Taking a Ride on 'North 40' with Aaron Williams

Talking with Artist Fiona Staples

North 40 #2, due in August from Wildstorm

Have you ever found yourself driving on a long road-trip, passing through some very rural and bucolic surroundings, and happen into a rather strange little town along the way. One of those “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of towns, that is both provincial and perplexing. That’s the kind of town you’re coming into with Wildstorm’s upcoming miniseries North 40.

Scheduled to debut this July, North 40 is about a little piece of Midwestern America called Conover County. It is a place of simple folk and small-town dreams… well, it was until an ancient spell book is uncovered and unleashed, giving the county residents a variety of supernatural powers. It affects everyone – form the town sheriff, to the local mechanic, and the two teenagers who unearthed the tome to begin with. The small town becomes a busy center of monsters, magic and nightmares.

The series is created by writer Aaron Williams and artist Fiona Staples. Williams is best known for a different kind of comic – the comedic ps238 and The Nodwick Chronicles -- but this series finds him covering new territory… one that is surprisingly familiar to him. For more, we talked to Williams by email.

Newsarama: Thanks for talking to us, Aaron. How would you describe North 40?

Aaron Williams: I have to say I liked Diamond's description of it as "Mayberry collides with Mordor." But North 40 owes much more to the mind of H.P. Lovecraft. A spellbook accidentally found by two teenagers. Their opening of the tome opens the town up to forces that aren’t friendly to humanity, and many of the county’s residents become monsters themselves. The whole event is contained within the county borders, for reasons that are eventually revealed, but those inside are trapped with or trapped as creatures from nightmare.

NRAMA: It seems that Sheriff Morgan plays a central role in this – can you tell us about the Sheriff?

AW: He’s one of those fixtures of a community “what’s been ‘round pretty much forever.” He manages to keep things from getting out of hand by knowing how to talk to (and in some cases, manipulate) people, whether they’re from the city or from the sticks. He’s a moral compass for the story, but he’s also been around long enough to realize when you might have to bend the rules quite a bit to keep one bunch of people from causing trouble for everyone else.

NRAMA: Who else stands tall in the miniseries?

AW: The characters who walk different “paths of the hero” in this story are Wyatt and Amanda. Wyatt is one of those young adults caught between two worlds, in so far as he’s too smart to be accepted by his rural peers, but he’s got too much of the hayseed in him for the “townies” in nearby Lufton to see him as anything more than another dumb hick. After the supernatural changes to Conover County get started, Wyatt finds himself in a position where he has to decide if he’s now responsible to aid everyone who looked down on him before.

Amanda is also someone who isn’t accepted by two groups. Her parentage places her between two racial identities, and she finds she’s accepted by neither. But the author of the spellbook that creates the world of North 40 sees some apprentice potential in Amanda, and Amanda sees a chance to wield real power.

Both of these characters have mentors in the story, people who have had similar “outsider” experiences and come to terms with them. These mentors also have a history together, which makes the whole thing even more interesting.

North 40 #1, due in July

NRAMA: What are they up against? Is there some big evil out there, or how does the tension work?

AW: We never come out and say “C’thulhu,” but suffice it to say that something big, hungry, and hostile to pretty much all life on Earth is leaking into our world. The initial events and transformation of the citizenry is just a ripple from the creation of this fissure into darkness. Even with this potential doom on its way, the heroes of this story still have to contend with all of the problems, clan rivalries, and tensions that existed in Conover County before, except that now some of those problems can toss farm equipment around (some without using their hands) or they’ve discovered that their dietary requirements now include people.

This is also taking place in an area cut off from the outside world. Though we only cover the first weekend, there’s no help coming from outside authorities, making the job of keeping all-out chaos from bubbling up that much harder.

NRAMA: How does Conover County and it’s unusual situation fit in with the outside world?

AW: Let’s just say that Conover County, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t exist to most of the rest of the world anymore. We hint at what that entails towards the end (as there are people out there who notice this kind of thing), but if you were driving through the area, “blink and you’ll miss it” takes on a whole new meaning.

NRAMA: This is about a Midwest town gone Clthulu. Speaking to knowledge about the Midwest – is it stereotypical, or do you have some insider knowledge or perhaps be from that area?

AW: I grew up in a town of about ten to fifteen thousand people, and I saw a rather large mixture of people and classes while growing up. We had FFA members, kids of college-educated professionals, the rich, the poor, the gangster wanna-bes, and people from many different races. Being a small town, the dynamics between these groups were pretty stark (there were quite a few areas of town that you lived in if you were of a certain race/class), and all that plays into what I wrote for North 40.

I want to assure everyone that I’m not poking fun at people who own pickup trucks and live near barbed-wire fences or trailers. I do hope to bring some of that small town and rural area mindset to the page (the importance of blood ties, distrust of “the other,” a love of law and order but a dislike of authority, etc.) in a way that neither sings its praises or highlights its flaws; I’m just taking some of the perceptions and observations from my past and throwing a huge, tentacled monster at it and seeing what happens.

NRAMA: So where did this spellbook come from – and will we see the person responsible for it?

from North 40 #1

AW: The spellbook arrived in Conover County almost a century and a half ago. The author/owner of the book had a falling out with the people, and she retreated into hiding, but didn’t leave. Later, a scholar dug up the legends about her, found out where she’d been all these years, and managed to take it to a nearby university, where it eventually was opened and “activated.”

We do meet the author, as she’s pretty much the only one who knows what’s going on, and what is to come… aside from those who caused the whole mess, but they’re busy with their own goals most of the time.

NRAMA: Is this an ongoing or a miniseries?

AW: At the moment, it’s just a miniseries. The story is wide open to continue, and some of the elements that would appear in further installments are set up in the initial six issues. If my editors think more is warranted, I’m ready to deliver the goods!

NRAMA: You’re working with artist Fiona Staples. How would you describe the collaboration?

AW: Amazing, fantastic, and beyond my wildest dreams. She’s got a real gift, especially for the creatures that show up a few issues in called “Junk Bots,” which I fell in love with the second I saw them. Fiona brought a distinctive look and style to the comic that I couldn’t have known how to ask for, and its been great to see her art and think, “man, that’s even better than what I was thinking of!”

Fiona has told me how much she enjoys these characters, and it shows. I was told around issue #4 that if I ever thought of killing off the Sheriff, I’d be in deep, deep trouble. I couldn’t have asked for a better match for this work; without her talents, I don’t think it would be nearly as fun to read.

NRAMA: H.P. Lovecraft has been a muse for many a comics series – what do you think is it’s appeal, especially in comics form?

AW: For one, it’s public domain, which lends itself to mass production; the C’thulhu mythos just keeps growing and growing, from the monsters at the end of Hellboy to the Call of C’thulhu role-playing game. Having a shared mythology can also help cut down on having to re-introduce concepts to the reader, and, if it’s well-recieved, your work becomes part of the larger pantheon, enhancing the entire collective exploration of Lovecraftian world.

from North 40 #1

The mythos also speaks to the human condition, or at least, how a lot of us feel from time to time, that there are these huge, nasty things out there that, if they spot us and happen to feel like a snack, we’re done for. And what’s worse, nobody will believe us if we tell anyone about them (unless they’re being hunted, too, in which case they’re probably no help unless you can outrun them). Things only get worse if you try to figure out what these things are, as most of the people who learn how to use “magic” or how to hide from Lovecraftian monsters find the exposure to them is slowly driving them mad.

Then there’s the sheer gross-out factor: Tentacles are great, whether they’re dragging someone offstage, being blown up, or smashing a building. The alien-ness of the gods and creatures makes them seem somehow more plausible, especially as we look at fossils and new life-forms from the ocean depths. As long as National Geographic doesn’t find any sunken cities, we should be okay.

NRAMA:You’re best known for the series Nodwick and ps238 and their humor – what led you to do something such a departure from those as North 40?

AW: I’d had a taste of mainstream comic writing from being tapped to do an 11-page Spider-Man story in Spider-Man Unlimited #13. I expressed an interest in doing more of that kind of thing, and a friend of mine introduced me to Wildstorm editor Scott Peterson. I gave him a bunch of ps238 trades, and he liked my pacing, dialogue, and character development, and he suggested I throw some concepts his way.

I did pitch several ideas, but North 40was the one that they liked the best. I’m a big Stephen King fan, and what I liked about his stories was how he often took places he was familiar with (like small towns) and dropped something horrible on them. The monsters, while fun, weren’t the reason they were so good, in my opinion. What made them good was how “real” his characters seemed, and that made you care that an otherwise ludicrous creature was about to eat them.

Fans of The Dark Tower might also catch a hint of King’s “territory-speak” in the Sheriff’s occasional turns of phrase. There’s just something about that combination of Wild West meets colonial Boston meets down-to-Earth farm wisdom…

And I do know that this is a big genre-shift from my other work. I’ve always done “family friendly,” and I do enjoy it. Some might even say I’ve done “worse” in ps238 when I had a young boy’s parents announce they were getting a divorce, which can be more discomforting than a five-eyed monster coming through a young woman’s window. I hope that I’m not scaring anyone away with this new series, as I don’t find having to “keep things clean and light” that confining, really; I think it forces me to look at something that might be objectionable from different points of view, perhaps delivered with a punchline.

But I do have lots of other concepts ratting around in the ol’ noggin. What gets to the page depends on if I have the time and resources to publish it myself, or if I can convince an editor that it’ll make a good addition to their catalogue. In the meantime, ps238 will continue, and I promise that any Lovecraft influences seen there will be more of the “happy C’thulhu” rather than “hungry C’thulhu.”

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