Josh Williamson has been steadily making a name for himself as one of the many up-and-coming talents in the comic book industry. He is quickly amassing a large fan following for his creator owned series such as Ghosted, Nailbiter, and the new Birthright, along with working on more established properties such as Dark Horse Comics' Captain Midnight and the upcoming Predator franchise relaunch. For readers who have been looking to jump on board with his critically acclaimed crime-suspense-horror series, Nailbiter, this month provides ample opportunity with the release of the first trade paperback volume.
Now that the first arc has wrapped and seeding for the second story already planted, Newsarama wanted to take the opportunity to talk with Williamson about how he came up with this series, his process with co-collaborator Mike Henderson, and where they'll go from here.
***Spoiler Warning: Although we don't get too heavily into spoiler territory, be aware that we do engage in some specific discussions about some aspects of the comics.
Newsarama: Josh, how did Nailbitercome to be? Was this something you dreamed up, which begs the question of what sort of nightmares you're having, or was it a mutual collaboration between yourself and artist Mike Henderson?
Josh Williamson: Nailbitercame about from a lot of side stories in my whole life, but I’ve always been fascinated by serial killers. No real idea why. My favorite movie of all time is Psycho with The Shining and Silence of the Lambs in the top five.
Many years ago, I was an art director at a design company and one day a woman from HR came upset that she had broken up with her boyfriend. Turned out that her boyfriend’s uncle was just arrested for being a serial killer. When I asked her if her boyfriend had been part of the killing, she said no, but that she couldn’t be with someone who was close to something so evil. There is always that “How can I know?” factor there. That really got me thinking about the effects serial killers have on the victims, as well as the effect they have on their own families and people who knew them… before, y’know? That was when the gears really started to turn.
So I started to do research on serial killers, mostly the history at first, and then slowly got into the more psychological aspects. At the time, I was living in a small town and knew I wanted to do something with that setting but didn’t want to do Eureka with serial killers. One day I saw that the Zodiac was believed to have lived in the city I grew up in. That blew my mind, because I knew of at least three other killers who were all there at the same time. Then it hit me… what if a bunch of serial killers were all from the same place…? And away I went.
BUT that all being said the book and it’s characters really didn’t take shape until I started to work with Mike Henderson. We had been working on Masks and Mobsters together for a bit but knew we wanted to level up. I presented some of my ideas for Nailbiter and Mike took those ideas and helped me make it into a story. So much of the book is the characters and how they act with each other. And none of those personalities were defined until Mike started to do designs.
Nrama: For those who aren't familiar with you or your work, how did you come up in comics?
Williamson: When I was in school, I wanted to be an art director or an editor in comics. I loved the process of how books were put together. Every stage of it. So I set out to learn every stage from start to finish, but it was my goal to be more on the business end of things.
In that time, I started to self-publish some comics with the hopes of getting the attention of DC Comics because I wanted to work on the editorial side of things. That never worked out, but somewhere in there, I became a full time writer. One of my earliest books was called Necessary Evil, about a school for super villains that was optioned by Cartoon Network. That got me some more attention, and from there it was a long journey with lots of hills and valleys…hurdles and setbacks. I was super lucky to be in Brian Michael Bendis’s comic writing class at Portland State University, where I was able to learn from one of the masters. A lot of what we do in Nailbiter came from that class. After that, I continued to push, never give up, and keep moving forward. I was trying new things and hustling for work. I did a few jobs for DC and Marvel but was always lacking style and voice as a writer. That changed with Masks and Mobsters and Ghosted. I started writing more for me than to fit something I thought I needed to be. Then I did Captain Midnight, and Predator, and Robocop, which all lead to Birthright and Nailbiter.
Now I’m mostly working on creator owned comics and couldn’t be happier. Well… I could be. I have big goals, but that is a story for another day.
With Ghosted, Nailbiter and now Birthright… I’ve somehow managed to shape a career that I’m really proud of. And I still feel like a rookie who is just getting started.
Nrama: Tell me about the pitch to Image. What did you do to get them on board with publishing this series?
Williamson: We sent Image the pitch. Six pages and a cover with a very, very short 1 page write up. That was it. I’ve done a few books with Jim Valentino’s Shadowline and with Robert Kirkman’s Skybound, specifically Ghosted. So I was a bit on Eric Stephenson’s radar that he gave me the time of day.
So I pitched it to him and Image Central. And he said “Let’s do it.” It’s really that simple. I know people want or suspect that there is some kind of magic formula to make it, but for me, it’s always “Six pages and a cover with a short 1 page document.” After that, Mike and I just got to work and got to work fast. We wanted to be super far ahead when #1 came out. And sure enough, we were. We had Issue #5’s inks in the can by the time #1 came out.
Nrama: What can you tell us about the process you and Mike developed behind Nailbiter?
Williamson: Mike and I had a pretty good back and forth after working on Masks and Mobsters and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles one shot together. Mostly we have ideas, and we text or email each other. About once every two weeks, we will get onto chat to go over more detailed stuff, but a lot of the decisions are made via text.
At SDCC 2014, we met up to talk out issues 8-15 and set down some of the beats of the overall story - some big choices about pacing and the horror we want to show. With Issue #6 and Issue #8, Mike and I did the layouts together with me talking too much while he was drawing. But normally, I will script out a pretty loose script with the major horror stuff outlined, like the POV in the graveyard in Issue #2, or the flickering lights in Issue #3. Then Mike will get a look at it and tell me what does and does not work. Again, lots of texting over the scripts. Mike does roughs, we talk them out, and then he is off to the races. Once we nail down the roughs, which is my favorite part of the process, Mike cuts loose on his pencils and inks. We don’t go over pencils because the scanning slows us down too much, and Mike knows what he is doing. His work and inks kick so much ass. There is a lot of trust between us, so the process has been really smooth.
Nrama: Looking into the book itself, what was the most disturbing and/or personally difficult section to script? Has Mike shared his thoughts about this to you from his perspective?
Williamson: Whew… we creep each other out some times. There is a scene with a needle/syringe in Issue #6 that made us both gag a bit when we talked it out.
There is a bit of black humor to the book, and we never show horror that is TOO bad or violent. We still believe that there are clever ways of doing horror. Comic tricks. So I think we deal with a lot of the stuff that might be disturbing there.
Mike and I do have a set of rules for the killers… I'm not going to list them here, but as I was doing research on serial killers, I noticed two patterns that were obvious and just depressing. There were two themes with the type of attacks and victims that Mike and I both decided to never touch. I say "decided" but it wasn’t a conversation. We just knew we didn’t want to.
Otherwise, the horror has been fine for us.
Nrama: Any specific influences on your process?
Williamson: One of my favorite stories about John Carpenter’s Halloween is that there is no blood in that first movie. People think there is, but there isn’t a drop of blood spilled. You see a bit on a dead body, but never when someone is killed. And it’s because of the mind games that movie plays with you that people think there is. We hope to achieve that same thing with Nailbiter.
Nrama: Now, in Nailbiter #3, you had this one scene in the morgue with these alternating blackout panels. Walk us through the intent, development, and execution of this scene - arguably, one of the tensest moments in the series to date.
Williamson: The “flickering lights” was a thing that I had wanted to try but could never find the right moment in a comic. And I knew it had to be in a book I owned and controlled so I could make sure it was done right. One of my favorite horror movie tropes is when the audience can see a killer but the characters within the story can’t. So I combined that with the flickering lights trope. With Nailbiter, I’ve been trying to see how things that normally only seem to happen in film can be accomplished in comics. This was one of those moments. I wrote it up and sent the script to Mike with a note “You might hate this but hear me out.” Then Mike and I discussed how it could work. One shot over and over like that can be boring and difficult but Mike was up to the task. He nailed it. There was a lot of talk about how it could work. And I think there was a different version at one point that didn’t give off the same level of fear, so we decided to do the full body from a distance angle… almost like a stage play.
Before it came out, I was stressed that people would hate it - that it would be too much, or too long or not translate well. But the first person to read it was my girlfriend, and I remember her walking into my office and saying how tense that scene was. Mission accomplished!
Nrama: You continue to tease out this tension with Warren and his level of involvement and knowledge of the missing Agent Carroll. On the other hand, you also seem to want to try and inject some level of empathy for him when juxtaposing him against the lynch mob. So which is it: murderer or anti .... well, I can't say anti-hero, but "less inhuman" villain?
Williamson: He’s a bad guy, but he is also so very charming. The challenge with Warren is that we set up what kind of person he is and the world around him a certain way that you can’t help but love him. He killed a LOT of people. LOTS. In a brutal fashion… but because you haven’t really seen his true dark side yet, you can still smile when you see him.
There is something to be said for how we react to horror and real life horror. Not to say we are desensitized but there is a disconnect. Warren represents that. The idea of how we are fascinated with serial killers, real or imagined, because we haven’t seen how gruesome they really are. They kill people. Horribly. But for some reason, because it wasn’t personal to us, we can separate our thoughts and feelings on it. Eventually, we will show Warren for what he truly is… and it’ll be interesting if anyone ever thinks of him as an “anti-hero” after that.
Nrama: There's also a pretty big reveal at the end of the most recent issue in terms of what we know about the "good guys." Could we be seeing the beginnings of yet another murderer being drawn to Buckaroo?
Williamson: Maybe?! There are a lot of twists and turns coming. That particular character will play a major role going forward. Every character we’ve shown has a reason for being there. It’s a big mystery that we’re building, and I think people will be surprised where it takes them.
It’s gonna get nuts!
Readers can purchase Nailbiter vol. 1 now in local retail shops or through other digital retail venues.