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The Creeping Macabre - Part 1

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Noted horror comic writer Steve Niles sat down with BF to discuss monster detective Cal McDonald, his new DC mini The Creeper as well, and his other projects.

BROKEN FRONTIER: Steve, let’s start off talking about your monster detective Cal McDonald.  He’s had a bit of an interesting publishing history; can you try and clear up it for the readers who may be unfamiliar?

STEVE NILES: From the very beginning — first time I did a story of him was in 1985-86 in a short story "Big Head" in a book that I published called Fly In My Eye.  After that he didn’t see publication until a 5-part story in Dark Horse Presents, which was collected in Hairball.  In the years in between that and where he is now I have written 2 novels and a short story collection, all published by IDW. 

IDW really got the ball rolling again when they put out Savage Membrane [the first of the Cal McDonald novels].  The character was published in a few mini-series by Dark Horse and one incomplete one at IDW, Supernatural Freak Machine.  Now he is back at Dark Horse, where it all started, where instead of putting out many miniseries with many different titles (and thereby confusing the hell out of the readers), we’ll be following Mike Richardson’s advice and publishing one series under the title of Criminal Macabre

We know that retailers are much happier with it this way, and to make it even easier we are republishing all of the trades under the Criminal Macabre banner.

BF: Is there any reason the IDW series was never finished and you took him back to Dark Horse so quickly?

SN: Well, after the few Dark Horse miniseries came out I wanted to do a Cal story with [artist] Kelly Jones.  However, Dark Horse did not have interest in the project at that time so we took it to IDW.  It just didn’t make as much money as they wanted it to.  Sadly, they pulled it out from under us with 2 more issues to go in the series.  So, we came back to Mike Richardson at Dark Horse and he still loved the character and had interest in the prospects of a movie.

Things had always been good with Dark Horse in the past so we came to an agreement and that is where Cal will be and where I will do most of my work now.

BF: OK, so to clear this up and help out old and prospective new readers, when can all of the “redressed” trades be expected out, especially the completed Supernatural Freak Machine?

SN: I’m not quite sure.  I got a call from Kelly Jones today.  The trade will obviously include the first 3 published issues and the other 2 that were never completed.  But in the time after the series itself was pulled, Kelly had taken on some other obligations that needed completing first.  I haven’t heard anything yet but I’m hoping for sometime around Christmas.

BF: Let’s move onto the character himself now, where did the inspiration for this hard boiled, hard drinking, hard drug hitting, monster detective come from?

SN: Honestly, it really came from my love of the old hard boiled writers: Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and my desire to emulate them.  I even wrote this other character called Mitch Panic for a while who was a more direct mimicking of those writers.  The only problem was that the stories sucked [laughs]… no matter how hard I worked on it.  The mysteries were kind of lame.  I could get the character and his voice, but I could never get a good story for him. 

Then, I started adding things that I knew about – making him younger, instead of being a hard drinking fedora wearing detective, I updated it to him having a drug problem.  And he went from a fedora and trench coat wearing recovering drunk to a buzz-cutted, dickie wearing recovering junkie – basically dressing him like my friends.  And as I started doing this it really started to click.  Then I turned the final corner and said ‘I’ve got to put monsters in this’ (since all my stuff has monsters anyway) and ever since the stories have just flowed.  He’s one of those characters that are just automatic and I have the best times writing him.

I had a situation once that was really funny.  I was invited to write an erotic horror story for a series called Hot Blood.  I had already written a Cal story for the same editor for a book called Dark Delicacies.  So, I tried to write this erotic horror story and it came out like the worst Penthouse letter you ever read.  My first line was something like ‘This sort of thing has never happened to me before…” and reading it made me cringe.  The editor then told me to try it with Cal and see what happens, which made me weary at first (Cal and sex?!?!?).  But then Cal took over and the story came over.  I just like the character so much that writing him is just easy.

If I could get paid to write Cal McDonald prose the rest of my life, I would be incredibly happy.  I have the best time with him.

BF: He’s equally as funny to read.

SN: And that’s the most frustrating part.  So many people ask me for more novels, but no one will pay me to do it and it’s the most time-consuming.  I just can’t take off the 2 months of comic work to write a novel.

BF: Well, I think as long as he’s published in one means or another people will be happy. 

SN: I do hope so.

BF: So, what would you classify this book as?  Obviously you stated the hard boiled influences, but is it a detective story?  Horror?  Comedy?

SN: They’re horror.  I think there are certainly more comedy elements than detective elements.  Yeah, you could say Horror/Comedy or something else but at its heart it’s a horror book.

BF: And speaking of the book and its horror elements; you have plenty of monsters in the book but don’t necessarily follow all of the old “standard” monster rules.  Was that a conscious decision on your part and why did you choose to go that way?  Does it make for easier stories if you aren’t tied down with the old rules?

SN: Mostly it was a decision I made to try and get some more logic into these myths.  A lot of monster lore has become so skewed over the years.  Take werewolves for instance.  Pretty much all of what we consider “monster lore” for werewolves comes from the Lon Chaney, Jr. movie – and that was all made up!  The silver bullets, the anagram on the hand, all that stuff was made up for that movie.  And somewhere along the lines that became the lore, same things for vampires. 

If anything, this was an attempt by me to add some more layers to these myths.  So we can say that monsters did come out of Europe, but let’s make it a mutation of the black plague.  And as the years went by the virus mutated and changed to the point where you no longer needed a cross or holy water to kill a vampire, but you could do it with a gun. 

In a sense, I almost made it more of a science instead of some odd curse that you can’t explain.  Even if you read authors like Ann Rice, the big question for her vampires is “How did this happen?”  And I took it one additional step because it makes sense that this would be a blood disease.  I also like the unpredictability it brings – some vampires you can kill with a hammer and some need to be killed with holy water.  Part of the mystery is that you have to figure out if they are “old vampires” or “new vampires” and if they even believe in their own lore.

Really, I didn’t want to have this easy out every time he was cornered by a vampire that all he had to do was find 2 pieces of wood and put them together to form a cross.  I also wanted to add some new monsters like the ghouls and the fiends, so we get some more mythology to work with.

I have tried to make sure that these rules hold true throughout all of the Cal books.  They are published in chronological order and the first miniseries we published (the original Criminal Macabre series with Ben Templesmith – ed.) had Cal find out about all these rules and laws and then we have built on it from there.

Part two of our conversation with Steve Niles will be released tomorrow. Get some sleep first, but don't creep out...

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