Joe Hill, the famed horror writer and architect behind DC’s Hill House Comics group of titles, is teaming up with acclaimed artist Stuart Immonen and colorist Dave Stewart for the new Arctic-based thriller Plunge.
Launching in February 19, Plunge is being described by DC as “equal parts John Carpenter’s The Thing and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu.” The series also represents a return of sorts for Immonen, who wowed critics with his last major DC work, Superman: Secret Identity.
The story kicks off when a mysterious ship that disappeared 40 years ago has suddenly re-appeared in an isolated part of the Arctic. When a salvage ship goes to retrieve it, they discover that the crew hasn’t aged, although they’ve been stripped of their humanity.
Newsarama talked to Hill and Immonen to find out more about Plunge.
Newsarama: Stuart, it’s great to see you doing this type of book. How did you find out about the chance to work with Joe Hill on a horror story for the Hill House Comics group of titles, and what did you think of the idea?
Stuart Immonen: I found out when editor Mark Doyle called to ask if I was interested. Mark knew I was looking for a boutique project, and also knew better than to believe - to misquote Mark Twain - greatly exaggerated internet rumours about my retirement. The pitch immediately ticked a lot of boxes for me; interesting characters, a weird environment, monsters, all good stuff.
Nrama: Joe, I’ve seen you talk before about how this was inspired by horror films of the past, although it’s set in the present. Can you expand upon that influence?
Joe Hill: You know, when I wrote my first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, that’s a book about a heavy metal musician in his late-50s/early-60s who’s on the run from a threatening ghost. And in my mind, it was always a John Carpenter movie starring Kurt Russell. You know? One of these John Carpenter films from the ‘80s, like The Thing or They Live or any of the terrific Carpenter films from that era.
In some ways, I feel like I’m always kind of making movies from the ‘80s that I wish had come out. You know? Like, all my stories in my books and comics are always kind of like, here’s me doing Steven Spielberg from the ‘80s!
In some ways, this is definitely a story that kind of tips a hat to The Thing - to his remake of The Thing, which was so great. It’s arctic horror, and there’s a certain amount of body gore here as well.
At the same time, I don’t want to just regurgitate a few elements from someone else - from a film that came out years ago.
So you look for things that you can do that are fresh and new and that explore new ideas with that material. Hopefully, I’ve been able to do that here.
Immonen: Well, in the sense that the cast could have walked off a John Carpenter / Steven Spielberg / David Cronenberg set, and that the setting and conflict are deeply rooted in the genre - all the hallmarks are there.
Nrama: Did you use any art tactics, Stuart, to achieve any type of ‘80s feel?
Immonen: Actually, I didn't particularly. I'm sure a cleverer artist could have figured out how to create that vintage film look, but it was more relevant to me to draw inspiration from other horror comics, particularly the glory days of Vertigo, but also digging into [Bernie] Krigstein, [Alberto] Breccia and [Katsuhiro] Otomo, among others.
There's a lot of texture and heavy black in the line art, and perhaps more grit than people who are familiar with my recent work may be used to. Colorist Dave Stewart without doubt creates the final mood.
Nrama: Joe, you mentioned your novels, like Heart-Shaped Box, and I’m wondering how you choose what you want to bring to comic books, or to a sequential story, as opposed to one of your novels. I know a lot of your chapters in your novels tend to end on cliffhangers.
Nrama: So you have this natural cliffhanger thing in your novels anyway. But I’m wondering how you choose one or the other? Or is it just that any story works with either medium?
Hill: I have a lot more fun writing comics and I find them a lot easier. It’s my natural form. In a lot of ways, writing a novel is like composing classical music for an orchestra, and writing a comic is like being in a four- or five-man garage band.
That doesn’t really answer your question, but I have a lot of joy doing comics, and I come to them very naturally. So I’m always looking for an excuse to do more.
Locke & Key started as a comic book pitch. I’ve been asked over the years why I never did that one as a novel, but it was just never a novel in my mind. I always saw it, from the very first inception of that idea, I was always seeing it as a story that would be presented sequentially, as a comic book.
And I kind of feel the same way here. I look for a really strong visual hook, so you want to find something that will be graphically interesting.
And I guess I look for a story that has a strong element of kinetic action, because I think comic book readers want to see more than they want to read.
You can do almost any kind of story with comic books - you can expand it and take chances with it to do almost any story. But I do think a highly interior story - you know, a story that’s really about someone battling psychological demons as opposed to physical demons - is a little harder to render and is a little more natural to do as prose fiction, as opposed to a comic book.
So that’s another thing. If there’s a really strong interior element - you know, if that’s the most powerful element… if the challenges the hero faces are mostly interior challenges, then I would be more hesitant to tackle it as a comic book.
Nrama: What would you say is the visual hook of Plunge?
Hill: So the plot of Plunge is, you’ve got a salvage vessel that’s gone out to recover a boat that’s been missing for 40 years that, following a tsunami, has abruptly turned up in the shallows off an abandoned atoll in the Arctic in Russian Federation waters.
When the salvage team arrives, they discover that the crew is all inexplicably still alive and none of them have aged, and they’ve all been infected with something that destroyed their eyes.
Nrama: Ah, the visual hook.
Hill: Yeah, you’re just looking at these desiccated men with empty eye sockets.
They’ve lost their sight, but they compensate with some other abilities.
And soon, the salvage crew finds themselves lost in a desperate struggle with these men who are no longer men.
And it’s got a little bit of The Thing in it. It’s got a little bit of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And hopefully, it’s got more than a pinch of its own completely unique thing.
Nrama: What was it about the Arctic that you thought made sense with this story? Is it because it’s unexplored? Or it’s harsh? Or because it isolates them?
Hill: It’s isolated. Yeah.
You know, cell phones just about killed the modern thriller. Right?
Cell phones are a big problem, or modern connectivity, because it used to be that you could trap someone in an isolated farm and have them fight off a family that’s running around with chainsaws and wearing masks of human skin. And everyone had a great time.
Now, though, anyone would just pull out their cell phone and call for help.
Cell phones have also played hell with mystery writers. Now, you can do electronic forensics and track everyone by their cell phone. So if you want to know if someone was at the scene of the crime, it’s not that hard. Just grab their iPhone and put someone to work on it.
So one of the advantages of sending people to the very end of the Earth is that there’s no cell phone tower out there, and the closest help is a long way off and may not even come to help you out because you’re not in international waters. You’re in a foreign country where you don’t belong.
So the idea of isolating my heroes so far from any help and forcing them to depend on their own resourcefulness to survive — that’s a powerful set-up.
Nrama: Stuart, how did the isolated setting inform the visuals?
Immonen: The characters find themselves in a series of harsh environments, sometimes at sea, sometimes on land. Hopefully, Dave and I bring a sense of that unforgiving quality to the art with lighting, POV angles and grungy textures.
Like all good horror, the action in Plunge primarily takes place in confined spaces; in the hull of a ship, underwater, in a tangle of boreal underbrush.
Hill: Yeah, caves, narrow quarters and boats - after the boats have lost power. That kind fo thing. Yeah, there are a lot of claustrophobic spaces.
Immonen: So while the wilderness is a factor, it's not the primary driver of the visual approach. If anything, I'd say the perceived isolation of the place plays more of a role.
Nrama: What challenges did you face when creating the illustrations for this story? Or any stories you can share about how you met those challenges?
Immonen: In a stroke of synchronicity, I'd spent the last year exploring Vancouver Island, taking lots of photos of the sometimes rugged terrain, the weather, and boats - lots and lots of boats. Some of that inspired the look of Grass Of Parnassus, the Instagram comic Kathryn [Immonen] and I cooked up, but ultimately manifested in a totally different way than Plunge.
The challenges have mostly been technical, as they are on all projects; problem-solving the details of how to move the story forward effectively, or how to depict just the right expression to match the dialogue and character. Luckily, Joe's instincts and my own have dovetailed nicely; without expressly conferring, we seem to naturally agree on critical matters of pacing and action/reaction.
Nrama: Joe, how would you describe what Stuart brought to the story visually?
Hill: Every day a new page comes in, I’m just completely blown away.
Good horror works by making us care about our characters. If you don’t care about your lead, you’ll never really feel any anxiety when they’re threatened. For suspense to work, you have to be invested.
Stuart has such an incredible command over facial expressions and body language. His characters are so vivid and real - they pop right off the page. His landscapes are almost photographic, they’re so vivid and intensely imagined.
He is pretty OCD about details, which is a perfect match for me, because I am too.
And fine details also work to make horror more effective, because they persuade you of the authenticity of what you’re seeing.
And you know, the other thing is that his art is so realistic, so naturalistic, that when you do see something not of this Earth, you buy into it and it’s a real shock. You know, it’s a bucket of cold water on you.
Nrama: Stuart, how was it working with Joe?
Immonen: I can affirm that Joe's a scholar and a gentleman. He clearly loves the research angle (dear to my own heart) and is generous with the script, giving neither too much nor too little description and letting me do the thing I'm good at.
Joe's also generous with his time; he takes the role of line curator seriously and is dealing with the demands of several other titles, but always takes the time to answer my dumb questions or praise the creative team.
It's also been great to work with the legendary Dave Stewart, and with letterer Deron Bennett, who has been perfoming Herculean labors, balancing clarity, style and precision.
Nrama: Then to finish up, is there anything else you want to tell readers who are considering picking up Plunge #1?
Hill: Well, you hope people get curious enough to try the first issue, and then after about five pages, it’s on us. You know? You’ve got maybe five or six pages to make people care and to get the engine running.
And then, you want to - as best as you can - you want to keep the lead characters in so much trouble that the readers can’t look away.
You were talking about chapters that end on cliffhangers, and you never met a more insecure writer than me. I’m always afraid that the reader will find something else to do. We live in such a distracted era, and there’s so much other entertainment out there.
And the only thing I really place my faith in is suspense - finding a great, fresh character, not a stock type, but someone with unique ideas about the world and a sense of humor and great interior life; and then you get them running from the men with the chainsaws.
Hopefully, that will keep readers engaged. You hope the situation will be powerful enough to keep readers turning the page.
Nrama: Stuart, anything to add to readers who check out Plunge? Anything you hope they take away from the story?
Immonen: I hope they're entertained! I hope they cheer the heroes and recoil from the villains and squirm at the grisly bits.