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On Halloween Broken Frontier chats with Sam Costello, the creator behind the macabre Split Lip comics – provider of some unforgettably powerful and memorable horror webcomics. Sam tells us about the site’s origins, their moves into the print arena and what makes for a truly effective horror story below...

BROKEN FRONTIER: Split Lip has been building up something of a reputation over the last two or three years for as the place to go for truly disturbing webcomics horror fare. Can you give us a potted history of how the site came to be and what your original objectives for it were?

SAM COSTELLO: Thanks for saying so - I'm always thrilled to hear that people find Split Lip disturbing or scary, which is, of course, what I'm going for.

The site came about as a result of two impulses: wanting to get into comics and not seeing the kind of horror that I liked. I'd been writing comics for a few years before starting Split Lip and, though I'd published a story or two in small anthologies, I couldn't get much traction. Eventually I realized I'd probably never catch the eyes of editors without a greater body of available work. I couldn't afford to self-publish at the time and, since I was working in web development, I decided to do a webcomic. I got writing, stockpiling scripts and finding artists and, 6-8 months later, Split Lip launched.

The reason Split Lip came out the way it did was that I wasn't seeing the kind of comics I wanted to read. There didn't seem to be a lot of pure horror comics on the market. Some had horror themes, but seemed to me to more squarely be action or adventure or survival or any number of other genres. There's nothing wrong with that - that can make a lot of great books - but it wasn't what I wanted out of my horror comics.

BF: Are you a big fan of classic horror comics in the EC, Warren, DC or 1970s Marvel mould?

SC: Sure - I love a lot of that stuff, though somewhat selectively. I like the EC stuff and just recently started reading the Warren archive books that Dark Horse is re-issuing (I found those surprising because while their art is breathtaking, the stories - at least in Creepy Archives vol. 1 - were bad. I hope that changes as I move through the books).

Marvel's '70s stuff doesn't grab me outside of Tomb of Dracula. The rest of it feels too much like superhero comics with some slightly dark themes - the kind of thing that spurred me to make Split Lip in the first place. Again, they're not bad comics because of that, but they're not really what I'm looking for.

BF: Outside of comics who and what are your major horror influences in the larger literary and film arenas?

SC: One thing I like to compare Split Lip to is The Twilight Zone. Now, I'm no Rod Serling, but The Twilight Zone's variation in tone, style, subject - all told in the short-story format - seems like a solid fit.

Otherwise, I like modern Asian horror movies, dark, literary fiction by folks like Brian Evenson and Joyce Carol Oates, and short story writers like Dan Chaon, AM Homes, and Raymond Carver. I grew up on a steady diet of Stephen King and Poe, then Clive Barker and Lovecraft.

BF: You embrace all sorts of horror sub-genres at Split Lip. There are human psychological dramas, macabre melodramas, surreal chillers and even a dash of EC-style twist ending humor. This diversity particularly stood out to me when reading Ashes to Ashes, with its sweeping, big picture religious themes, straight after Consequences of a Little Alone Time which has one of the most basic human functions as a starting point for impending terror! Is everything fair game or are there any staples or themes of the supernatural story that you try to avoid?

SC: A lot is fair game, definitely. Horror has to able to push into uncomfortable places to be effective. I wouldn't say everything is fair game, though. I generally don't see a lot of value in stories that dwell too much on child abuse or rape (obviously there are important, complex ways to address these subjects, but most attempts tend to feel more prurient than humanizing), so I generally stay away from them.

From a much lighter perspective, I try to stay away from what I consider to be horror cliches or overused types. This means staying away from vampires, zombies, etc. I can imagine writing about them (might even have a few notes on my hard drive), but I don't think you'll ever see a straight-ahead treatment of these kinds of characters at Split Lip.

I want Split Lip to try to forge some new territory and merge some unusual influences. Using those types wouldn't be in keeping with that goal.

BF: Something that is very distinctive to the short stories is the plethora of international artists you use. It really is a global collaboration isn’t it? Was that a conscious decision?

SC: It wasn't a conscious decision originally. It just worked out that some of the artists that responded to my ads were from various countries. From that, some of them introduced me to their friends whose work I liked and we were off and running. I don't think the international character of the artists is essential to Split Lip, but I think it's great that the Internet has given me a chance to work with talented people all over the world.

BF: To what degree do you have a particular artist in mind to suit a certain type of tale when you start writing? Or are you more interested in how they interpret your script after it’s completed?

SC: I'll sometimes work with a particular artist in mind, yeah, but I try not to get too attached to one vision for a couple reasons. First, the artist I want just might not be available at the time its needs to be drawn.

Second, as you say, the interpretation of the script is a key element of the collaboration. I like to give artists freedom to interpret the scripts (so I generally don't specify panel grids, etc.) - I figure it's more fun for them that way.

BF: Of all your Split Lip output are there any particular tales which stand out as personal favorites?

SC: That's like being asked to pick your favorite kid! I'm proud of all the stories that we've published so far, and I'm psyched about some of the ones coming up. A story called Look Carefully is coming in November with art by Sami Makkonen, which I think folks will like. There are some great stories coming after that, including one by Josie Morway, a painter who's been getting a lot of attention for her painting recently, doing her first published comics work.

BF: There’s now a print collection of Split Lip stories with a second volume, I believe, shortly to follow. What has the reaction been like to that? Many commentators are arguing now that a prior online presence, rather than harming sales of a later print offering, actually does the opposite in building up a core audience for it. Is that a theory you subscribe to?

SC: It's certainly the theory I'm working under, though how well it's working out for me is still an open question. I've seen it work for lots of people - those starting out and well established - but I think it's still developing for me. I tend to sell more books at conventions and in stores than I do online.

That may be changing, though. In October 2009 we had huge traffic on the website - more than double any previous month - so things may be changing.

Either way, Split Lip stories will debut online for the foreseeable future and will then be collected into books about once a year. Look for volume 2 in early 2010.

BF: Outside of Split Lip are there any other recent comics projects you’re working on or have been working on?

SC: Sure. I've got a pitch adapting some classic short fiction with Anthony Peruzzo, who drew Ashes to Ashes at Split Lip, making the rounds. I'm also working on a terrific monster tale with Shane Oakley. I'm not sure when, or if, those projects will see print, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed and working at it. If we find the right publisher, I think both books will find eager audiences.

I'm also working on a book adapting old-timey folk songs, with art by Neal von Flue (who drew The Wind and Rain at Split Lip). Neal and I discovered we share a love of old, weird folk music and thought it would be fun to do a book. We'll have that book out in 2010. It should be 40-something pages, in color, with adaptations of The Wind and Rain, The Wreck of the Old 97, Henry Lee, and a couple of other songs. Hopefully readers will have as much fun with it as we have!

BF: Finally, the current webcomic offering on the site goes by the name of Termites In Your Smile. Can you give the Broken Frontier readers a tease as to why they should follow the link and give the story a Halloween-inspired look…?

SC: Absolutely. Termites in Your Smile is the story of Rafe, who's a real piece of work. He's in law school and is convinced he's a gift to the world. He's got a great smile and can convince almost anyone of almost anything. Right now, he's convincing two women that they're both the only one he cares about, while laughing at each of them behind their back. As the story reveals, though, there's more to the women than meets the eye. The question is: who's tricking whom?

Check out the Split Lip site for some truly disturbing horror webcomics. The first Split Lip print collection is also now available.

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  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs Nov 2, 2009 at 4:05am

    most excellent and pretty scary stuff on their site!

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Nov 2, 2009 at 5:51pm

    Agreed Bart. The Split Lip site is WELL worth checking out for anyone with even the most passing interest in horror comics. Highly recommended.

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