Embracing Insanity

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Two inmates, writer Ken Lillie-Paetz and artist Brian Denham, have escaped the Alias Enterprises Asylum and were last seen soliciting Elsinore, a nine-issue miniseries that features neither super heroes, nor the current fan-favorite style of slasher blood and gore. Instead, the pair plan to introduce comic fans to a world based closer to reality, one with plenty of historical references and more than enough psychological horror. Broken Frontier sent one daring research assistant, Dr. James W. Powell, to catch up with the pair of madmen in the hopes of uncovering the truth behind the insanity of Elsinore.

Broken Frontier: Everyone can read the solicits for Elsinore but as the writer and artist for the series, tell me, what's it really about? What can readers expect from your new miniseries?

Brian Denham: I think Elsinore is a very unusual book. It's not like anything out there. If anything it's like a twisted One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with a dash of Stephen King's disembodied bowels.

BF: [laughs] Everyone loves disembodied bowels.

BD: I know I do.

Kenneth Lillie-Paetz: The idea for Elsinore started in some of the university psych classes I was taking. I researched alot about what happened at different asylums and how the conditions were absolutely horrific and seemed to have more power to drive one insane than to heal a troubled or sick mind. A prof was going on about how that with everyone all drugged up on Prozac nowadays, insanity doesn't really progress the way it used to. So I wrote Elsinore with the premise that insanity may be a vital stage in human evolution. Modern drugs and humane conditions could be hindering that, so this group abandons them. They leave their patients essentially untreated and wait for something to happen.
I wanted to tell a horror story but one that was more about the psychological and about darker aspects of human nature than just shock fear, killing, and splatter gore. I still wanted demons, some bloodshed and the like but Elsinore is more about the demons of the mind.

BD: So we just have a dash of bowels, not a full course meal.

BF: There's a lot of horror out there that fits the splatter, killing type of horror. How does Elsinore stray from those elements while maintaining the horrific edge?

KLP: By embracing insanity. I think we try to give [readers] the elements of horror but make them think about it more. Here is a powerful secret society that basically worships insanity. They want it to go unhindered. It is the Holy Grail they are protecting. What if insanity turns out be as deadly a contagious virus as any of the things that turn people into zombies in horror films?

BD: There are a lot of things in the story that could have been gross horror, but we stopped short of that. For one, I got tired of drawing it in nearly every comic I have done professionally. And two, it kind of fits the suspense and mystery of our story better. And three, I’m getting more into telling creepy stories that expand my creativity. It's so easy to freak people out with blood, guts and horror movie stuff but I like exploring the depths of the mind. As in, what can I do to make this scene play scary without movie music? Or some chick screaming? Or a cat jumping out for no damn reason? This is all about getting these characters’ mindsets into the reader’s mindset and trying to creep her out while she's reading this comic in bed.

BF: I don’t think the slasher type of horror works all that well in most comics because the medium lacks creepy music and motion that’s in all horror movies. How does your story go beyond a comic book's boundaries to increase the reader’s feelings of fright?

BD: I think comics can be as suspenseful as a movie or book. I like doing things with lighting, and panel arrangements, and pacing. Pacing is the key to suspense in comics. The story pacing and the art can really help bring across that suspense factor to the reader. There was an issue of a great comic called Hepcats a few years back, by Martin Wagner. He had these two animal-head dudes checking on an apartment break-in. These dudes gathered in the parking lot, got some bats out of the trunk, crept up to the apartment, walked in, looked around, heard a noise and went to a closet, sweat dripping from their brows. We zoom in on their faces as they count to three and then they open the closet and a box falls and it scares the crap out of them and the reader. We are doing that kind of hand-in-hand plotting and pacing that really lends itself to a suspense story.

BF: Ken, you mentioned your research on this project, which brings up two questions. First, how much research did you do for the book? And second, how stylized are some of the images? For example, one of the main characters, Lord Roch, wears a birdlike outfit that is very spooky but it feels real, too. How did reality and style merge in Elsinore?

KLP: I think for a writer the research never stops, everything is research of some sort. I’m sometimes uncertain about whether I am really living or just storing information, experiences and knowledge to bring some new creative idea to fruition later. For Elsinore I researched a lot about asylums, and especially about art and the insane. They say genius and insanity go hand in hand. So I wanted to explore that. I looked quite a bit at Outsider art and criminally insane artists and this gave creation to my mad painter, Mr. Stihl.

I needed a creepy time period to start the beginnings of my secret society and the 1665 and the Black Plague seemed to fit, mainly because of the added bonus of plague doctors. The plague doctors and their outfit, it’s historical. The plague was running rampant, millions were dying and the doctors of the time were all walking around wearing this outfit that looks like a vulture or some carrion bird. That’s the creepiest part, this happened, it was real. The beak of the birdlike mask was stuffed with flowers and herbs, one to somewhat subdue the stench of the dead but more because they believed the plague was something carried in vapors. The outfit did protect them, though not for the reasons they thought. I guess we are taking convenient historical oddities and blending it into our timeline.

BD: About the style, I really went all out to establish the world in Elsinore to be very realistic. I have taken some liberties with style on clothes and facial expressions.

KLP: We don't want to hit you over the head with history and be all hoity toity and I know this and you don't. We want this book to still be a fun read and be enjoyed by everyone.

BD: But everything in this book is grounded in reality. After the opening scene, which is set in the past during a plague where 25 million people died in Europe within five years. Get that? Five years. Twenty-five million people! Crazy. Unbelievable. And now we have doctors dressing up as ravens as they did and look how that affected religion. Then we have angels and demons flying around this world and that leaves me as an artist with a great responsibility to the reader: to establish this book in reality as soon as I have a chance. So the first pages out of the "fantastical setting" I went all out with a medical bed, medical instruments, a janitor cart, realistic looking weapons and gear on the security teams. All of that grounds this book back in reality so you can care about a guy that doesn't talk, or a girl who thinks she's a freak…real human issues.

KLP: This is a world where 85 percent of all people worship various deities. Everyone tries to fill that god-shaped hole in themselves the moment things turn bad. The tsunami; 9-11; then people turn to religion. But what if that created spiritual beings given birth by belief alone? This is still reality, but a ”What If?” version. Maybe.

BF: Elsinore sounds a bit deeper than the usual comic fare which deals mostly in the teen angst realm of reality. What have you done to the story to make it reader friendly while maintaining the darker edge and hitting on elements such as religion and insanity?

KLP: There are breasts. And demons. Monsters and girls…all you need, really.

BD: Deeper to me is reader friendly.

KLP: Seriously, we wanted something that could exist on two levels. One where you don't need to care for the history and high concept but you get taken for an interesting ride—Heaven, Hell, crazies as zombies, etc. Or on the esoteric level for those who want to check the facts, contemplate, or get scared for different reasons.

BD: Yeah, this is sort of a high concept story, but the thing people really connect with at the cons when we pimp this book around is the look in a character's eyes, or questions that are raised by story elements. We have a guy sitting with lemurs on a cover, and people dig it. Who would ever have done that kind of visual? But it really connects with people because of the look in the character’s eyes or the mystery behind what he’s doing with all these lemurs.

BF: So who would you say is the target audience for Elsinore?

BD: We’re shooting for the regular reader that comes into a comic shop on a Friday night, wondering how many more issues of Blankedy-Man he can buy before he gets tired of men in tights. I'm thinking back to the days of Watchmen and Dark Knight and Camelot 3000. Those books in the 80s were great when people were creating new concepts and comics. We’re at a time in comics when we have the most talented people working that have ever worked, and that’s incredible. We’re shooting for that guy who’s a bit bored of Blankedy-Man, or that mom who wonders why her kids like comics so much, or that teen girl who digs the manga. It's not all about big eyes you know...

KLP: We want horror fans, the squeamish, religious fanatics, history majors, history dropouts,
comic collectors who want a pairing of a good story with good art, people that won't read it and just stick it in a bag and board, atheists, Christians, occultists, the sane, the insane...

BD: It's about new concepts, and that’s what we have here. [starts laughing] But I still love Blankedy-Man and would like to work on him when we’re done. If you’re the editor, call us.

BF: Do you think the world of comics and the readers we currently have are ready for a comic that isn't Blankedy Man?

KLP: Absolutely. Look at the new types of storytelling and the new ideas that are suddenly being allowed to be told. Images that before would have been banned. There is a new subculture for comics that is growing.

BD: The cool thing about Elsinore to me is that when we sit at shows and conventions and promote the little comic that could, people walk by and are drawn back to the table by the visuals and the merchandise and when we let them read it they’re fans of the book. It's interesting, unique, and refreshing. James, we’re trying to bring in new readers. It's great the big companies have their 60-year-old characters and big backing, but they are still not reaching audiences that they could. They do a great job, don't get me wrong but there are a lot more modern people that would love to read comics if everything didn't look the same. And that’s where Alias comes in. Twelve books in one month and not one story connects to the other. Not one reader will pick up all books and that's fine. We are bringing in a new set of fans that retailers don't know about yet.

BF: What is the key element about Elsinore that you think will keep readers coming back for more?

KLP: That it will keep the readers asking questions. What just happened? Did that even make any sense? Is so and so really going to die? What’s up with the bird guys? What is Mr. Lillie-Paetz obsession with lemurs? Did the secret society ruin Dr. Murchison’s life? Will Miss Candra ever get naked? Who in their right mind would publish this? Etc.

BD:  Our constant begging…it’s only nine issues — please can’t you read nine issues of a book? Can’t you put down Blankedy Man for a while and try something new? One hundred ninety eight pages…that’s all. Please!

KLP: Oh, and this statement…Elsinore will have an ending unlike any seen before!

This interview took place February 3, 2005.

- James W. Powell

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