Definitive Dirk Manning Part 2: NIGHTMARE WORLD Commentary

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As previously threatened, we continue our conversation with Dirk Manning. The writer (and, yes, Newsarama columnist) had his third volume of Nightmare World ship just a few days ago. In this installment, Dirk gives his “Director’s Commentary” on some stories that we chose from the first couple of volumes of NW, and has included ample art for you to follow along. What follows is an extremely interesting look into the creative process and how the events of our lives shape the work that we do. Our next installment will pick up on some of the threads that Dirk lays in his commentary, such as the influence of music in his titling and process. 


NIGHTMARE WORLD Volume 1: “13 Tales of Terror”

Troy’s Pick: “The Same Deep Water As You”

The Inspiration

Whenever people ask me how I came-up with the ideas for the fifty-two different stand-alone-yet-intertwined stories of NIGHTMARE WORLD, I tell them that most of the stories are completely autobiographical with some monsters sprinkled in to make things a little more believable and/or at least easier to swallow.

“The Same Deep Water As You,” illustrated by Len O’Grady, which is the opening story of NIGHTMARE WORLD Volume 1: “13 Tales of Terror” is not only one such story, but also one of the most autobiographical stories of this particular collection (second perhaps only to the collection-closer “Violet” by WOMANTHOLOGY founder Renae de Liz).


The plot of “The Same Deep Water As You” revolves around a newlywed Irish couple by the names of Emma and Brendan who are stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with no hope of rescue. To make matters worse, Emma is very, very pregnant. We quickly learn that Brendan feels responsible for everything from the pregnancy to their then need (in his eyes) for a rushed marriage at sea, and as a result he is determined to do whatever it takes to save the life of both his new bride as well as his unborn son.

Considering that I said a moment ago how this is a very autobiographical story, I’m sure the Freudian overtones here are enough to make any Psychology major drool. [laughs]

Given the fact that I don’t want to name names, I’m going to have to be a tiny bit coy here on a few details, but here’s the back story on this one:

This story was inspired by a very, very dysfunctional relationship I was in a number of years ago. I was involved with someone who fell victim to a pretty severe mental illness, and the more I tried to do to help the worse things got for both of us. If was a little older and wiser I would have just cut my losses and ended the relationship, pointing her in the right direction in order to get the help she needed and wishing her well, but being young and naïve, I felt that perhaps I was in part responsible for what she was going through.


This was completely foolish of me, of course, but our “romance” (if you could even call it that) had been a whirlwind brought on by mutual rebounds on both of our behalves (me from my first true love and hers from her family who she was alienating due to her deteriorating mental health), and as a result a I think we both felt that we were the only things we had in the world and that we had to make things work whether we wanted to or not.

Of course trying to “cure” someone’s mental illness with support and desire alone is, as Len O’Grady himself put it years later, like trying to fight fire with a hammer… but again, I was young and heartbroken and bound and determined to make this relationship work come Hell or highwater… and the worse-off she got the more I vowed to myself and the few friends and family members I still spoke to that I would find a way to, in my own foolish words, “make her better” before I reevaluated the relationship.

As can be expected, before I knew it I was in way over my head in dealing with her disease. It soon got to a point where I didn’t feel there was anyone I could turn to about what she – and by extension, I – was going through. As anyone who’s had the misfortune of knowing someone suffering from a severe mental illness can tell you, it’s a very tough thing for a lot of people to understand since there are oftentimes no physical indicators of the disease (or diseases).

Regardless, what she was going through was very, very real… and I, again, being young and naïve and heartbroken from a previous relationship, was getting pulled right into this dark and inescapable emotional whirlpool with her, not realizing that my attempts to “help” her were only causing me to drown too.

It soon got to a point where I was hardly talking to any members of my family or my friends due to being so physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted in trying to help her cope with her illness.

Things eventually got so bad that I actually lost my day job (NEWSFLASH: Most comicbook writers – including a lot of the “big ones” – work day jobs, too! Really!), but thankfully my boss knew enough of what I was going through that she recommended me to another job, but not before saying to me: “I see what you are going through. Everyone can. It’s written all over your face, and if you want a fresh start you’re going to need to get things in order before you go meet with these people I’m recommending you to.”


My boss almost had tears in her eyes as she this to me, and I couldn’t understand what she meant until I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror… only to see a gaunt, pale, skeletal creature staring back at me. I actually jumped back when I looked in the mirror and had to touch my own face – and then my reflection – to make sure it was really me.

Needless to say this culmination of events was the “wake-up call” I needed, and I took my (now former) boss’s advice and got my house in order pretty quickly.

The ensuing break-up was quick and mutual because she, too, knew that the relationship was not only not a healthy one, but also one that was stopping both of us from what we wanted and needed in life.

That right there – that maelstrom of that whole situation – sums up most of the inspiration for “The Same Deep Water As You.”

Working with The Artist:

As I mentioned a bit ago, Len O’Grady is the artist for this story. Previous to “The Same Deep Water As You,” Len and I had collaborated on two other Nightmare World stories that he fully illustrated (“Run Like Hell” and “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)”) and also colored a few others.

This particular story came to life when one day Len called me up out of the blue and said to me in his magnificent Irish accent: “Dirk… I’d really like to draw a story about The Merrow. Do you think you could write one?

I paused for a moment before replying: “You want me to write a Nightmare World story about… minnows?”

(Astute readers will see that I worked this reaction right into the story.)


He laughed and filled me in on the mythology of The Merrow, who are, as stated in the story, Irish fairy-folk of the sea who capture the souls of drowned sailors and use them as currency in their dealings with The Devil.

Now mind you, I loved working with Len and immediately knew that I wanted to write this story for him to illustrate if for no other reason that he always make me look so darn good… and as soon as he told me what The Merrow were I also knew the story that I wanted to tell: A story about a pregnant couple stranded at sea with The Merrow surrounding their boat, clamoring for the chance to get the soul of an unborn baby – something that would be especially rare in the open seas and as a result extremely valuable to them. I also knew that I wanted the conflict of the story to involve the husband/father brokering a deal with The Merrow to save the life of his bride and unborn son… but there was a very big logistical hurdle I had to overcome, and it was this:

Why would The Merrow even entertain the notion of making a deal with the father to save the unborn baby’s soul when they were all but guaranteed to get all three of their souls if they just waited a few days?

I was a wreck about how to approach this. I knew the story I wanted to tell – and I desperately wanted to work with Len again, who, bless him, felt comfortable and confident enough to approach me to write such a script so he could illustrate it… but I couldn’t think of a way to make logistics of the story’s conflict make sense… or at least until I started thinking about the bigger picture of Nightmare World a bit more.


Sure, sure… an unborn baby’s soul would be valuable to The Merrow in their dealings with Lucifer… but what would Lucifer want with it? Once I started thinking about the scenario this way, everything fell into place and I was able to comfortably write the story, even though the full fallout of the deal between the father and The Merrow wouldn’t be seen until a few years later in when we released the story “In the Meantime…” in Nightmare World Volume 3: “Demon Days”, of which this scene was re-illustrated by Len himself for print).

While Len and I were clearly friends before he approached me about writing a story about The Merrow for him to draw, I truly believe that me being able to deliver such a story to him (and such a good one at that) really cemented both our professional and personal the friendship – one that I’m fortunate enough to enjoy to this day.

In fact, shortly after we finished “The Same Deep Water As You” together Len approached me about working on another project with him, and hence our all-ages fantasy series Farseeker came into fruition. Sure, it took us a few years to dedicate the time to the project that it needed to thrive, but considering how the comic series was featured on MTV and is hosted now over at, well, I’d say getting Farseeker up and running was worth the wait. [laughs] 


Dirk’s Pick:
“Knee Deep in the Dead”

The Inspiration:

“Knee Deep in the Dead” holds a very special place in my heart because it’s the first script I every truly wrote for myself.

Interestingly enough, it was one of the earliest scripts I’d ever written, preceded only by “Momma’s Boy,” “Run Like Hell,” “You Oughta Know,” “How Do You Sleep?” and “Bitter Wine” which were also all eventually included in Nightmare World either online and/or in-print.

Mind you, I’m really proud of all those earlier stories… but in one way or another I felt like I was playing it a bit “safe” with all of them.

(Yes, that’s even true of “You Oughta Know,” which features a Cthulhu priestess getting beaten to death by a guy who then goes home and kills his wife before embarking on a journey that will lead him to kick-starting the Armageddon.)

“Knee Deep in the Dead”… this one was different, though. It’s the first time that I completely, if you’ll pardon the pun, “cut-loose” and wrote a story without worrying what my at the time small but growing online audience would think.

Despite what its over-the-top title may lead a lot of people to believe, “Knee Deep in the Dead” really is a quite funny story that is a loving parody of the slasher movie genre of the 1980’s… with a twist, of course.

Like lot of horror fans my age, I spent most of my pre-teen/teenage years watching every horror movie that I could get access to, including all the “Friday the 13th,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Halloween” and “Child’s Play” franchise films (alongside other lesser-known delights/guilty-pleasures such as “Motel Hell,” “The Kindred,” “The Stuff” and “The Lift,” of course).


I loved all these films in different ways, but like most other self-respecting horror fans I enjoyed most of them not because they were scary, per say, but because, more often than not, they were actually quite funny (admittedly, though they sometimes didn’t mean to be).

You see, one of the biggest misconceptions non-horror fans have about die-hard horror fans is that we’re all a bunch of raving lunatics who believe all of the stuff we see on the screen, when the truth of the matter is that (usually) we just plain ol’ enjoy the unique thrills and chills that only the horror genre can provide.

Which, in an very roundabout way, brings me to “Knee Deep in the Dead,” the second story in Nightmare World Volume 1, and the one that immediately follows the aforementioned (and discussed) “The Same Deep Water As You.”

“Knee Deep in the Dead” was a story that I wanted to write for a long time, although in my mind it was always a much more serious and creepy take on the same plot – right down to the same closing scene/twist.

(Aside from the much darker tone, the only other two differences were that the original version took place in an abandoned house and that the whole story would have been silent, titled “Don’t Speak.”)

However, as much as I liked the story itself (and especially the ending, which I won’t spoil here for those who have yet to read it), for some reason I could never quite find the motivation to actually write it.


As I mentioned a moment ago, I felt that everything I had written for Nightmare World up until that point had been a bit too “safe,” and “Don’t Speak” fell into that same category. Yes, it was neat idea and all… but at this point Nightmare World had been a live online comic for a few months and I really wanted to write a story that reflected my unique voice and tastes more so than any of the other stories to date had done, with the possible exception of “How Do You Sleep?” which wasn’t even a horror story in the strictest sense of the word to begin with.

Considering this, I decided to throw caution to the wind and retooled “Don’t Speak” into a parody of the slasher moves I enjoyed so much as a youth, and the result was a new take on the same plot, now titled “Knee Deep in the Dead.”

I laughed the whole time I wrote the script and the dialogue and, again throwing caution to the wind, e-mailed it to my fellow Golden Goat Studios member and artist in the wings Erich Owen… but not before also including a letter of apology, telling him I’d completely understand if he didn’t like it, didn’t get it, or just didn’t want to draw it.

Thankfully for me (and the reading population at large) he liked the story and agreed to illustrate it… and the result was and is one of the most beloved and discussed stories in the whole Nightmare World series to this very day.

Working with the Artist:


As I mentioned a moment ago, I actually sent a note of apology to artist Erich Owen with this script since I figured that there was no way at all he’d want to draw it. Again, it’s not that I didn’t like or believe in the story– but rather that I thought it was too “quirky” and filled with too many “inside jokes” for most casual readers – and even horror fans -- to catch and/or enjoy.

I found myself incredibly passionate about this wickedly funny (and at times downright slapstick) story of two over-sexed camp counselors trying to escape an unseen psychotic killer, though, and new that I had to send it to him… even if it meant he would reject my first attempt to work with him.

Since I wasn’t sure how much of a horror fan Erich was (or wasn’t), I explained a lot of the humor to him in the script itself (such as how the killer’s look was a blend of the appearances of Jason, Freddy, Chucky and Michael Meyers, respectively)… but there were also some other jokes that I didn’t spell out, such as the bit about the seven-foot weed whacker (as infamously seen in Friday the 13th: Part VII) or the off-handed comment about Frieda telling Jason (get it?) that Angela said he wasn’t good in bed.

(For those of you scratching your heads at the latter part of that gag, consider this: Angela is the main character/killer in the cult-classic horror film Sleepaway Camp, and if you’ve seen that movie, I assure you Frieda’s to Jason at the climax (ugh) of the story is doubly-funny.)

Well. much to my pleasant surprise, not only did Erich like the story – but everyone else who read it did too. “Knee Deep in the Dead” was only the eighth story to run on the original Nightmare World website, but as I said earlier, it still remains one of the most beloved stories of the whole series.

While I can (humbly) take part of the credit for really just cutting loose and telling a story that displayed my quirky sense of humor and wit (despite the fact that I was sure if anyone else would “get it”), I also know that a large part of the story’s continued success is due to Erich’s amazing art of this story. It would have been easy – too easy – to pick a more “traditional-horror” looking artist for this story, but I specifically wrote this script with Erich in mind because of his unique, borderline cartoony style.

Heck, Erich embraced the concept of the story so much that he did comedic yet fully-realized character designs for every character in the story – even though many of them only appeared in one single (bloody) panel!


Erich is an extremely talented and versatile artist who has worked on books ranging from Mail Order Ninja at Tokyopop to several comics from William Shatner (yes, THAT William Shatner), and even when we were both first starting our careers together I knew that he could bring a visual aesthetic that was both funny and creepy – oftentimes at the same time – to “Knee Deep in the Dead.”

After this story Erich and I rejoined forces a few years later to do “Ring of Fire” for Nightmare World Volume 2: “Leave the Light On” (a story that we originally titled “Sonseeahray” when we pitched to the Weird Western Tales anthology headed-up by now-rising superstar writer Joshua Hale Fialkov and later released online as part of Nightmare World)… and although Erich and I still keep in touch and have tossed a few story ideas back and forth since then, we have yet to join forces again on another project… although I’m anxious for the stars to enter their proper alignment so that day can come.

Oh… and here’s a final little tidbit worth mentioning about the two Nightmare World stories Erich and I have done together. “Ring of Fire” has two different covers (one for the online comic and a new one for the print collection in Nightmare World Volume 2) while “Knee Deep in the Dead” has had THREE different covers, all illustrated by Erich over the years. (One for the original Nightmare World website, a second one for a short-run convention-exclusive edition of the story, and then a third one for the print edition of the Nightmare World Volume 1 from Image Comics/Shadowline.

Erich… God bless him… is just a trip like that. Every time I would tell him that we were taking one of his stories to print he’d say “Hey… can I do a new cover for it? I have a new idea I want to use.” Along with being an extremely talented artist he’s also a bit of a perfectionist, and, hey, only a fool would turn down new art from Erich, you know? [laughs]

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