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Inside Look: Spontaneous #3

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Inside Look is Broken Frontier's director’s commentary-like feature in which creators take you behind the scenes of one of their latest comics to hit the stands. In this edition: Joe Harris on Spontaneous #3.

Check The Frontiersman #27 to read the first issue of Spontaneous in full.

Written by Joe Harris:

I have to be honest with you, I had no idea how I was going to write the opening scene to this issue until I finally—after much struggle and evasion due to not liking anything I tried, outlined, conjured or came close to praying out of desperation for beforehand—sat down and started scripting the damn thing.

The first two issues of SPONTANEOUS set up the main characters and central concept…

“KELVIN” MELVIN REYES, having witnessed his own father’s death from what he believes to be the mysterious but largely dismissed phenomenon of Spontaneous Human Combustion years prior, hooks up with a would-be investigative reporter named EMILY once his secret mission of trying to track SHC stops being such a secret.

I always feel like the third issue of a miniseries like this is where the story needs to open up a bit.  Where we take a curious element that might have been introduced previously, and give it something you never imagined it would have.  And I’ll be honest with you, I had no idea what this “X” factor was going to be.

The mysterious government and military contractor, GRUMM INDUSTRIES was always going to play a role in this book.  And I don’t think I’m ruining anything by pointing out that there’s a connection between the rash of Spontaneous Combustion incidents in the town of Bayville and the former largest employer in town whose facilities were destroyed in a mysterious and deadly fire some twenty-five years ago.

But I wanted to make all this scarier, in ways that go beyond the idea of business interests disregarding human lives and heinous corporate crimes going unpunished for so long because a town that depended on the jobs that company provided was too frightened to stand up and produce a whistleblower.  Believe me, this book drips with dirty, filthy business practices that fuck a lot of little people in a lot of awful ways.

But I wanted this to be creepier, our villain—aside from the actually combusting going on… though I’m not sure a phenomenon counts as a villain—to be quiet and deliberate and completely under the noses of everybody else.  He would have powers, but subtle ones his victims didn’t even realize he was using.  And he would look very cold and very frightening, eyes hidden behind thick, dark lenses so you never knew if he was blindly staring out into space or burning holes in your chest with eyes that never missed a thing.

The third issue of this series would bring Melvin and Emily closer together with shared discoveries, then threaten to tear them apart when revelations one of them makes threatens the very identity of the other invested in this investigation for so long it’s all they know and identify with in the world.

What follows is some commentary for ISSUE THREE of the new Oni Press series, SPONTANEOUS from artist Brett Weldele and myself.  Thanks for checking us out…

PAGES 1-4

      

      

I have very vivid memories of visiting my grandmother at the nursing home once she became infirm following a stroke.  In retrospect, I have no doubt that many of these places do a tough job and provide care for elderly folks with as much dignity as they can assist with given what must be increasingly difficult, impossibly demanding work.  But let me honest with you… it scared the living shit out of me.  

The end of life can be terrifying for most anyone to really consider, right?  The weakness and the withering of body and mind…  One imagines how frightening it must be to wrestle with things like dementia or Parkinson’s disease or the hideous wasting away of bodies struck with inoperable cancer or other debilitating diseases and disorder.  The grandchildren don’t come regularly and it must be excruciating to feel so forgotten… only to feel that swell of excitement when family eventually does visit… before being kissed goodbye and left to wonder when they’re coming back, if they’re coming back, or even unsure if they were really there.

Uplifting stuff, right?

So when we first enter the “Tranquil Tomorrows Center For the Aging,” that shot of the wheelchair menagerie lining the hallway is a scene I recall all too well.

I imagined the residents as a slow-moving pack, the way I’ve heard glass described as an extremely slow-moving liquid, or a herd animals denied their natural basking habitat—in this case, the customarily common space “Day Room”—because there’s a shark in the tank with them and they know better than the swim to close.

MR. GRUMM is an odd villain, to say the least.  The idea for him, initially, came to me by way of remembering the case of reputed New York Mob Boss, Vincent “The Chin” Gigante who, for over a decade, avoided prosecution by wandering around the street in a bathrobe, muttering and drooling on himself and continually getting found mentally unfit to stand trial.  It eventually came crashing down and “The Chin” would die in prison, but not before he had befuddled the criminal justice system who sought to make him pay for a very long, and fairly public, career as a leader in organized crime

Only it would be too easy, I thought, to make it that simple—to just have this guy, Grumm, be the sinister businessman who got away with corporate malfeasance and the highest of crimes by buying his way into the finest convalescent care so he might live out his days faking the loss of his faculties in exchange for his freedom.  I wanted Grumm to be dangerous not only because he might have done bad things when he was a younger man, but because he has secrets and powers that nobody else seems to know about, save for those hallway rollers who know to keep their distance.

Making him scary was a challenge too as, honestly, he doesn’t really move!  He just stares at thing, vacantly, not saying a word.  But when a new Social Worker arrives at the home to see if Grumm is doing all right, she finds herself attacked by a songbird that comes crashing through the window as though by Grumm’s silent command.  His expression never changes.  He never confirms nor denies he played a role.

Watch for more with Grumm in future issues as the mystery behind Bayville’s Spontaneous Human Combustion problem unfolds.  It’s a strange and unexpected connection he’s got to it, I assure you.

PAGES 5-10

      

      

      

Over these next five pages, I tried to really set up this triangle that’s not quite a love triangle between Melvin, his best friend and helper monkey, Kenny, and Emily.  Well, not your traditional love triangle, anyway.

I’m also really fond of Chief Milken.  She’s not the typical sort of female cop you usually see portrayed in genre fiction.  She’s not that cold, nor particularly sexy and she isn’t that quick to shoot.  But she is measured and smart and seems to have just the right temperament for sniffing out any bullshit that comes her way.  Donna Milken grew up in Bayville and knows about Melvin’s shattered past and, even though she has her suspicions about a kid who stalks seemingly unconnected strangers until they go up in flames, you can bet she’s going to give him a fair shake.

PAGES 11-14

      

      

Melvin and Emily get down to business.  He digs her.  I think that’s clear.  She finds him odd, which might count for something in the relations department if she wasn’t so intent on getting to the bottom of something big whether or not there’s something big going on.  Together, I find them an interesting contrast with a balance that’s easier to maintain as I write these scenes that I would have expected coming in.

Mel is our protagonist, but he’s a receeder.  He’s spent his entire introverted life doing everything he could to not be noticed.  Now he’s gone and crossed paths with this loud and outlandishly eager investigative journalist—well, would-be investigative journalist if anyone would give her a job—and he starts learning some things that don’t fit the narrative he thought he was on.  

Melvin’s thinking… this girl likes me enough to be interested in the weird-ass shit nobody else is paying attention to but which I’ve dedicated my whole life to.  But Emily’s all, “Thanks for inspiration, dude!”… now look at what you didn’t consider, at what you missed entirely, at what else is going on right under everybody’s noses including yours, chump!

And the really painful part about it all, for Melvin, is that Emily doesn’t have any idea.  She might have the subtlety of a crowbar to the shin bone, but she’s being inclusive.  She’s trying to connect.  She’s not only using him to land the story that launches her brilliant and award-studded future career.

“Poor Melvin…”  I say this all the time when I’m writing him.

Another element in these scenes I should comment on is this fire presence, visitation, anxiety manifestation thing.  The face Melvin sees in his sleep and when he’s faced with a tough choice.  The voice he hears when he feels ashamed and weak.  This thing makes appearances throughout the series, a visage in the flames that only Melvin seems to know about.  When Mel is anxious, frightened or on the verge of discoveries that either confirm his worst fears regarding SHC, or threaten the discoveries he’s already made… this thing appears and tends to mock him as not good enough, smart enough, noble enough or deserving of anything good he’s trying to get for himself.

But what if it’s not just a representation of his subconscious, his guardian angel or better judgment?  What if THE FIERY GOD, as Melvin will come to refer to it, represents something more, like the family legacy of SHC that took his dad away when he was just toddler and which he secretly can’t help but fear has been passed down to him?

Of all the marvelous designs and depictions Brett Weldele has brought to this book—and both his Melvin and Emily took the characters I thought I knew so well on my own and gave them so many nooks and crannies I never considered—I think I enjoy how he’s captured what I had in mind for the Fiery God the most.

PAGE 26

I like to try and end every issue with a full-page splash and leave on a good cliffhanger.  I did it with Steve Rolston on my previous Oni Press series, GHOST PROJEKT and I’ve scripted SPONTANEOUS the same way.

The first issue ended with an explosion, literally.  The second with a graphic and unexpected suicide by shotgun blast after Melvin takes Emily’s advice—trying clumsily to impress her, no doubt—and tries to warn the next SHC candidate with a friendly phone call heads up.

This issue ends with Melvin’s arrest after the Chief discovers he called the most resent combustion victim just prior to their mysterious death.  Bad things seem to just follow Melvin around going back to childhood and Milken has an even worse feeling about his connection to things.

Knowing Melvin, he’d probably agree… if he didn’t just crap his pants.

Spontaneous #3, by Joe Harris and Brett Weldele, is out now from Oni Press.

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