Artist Peter Gross admits that he and frequent collaborator Mike Carey have a knack for creating “ordinary moments” with their characters - scenes that “really bring the characters alive” before they’re thrust into epic, fantastic situations.
For this week’s debut of The Dollhouse Family, the two will unite their talents again - this time working with artist Vince Locke on a story that’s decidedly horror as it’s included in DC’s new Hill House Comics line.
The Dollhouse Family kicks off when a little girl named Alice is given a dollhouse as a gift, one that allows her to shrink down and interact with its residents. But this dollhouse also has a link to a story from the 1800’s = as well as a mysterious power to grant Alice her wishes.
Following up on our discussion with Carey about The Dollhouse Family last month, Newsarama talked with Gross about working on a horror comic for the Hill House line, designing a story set in two time periods, and working again with his creative team from The Unwritten.
Newsarama: Peter, the last time we talked, you were working on The Unwritten. This is a reunion of sorts for that team, isn’t it?
Peter Gross: Yeah, we always have something in the works, it seems like.
Nrama: We talked to Mike about how you guys have incorporated horror elements into past projects, but this is a full-on horror story. Does that make the visuals a little different for this project?
Gross: Yeah, I haven’t done a lot of straight horror stuff before, although there are those elements in it.
I guess in some ways, it’s not that different. Mike always has deep psychological themes in his stories, which is what really attracts me to his stuff. There are always different levels to them, whether it’s fantasy or horror or something else. That’s what appeals to me, and it’s probably what makes me good at it.
Nrama: How would you describe the visuals of The Dollhouse Family?
Gross: Well, a lot of it was dependent on the finisher. We knew we were going to have a finisher, which is something we did quite a bit in Unwritten. I really like working that way, because it’s my storytelling, and then we get to put a separate skin on it. And sometimes it’s very different looking than my stuff.
With this, we really wanted that skin to be the thing that people see, which is why we were really big on getting Vince Locke to work on it, because that’s the look that identifies this world.
Nrama: Why did you think Vince’s work would fit with this story?
Gross: Well, there’s a story that goes on in the 1800’s, and then a story set in the present. And they’re connected. And we wanted someone that could do both of those things.
Vince is also such a great horror artist. He adds that extra element of texture and grit and a great feel to the whole thing.
Nrama: So he’s working over your layouts and pencils?
Gross: Yeah. I’ve had some hand trouble the last couple of years. So I’m not fast enough to do the monthly book right now. And so we knew, going in, there would be a finisher.
So sometimes I do super-tight penciled pages, but I’ve worked with Vince on Unwritten quite a bit. And then sometimes, when I know it’s going to be “Vince style” inking that we want, I can go really loose and let him just go to town on it.
I don’t think I’m the best at drawing monstrous horror moments. I can put the pieces in, but I love giving it to Vince, knowing that he’s going to really take it to the next level.
I mean, I think everything he does looks like horror, even when he’s not trying to.
Nrama: The story, as you said, jumps around in time a little. But at the center of the plot is a girl named Alice. So you have to not only juxtapose the time periods, but the real world with the strange animated dolls of the Dollhouse. How did you establish Alice and her family against this background?
Gross: Yeah, it’s this lower middle class family, and we just wanted to really bring her alive, so as she gets into this world of the Dollhouse, you have that contrast between what feels like a very real world and this growing sense of horror as it kind of engulfs her.
It’s also over time - you know, it’s not just a story of a week in her life. It’s years and years of her life. And I think building that reality of it was important. So much of a story is mundane things, and I think I’m good at those, for some reason. I’m good at making those interesting.
I had a painting teacher in college, and I had done a still life of potatoes and some portraits of a model. And he told me I painted the potatoes like they were beautiful women and I painted beautiful women like they were potatoes.
That always stuck with me because it’s like the story of my career. I can elevate the normal stuff, and I think that’s why Mike and I work so well together.
Nrama: Well, the fantastic feels even more fantastic when there’s a recognizable human element to it.
Gross: Yeah, I totally agree with that. That’s a consistent attribute of everything Mike and I seem to do. You have those very ordinary moments, and they just really bring the characters alive and make you feel for them. And then when you bring on the big moments, it creates more of an epic feel and real sense of importance to what’s going on.
Nrama: Do you want to describe some of the characters you’re getting to draw, and the settings? Especially in this historical time period. We touched upon Alice…
Gross: Yeah, the main character is Alice, and when we first meet her, she is a young girl. It’s really the story of her and her dysfunctional family in the more modern part of the story.
Then in the story set in the 1800’s, there’s a character named Joseph Kent who’s a surveyor and a minor aristocrat in Ireland.
Over the course of the six issues, those stories will merge together a little bit.
So I had to do a lot of research - you know, into the clothing of that period and the homes of the 1800’s and the surrounding environments.
And even with the Alice story, having to create that environment and that sense of life, and getting the settings right - with Mike pointing out what I did totally wrong, of course.
Nrama: This is part of the Hill House Comics line. What do you think of DC having this horror line?
Gross: I’ve only read Basketful of Heads, which I liked a lot. And I’ve seen bits and pieces of the other things. But mostly, I’m just dealing with our little corner of things.
But having a line of horror comics at DC is exciting because it has a lot of the feel of early Vertigo, in just the energy that people are bringing to it, and there’s an excitement about doing something.
It’s not that there hasn’t been horror comics before, but things are always getting re-invented. And now, this appears to be going through another re-invention. I love being on board at the beginning of something like this and seeing that energy.