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Tabula Rasa

Read On

An Interview with Christian Read

By David Carroll, October 2001

Christian Read has made a rather large splash in the Australian comic industry of late, with a distinctive style and ambition (and that was just his appearance at ComicFest). He started with Dunwich, a complex and fascinating take on the Cthulhu mythos, and The Watch, our first serious superhero comic in many years, and now seems set to take on the world. The Watch is on-going -- now with US distribution -- Witch King is a new title on the horizon, and he is also working on the US comic Gothic. In the meantime, chase up his work in Diggsville, and on-line at ComicsAustralia.

If you have also read his Full Bleed column, you'd know he doesn't mess around, and attacks a wide range of topics with passion. Here, I have asked him about his two main titles, then about life and the writing of comic books.

Christian Read photo


See the details

Tabula Rasa: Lovecraft is infamous for his indescribable and thus undrawable horrors. How did you approach the mythos in comic form?

Christian Read: There is a strong misunderstanding that Lovecraft preferred to keep his creatures purely offstage, utilising the old Gothic tricks of ambience and rattling chains and an aversion to direct experience with the preternatural. Personally, I disagree with that reading of his works. Part of the break from the horror tradition he made was presenting his beasts directly, in a detailed, almost Italianate style. The monsters are real, and will get you.

Lovecraft enjoyed the craft of monster making and was quite frank, indeed, luxurious with his descriptions. Examine the descriptions of the Shoggoths, the Antarctic Elder Things, old Cthulhu himself, Dagon and his kind, the Yithians, Yuggothians, Yig and Yog Sothoth to name but a few.

Using comics is therefore uniquely suited to show this menagerie. The trick is to make them alien, worthy of their inheritor. I think artist Doug Holgate succeeded admirably.

TR: What about the modern day setting? Was that easy to integrate with Lovecraft?

CR: Dunwich, the location, was chosen specifically to get across the idea that seventy years on, little had changed. That some events linger forever. The same collection of cultists, hill folk and lost, isolated men and women who so populate Lovecraftian stories are still there. So, in this particular case, no. If I return to the characters of Rose and Nathaniel, then we'll be seeing them in very different modern settings. I wanted specifically to do this to play around with the aspects of scientific anti-romance Lovecraft was so obsessed with.

If fear of discovery, and a belief that knowledge was inherently dangerous so intrigued him then, imagine what he would have made with the science of now.

TR: Was there any previous comics of similar subject that inspired you? What about other media that successfully translated the style?

CR: At the time of writing the first draft of Dunwich, which was something like four years now, I had seen very little in the way of horror comics that hit the themes I was interested in. Virtually no Lovecraftian stuff. Only much later did I pick up on creators like Mignola and the creeping, elegant art of Troy Nixey.

The only direct bit of inspiration I can name, where I consciously admired form and element, was Mark Millar's run on Swamp Thing. Grotesque, surreal, gripping, it was and is a major influence on me and on how I view good horror story telling.

As for Lovecraftian film, I'm generally pretty disdainful. Reanimator might be fun, but I don't think it's much of a pure horror classic. There are only two films I genuinely enjoy in that vein, Cast A Deadly Spell, which is only tangentially, though significantly, related to the Mythos, and Mouth of Madness, which takes up the themes of cosmic horror but never the specifics of Lovecraft.

Oh, and both films have the mighty David Warner in them. Coincidence? No.

I must admit ignorance as to many of the short films which make their way around the small festivals of the world.

The only other medium where I've really been impressed with the translation is the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company adaptations of Lovecraft short stories. Really inventive approaches to the Master's work.

TR: Was it easy to write a fixed-length story? Did you say all you wanted to?

CR: Certainly. Like most of the stories I write, Dunwich simply downloaded itself neatly into my brain, in a three chapter format, complete with characters, plot, resolution, everything. And the three issue mini series is perfect for the three act school of story telling. Things happen, they get worse, they resolve. The only problem I had in this respect is that I desperately needed one more page to truly bring home the final deaths and cement the whole concept of sacrifice I'd been playing around with in the third issue. Due to restrictions in printing, I just could not have that extra page and I think the work suffers for it. The climax of Dunwich is, to my eyes, fatally flawed. If I was writing it now, I could have found a way around it perhaps, but not then. Just a matter of experience. That's just the nature of the 22 page comic pamphlet and a good argument for the original graphic novel. But that's another topic.

TR: I've read that the story reflects your opinion of modern horror.

CR: Well, not quite. In Dunwich you see some classic modern horror archetypes. The girl with glasses who takes 'em off and turns sexy. The jock, the nerd, the kindly professor with some occult knowledge. The kind you can find in pretty much any uninspired horror film from Night of the Demons to Scream. I just figured dropping them into a Lovecraft story and watching them get cut up, shot, shovelled, rotted, whatever else happens to them was a good way of comparing the strength of the two sub genres of horror fiction.

TR: Is that a genre comics can do well?

CR: Crap slasher horror? Of course. But why would you? I mean, it's so defined by it's tropes that unless you do it paint by numbers, it ain't slasher no more. The difference between Lovecraftian horror and mainstream blah horror is the ideas. One wants to see tits and blood and is essentially misogynist and anti-sexual. The other reflects a deep distrust of knowledge and a kind of black existentialism. Which would you rather read?

The Watch

See the details

TR: You've written about politics and superheroes. Is The Watch political?

CR: Everything is political. Superheroes just happen to be, by their nature, fascinating when examined in a political context. This strange little genre gets right to the heart of many vital political philosophical debates. The rights of individuals versus society, the nature of personal responsibility, the ownership of skill and talent, elite citizenry, aristocracy and even down to things like the rights of people to bear arms and the tired old sawhorse, racism. Used like a bludgeon in many, many different books, it's still something worth looking at.

As for The Watch itself, the political level mainly exists on a subtextual level. Don't worry, no one is going to turn to the reader with a thumbs up saying "Trots are tops!"

Really, it has to do with my own distrust of organisation, and my own belief that the world needs some sort of leadership, and how to achieve something in the eye of that paradox.

Plus, I couldn't really live creating a super hero book that existed utterly within its own continuum, as it were. I figured, if I was going to write power fantasies, I might as well make them power fantasies about something.

TR: It seems to be set in a generic 'Gotham' type city -- Kingdom City. Is this in Australia? Could it be?

CR: Kingdom City is a bit of a millstone around my neck. I have a great love for the charming fictional cities of comics. Astro, Opal, Gotham, whatever. Plus, as a genre writer, the world building is very attractive to me. But I realised that setting it in a total fantasy world kept the story from ever evolving from its generic origins. I wanted to just ignore it and let it fade from memory but the publisher, who owns the story, wanted it kept around. Don't expect it to make any more appearances while I'm writing the book.

As for its setting, no, there was never a shred of intention to make it Australian. Or American, European, Asian, whatever. It was just a city. See why I thought it was holding back the story? Why bother commenting on anything if you aren't going to even have the book take place in the world?

TR: How hard is it to avoid what has been done before -- to come up with original 'superheroes'?

CR: Avoiding what has done before is a complex thing. I find that I can never be sure what is original and what is influence, but I ruthlessly cut out anything I can see is too broadly, plainly influenced. A lot of the times I just tell my story and if there is crossover with published material, then so be it. I don't read every comic in the world, so if I've hit a chord someone else is playing, then it just means me and another writer out there are thinking about the same thing. All I can really do is tell my story the way I want it told.

Original superheroes, however, is a different matter. Usually, I think about the character long before I assign it powers. The character is the important bit. Bones, for example, is a good and kind man, a bit shy but really, just deeply happy to have superpowers. That's what interests me. Not whether he can lift 10 or 11 tonnes over his head. Original, living, compelling characters. At the heart of every story you have people. Without that, well, then something will always be missing from the work, no matter how many buildings you blow up or supervillians you defeat.

Thinking up new powers is pretty fun, but hardly the driving goal of the comic. Any interesting powers I invent comes from me being a keen reader of genetics, physics, biology and engineering works. A few of the stranger characters we'll see introduced later on in the series will have some more "pseudo-sciency" powers. Probably the most interesting set of powers so far is Xenia's, which reflect a suspicion I have about the real make up of the universe. I'm no physicist though, so I can't speculate in real terms without sounding ignorant. I can, though, dress up my thoughts in a superhero coat and send them out there into the world.

TR: Does this change the way the comic turned out?

CR: Trying to invent original characters? Well, there's no Spider-Boy, no Ratman, no Colonel America... Yes, it affected the trimming of the story, but the overall point of it would have been the same if I had plagiarised every superhero in fandom.

TR: Why start again at #1 with the new story? Did the change in artist change your writing?

CR: We renumbered because that was part of the deal with Diamond Distribution. They didn't want to take on a book that started with issue #6.

Changing artists always changes writing for a variety of reasons. The most important is that artists, like any specialists, have particular fortes. Andrew Phillips, my current artist, is not Scott Fraser, the original illustrator on the book. Scott could project a sense of lively kinetic frenzy into the work while Andrew is far more the formal stylist. With Andrew, knowing that he is dedicated to filling up a page, with controlling time and structure, I tend to write looser scripts. I also know he has certain talents and specialities. Basically, you write to an artist's strengths.

Everything Else

TR: You've written a variety of genres. Did anything suit the medium particularly well -- or badly.

CR: That question is like asking a novelist which of his stories best fitted words. Comics as a medium can handle anything. Some say it's a bastard medium. Perhaps it is. I see it more as the ultimate in plastic storytelling. We can fit nearly any story into the comic form. We have a variety of techniques no other medium has access too. Then we the capacity to wield a melange of literary, poetic and filmic devices, wedded to each other or separately. Plus, close examination will reveal to you that every comic is a piece of sheet music. Watch closely and you'll see the beat and rhythm in there. Comics can do anything.

So no, I've not found the medium to have any style of story it was particularly suited too. My writing on the other hand...

TR: Is there a unifying theme through your work, regardless of genre?

CR: That's a deeply hard question to answer. I had to go to my proof readers and bench testers to get a clearer picture. Probably the big one is an examination of what it means to be a moral person in an immoral world. Expedience versus morality. There are a few others. Sacrifice turns up a lot. The non genre material seems to deal pretty exclusively with regret. Doorways pop up in the work a hell of a lot as well. Don't ask me what that's about. About the only thing I consciously keep writing about is loyalty and a deep, deep resentment of moral authority.

TR: You've also written short stories and non-fiction. What other mediums would you work in if you could?

CR: I'd like to return to prose soon, but currently I'm only really beginning to understand how to actually bang together a comic script. Things will have to wait before I get on to finishing that hundred plus pages of novel. I wouldn't mind having a shot at either ludicrous big budget Hollywood film making, or smaller, more personal indie film work. But film making is expensive and I've no real inclination to raise tens of thousands of dollars only to sink them into a film which may or may not succeed.

I also have some vague notes on huge multi media spoken word/music projects ala Coil and Godspeed! You Black Emperor. Possibly even something like Mick Farren's Tijuana Bible. Great grand landscapes of inhuman sound, held together by only narrative chanting, singing, speaking, glossolalic grunting... Or even stories accompanied by simple music. Sadly, my own musical skill is lacking, so this may have to remain only a dream.

I've also begun painting. I'm rather remarkably dreadful. But it's fun and allows access to yourself in preverbal ways writing simply can't.

Really, I just want to tell stories, and will use whatever medium interests me at the time.

TR: Is your work influenced by the current Australian comic scene?

CR: No. The current scene is basically zines, and while I have the utmost respect for them, the motives, techniques and goals of the zine creator do not significantly overlap with mine. That isn't to say that there isn't great work out there. There certainly is. Just have a look at any small press work and the chances are you'll see something amazing.

TR: Give us a sneak preview of your ideas for Gothic.

CR: Got to [Now a dead link] for a bit of a preview. What do I want to do with it? Well, I really want to tell a story about technology, spirituality and the area where they collapse. Basically, Erik Davis does Poe.

TR: Did anything attract you to the title in particular?

CR: Well, you hear terms like techno horror bandied about. CthulhuPunk is another. But you don't see too much of it. I don't anyway. But the collision of genres is one that excites me. And the collision of cultures and religions implicit in that.

TR: Is there anything new to say about vampires?

CR: Depends on what you mean by Vampires, doesn't it? Tight trews and lacy shirts and a generous dollop of Catholic schoolgirl homoerotica has pretty much played out. What interests me is a race of beings who look human and interact with humans, but are not human. The alien within and without. That's hardly a theme that grows old.

TR: What about Witch King?

CR: Unofficially titled "Autobiography of a Dark Lord", Witch King takes that great cliche of early fantasy fiction, the brooding magician in the dark tower, and tells his story. How and why he became what he is. Why he does his "evil". It's strangely autobiographical itself... Six issues to start with, but scope for monthly if it succeeds. Very proud of it, so far.

TR: Do you have an artist?

CR: The magnificent and mad Paul Abstruse. You can see a sample of his stunning work at the The man is simply incredible and his work is straight-up world class commercial comic art. And he's all mine. Australian audiences might know his work from The Cyst, but that was his stone age and right now he's cooking with gas.

TR: You have a number of small, more personal stories published. Could you see a whole title devoted to this style?

CR: Would I like to do an ongoing Dude in the Coat? No. When I have something to say, I use that faintly fictional alter ego. He would not support an ongoing. But I would certainly like to do more personal, kitchen sink contemporary work. Just not ongoing. Everything I write has an ultimate conclusion in mind. And finding artists willing to draw endless pages of guys at the pub or doing the washing up are few and far between. And trying to sell that fiction commercially is hard using the comic medium. I have quite a few half written first issues and proposals, though. One day I'll get to the straight stuff, but it might find its way to prose first. We'll see.

TR: Does all the baggage of comics -- the American excesses, the need for self-promotion to get noticed in Australia, keeping up with the good stuff -- get in the way of writing the stories you want?

CR: Nope. Not remotely. I just write my little stories, you know, and hope that people like 'em. As for keeping up with the good stuff, well, that's part of why I write. If I make even one person feel what I feel when I read quality fiction, then my life ain't wasted.

But all that stuff you mentioned most certainly prevents me from becoming a publisher. I have the business skills of a housebrick and when it comes to anything other than smoking, drinking, reading or writing, I'm immensely lazy so I'm not likely to try that on.

TR: If you could choose to have a writing stint on one DC or Marvel comic, what would it be?

CR: Barbie Fashion. Barbie's adventures as a model. I've been thinking about this for years. Imagine. Insane rivalries bitterly waged through the press by underfed and over privileged women who have no appreciable skills but bulimia. Leering, fat men behind the scenes, hungry only for the oral favours of the most beautiful women in the world. Drug fuelled orgies at the Riviera. International travel, crazed stalkers, private investigators and remorseless paparazzi who fear nothing in their hunt for Truth and Dirt. Photographers so deeply bitter that there is not a hint of Art in them. Women and men so utterly addicted to fame and their lingering notions of power that to live outside the camera is to lose their soul. And of course, the final horrible show down when Barbie arrives at the Dream House one day, tired, the feel of some Belgian's pinching fingers still bruising her nipples, to discover Cindi groaning under the weight of Ken's eerily smooth body. Perhaps a Copacabana style death would ensue.

Overdoses, murders, sex, lies, death. I'd have the bitter, drunken, celebrity squares, eyes pulled tight by too much surgery, too many lies Barbie narrating the early, oversexed and foolish Barbie's early life.

Oh yes.

Perhaps G. I Joe, as the Joes parachute into a small South American village, kill all the men, rape all the women and children, then take the cocoa plants they harvest, before they import them into South East LA in a more crystalline incarnation. Then open fire on abortion clinics and help scientists experiment on not-so-crack American soldier. The President could give them medals. Go Joe indeed.

That Doctor Strange. I like Doctor Strange.


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