It’s been five years since Dirk Manning began contributing his inspiration/“how-to” column “Write or Wrong” to Newsarama and it was the third Halloween in a row in which Jim Valentino’s Shadowline wing of Image Comics released a graphic novel collection of stories from his epic Nightmare World online comic series.
In this fifth and final installment (for now) of our talks with Dirk Manning about his work, his ascension through the ranks, and his views on comicdom in general (links to the first four interviews can all be found HERE), we ask Dirk to take one last look back at the legacy of Nightmare World before getting the skinny on his new projects such as FARSEEKER for ACT-I-VATE, TALES OF MR. RHEE for Image Comics/Shadowline and more…Newsarama: How did you arrive at the concept of naming each story in the three Nightmare World volumes after song titles? Were these things from your personal playlist, or just appropriate? In fact, did you develop the stories first, then apply the proper song title, or were you inspired by the titles themselves, in turn. Explain yourself!
Dirk Manning: More often than not I had a story idea – at least – in mind before I ever started thinking about a title, and once I had a particular story idea in mind I would then start trying to decide on a title that would support – and accent – the story.
Why derive inspiration for Nightmare World story titles from song names? Before I started writing comics I spent about a decade doing music journalism, and the song title inspirations were my little nod to that part of my life – and my last little huzzah in regards to promoting a lot of bands that I like – more than anything else, really.
Mind you, I fully realize that most of the bands from whom I drew story-title inspirations from certainly are no longer to a point where they need the tiny “rub” that a Nightmare World shout-out gets them… but, hey, if someone thinks a particular song title is interesting and it leads them to discover a band like Faith No More, Helmet, Nailbomb or something… well… then I guess I did my job as a music journalist one last time. [laughs]
Nrama: How long from concept to ship date on Nightmare World Volume 3 did the whole process of creating Nightmare World take, and was there ever a point where you thought it just wouldn't come together?Manning: The concept of telling a series of stand-alone-yet-ultimately-intertwined short horror stories had been in my mind since I developed the idea of Nightmare World around the year 2000… and I first started publishing the series online with weekly updates in 2002, shortly after I joined Golden Goat Studios and started working with their stable of artists (a process I’ve previously discussed at length in my “Write or Wrong” column here at Newsarama.
Because I wasn’t sure how long the series would last – especially since we would be publishing it online for free in a day and age where “webcomics” didn’t have the air of legitimacy about them that they do now – I didn’t let anyone (including the artists) know that I had this secret idea in mind where all of the stories took place in one world and were interconnected, and instead mainly focused on telling what would be seen as really cool stand-alone horror stories.
After all, first and foremost I wanted to make sure that people read and enjoyed each Nightmare World story as an individual, stand-alone story.
Due to the team of amazing artists I worked with – combined with the support of readers who continued to spread the word about our little “horror series that could” – Nightmare World continued to survive and thrive online with new stories being completely produced and published without fail every month.
By the time we hit our 25th story I realized that we were to a point where I could really start to reveal the “big” picture a bit more, and it was then that I let the cat out of the bag and started telling all of the artists I was working with “Listen, guys and gals… there’s a bigger picture here and I want to make it more evident to everyone. Are you with me?”
They all agreed, and another 27 stories later we wrapped-up the series – and in doing so, were able to definitely tell the “big story” that had been until then only hinted at all along.
Nrama: Now that they're all out and finished, how do you feel about it?Manning: I’m relieved, of course. I mean, Nightmare World was a very ambitious project on its own merits… let alone for an unknown writer to launch as his debut project at a time when online comics mainly consisted of three-panel gag strips, you know? [laughs]
Now that the series is finished I’m very happy – and grateful – that Jim Valentino saw enough potential in the project to give us a chance at the Shadowline Online Comics Hub, and that he then allowed us to take the series a step further and release the bulk of it in print in a trilogy of graphic novel collections.
Nrama: Will you ever go back to Nightmare World?
Manning: My short answer is “No,” but a more honest answer is a little more involved than that. [laughs]
First, if and when we ever publish the 13 online exclusive Nightmare World stories (which are all available to read online for free HERE), as either a final fourth collection or as part of some sort of giant Nightmare World Omnibus several years from now, I will definitely go back and write one last “collection-exclusive” prose story like I did for the other three print collections, focusing on the alien subplot of the series.
If that ever happens, though, it’s at least several years away… and the best way to make that happen would be for people to support the current trilogy in print.
That aside, it’s no secret that my new online horror series TALES OF MR. RHEE takes place in the Nightmare World “universe” five years after the events of the main story in that series, as we’ve seen appearances by several characters from Nightmare World there to date, including the mother and her adopted baby from “Sleep Now in the Fire,” the tattooed wizard from “Disasterpiece” (who we learn was Rhee’s mentor – before they had a pretty severe falling out after some pretty horrible things happened between the two of them), and most recently Thelma Luskin and her demonic bodyguard/lover William from “Break Stuff,” “A Therapy For Pain” and “In the Meantime…” among a few others.
For the record, though, anyone can go read TALES OF MR. RHEE without any prior knowledge about Nightmare World… although, Mr. Rhee himself actually made his first appearance as the janitor in “No One Knows” in Nightmare World Volume 2: “Leave the Light On” before then appearing again in Nightmare World Volume 3: “Demon Days” at the very end of “Movin’ On.” Mr. Rhee also has a small cameo role in the online exclusive story “Somebody Told Me” which is a lot of fun.
Finally – and perhaps most interestingly – people who have bought the print collections will notice that a sketch of Rhee’s tattoo is featured rather prominently on a piece of paper sitting on Lucifer’s desk on the back cover of Nightmare World Volume 3: “Demon Days”... and yes, that’s a bit of foreshadowing, for sure. [laughs]
But as for Nightmare World proper… no, man… the series has served its purpose. I wanted to tell a series of stand-alone short stories – each one displaying a different sub-genre of horror while also eventually weaving together to tell the story of Lucifer awakening Cthulhu to kickstart the Armageddon – and I did just that.
I do have another project similar to Nightmare World in the works: A series of 22-page stand-alone horror stories, each illustrated by a different artist, but it will not be tied to Nightmare World (or TALES OF MR. RHEE in any way, shape, form or concept.
Nightmare World is complete as it is, and between TALES OF MR. RHEE for Image Comics/Shadowline, my fantasy-ish all-ages series FARSEEKER with Len O’Grady for ACT-I-VATE, the aforementioned and yet-to-be-released horror series of one-shots, and a few other little things I’m tinkering with (to say nothing of “Write or Wrong,” mind you!) there’s really no need or desire for me to go back to Nightmare World.
I love the series and will always be very, very proud of it… and of course someday several years from now I’d love to go back and do one last, giant, prestige release of EVERYTHING from the series… but, no, man… Nightmare World is complete and there’s no need or desire to go back to it.Nrama: Can you tell us a little bit more about TALES OF MR. RHEE?
Manning: TALES OF MR. RHEE is a horror-noir series currently running at www.ShadowlineOnline.com every Tuesday and Thursday. Every story in the series is illustrated by Josh Ross, who illustrated numerous Nightmare World stories and has really taken his game to a new level with this series.
The tagline I give people for TALES OF MR. RHEE is “If you have to call Mr. Rhee, it’s already too late for a happy ending,” and that really sums-up the gist of the series right there. [laughs]
By the time this interview goes live we’ll be a little over halfway through the eighth eight-page story in the series, which will have thirteen stories in what we’re dubbing the first “volume,” so it’s a good time for new readers to really delve into it and check it out.
As I mentioned a minute ago, TALES OF MR. RHEE and Nightmare World are indeed a tiny-bit connected, although anyone could delve right into the former with absolutely zero knowledge of the latter, with the occasional Nightmare World references really being nothing more than fun little “Easter Egg”-style treats for longtime readers of my work.
That said, the response to TALES OF MR. RHEE has been overwhelmingly positive, and during my most recent convention appearance at Wizard World: Mid-Ohio Con (which I wrote about at-length at another site >HERE), the most common question I was asked was if/when we’d be releasing a print collection of TALES OF MR. RHEE (followed closely by whether or not we would ever be releasing the 13 online exclusive Nightmare World stories in print, of course).First, as you mentioned, it’s not only not a horror title, but it’s also an all-ages book to boot! FARSEEKER is a series that both Len and I wanted to make sure could – and would – be enjoyed by kids and adults alike, and I think we’ve really succeeded in finding that balance. Of course, on a personal level, it’s also nice to show people that I’m more than a one-genre pony, too. [laughs]
FARSEEKER is also a team ensemble book, with eight(!) very diverse main characters, each of whom have their own distinct personality and “voice.” At first I wasn’t sure how well I would be able to “balance” such a big cast of main characters (the group travels around together as they try to solve – or at least survive – different “quests” they’re sent upon my a mysterious “Dungeon Master” type character), but I really surprised myself in discovering that it was something that came very naturally to me.
The response to this series has also been extremely positive from everyone who has read it, and the series was immediately scooped-up not only by the ACT-I-VATE webcomic collective, but also then by MTV Geek, who ran the series at their website for a month and even interviewed me live on camera to boot.
It was all a pretty surreal experience, and I guess it again went to show that, hey, you really have to follow your heart in regards to what you want to create. I was a bit concerned that my fan-base feel a bit put-off by the fact that I was writing a non-horror book, but it’s been embraced not only by them, but by slews of new readers too… something that is probably helped by the fact that FARSEEKER is a genuinely fun series, and is one of those books that’s really without peer in the current marketplace.
Right now we’re gearing-up to finish the second chapter “in-house” so we can get back to weekly updates online, but in the meantime people can read the complete first chapter and a portion of the second over at ACT-I-VATE by clicking right HERE.
In closing in regards to FARSEEKER, I’ll tell all of you reading this what I tell everyone reading the series: If you’re not hooked by the two-page spread on Pages 4 and 5, well, it just ain’t the series for you… but thus far those kinds of readers have proven few and far between. [laughs]
Nrama: Speaking with some authority, in our opinion, what is the place of the anthology in comics today?Manning: A great anthology comic can be a wonderful entrance point to comics (or even a specific genre or publisher’s catalogue) if the person or publisher in charge of it makes sure that every story in the collection maintains of a top-notch level of quality, and I think the success of recent anthologies such as Fractured Fables from Image Comics/Shadowline and Wednesday Comics by DC shows that.
Take the latter, for example. Wednesday Comics is a comic anthology that could be given to any non-comic reader and used to show them what the medium – or at least what DC Comics’ contribution to the medium – is all about. The stories in it are all self-contained and – most importantly – of an exceptional level of quality.
Sure, sure… in any anthology every different reader is going to have his or her own favorite stories, but in order to make a successful anthology you need to make sure that every story is the collection maintains a certain level of quality… but, sadly, that’s where a lot of publishers drop the ball.
When I started Nightmare World back in 2002 I deliberately went out of my way to market it as an “anthology” book – even though it’s not really an anthology title in the purest sense of the word – because I felt that anthologies in general were really getting the short end of the stick in mainstream comics at that time (with the one notable exception being the phenomenal set of anthology comics such as Flinch being released by DC/Vertigo Comics under the mindful eye of now Marvel EIC Axel Alonso).
It pains me to see so many publishers piecemeal and cobble together a bunch of short stories they’ve got lying around and – regardless of the level of quality (or lack thereof) – release them as “anthologies.” Not only does it gives the subgenre of anthology comics a bad name, but, perhaps just as grievously, it’s lazy and shows a complete lack of respect to the readers and consumers.
I have no problem not liking every story in an anthology – provided that every story in the anthology meets a certain high standard of quality.To use another example, regardless of what you think of the subject matter, Marvel’s recent pair indie-centric comic mini-series anthology collections Strange Tales did a really nice job of making sure this was the case, as did DC Comics/Vertigo with a really, really amazing horror anthology one-shot they released last month titled The Unexpected, which was just fantastic from cover to cover.
I give my highest recommendations that anyone who’s a fan of horror comic anthologies hunt down a copy of The Unexpected (after they pick-up or download the Nightmare World trilogy, of course), although I do with that, given the price of the issue, they would have given it a cardstock cover and a spine so I could put it on my bookshelf a bit easier. Still, that’s a very small nitpick with what was otherwise a great example from DC on the right way to do a comic anthology. The Jill Thompson illustrated story in it is especially fantastic.
Finally, I should mention that the reincarnated Dark Horse Presents series is really firing on all cylinders right now, too, and is well-worth checking out by readers who are looking for something a little different from the standard capes-and-tights fare.
Nrama: Let's go back to the beginning for a minute. At this point, what's your best advice for the nascent writer seeking an art team?Manning: If I’m not careful here I’ll start regurgitating all sorts of the tips I’ve been discussing for the last five years over in my “Write or Wrong” column (which, if I haven’t mentioned it yet, is indeed returning to semi-regular updates again soon… HONEST!), so instead I’ll just say this. If you want to find and sustain a good art team you need to do these three simple rules:
1) Work Hard
2) Be Nice
3) Never Settle
That’s the best advice I can give in a few short blurbs, right there.
Nrama: In the first part of the “Definitive Dirk Manning” series, I asked you about digital as the future of comics. Now, specifically about webcomics, do you think that the big companies could be doing more in that area?
Manning: Honestly, I think with the rise of tablet computers such as the Kindle and the iPad combined with really solid distributors of digital comics such as comiXology we’re to a point where “the future is now” in terms of digital comics and webcomics alike.
Digital distribution of digital comics is now giving comic publishers – and readers – a very real second lease on life (or at least sustainability) and now it’s just a matter of not dropping the ball.
If comic publishers and creators can keep the price points reasonable and the work readily available (both of which are so simple to do it’s, truthfully, hardly worth mentioning) I think we could very realistically be to a point in five years where we see a majority of publishers producing “issues” of comics strictly digitally and then only large TPB-style collections of the work in print.
Which, for those of you keeping track at home, is exactly the model everyone told me I was crazy for suggesting back in 2002 when I said that would be my approach with Nightmare World. [laughs]I think the next growing pain in this regard will be the anxiety publishers will have in regards to paying comic creators up front for work that will initially only appear in a digital format (as opposed to monthly-ish installments), but as (legally) downloading comics becomes the new “drug store spinner-rack” model I think these fears will be alleviated and publishers will find themselves becoming more profitable than ever since they won’t have the massive paper, printing and shipping costs to contend with in order to get their product out to the masses.
Again, though, the key will be finding that balance… but we’re well on our way there and it’s exciting to see it all unfolding month by month right before our eyes.
Now, all of that being said, I think that aspiring creators need to keep all this in mind regarding self-produced and published webcomics.
Thankfully, we’re no longer in the day and age where people are saying “All webcomics suck” and are instead asking “Where can the best webcomics be found.” That’s a huge shift in perception that creators need to take advantage of.
Webcomics is a lot like YouTube in the sense that there’s a lot of sub-par crap out there… but there’s also a lot of really great work being produced, too. The job of those people making webcomics that are of a truly professional level of quality is to use social media, word of mouth, and a consistent delivery model to get the word out as much as possible.
Sadly, getting “mainstream” attention for a webcomic is still very difficult, but if you produce good work and then reach out to people who will help you promote it, it is possible to get that work noticed and – dare I say it – even make money from it either on your own or through a publisher.
Nrama: If Dirk Manning has a final statement on his work and comics, what is it?Manning: I’m torn between “Thank you” and “The future is now.” Can I pick both? [laughs]
First off, I want to say “Thank you” to you and everyone else who has been so supportive of Nightmare World, TALES OF MR. RHEE, FARSEEKER, and my “Write or Wrong” column here at Newsarama.
I’m very open (and perhaps sometimes even a little too overdramatic) about how I came-up from nothing to the point where I am now a successful comic creator who has worked with over two-dozen artists from around the world to create a trilogy of graphic novels from Image Comics/Shadowline, as well as two other online exclusive (for the time being) comic series at Shadowline and ACT-I-VATE respectively, and a “how-to” column with a devoted and vocal following.
It’s very awe-inspiring and humbling for me to look back at where I started a decade ago to see where I am now… as well as what the future may hold. I know I did the bulk of the heavy lifting myself in terms of getting to this point, but I also know how instrumental the support of a lot of other very talented and equally dedicated – or at least gracious – professionals and friends. So, to all of you who helped me get there – including all of you reading this very article: THANK YOU.
That being said, and perhaps more importantly, I’d like to close this series of interviews out by saying “THE FUTURE IS NOW.”
We’re living an age where fully-realized comic books can be brought to our hand-held computer devices with nothing more than a touch of the screen! Think about that for a moment! Think about how amazing that is!
Again, I know I’m dating myself a bit here, but back when I started my comic career with Nightmare World in 2002 most people were still using dial-up modems to connect to the Internet and the only way an aspiring/up-and-coming creator could create their own comic at an even remotely attainable cost was by making black-and-white copies at Kinko’s by hand.
That concept now seems to archaic that I’m sure a lot of people reading this article will find it hard to believe.
The future is now, folks… especially in regards to your ability to make your own comics.
Your fate as a potential comic creator (if that’s what you want to do) is in your own hands now more than ever – especially if you’re willing to work hard, be nice (even to people that don’t return the favor), and never settle on staying where you’re at.
There may be thousands of people out there telling you to stop… or that you’ll fail… or whatever… but we’re to a point where the only limitations you have in front of you in terms of creating comics – or any genre of art, really – are the ones you make for yourself.
Go forward. Create. Be bold. Support the people you believe in or like and they’ll do the same for you.
We’re really in a new golden age in terms of comics and comic diversity, and as the medium continues to grow and evolve at such an unprecedented rate I think it’s crucial that we not only take the time to enjoy it, but also continue to help it reach its full evolutionary potential as readers, consumers and creators.
In regards to the comic industry and the comics medium, the future is now. There’s really nothing else I can say at this point besides that.