The anthology series Dark Horse Presents has been the launching pad for numerous titles over the years – and that’s without counting the fact that it was the title that launched Dark Horse to the world back in 1986. Since then, it’s hosted short stories by rising stars, comics veterans and more than a few comics newcomers and been the birthplace of creations such as Paul Chadwick’s Concrete and Frank Miller’s Sin City. After years of hiatus, the series returned at the host site Myspace.com, refashioned as Myspace Dark Horse Presents, providing free stories from everyone from Joss Whedon on down.... and last month, it hosted a new series that stands out for being spooky – and funny. While Dark Horse Presents will be moving on from Myspace, it’s legacy seems solidly in place with stories like this one.
In the last issue of Myspace Dark Horse Presents, the 8 page story S.H.O.O.T. First: The Wooden Saint debuted a team of supernatural sleuths slash soldiers, who are dead-set on keeping all manner of religious and otherworldly creatures dead and buried. The strip is done by a pair of newcomers, writer Justin Aclin and Ben Bates, who have a surprisingly long list of credits from Sonic the Hedgehog to Twisted Toyfare Theatre. For more, we talked with the pair by e-mail about this one-shot and chances of a return. We also have the exclusive reprint of this new story.
Newsarama: In a few short pages, you broke open a really cool concept for an organization of spook hunters with some irreverence. Can you tell us the origins of the story and what you were aiming for?
Justin Aclin: Thanks! I was a huge fan of the kind of story that Dark Horse does so well, where you’ve got a team arrayed against the supernatural. Assistant Editor Freddye Lins described S.H.O.O.T. First as a “supernatural fighty story,” on MySpace, and that seems like a fairly good description. I wanted to figure out my own twist on that genre, and I came up with the idea of a team that fights against supernatural creatures but doesn’t believe in them on their own terms. So while Hellboy might carry talismans with him to protect him from demons, to S.H.O.O.T. that’s just buying into the creature’s hype and adding to its power.
Once I had that aspect of it, everything came together for me very quickly – I wrote out some quick ideas on a sheet of paper on the bus, and nearly everything I wrote down that first day made it into the MDHP story “The Wooden Saint,” including nearly all the characters. The other thing that tends to get me really excited is world-building. Before I ever wrote a word of the script, I had mapped out thousands of years of history in my head of the world the story is set in.
And even though this story is a bit darker than anything else I’ve worked on, I’m always looking for ways to work humor into anything that I do. So for S.H.O.O.T., irreverence is actually a weapon in their arsenal. The more they crack wise while they’re fighting the creatures and the les reverence they show them, the less powerful they become. So, hopefully, I found a concept that can showcase a lot of the different things I can do as a writer.
Nrama: Justin came up with the idea, but you, Ben had the task of developing it and illustrating it for all to see. Can you tell us what you thought of the story the first time you heard it, and what interested you particularly enough to do the story?
Ben Bates: I liked it a ton. When it was originally explained to me Dave and Justin were putting out all kinds of references to help me think in the right direction. It was all stuff I like such as Shaun of the Dead, Chrono Trigger and of course B.P.R.D. and I thought this is exactly where I want to be!
Nrama: Although this isn’t the first time we’ve seen supernatural bounty hunters, you really bring up the religious aspect of it in a way I haven’t seen before – even if all the characters are atheists pretty much. What were your thoughts on this part of the story?
Aclin: Once I had the concept nailed down, I realized that through these characters who have all had breaks with faith, I could explore some themes about faith and religion that had been occupying me recently. Not that S.H.O.O.T. would never track down a cryptid or a non-religious supernatural creature like that if it were preying on people, but their main mission as humanists is to protect the natural potential of humanity, so they’re primarily going after creatures that are manipulating humanity and keeping them from reaching that potential. And, in their minds at least, a lot of that has to do with religion.
There’s an uncertainty to what S.H.O.O.T. does, and if you read the story as a person of faith who’s inclined to take things like demons and saints at their word, you might view S.H.O.O.T. as the bad guys. So I was definitely hoping to make people think – not so much is religion good or bad, but what aspects of religion maybe should be fought against, and what are the problems with not being able to believe in something bigger?
Bates: I remember thinking about the conflict of physically fighting something you don't believe in and wondering exactly how that works out. Of course Justin brings in the idea that all these spiritual creatures are "Outside Actors" taking advantage of mankinds faith. I buy into this and start getting excited about finding out the questions it brings up. What are the Outside Actors? What do they want exactly? How do they take advantage of mankinds powers of belief and does this belief decide what they look like and how they behave? Can S.H.O.O.T. actually travel to Heaven and Hell and fight huge epic battles with whatever they find there? Or in the end will SHOOT have to accept that all this religious stuff is real?
Oh yeah, and I'm pretty excited to see how Mrs. Brookstone's life and reasons for fighting actually work with this Outside Actor business.
Nrama: Although only 8 pages in length, you’ve left some room to do more stories with the S.H.O.O.T. team. Can you say anything about that possibility?
Bates: Justin has told me he has plenty more ideas of what he wants to do with this world and characters.
Aclin: Man, I’d love to.
Bates: I don't know too much, but as I said I'd love to see how Mrs. Brookstone works out and what kind of cool stuff she'll do and I know that Robot, the teams robot, gets some powerful new upgrades that could allow for some neat scenes in future stories. Justin's working hard to get more S.H.O.O.T. out there and I support his efforts!
Aclin: I’ve got the first mini-series or graphic novel all plotted out, and not only does it expand on those themes and show you more about the world that the story takes place in and how it works, but it also directly addresses the mysteries I included in the short story: Who’s the traitor on the team? What made them sell out S.H.O.O.T. to the Vatican? Who is Mrs. Brookstone and why did she join the team? And, of course, what is the true nature of the Outside Actors? Are they really what S.H.O.O.T. thinks they are, or is they’re a chance that they’re the real deal and the team is playing for the wrong side? So right now there are no solid plans in place to have it published, but I’m hopeful.
Nrama: How did you two hook up to do this story?
Aclin: My editor at Dark Horse, Dave Marshall, found him at the suggestion of some of Ben’s studio-mates at Portland’s Periscope Studios.
Bates: At the time I was still an assistant at Periscope Studio whose members were patiently grooming me for the big time. Around this same time Dark Horse was sifting the rich bed of the studio for a number of MDHP possibilities. Naturally all the best artists got picked first but then Jonathan Case, creator of the super cool graphic novel Dear Creature, pointed the editor of S.H.O.O.T. First, Dave Marshall, at me. Luckily he liked my art and gave me a shot. It set the groundwork for me to actually draw comics for a living. Thank you Jonathan!
Aclin: Once I saw Ben’s character designs for Lord Byron, I knew we’d found the right choice. He got the character implicitly, and even in just the design sketches his personality came right through. I think Ben’s work on the short story is phenomenal, and I hope we get a chance to work together on more S.H.O.O.T. stories, because I’ve got some stuff planned that I’d love to see him tackle.
Nrama: Justin, although this is the first time you’ve landed on Newsarama.com’s front page, this isn’t your first comic. You recently did the graphic novel Hero House from Arcana and you’ve been doing Twisted ToyFare Theatre for ToyFare for years. What’s it like to get this opportunity at MDHP?
Aclin: It’s incredible. It’s still strange to me that I even get to write Twisted ToyFare Theatre, and at this point I’ve been writing for it for much longer than I read it as a fan, which is really weird. But I’ve always wanted to write comic books, and even though Twisted ToyFare Theatre has a lot of fans, at a certain point I realized that no one was going to say, “Hey, you write fart jokes about the Hulk every month—how’d you like to write the Hulk for real?” So I decided to just go ahead and write comics, and Hero House is what I came up with. I worked on it with a great artist named Mike Dimayuga, who’s gone on to do Colt Noble and the Mega-Lords with Tim Seeley for Image, and putting the book together was an incredibly labor-intensive five-year process. But eventually we were able to put together a great creative team—Frank E. Stone inking, Brian Gabrilo on colors, Shawn DePasquale on letters and Ed McGuinness doing the cover art.
And now, to have something that’s been put out through Dark Horse, in an issue with guys like Stan Sakai, Gabriel Ba and Art Baltazar, is just incredibly humbling. I’m just glad to see people enjoying and responding to the story.
Nrama: Do you have any other comics projects up your sleeve in the near future?
Bates: Yeah, for myself I'm currently penciling issues 217 and 218 of Sonic the Hedgehog for Archie Comics. Drawing Sonic is a dream I had as kid so I'm pretty happy about it. I'm also doing the art for a mini-series with fellow Periscope Studio member David Hahn called Bullet Royale which will be put out by Image in the near future. Image recently put out another comic by other Periscope members Steve Lieber and Jeff Parker called Underground.
Aclin: Next, like I said, I’m hoping to be able to do more S.H.O.O.T. First in a longer format, and of course I’ve got Twisted ToyFare Theatre coming out every month in 4-page bursts. Other than that, it’s back to the writing board to try to come up with the next thing. I’ve done fratboy superheroes and atheist supernatural hunters. I’m looking forward to figuring out what’s next.