Michael Easton on Soul Stealer

Michael Easton on Soul Stealer

If you’ve watched TV with any regularity in the past decade, you probably recognize Michael Easton from one show or another. The actor is best known for playing dark, brooding characters on many cult SF and fantasy shows, including VR5, Mutant X and Total Recall 2070 and guest spots on shows such as Ally McBeal, along with such daytime shows as Days of Our Lives and Port Charles. Since 2003, he’s played cop John McBain on ABC’s One Life to Live, which celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this year.

But, as the saying goes, what he really wants to do is write comic books.

In addition to his work as an actor, Easton has written in many mediums, including the poetry collection Eighteen Straight Whiskeys and Monty, a screenplay about actor Montgomery Clift. Now he’s about to hit the comics scene in a big way with two major graphic novels.

Soul Stealer, Easton’s first graphic novel, was recently released by DMF Entertainment. The four-years-in-the-making story features art by Christopher Shy (Pathfinder), and some of the most gothic prose and imagery ever found in a comic book. It tells the story of Kalan, a warrior whose love, Oxania, is taken from him by his rival Apis Bull, leading to his transformation into an immortal being who can return souls from the dead…and a quest to find his love’s soul. An online trailer for the book is available here.

The book also features an introduction from horror novelist Peter Straub (Ghost Story, Koko), who is Easton’s co-writer on his next project, The Green Woman, which will be released by Vertigo in 2009.

We called up Easton for a talk about Soul Stealer, Green Woman, and his thoughts on comics. Our conversation took many turns, including the philosophy behind his work, the unusual way that his day job led to his comics gig, and why he wouldn’t want to play his character in a film.

Newsarama: Michael, how did you get the idea for Soul Stealer, and what made you want to do it as a graphic novel?

Michael Easton: I think the idea came to me in a dream back in 1998 or 1999. It took me about two years to put it down on paper, and I registered it as a one-page idea for a script, but there was no way I could do the idea literally as a screenplay.

I felt like, “I’m going to get handcuffed if I try to write a feature film or television screenplay. I’m going to write this with complete freedom to what I want to do, and make it as dark or disturbing as I want.” I don’t know if it ended up my way, but that was my intent, to do it with absolutely no limits.

I respect comic and graphic novel writers more than anyone else. I’m very respectful of all writers, but I especially love what they do. So it was a very daunting challenge for myself, but I said, “I’m going to set out and see what I can do, and try and join this fraternity of writers for whom I have so much regard.”

NRAMA: It did look like you did a lot of research in mythology and history for doing this story.

ME: Somewhere early on, we got the idea that it would be a really interesting world (in the book) if all gods existed and everyone’s beliefs were true – if the gods drew their power and strength from how many people believe in them, almost like an incredible popularity contest. So nobody’s wrong (in their beliefs). The Greek gods are still up there and can still fuck with you, but they don’t have the power of the new gods.

NRAMA: With regard to mythology, the book reminded me of some works from the last decade that have taken mythological elements from different eras and cultures and mixed them together, like Dark City or Tarsem’s The Fall.

ME: Yeah, absolutely. Visually, Chris does a lot of beautiful stuff with color and atmosphere and blending of different mediums. Dark City is one of our favorites. And we both love the (Andrei) Tarkovsky films like Stalker and Solaris there’s a lot of that stuff going on (in the book), and of course Blade Runner.

I give Chris the credit for the overall look of the book because he deserves it. We definitely talked through color schemes and how we wanted to do it with the absence of thought balloons and word balloons to help the visuals stand out even more. I was in favor of doing the words in such a way that they almost blended in with the art. We were thinking of science fiction films like Gattaca, where the dialogue is very subtle, but the images have a lot of depth and weight and meaning to them, and they’re not hitting you over the head with things.

NRAMA: And Chris did most of this through Photoshop?

ME: Yeah. To be honest, we started on this book and worked on it for more than a year before we met in person. We went back and forth with emails and I really got to know him that way, but I have never had the chance to see him at work.

After about a year I said, “Why don’t you come up to New York, man?” And he and his wife came up and stayed with my wife and me for four days, and we got to know each other better. But I’ve never actually seen Chris at work! I’m very curious about how he does what he does, but I believe it is with Photoshop, yes.

NRAMA: What’s been the process in designing the pages? Did you do it in a style where he interpreted your prose, or was it as a full comic script, or something in between?

ME:We started off a few years ago doing a 26-page comic book, something small…and everything grew out of that. We started going, “oh, here’s where there could be a story, and here’s where there could be another story…” That’s how that sort of evolved into a full book. I recently worked on a graphic novel for DC/Vertigo, and it was a very different process. We’re working with an artist named John Bolton on that one…

NRAMA: Yeah, he’s great.

ME: Incredible. With Chris on Soul Stealer, it was more of a constant collaboration. I would write specific pages like, “It’s four panels, and in the first panel, Kalan is sitting in the foreground, Oxania is standing in the background…” and he might come back with a four-panel page or a five-panel page with all these variations, and they were usually better! (laughs)

And other times I would go back and change things that we needed to change, story-wise. But Chris really gave me the freedom to work, and I had such respect for him as an artist that I trusted his instincts.

NRAMA: Can you talk about your upcoming project at this time?

ME: I think Peter and I were actually contacted separately by Vertigo about doing something for them, maybe the Constantine series, but neither of us felt comfortable working on something that was so well-established and so well-done.

So they asked if we had something else we could pitch them, and we didn’t, but we spent a few nights scribbling in bars and came up with this idea that incorporates a character from Peter’s book The Throat named Franklin Bachelor. In the book he supposedly ends up being killed.

We open on Bachelor in a bar, talking about how a writer wrote about him once and thought it would be really convenient if he was dead, and how that’s what a writer is, a fuckin’ liar. Franklin Bachelor is the most horrific serial killer in the history of this country, and he lives in an abandoned bar in Wisconsin called the Green Woman Tap Room.

This is sort of a mecca for serial killers, where they connect with their inner selves, their victims talk to them from the pipes, it’s a very haunting place. We simultaneously cut to a cop in New York whose name is Bob Steele, who’s path is going to cross with Franklin Bachelor, he’s sort of destined to stop this serial killer.

It’s very dark. John Bolton’s doing the art, and I’ve only seen the first 40 or 50 pages of it, and it’s amazing. We were extremely lucky to get him. It’s a case where we were told, “Well, John is a really great artist, and he takes his time, and he doesn’t work on just any project, but let’s try anyway,” and they took it to him and he really responded to it. We’ve just been getting page after page of this beautiful artwork, and we’ve been blown away. It’s been a privilege.

And working with Peter Straub has been like…there’s a Coleridge quote where he says something about the difference between writers and poets to the effect of, “writers put words in the right order; poets put the right words in the right order.” That’s how Peter is, writer and poet. Like going to school. I’d write something and he put the right words in the right order.

NRAMA: How’d you get involved with Peter?

ME: I work on a show sometimes as an actor called One Life to Live. Peter and his daughter came by the studio for a tour one day, because Peter’s a fan of the show and has been watching for years, and so is his daughter. And I wasn’t in, but he left me a book in my mailbox, which was Koko.

And that was a book that was very meaningful to me. In 1994, my mom went through a long battle with cancer, and ultimately, she passed away. But I would sit with her as she went through the chemotherapy sessions and read books to her, and one of the books I read was Koko. So it was a strange coincidence, him leaving that book for me.

So I sent him an email and told him the story, and he called me up and said, “We should get together and talk sometime.” And Peter appeared on the show once, and it was fun for him and fun for me, and suddenly we started talking about doing something together. We went, “We’ll do something, and if it doesn’t pan out, no problem, we’ll have had some fun and we’ll still be good friends.” And the book just came from that

NRAMA: One of the themes in your writing – both in Soul Stealer and your other work, such as the Montgomery Clift screenplay – is alienation. Why do you feel that’s a theme you keep coming back to?

ME:I’m fascinated by damaged people. Montgomery Clift was disfigured, in a sense, partway through his career in a car accident but in a deeper sense, he was disfigured internally for most of his life. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of Frankenstein, this guy that was made of these different parts, who’s trying to do a good thing, who’s trying to be better than what he is.

Love and hate. Mortality. Death is something we all have to deal with. It can be something that affects us for the rest of our lives; I lost my mom quite young, and it affected me from that day on, in some ways that were positive, but also in ways that were very negative.

You feel helpless when you lose someone you love, and I wanted to write about that feeling of being unable to protect the one you love. I think that’s what Kalan has to deal with, certainly; he’s always tormented by the fact that he couldn’t protect the one person that he loved. He has to deal with that the rest of his life, and he has these things, these different pieces inside of him, which affects the way he responds to things.

NRAMA: I noticed that you dedicated the book to your wife, Ginerva – does Kalan’s relationship with Oxania reflect the relationship you have with your wife?

ME: I’d like to think, at the end of the day, this is a love story – it’s a dark and twisted love story, but it’s a love story.

Love is one of the things worth fighting for in this world, and I believe I have that kind of love for my wife. I was a long time in finding her, and she has…she has inspired me to explore the better sides of myself, because I have a tendency to be a little dark myself.

I can be a little detached, a little unemotional myself but she’s Italian and she’s more genuine about her emotions, and vocal about them, and hopefully that’s helped me to be more open. Because…(laughs), one of the reasons I love Tarkovsky movies so much is that there’s this incredible, moving, detachment that I respond to.

NRAMA: There’s been some talk about doing Soul Stealer as a film – if they made it as a movie, would you want to play the lead?

ME: I would have no interest in playing the part, though I’m sure they’ll find someone who’ll be great in it. The only thing I would want is to write the script, so I could maintain some control on some level as it was translated to film. I’d be more interested in finding the right director who would treat it with the same care I did while I was writing it.

NRAMA: We were talking about Dark City earlier, and I could really see Alex Proyas doing a good job with this.

ME: He would be a dream guy to do it. Obviously, there are a lot of people who could do something like this. Ridley Scott…there are so many good directors.

I’m excited about seeing what Zack Snyder does with Watchmen, because there is someone who really understands the genres, who does great things with pictures and story, that’s the kind of guy you want to get. You want someone who’s a fan, who understands the history, who isn’t going to just do something silly with it.

A movie like Gladiator, that’s the tone that we’d want for Soul Stealer – sprawling and epic and emotional. People fighting for what they believe in. There’s also a part in the modern world of Soul Stealer that’s very dark and cynical, and I think it becomes a great blend of all those elements.

NRAMA: You know the Dark City director’s cut just came out on DVD?

ME: Oh man, that’s awesome! I’m ordering that today. Chris and I also talked a lot about Gattaca. I remember watching that, seeing these old cars driving around and thinking there was something strange about watching these old Corvettes go driving by, and then I realized – they had an electric car sound effect! That’s genius! They took these old cars, and then in post-production, they just added in this electric car sound effect – it’s so simple, but it adds so much to the sense of place.

And I love that about Proyas as well – those great wide shots where you move over the city, going through these vast spaces. It’s one of the things that lured me, as an actor, into a series called Total Recall 2070, which ran on Showtime for a season.

We were on a budget, but the production in Toronto was able to do some amazing things, particularly with the sets, because we shot everything inside. And I think Dark City really carried over into the visual style of that series in the way we pushed through shots of the city to get to reveal a smaller part of the city.

NRAMA: Now, you’re doing another volume of Soul Stealer?

ME: We're hoping to release the book in March 2009. Where as with the first book we really seemed to labor creating the world and getting it just right, this story came on like a hurricane and just wrote itself.

NRAMA: What will be the focus of this volume?

ME: The second book," Blood and Rain" tells the story of (Kalan’s nemesis) Apis Bull. We learn his journey was even more tragic and breathtaking than Kalans and when he was killed on the battlefield by Kalan he also lost his wife and child. Apis Bull’s existence now is fueled by vengeance and the promise of one day being reunited with his family.

We had a lot more for (the first) book and we had to cut ourselves off. We’ve talked about Kalan and Apis Bull and how they are more alike than it appears, that there exists an almost fraternal bond uniting them and their destinies. The notion that the line between something beautiful and something hideous is a thin one and it’s running through all of us.

NRAMA: It sounds like a story that could go off in a lot of different directions.

ME: That’s what excites me about it. Then again, writing in a way, is the easy part – the artist is the one who has to spend six months to a year putting it down on paper! And Chris is a busy guy. He does storyboards and production design for films. He’s got movie people calling him all the time. He’s got his own series called Silent Leaves, which is wonderful.

So it’s a matter of clearing the slate so he can draw it. Artists are gods in this world, in the world of graphic novels, and you’ve got to respect them, and you’ve got to let them have their time. You can’t rush people like Chris or John.

NRAMA: Given the number of writing projects you have going on, have you ever thought about giving up acting to write full-time?

ME: Sure. But it’s nice to have a day job, because it allows me to have some freedom to make choices. Sometimes I’ll take jobs as an actor that I would never take as a writer – if someone gave me a call to write something like Porky’s 6 or something, I wouldn’t even know what to do, I wouldn’t know how to write it but I could probably show up and say someone else’s words in front of the camera.

There are guys who can take any job and make a script out of it and make it terrific. I need to do something I love, and when you do that, you’re probably not going to make a lot of money off it, certainly not enough to live on. So this is where I keep it at. And I like to think that maybe if I keep at it and stay true to myself, one day I’ll be able to do it full time. And maybe Soul Stealer and The Green Woman will have some small success and allow me to go ahead and create some new stuff. But I’m happy just getting by, making a living and doing what I love.

NRAMA: What are some of your favorite comics right now?

ME: Preacher is my all time favorite. I probably read through the whole series once a year. All the Absolute editions; love Watchmen and The Dark Knight.

Vertigo’s been nice and sent me a lot of books, which is just one of the benefits of writing for them (laughs). Brian Azzarello is a terrific writer, 100 Bullets really works for me. Anything Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith do. Ed Brubaker I like. I just picked up this reprint of the adaptation Jon Muth did of the Fritz Lang film M, that was just overwhelming, the way he draws from the photographs, just amazing work. That kind of imagination is very inspiring.

NRAMA: Anything else you’d like to talk about?

ME: Just want to say thanks to anyone who gives the book a read. At this point that’s what Chris and I want – to get it out there and get some feedback, and use what we learn to make the next book even better. We were fortunate I think, working with a smaller publisher that we got to do it the way we wanted to do it. So, thanks for giving us a shot.

Soul Stealer is available for order now from DMF Entertainment.

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