Dirk Manning may live in a Nightmare World -- but he loves every second of it.
The writer (and, for full disclosure, Newsarama columnist) has been hard at work producing the second volume of his horror anthology series with Shadowline, with the new book, NIGHTMARE WORLD, Volulme 2: "Leave The Light On" due out in October. A collection of standalone stories ranging from children of Satan to a superhero's last day on Earth, Manning never stays in one place for too long.
We sat down with the writer to talk about why anthologies, his philosophy on horror, and his process for sitting down and building the Nightmare World story by story.
Newsarama: Dirk, for those who don't know about your work -- give us the elevator pitch here. What is NIGHTMARE WORLD?
Dirk Manning: The “quick pitch” I tell people - especially people who think they'd never like, let alone read, a “horror comic” - is that NIGHTMARE WORLD is a series of fifty-two cerebral, self-contained short stories that are more “unsettling” than gory: more “The Twilight Zone” that “Saw” or “Friday the 13th.” However, what makes NIGHTMARE WORLD such a unique (and entertaining) reading experience is this: As you keep reading the stories they eventually start to weave together to tell one over-arching tale about Lucifer's quest to use mortal pawns in a scheme to awaken Cthulhu, kick-start the Armageddon and force the final war with Heaven to take place on his terms.
That's it in a nutshell: “Paradise Lost meets The Cthulhu Mythos,” told in the serial short story nature of “The Twlight Zone.”
If you like any of those things I think it's very safe to say you'd do well in checking-out NIGHTMARE WORLD both online and in-print.
Nrama: Out of all the stories you have in NIGHTMARE WORLD Volume Two: “Leave the Light On”, are there any that really stand out as personal favorites to you?
Manning: Oh, man… you're putting me on the spot! That's like asking me who's my favorite kid! [laughs]
It's interesting because whenever I talk to anybody who's read NIGHTMARE WORLD they all start telling me about their personal favorite stories… and they're different stories for each person. [laughs] That's what's fun about anthologies, though.
As for me, well, ”Without You I'm Nothing” is one of the first ones that comes to mind just because it's such an emotional story. It's about a superhero's last day on Earth due to the fallout of the Armageddon and the ensuing rampage of Cthulhu. It's a really emotional story but there's also a few really nice Easter Eggs in there that I like quite a bit.
Because I'm a big fan of music - and not so much the music industry - ”For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)” is a lot of fun to read and has some genuine “laugh out loud” moments. “Strays” is also really touching… and “Sleep Now in the Fire” has what I consider to be one of the most horrifying scenes in the whole book - if not the whole series. That bit when the protagonist breaks down and starts pleading with her friend for help - and the response she gets - still sends chills up my spine every time I think about it… and I wrote it! [laughs]
All of that being said, though, I'd have to say that my Sherlock Holmes-based story “While You Sleep I Destroy Your World” is flat-out one of the best stories I think I've ever written… but, again, due to the fact that every story in the collection is so different from every other one I'm sure there are some people out there who will disagree… and that's fine. That's the whole point of the series: For everyone to enjoy all of the stories, but also to have their own favorites.Nrama: I guess I should ask, since horror is such a subjective thing: Do you have a personal philosophy when it comes to what horror stories should be? What makes a story really sink its claws into you?
Manning: OK… I'm going to get on my little soapbox about horror here for a moment, so bear with me. [laughs]
I think a lot of people have a misconception about “horror” the same way they do about “comic books.” Specifically, just like all comics are not about guys in spandex flying around and punching each other, all “horror” is not about monsters, blood spraying everywhere and people getting murdered.
To me, horror is really about anything that invokes a sense of unsettlement or fear… but at the same time, that doesn't mean that something that falls under the horror umbrella can't also be funny or sentimental - or both - at the same time.
Sadly, “horror” gets a bit of a bad rap because there are a lot of immature writers (and filmmakers) out there who just drop some monsters into their fiction stories and saying “Look - it's horror!”… and this leads people like me to say “No, that's not horror. It's a fantasy story! To be a horror story it needs to actually at least unsettle you a little bit… and preferably by doing more than just trying to gross the reader out.”
Personally, I really dig the scary stuff written by guys like Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison (who is, in my humble opinion, the best short story fiction writer currently walking the face of the Earth)… but you know what else scares me? The scenarios put forth by guys like Franz Kafka and George Orwell. Kafka once talked about “The nakedness of man when faced with the absurd…” and that really encapsulates what I find to be the most scary… the most “horror.”
I mean, imagine waking-up in a world where you don't know the rules anymore and you're totally alone and in danger as a result - whether it be that your baby might be evil, your lover might be trying to kill you or there's a giant monster alien god with an octopus head, Godzilla body and bat wings that doesn't care about the human race at all and views the human race as less significant than ants… whatever the case, the notion of one day finding the world you knew ripped out from under… to me, that is true “horror.”
And let me say more thing here since, you know, I'm on my soapbox and all. [laughs] There's this big kick in Hollywood right now regarding “torture pr0n” as horror… and I'm sorry, but watching people getting tortured to death isn't scary - it's sick. Sure, sure… I get the whole “helplessness” angle that some of these movies are trying to convey… but once the hero (or victim) is captured, do we really need to see him or her get tortured and mutilated for minutes on end? REALLY? That's not scary and it's not horror… it's just… disgusting.
With NIGHTMARE WORLD I try to tell stories more in the vein of “The Twlight Zone”… nice little self-contained stories - many of them genre pieces - that will unsettle readers because they depict a scenario where the main characters suddenly find themselves in a world where things are not what they thought they were to a very dramatic degree.
A world where your kid comes back to life as a zombie or a misplaced boast can threaten the life of your best friend or where you know these really horrible things are happening and no one believes you no matter what you say or do… that, to me, is the basis true horror.
OK… rant over. [laughs]
Nrama: Just looking at the structure of your book, this is a collection of 8-page short stories. Companies like Marvel have been toying with the idea of the anthology again recently -- for you, what's the appeal? Why should people check out that format?
Manning: I was just talking about short stories in a recent ”Write or Wrong” column right here at Newsarama because I think they're a vehicle for telling stories that a lot of writers - especially potential up-and-coming talents - are too often over-looking or ignoring … but that being said, I think it's great that both anthologies and short story back-up features are coming back into “style” again and being treated as more than filler material and places for “throw-away ideas” like they were for a number of years.
I just re-read both volumes of Hellboy: Weird Tales the other day and thought that it was a perfect example of what a good anthology book should be: Great creators telling great short stories that actually resonate with the reader because they all made sure to say something.
Be it funny, sentimental, scary or whatever, for a short story to be worthwhile is needs to say something... and the more that major publishers are willing to publish good short stories in anthologies as back-up features (and just as importantly, not publish bad ones) the better off we'll all be in the long run. After all, not all stories need to be six issues long… or in some cases, even one issue long for that matter… and that's OK! That's what short stories are for!
Heck, look what Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti are doing on Jonah Hex right now! Almost every issue is an extremely powerful - or at the very least clever - “done-in-one” short story by a different artist. That's a book everyone owes it to themselves to check out to see the power of “done-in-one” short stories. I'll admit that it took me a while to get onboard with Jonah Hex, but dang, is that book just fantastic!
Shadowline also just released Fractured Fables, a really, really nice hardcover book featuring a score of amazing creators doing “re-imaginings” of classic fairy tales, and that's yet another perfect example of the power of short stories. It's a note-perfect great collection from cover to cover and, man, if that book doesn't get nominated for an Eisner for “Best Anthology” next year (along with NIGHTMARE WORLD Volume Two, of course) I'll eat my freakin' hat. [laughs]
Personally, though, I especially like the short story format because it allows me to tell so many different kinds of stories - and I just don't mean in terms of genre, either. Yeah, there's all kinds of different genres in NIGHTMARE WORLD Volume Two - everything ranging from Chupacabras to an Old West story to Sherlock Holmes to a zombie story to a Cthulhu Mythos battle royal to a Vietnam War piece to a bit on Saturday morning cartoons… heck, we've even got a straight-up superhero story in there - but writing a series comprised of short stories allows me to tell different types of stories, too.
There's a range of emotions that you'll feel in reading NIGHTMARE WORLD Volume Two. One story will make you laugh, the next one will make you cry, and the one after that will send chills up your spine… and that's what makes the book so enticing. It's not like you're going to get beaten over the head time and time again with a stories of despair and loss. Instead you'll be laughing one minute and crying the next… this makes NIGHTMARE WORLD Volume Two an extremely filling and satisfying experience for everyone who reads it… just as was the case with NIGHTMARE WORLD Volume One.
Nrama:On the other side of the equation - NIGHTMARE WORLD started out as an online comic. How do you feel that online experience colored your approach to these stories, and how do you feel that it'll translate into hard copies?
Manning: Honestly, the biggest thing I learned from publishing online was pacing. In a day and age where so many writers were (and still are) seemingly telling every story as part of a big six-issue story-arc, that's not a luxury I had when releasing two to four pages of content a week.
When I was writing NIGHTMARE WORLD and publishing online I had to learn to not only how to write a powerful short story in eight pages (which meant starting as late into the action as possible and leaving as early as possible) but also pacing the stories in such a way that every single page was compelling enough that readers were willing to wait anywhere from a day to a week for the next one.
Now that the stories are being collected in print they read as very dense stories. Over the last year I've had a lot of people who read NIGHTMARE WORLD for the first time in print tell me how surprised they were that I could pack so much story and characterization into only eight pages… which is quite a compliment and a real sign that the artists and I succeeded in what we set-out to do: Create fully realized characters and scenarios in the span of only eight pages per story.
Nrama: In this volume, you again have a pretty wide stable of artistic talent you're working with, such as Len O'Grady and Renae De Liz. How'd you wind-up teaming up with all these people?
Manning: Honestly? I wrote stories so good that they not only were willing to draw them, but that they wanted to draw them.
I apologize if that comes off as a arrogant, because believe me, I'm just another fan of comics just like everyone else reading this interview, but bottom line… that was it.
I took the time to find out their strengths and what they wanted to draw and then wrote them the most engaging and compelling stories possible based on their strengths and interests.
Not to beat the same drum over and over, but it's like I say time and time again in my ”Write or Wrong” column: Your artists are not machines or little drawing-bots that exist solely for your own pleasure, you know? As a writer you need to take the time to find stories that your artistic partners will be just as excited about bringing to life as you… and when you as a writer are excited and having fun and your art team is equally excited and having fun, well, that all translates to the page and the readers will feel that, you know?
I realize this sounds kind of like some New Age/Hippy stuff, but it's true, and I think the continued success of NIGHTMARE WORLD is a testament to the readers reacting to the raw passion everyone involved in the creation of each story in the series has had for them.
Nrama: With all the titles of your short stories being song titles, can you tell us a little bit about how you got your head into the proper mindset to write these different stories?
Manning: Music has always been a big part of my life, and in a lot of ways I think a good comic story is just like a good song in that it can pull you in and make you feel any number of ranges of emotions… so the NIGHTMARE WORLD story titles all being inspired by songs is definitely a tip of the hat to that same mentality. In a way each story is a little song that will have a different effect on everyone that reads it, just like every song has a different effect on whomever hears it.
As far as my mindset, though, honestly, many of the NIGHTMARE WORLD stories were actually based on real situations I've been through in my life. Even though I didn't always realize it when I was writing the stories of NIGHTMARE WORLD, looking back I've come to realize how, in a lot of ways, it was how I was dealing with a lot of things I had gone through to that point in my life, be it my best friend screwing me over, the loss of my child, the suicide of someone very close to me, the passing of my beloved childhood pet… all of these things influenced and - looking back - sometimes pretty blatantly manifested themselves in the stories of NIGHTMARE WORLD. I'm just embarrassed that it took me so long to realize it.
NIGHTMARE WORLD -- it's my autobiography with some monsters and other supernatural elements sprinkled in for good measure. You know, to make it more believable since truth is always stranger than fiction anyway. [laughs]
Nrama: Having worked on all these different genres and with all these different artists, have there been any lessons that you've picked up, that have helped you as a writer?
Manning: First and foremost, as I mentioned a moment ago, you need to cater your stories to the artist. Period. I think that's one of the most important things anyone looking to create comics should keep in mind.
That aside, when I started writing NIGHTMARE WORLD I vowed that I would never repeat the same motif or genre twice, and I figured that for the six or so stories I thought the series would last it would be a neat little “challenge” to myself, you know?
Well, as the series continued to grow and grow I decided to keep that initial “challenge” to myself going, and that resulted in me exploring fifty-two different genres or sub-genres that fall under the “horror umbrella” by the time all fifty-two stories were written and the series - including the giant over-arching story - was finally complete in its final form.
Obviously this challenge to myself helped me grow tremendously as a writer. I mean, dang, at this point I'd like to think I've proven I can write a good story in any genre - and in only eight pages to boot! [laughs]
Mafia story? Check. Superhero story? Check. Romance? Comedy? Tragedy? Action? Parody? Mystery? Check, check, check, check, check and check! You hear that you potential publishers and editors out there? Dirk Manning can do it all and has the published stories to prove it! [laughs]
Kidding aside, while I think it's important to stay true to what you are as a writer - “Write what you know” is an old writer's adage - it's also good to push yourself a bit here and there… or else how will you ever grow?
Heck, the story Ninja vs. Samurai story “Bitter Wine” from NIGHTMARE WORLD Volume One: “13 Tales of Terror” was inspired by a dare a buddy of mine threw down on me because he knows how much I hate-hate-hate ninjas… but once I committed myself to the idea of writing a good and faithful story featuring a Ninja and a Samaria (rather than just a story where the Ninja gets killed in the first panel) and I threw myself into research and I ended-up writing what many people consider one of their favorite stories from that volume. Heck, I still think one of my most shining moments was writing the authentic “Death Poem” at the end of the story… and I never would have had that experience had I not pushed myself - via a friendly dare - to write a story that I would have otherwise never even considered writing.
If you never push yourself as a writer you'll never grow.
Nrama: For those who still aren't sure about NIGHTMARE WORLD, is there anything else you would suggest to get them on board? Any teases or fun moments you've been excited about?
Manning: Well, now that we're at the end of the interview let's get the elephant out of the room, shall we? [laughs]
I know there are a lot of people out there reading this who might otherwise never consider picking-up a copy of NIGHTMARE WORLD Volume Two because it's a “horror” book and they don't consider themselves fans of “horror”… but interestingly enough, many of the artists themselves also felt the same way until they read the scripts.
The first reactions of several of them the first time I talked to them oftentimes consisted of “Ummm… I'm not really into horror,” and I'd then say ”Listen, all I'm asking is that you read the script… and if you don't like it, so be it… but I think you'll find that NIGHTMARE WORLD isn't the bottom-of-the-barrel dreck that a lot of people associate with 'horror'…” and then they'd read the scripts and say “Hey… this is great! I'd love to draw this, Dirk!” and I'd say ”Well, I hate to say I told you so… so I won't.” [laughs]
In regards to the people out there reading this who might still be on the fence, I'd like to say the same thing: Listen, folks: I offer the whole series online for free with updates of a page a day every Monday through Thursday without fail, so if you're on the fence - or even if you just want something new to read - go to www.NightmareWorld.comor the SoulGeek Webcomics Hub and check it out for free.
Then, if you like it, I'd really appreciate it if you'd consider ordering the first two TPB collections from Image Comics/Shadowline from your local comic shop, Amazon.com or DCBservice.com.
Each collection offers thirteen stories from the online series - many of them with touched-up or even completely re-mastered art for print - as well as an illustrated prose story exclusive to the TPB and a really nice two-part painted wrap-around over.
We'll be continuing to run the rest of NIGHTMARE WORLD through October, and as soon as the 52nd and final story in that series ends we'll be diving right into the horror/noir NIGHTMARE WORLD spin-off series TALES OF MR. RHEE, and the first volume of that will be running for a full year… so believe me, we won't be going anywhere for quite some time.
If horror absolutely positively isn't your thing and you absolutely refuse to believe that there's any chance in Hell (heh) that you'll like the series, well, you can always go check out FARSEEKER by myself and artist Len O'Gray over at ACT-I-VATE, which is also free and runs with a new update every Friday. Maybe then you'll see that I'm not a horrible twisted person and you'll consider checking out NIGHTMARE WORLD after all. [laughs]
Really, though, I'm so confident that people who read NIGHTMARE WORLD online - including people who don't normally like “horror stuff” - will like it and want a copy of the stories in some really nice TPB collections of their very own that I put it all online for free for people to check out first.
Quite frankly, it's just that good and I have no problem letting people discover that for themselves both online and then in print.
NIGHTMARE WORLD Volume Two: “Leave the Light On” is now available for pre-order through PREVIEWS (Order Code: AUG10 0455) as well as Amazon.com and DCBservice.com (who is offering an exclusive signed book plate with each pre-order).Nightmares!