When writer Zac Thompson was nine years old, his father suffered a massive stroke that changed the course of his and his family's lives going forward. Now as an adult, the Age of X-Man: Marvelous X-Men co-writer is using comic books as a way to process that incident and what followed.
Scheduled to be published April 24 by AfterShock Comics, The Replacer OGN by Thompson and artist Arjuna Susini is the story of a young boy who believes his father has become possessed by a demon - and has covered it up under the pretenses of having a stroke.
Thompson spoke with Newsarama about turning his real life into fiction, how his family has reacted to this fictionalized version of their story, and just how this is also just a good, old-fashioned horror story.
Newsarama: Zac, the synopsis for The Replacer is quite heart-wrenching and touches on some personal experiences of my own. I have to ask - how much of this story is personal to you?
Zac Thompson: The entire story is personal to me. I’ve struggled with how to cope with my father’s stroke my entire life. I wanted to create a book about how a person copes with a tragedy at a young age.
In 1995, when I was seven my dad came home after suffering a massive stroke just like Marcus' dad. It's something that changed my entire worldview, and something that haunted me for a very long time. Through Marcus' eyes, we see a version of my story. Marcus struggles to make sense of this new world with horror movies, Christianity, and demonology. But in the end, he's left with his own demons.
So much of my experience growing up is left on the page here. I really didn’t want to mask any of the ugly details or feelings I had as I was growing up. So while The Replacer features an entirely fictional family, there’s my truth on every page.
Nrama: What led you to be able to adapt - and fictionalize - this story for a comic book?
Thompson: It took a lot of time. This was a story I wanted to tell for a very long time but I didn’t know what form it was going to take. My father’s stroke has coloured my entire life and it’s taken time for me to even make sense of it for myself. A few years ago, I wrote a giant piece for Vice about my relationship to my father. It started opening doors in my mind about how I felt, and how I made sense of this event in my life. I felt naked when that piece went online, sick to my stomach, and a little bit of regret. In the ensuing days and months, I found so many people reaching out with support for my struggle. The article got at something raw that I guess many people out there were feeling.
It was astonishing to me that so many people saw their experience in my own. So I immediately knew that I had to tell a fictionalized version of this. Comics were a medium I kept coming back to throughout my childhood, they helped me make sense of the world when nothing else made sense. I wanted to create a piece of fiction that would scare people but also help them understand just how much you can lose yourself when tragedy befalls someone in your family. The comic is meant to be a lifeline to those who are lost in the middle of something similar right now or a path to more empathetic understanding of those you may know who are silently struggling to cope with a new disability in their family.
Nrama: Have you had any formative conversations with your family about The Replacer?
Thompson: It’s interesting because conversations about my father’s stroke are something that happen daily.
It’s not really something we can ever escape, so in keeping with that, there’s no real big conversation I can point to about the experience where we all exposed our true feelings. Instead, there’s many commonalities we’ve all experienced out in the world that made it into the book. A few scenes in particular that were frustrations we’ve all shared with how people perceive events like this from the outside.
I wish I could say that there was this big moment where everyone in the family sat down and talked about their feelings and we sorted everything out. But, even later in life, this has affected everyone in such different ways that it’s hard to revisit. We’ve all had to make peace with it on our own terms, and this is my way of doing it.
Nrama: And doing this, you've got Arjuna Susini drawing it. How'd you know Arjuna was the right one for this?
Thompson: I knew Arjuna had a really good knack for horror. We had some formative conversations at the beginning of the process in which I explained how tight and claustrophobic I wanted the book to be. Because most of the book takes place in one location with only four characters we spent a lot of time developing that house, and the characters that would populate it. As we built the world together, Arjuna really helped create a vibrant space for these characters to live in.
When it came to the horror moments in the book, Arjuna was phenomenal in using the space to create horror. Moreover, his design of the title creature was mind-blowing from the get-go. We worked out all the intricacies of the monster’s body and how it worked and the lore behind it. By the time he sat down to draw page one, we already knew everything that would go into building the atmosphere and ramping up the tension on every page.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dee Cunniffe who does the colors on the book. Dee’s work only added to Arjuna’s incredible lines. He populated the home with colors that looked ripped from the ’90s and designed all kinds of fun wallpaper and little flourishes to make this feel like your childhood home. He and Arjuna work brilliantly together.
Nrama: Let's get past the based-on-a-true-story elements of this, and get into a dad potentially being replaced by a demon. How long have you had an interest in stories about possession?
Thompson: I think my entire life. I watched The Exorcist at a very young age. That movie imprinted on my brain as this insane experience of just how much a person can lose themselves to a thing. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It caused me to seek out movies like The Evil Dead, The Shining, along with the many Exorcist sequels. I lived close to a movie rental store and would bike there on the weekends, renting whatever horror movies I could with my allowance.
Possession stories allow us to explore just how much of us we can lose. Our bodies remain while our minds can be erased, go elsewhere or become something new entirely. If the possession goes on long enough it can take a toll on our bodies too. It’s no secret that I love body horror and the distinction between the mind and body in horror. I’ve always been drawn to films and stories that localize the horror within the protagonist. It’s an interesting way to take everything that someone fears and put somewhere they can’t run from.
In many ways, the possession metaphor was the only one that worked for exploring my father’s stroke because one day I had a perfectly able father, and the next I had a man in a wheelchair that couldn’t speak. Nothing about that felt right when I was seven years old.
Nrama: How would you describe the Beharrell family in this?
Thompson: The Beharrell family in the essence of strength. It’s a group of people who used to be a family but had to spread apart and heal in different ways after a tragedy. There are all forging their own path, and all of them are growing up much faster than they intended. In the face of something so insane, you can do nothing but change. All of their comfort, and complacency has been replaced with a sense of unease, a sense of guilt, and anger. It’ll take everything they have to keep it together.
Nrama: The father - just how much has he changed? And was there an inciting incident?
Thompson: The father in the story, he’s suffered a massive stroke. He’s paralyzed on the entire right side of his body and has lost the ability to talk, write, walk, and think clearly. He is still fundamentally the same man as he was before his stroke but his mental and physical capacities have changed. It was paramount to me that in reading The Replacer you also got a very clear picture of what happens to a person when they suffer a massive stroke. The things I’ve mentioned above, you’ll see in the pages of the OGN. It was important that the father wasn’t just this faceless plot device, but a real human being who’s struggling in his own way. A way that no one else can truly understand but a way that affects everyone around him.
Nrama: Before we wrap up, what are your big goals with The Replacer?
Thompson: I want to scare people into considering just how much you can lose yourself to tragedy. That if you experience something like this in your life, that you will be okay. Feelings of anger, resentment, and confusion are normal. The Replacer about creating a lifeline between people who might be silently struggling with disability and those who see it from the outside. I hope that when people read this, it helps them approach people with disabilities with more empathy, patience, and understanding.