Interview With Alison Sampson, Artist of Winnebago Graveyard
I recently spoke with Alison Sampson, artist of the upcoming Winnebago Graveyard, a four-issue miniseries written by Steve Niles and published by Image Comics. The first issue is due out June 14, and it can be ordered from your local comic shop with Diamond code APR17 0723. As regular readers of this site know, I’m not a horror fan, but I was intrigued by Alison’s enthusiasm for the book, so we talked via email about the project.
CWR: You’re drawing Winnebago Graveyard, about a family on vacation who winds up in a disturbing small town. As a non-horror reader (because I am squeamish), I’m wondering how horrific this will be. Is it gory? Psychological horror? How visual, and how conceptual?
AS: It isn’t all horrific, but this is slightly tricky to answer as I don’t want to take enjoyment of the experience of finding out what it is away from readers. I’d say Winnebago Graveyard is about 70% Americana, slightly heightened, like True Blood, and about 30% ripping off of heads.
The rating is T+, but the book is aimed at adults with the window widened so younger people — as young as probably about 11, which was how old I was when I was borrowing copies of James Herbert books from my elder brother — can read it as well. The narrative is probably more gory and adventurous than psychological (we DO show the gore), but that is not to say it isn’t without twists and turns, or frightening ambiguity, or is not scary in parts.
Winnebago Graveyard is very visual as that is our medium, but it isn’t without story, and I think we are mindful of a possibly younger readership in our content. Hopefully gross in a not gross way, if that makes sense.
I don’t think we set out to do too much conceptual storytelling consciously, but I think often there often are themes that come out anyway, “fear of the other” definitely being one. One thing that is telling: we originally were going to base this in the deep south, and my first thought was to base the satanists on the KKK. We moved our story to California, as that is where Steve is, and race, if it gets a passing thought, is not dealt with in such an “on the nose” way. Not all of our characters are white, though, and we don’t say who is good.
“Fear of the other” is massive in the USA right now, and although it was when we started, it wasn’t anything like it is currently. Steve always says, “it is us who are the monsters,” and I think we like to have some moral ambiguity — without going into spoilers.
CWR: How did you and Niles come to work together? Where did the idea come from?
AS: I asked Steve if he would like to do a project with me, and I think almost simultaneously, he was referred to me by someone else. He sent me an outline — I had the choice of monsters in space or satanists in Texas, and I responded with some art with the characters and settings, and that turned into the book we are talking about today. I wanted to draw a story that was strongly narrative and about the relationships between people, and that’s really Steve’s thing — writing horror is very much writing about humans.
CWR: What’s the elevator pitch? Who’s your target audience?
AS: A family goes on holiday in their RV and they *accidentally* get it stolen in a creepy fairground and end up in a town full of satanists. The comic is about what happens next. I’d like to think we have a broad possible readership, as well as Steve’s core fans (because this is a very pure Steve Niles book).
Maybe we can pick up some new readers, who want to know what our kickass Asian-American mum is about, or are into the themes we deal with (who is the monster, amongst others), or who like 70s horror films, or are into looking at some different art. Readers may be unfamiliar with my horror work, and Stéphane Paitreau, an experienced colorist of BD, is new to the American market as well. Or maybe someone who wants an adventure into the American nightmare. Really, we just wanted to provide something entertaining, a good story, possibly not too deep.
CWR: I blush to admit I’m not very familiar with your work — I could only find one major prior credit, the Genesis one-shot from Image. What’s your background?
AS: I’m an architect by background, specializing in popular commercial art-based buildings, very often for the public and often large and complex, and twentieth century conservation. Architecture and comics are very similar (in a lot of ways) and you’ll find a lot of architects doing well in comics — Emma Rios, Andre Lima Araujo, Gabriel Rodriguez, and Mikel Janin, for example. We have to make lots of aesthetic and narrative judgments every day, and deal with structure and production, and quality, and I’ve seen, first-hand, people take very commercial risks based on creative instincts (often my creative instincts). I’ve done that for twenty-five years.
Creator-owned comics at the top level is not so different, except I’m doing it for myself. With my priorities in making creator-owned work, which takes time, that’s why you see less work-for-hire from me. I have been offered an amount of work-for-hire, and it is something I’d probably like to explore more, but until this book is done, I’ve turned the majority of it down, either for priority or scheduling reasons.
That said, I’m the only woman to draw Jessica Jones for Marvel, in her own story, which I did earlier this year, with Chelsea Cain. (I would love to work with Chelsea again.) I’ve worked for all the major publishers on work-for-hire projects (including working for Vertigo for the Mad Max Fury Road art book, on Creepy for Dark Horse, and The Wicked + The Divine in a guest capacity, twice), as well as some successful Kickstarter books, currently Shelly Bond’s Femme Magnifique.
I’ve also been very lucky with my commercial illustration commissions, which have helped support the making of Winnebago Graveyard. This last year was my first in comics where I wasn’t involved in an Eisner-nominated book, and I was awarded the British Comic Award for best emerging artist in 2014 (for Genesis and for another horror story, in the In The Dark anthology). So that has been the way in. Who knows what will happen next?
CWR: When I told you I was squeamish, you mentioned you were sympathetic. Why, then, work on a horror comic? How do you manage that?
AS: It is an opportunity to draw the inside of the body as well as the outside. There are all kinds of ways of conveying emotion and narrative in comics beyond drawing peoples’ faces or bodies. In Genesis, I tried to use the whole space of the story to tell it, and this is no different, but I’m trying to do more as well, with more tools.
We have vehicles, gore, unfamiliar landscapes, strange people. All of these help us tell our core story about our family — as well, of course, as providing a roller coaster ride of emotions and taking people to new places, both real and metaphorical. Steve is a master of suspense and it is a real privilege to work with him.
When making a story like this — going into hysteria takes us to emotional places we didn’t know we had (and that feeling is not so far from “being squeamish”). When I’m working, I alternate between “this is awesome” and “this is gross”, and I think that’s quite healthy. Also, I’m from a farm, we are relatively sanguine about biology.
CWR: You said, “we want this to be the first adult horror book a child picks up” — why is that? Where did that goal come from?
AS: Making creator-owned books has to be a super-personal enterprise. Like most children of my age, I was brought up with televised commercials about agricultural horrors (as well as my dad telling us a few tales to keep us safe on the farm where we lived). So that was my first experience of horror, and I think such an awareness can be quite grounding, where material is consciously sorted into categories of what is real and what isn’t.
Reading horror stories and in doing so, graduating to adult reading, is a rite of passage for children and young adults, as they explore boundaries and their own emotions (in a safe space). I’m making the book with (and for) my nephew Alastair (who is the boy on the cover to #1). He was reading a lot of film magazines and talking about horror films with his school friends, scaring each other a little. This is for them, to be passed around like the horror books I read at the same age, a thrill in more than one way.
This kind of audience doesn’t want to be talked down to and might not have a lot of spending money for comics. So, we’ve added two non-fiction prose essays to each issue, one a critique of a specific horror film and the other an exploration of issues around satanism in the real world. They may not be easy reads for our youngest readers. But that is the point. Hopefully, our work will be something they — and anyone else who picks up the single issue — will keep and come back to. I guess I am making the kind of book I grew up with, and which made an impression on and challenged me. It may not be super-highbrow, but it hopefully is total quality.