things. (I’ve never felt so personally attacked by a comic, and I love it.) How much of that commentary comes from your own experiences, and how much comes from you getting into the head of Henry Henry and saying what you think he would say?
O’Sullivan: We play with autofiction in A DARK INTERLUDE because we’re looking to blur the barriers from what is real and what is not. This helps makes the reader uncertain about what to believe, which forces them to think. As much as A DARK INTERLUDE takes shots at writers, artists, readers, and all other parts of comics, it also takes shots at itself. And it leaves the reader to formulate their own idea of what the comic is about.
Don’t get me wrong, Death of the Author is utter dreck. There is a specific answer to the riddle of A DARK INTERLUDE. I’m just not prepared to say what that is. (Because doing so would defeat the purpose of writing it!)
MFR: Henry Henry is one of the most unique, unlikable, and unreliable narrators I’ve come across in comics — what are the advantages and drawbacks to writing a narrator who lets you say whatever you want at the cost of the readers’ trust?
O’Sullivan: The reader’s trust shouldn’t be lost by the presence of an unreliable narrator. If anything the opposite should happen. The reader should realize that the author respects them enough to know they’ll figure out this Henry Henry guy is lying, thus allowing the reader and author to conspire together against the unreliable narrator. What makes A DARK INTERLUDE dramatic, is that Henry Henry is trying to upset this bond between author and reader, so that he can have ownership of the story instead of me. Unfortunately, sometimes he is successful.
Of course, the above is the exact sort of thing an unreliable author would say to gaslight a reader. So, once again, I leave it to the readers to draw their own conclusions.
I will say one other thing, actually. Perhaps of more interest for other writers than readers. The very real risk of writing a character like Henry Henry is that, because he is so distasteful, a reader must find him entertaining to enjoy the book. (The humor counterbalances how distasteful he is.) If he is not to a reader’s particular sense of humor, they will loathe the story. (As it will just be a story about a distasteful man they do not find amusing.) This is a completely valid read. There are people who cannot enjoy Lolita simply because the protagonist being a pedophile is too abhorrent for them. Henry Henry is not quite that horrible, but the principle remains the same.
MFR: How is it working with Andrea Mutti, Vladimir Popov, and AndWorld Design again? How has your partnership and the way you all work together evolved from FEARSCAPE to now?
O’Sullivan: Andrea sends me slightly less angry emails in Italian. So overall a net positive. Honestly, they’re all a joy to work with. I can’t imagine doing this book without Andrea, Vlad, Deron, Ariela, or any of the folks at Vault Comics.
MFR: And while much of the story’s metacommentary is conveyed through dialogue or Henry’s narration, a lot of it is more subtly hidden in the colors and lettering. How much of this is established in the scripting/planning stage, and how much of it is Popov and AndWorld bringing their own flair and expertise?
O’Sullivan: Metacommentary is all decided at the script-level. Although sometimes compromises have to be made at the inking/coloring/lettering stages due to time constraints. Honestly, the expertise of my collaborators isn’t so much in innovation as it is in execution. They’ve all been doing this longer than I have, and being able to count on that experience to deliver the incredible work they do – that is what gives me the freedom to push myself when writing. I know they can deliver anything I ask for – that allows me to be ambitious. They’re also incredibly tolerant. I’m a demanding writer. They put up with it because they care for the work. And I love them for it.
MFR: There’s been a lot of talk this year about the business of comics and how comics should be distributed. Why was it the right move for you to put out these stories in single issue format as opposed to a series of graphic novels?
O’Sullivan: A DARK INTERLUDE was created from the ground-up as a single-issue series. You can’t release something like that as a graphic novel. Graphic novels have an entirely different “rhythm” to them.
MFR: FEARSCAPE and A DARK INTERLUDE are very much celebrations of comics. As mentioned, you don’t hesitate to comment on the industry’s flaws and tropes, but it’s still clear that you and the team love what you do. What draws you to comics as opposed to other mediums?
O’Sullivan: Comics feels like one of the last fringe mediums. The concept-to-publication timeline is tiny compared to novels or films. This allows comic creators to evolve at a faster rate than their contemporaries. (It also allows you to avoid accidentally stepping into trends. You won’t, for example, end up halfway through a novel as eight other identical novels appear on the shelves due to everyone pulling from the same influences/contemporary concerns.) This is another reason I enjoy releasing stories in single issues – it helps get the story out there into the readers’ hands ASAP.
The comics medium also feels unexplored. It’s been dominated by juvenile stories for decades. (Not a slur. They are what they are. I enjoy them for it. I would not work in comics if I didn’t.) But because of this, the “language of comics” hasn’t really been explored to the same extent as the novel or the poem. That makes it an obviously exciting area to play in. I just wish more writers were doing exciting work that pushed the medium. Plenty try, but with (direct market) comics being such a (small c) conservative, nostalgic, industry; most “inventive” comics are just rehashes of what Gerber/Moore/Morrison/Milligan/etc were doing 30-40 years ago.
MFR: And finally, the word “interlude” suggests more to come… Is there anything you want to tease about what you and the team are planning?
O’Sullivan: I would be hesitant trusting the title of a book with an unreliable narrator. But, by that same token, I would distrust interview answers from the author of said book. The only way to know for sure, is to buy A DARK INTERLUDE issue #1 on November 18th and see or yourselves. (Future Googlers – hello! Did you notice the butterflies on the cover?)
Thanks again to Ryan O’Sullivan for chatting with us. A DARK INTERLUDE #1 is out November 18th — call your LCS today and tell them you want it!