Dirk Manning's NIGHTMARE Continues With Volume 2 Anthology

Halloween’s only a few days away, and comics offers a variety of morsels good for any horror fan young or old. Although the impending debut of the TV adaptation of The Walking Dead is bound to have many of us glued to our sets for an hour, there’s still twenty-three hours to account for on Halloween. How about some horror comics?

Today we turn the tables on long-time Newsarama columnist Dirk Manning and ask him the questions about his recently released second volume of the horror series Nightmare World. This new collection, subtitled Leave The Light On, continues in Manning’s unfolding story of the plot of Lucifer to take over the world by unleashing some Clthulhuian horror. The book, told through a series of stand-alone short stories, builds the over-arching story while providing standalone stories akin to classic tales from The Twilight Zone. Originally published as a webcomic, Nightmare World debuted in print last year and this new collection shows readers must like and and be hungry for more.

Newsarama: From what I read, I see ties of Christianity and Cthulhuism with Lucifer and Cthulu present. Can you tell us about this world and how they co-exist?

Dirk Manning: Yeah… I pull in a bits from Christianity, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and even ancient folklore into Nightmare World in a pretty seamless fashion because there are bits in all of those different belief systems that are fun to explore… but concerning how they all blend together, it really boils down to one simple premise: “What Would Lucifer Do?”

As portrayed in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lucifer is (as far as I’m concerned) one of the most fascinating characters in literature. Due to his hubris he tried to take control of Heaven (and, by proxy, Earth), lost, and was pimp-smacked into the center of the Earth for trying… and there he’s sat, ever since, burning with a white-hot rage and planning his revenge.

As I was developing Nightmare World I thought to myself, “If I was Lucifer, banished to Hell, what would I do if I really wanted to get back at God?” … and the answer came to me instantly: “I’d take control of that which he holds most dear: Earth.”

Of course he already tried this and failed, though, so I then had to ask myself: “OK… so if I’m Lucifer and my first attempted coup failed, how could I make sure that this time I’m guaranteed success? How could I, from the center of the Earth, find a way to definitively beat God?”

And again, the answer that immediately sprang to my mind was: “I’d get a mortal to summon Cthulhu, hence forcing God and the Angels to kick-start the Armageddon/Rapture ahead of schedule, hence leaving what was left of Earth in my control.”

To me it just seemed like the most obvious way to go about things. [laughs]

From there all of the other pieces from other mythologies just started falling into place. I mean, if I was already combining Christianity and Lovecraft, why stop there? The next thing I knew I was writing Lucifer’s grand scheme in which Lilith (the first wife of Adam and the mother of all demons), the fairy folk and some other random players – human and otherwise – are all pulled into Lucifer’s grand plan to kick-start the Armageddon and take control of Creation.

And that’s the underlying story of Nightmare World, right there. Sure, at first it starts off reading like an anthology of seemingly unrelated and stand-alone short stories – by design, mind you – but as more and more of the stories are read (either online or in the first two print collections) you’ll start to see that big story unfold as Lucifer starts using various people and creatures as pieces on a giant chessboard in a game against God.

Nrama: Can you pick out one of the 13 stories in this new volume and tell us about it in depth?

Manning: Yeesh… you’re putting me on the spot. [laughs]

One of the fun things about a series like Nightmare World is that each story is so different from the next (again, by design) and that as a result everyone has different favorites… but I guess out of the thirteen stories in Volume Two (not including the bonus prose story at the end of it) I’ll pick “Sleep Now in the Fire,” since it not only ties to the “overarching story” I mentioned above, but also one that I have especially strong emotional ties to, given that it was heavily influenced by the death of my own child.

“Sleep Now in the Fire” is the story of Tammy, a woman who became pregnant after a whirlwind one-night stand. We join her, and her reverend friend Sandra, after the baby has been born only for Tammy to reveal to Sandra that believes the child’s father was none other than the Devil himself, at which time she cites several arcane and horrible things that – in her mind – prove her suspicions correct. Sandra, who Tammy has turned to for help, doesn’t believe her and chalks up her suspicions to a combination of coincidence and port-partum depression… and therein lies the tale. Is Tammy correct, or Sandra? Mind you, I’m sure a lot of people reading this are thinking, “Well duh, Dirk! This is a horror series and you’ve already said that Lucifer is a big player throughout the series, so of course the baby is the son of the Devil!”<

Well, even if that’s true – which it may or may not be – it’s not really the point of the story. Here’s this woman, Tammy, who is turning to her friend – a reverend, mind you – begging for help with a very serious (and potentially religious) problem… only for that friend not to believe that it’s all that serious of a problem, let alone a religious one, for that matter. It all stems back to that old joke about how if you talk to God, you’re praying… but if God talks to you, you’re crazy, you know? [laughs]

Aside from perhaps the most obvious reason mentioned above, the story especially resonates with me because of a very emotional exchange at the climax of the story when Tammy breaks-down and falls to her knees and pleads with Sandra “I CAME TO YOU FOR HELP! Please… help me…” What comes next is just devastating… and that, in my opinion, is what good horror should really be about: A sense of hopelessness and dread that is genuinely terrifying. Good horror is not about monsters and blood and murder. Rather, it’s about people desperately trying to pull themselves out of the abyss they suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves sliding into. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t… and within that struggle comes the suspense and “horror” that separates monster stories and murder stories from genuine “horror” stories. How far will you go to save your life? How do you survive against circumstances that cannot – or at least should not – exist in the sane and rational world that you were lead to believe you lived in? That’s the basis of true horror… a horror that, when written about and brought to life with great art and explored through comics like Nightmare World or Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s amazing The Walking Dead… will resonate for a long time with anyone who reads them.

And hey, if you’re making a horror comic, that’s really the point, isn’t it? [laughs]

Nrama: The subtitle to this new volume is ‘Leave The Light On’; how’d that come to you as a subtitle for this specific collection of stories?

Manning: I really wanted to explore a different theme with each TPB collection, much as the speculative fiction short-story genius Harlan Ellison does with each of his own short collections, and I wanted a subtitle that would really – if you’ll pardon the pun – illuminate that theme.

If you’ll allow me to backtrack for just a moment, we chose “13 Tales of Terror” as the subtitle for Volume One last year because that’s really what it was: Thirteen seemingly random and unconnected terrifying stand-alone short stories selected from the 52 story catalog that makes-up the entirety of Nightmare WOrld. Basically, Volume One was a primer for the series as a whole. With Volume Two, however, there’s more of a theme present throughout the whole collection. Many of the stories in this collection deal with couples and lovers – many of whom are doomed by that same impending “horror” that I spoke about a moment ago – and as I thought about this an image came to my mind of how forlorn lovers across the world leave a candle burning in the window for those that they’re waiting to return home… and once I had that vision in my mind I couldn’t select any title for this collection other than “Leave the Light On.”

Of course, most of us are under misguided belief that bad things – however they may be defined by the people afraid of them – can’t or won’t happen in the light, either… so there’s that aspect to it, too.

Nrama: Although NIGHTMARE WORLD is telling a broad story, you do it via a series of standalone short story tales – like episodes in a TV series. Can you talk about this format and why you went this route, and any positives and negatives you learned from doing the format for so long?

Manning: First and foremost I chose this route because I love short stories and saw – especially when I started publishing this series online several years ago – that short stories were becoming a forgotten art-form in regards to comics.  When I started Nightmare World short stories in comics were becoming ghettoized due to the fact they were being used primarily for “filler content” and/or “throw-away concepts” that didn’t merit the worth of a “full” 22-page story. As a creator I wanted to show – or perhaps “remind” – readers how much you could do with the short story format. That aside, there were also the practical implications for me as a young and at the time virtually unknown writer to use this format. Getting great artists to work with me on longer stories would have required a financial investment from me combined with a time-commitment from them that none of the parties involved had to spare. However, drawing eight-page stories was something a lot more manageable for all of the artists I wanted to work with, and more often that not the artists had so much fun getting to flex their muscles on these fun and creepy eight-page stories that they’d come back to draw more of them as their schedules permitted again and again. The short-story format allowed me to work with a virtual army of amazing artists over the years, many of whom I’m now lucky enough to call friends all these years later.

On a side note, it’s funny that you mention how Nightmare World is like a TV show, as when I first started the series I had all kinds of other aspiring creators dismiss the series as “a waste of my time” since, in their eyes, there was no way it could ever be made into, and I quote “a marketable TV show or movie.” My response was always the same: “Well, duh. That’s because I’m creating a comic, not a movie pitch.” However, now that the series has wrapped-up online I’ll admit that I can see potential for it being turned into a cool TV series, and if I ever got into a TV executive’s office I’d pitch it just like this: “Imagine a ‘horror anthology’ TV series a la The Twlight Zone wherein, over time, viewers discover that most of the stories are interconnected in a giant uber-plot by the Devil to take over the world… and make it a Nightmare World!”

Yeah… I know. I should probably just stick to making comics, eh? [laughs]

Nrama: Will you be throwing in any new features to the book for people who have already read the stories online?

Manning: Oh, absolutely. For the print collection we went back and “tweaked” (or in some cases completely re-mastered) the art in several of the stories in both collections to date. Additionally, each collection also contains a brand new in-continuity prose-story written by me with new illustrations – and these stories (and the accompanying illustrations) are only available in the TPB collections. Finally, each collection also has a gorgeous two-part wrap-around cover by renowned painter Kristen Perry, something else that, again, people can only get by buying the print collections. Given that the whole series is already out there online for people to check out for free, with the TPB collections we really wanted to give people “definitive” versions of the work for them to enjoy and proudly display on their bookshelves, coffee tables and/or bathroom sink counters, respectively.

Nrama: Can you tell us about the signing tour you’ll be doing with this book?

Manning: With the release of Nightmare World Vol. 2 I’m going to be appearing at several bookstores and comic stores alike in the Midwest, a trip book-ended by appearances at Detroit Fanfest on Halloween Weekend (where I’ll be appearing as a guest with the likes of Stan Lee and Jim Starlin!) and Mid-Ohio Con (where I’ll be signing autographs and kissing babies in the Creators Common).

Some of the signing locations – such as Borders in Toledo, Ohio and Packrat Comics just outside Columbus – are confirmed, but we’re still ironing out the logistics of a few more dates, so the best way for people to be kept in the loop on the signing tour – as well as my other future con appearances and such – would be to connect with me over at my Facebook site, as that’s where I’ll be posting details as events approach. I just encourage people to add a note stating who they are so I know they’re not spambots, though, as I try to run a clean and tidy ship over there. [laughs]

Nrama: You’re a familiar face to Newsarama, having written a how-to column here for writers. What do you think the biggest lesson you’ve learned with Nightmare World – taking it from a webcomic to now a second print collection?

Manning: Honestly, I’d say it’s probably say the biggest lesson I’ve learned is the importance of giving your work a long “shelf-life” via the Internet. For example, I’m always tickled to hear from new readers who have only recently discovered Nightmare World and fallen in love it with, but there’s also always that part of me that wonders “How have you only now discovered Nightmare World? I’ve been creating and pimping this series for eight years! WHAT AM I DOING WRONG?!?”

However, I then remember that I’m the guy who only started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time a few months ago (thanks, Netflix instant!)… so I guess it’s all a matter of perspective and letting people decide how they want to prioritize what they do for entertainment… and gosh darn it, if it’s only now that someone finally has the time to dedicate to checking out Nightmare World, well, thanks to the fact that I’ve kept the series archived online through both The Soul Geek Webcomics Hub and my own website, they can do that!

I know there are a lot of aspiring creators (and even major publishers, for that matter) who are resistant to the idea of releasing even portions of their work online for free, but to me it’s a matter of putting your money where your mouth is. I mean, hey, I’m so convinced that people who take the time to read Nightmare World online will like it enough to consider buying the enhanced print collections that I’ve put the whole series out there for people to read for free. Am I going to do that with everything I do forever? No… I won’t. However, because of the fact that I’ve put such a huge chunk of work out there for people to sample online for free readers now at least know who I am and the type of quality work I do… and to me that positive name recognition alone is worth it.

Mind you, I know I’m not a go-to guy for Marvel or anything like that… but I haven’t been trying to become that guy, either. Rather, I’ve spent the last several years building a name for myself among readers with my own creator-owned work by consistently releasing great comics (if I do say so myself) that people can read online and enjoy online for free… and that hard work and dedication lead me to a point where I was bringing in enough readers that I could take my property to Jim Valentino and Kris Simon at Image Comics and justify to them the worth of Shadowline releasing nice print editions of my work.

With Nightmare World having just finished online (seriously – you can now read the whole web-version of the series HERE), my hope is that people have grown to like and respect what I do enough that they’ll support the next several projects I do, whether they be online or in print, for free or via a subscription model.

It’s easy for people who haven’t done it to take for granted how much effort goes into maintaining a weekly online publication schedule, but in the end it’s all about paying your dues… and if someone isn’t willing to do that, well, they aren’t ever going to get any work or notoriety in this industry. Ever.

Nrama: You’re also a journalist, both in music, comics and just entertainment in general. How does your job as a journalist influence your work as a fiction writer?

Manning: I originally got into journalism as a way to “keep my hand moving” while I honed my comic-writing craft in private until I was to the point where I felt I could do justice to the first series I wanted to create, which was of Nightmare World. However, working as a journalist for years and talking to many successful artists in the fields of both music and comics taught me many valuable lessons that helped to get me as far as I am today.

Of those, the most important one was the importance of honing your craft and continuously working hard to keep your name and your product out there for people to have access to. In both the music industry and comics alike, hard work – in the form of a complete and all-engrossing dedication to your work and craft – can oftentimes get you farther than even an exorbitant amount of talent. Case in point: I’ve seen plenty of “mediocre” artists, writers and musicians those “big breaks” everyone is always clamoring for – oftentimes at the expense of much more talented competition – because they were willing to work so much harder for that spot.

Mind you, if you’re simply not good at what you it won’t matter how hard you work, just as if you’re very good at what you do but don’t bother working hard to get your stuff out there it won’t matter either… but if you have some talent (be it innate or learned and honed) and you then work in an intelligent and effective manner to get it out there to the people who need to see it (both your prospective audience and other industry professionals), well… then you’ve at least got a chance of getting somewhere with what you do. So, the next time you head some “blasé” band on the radio, remember: They probably just worked a lot harder to impress the right people than your buddy’s band who’s twenty-times more talented then them… and learn a lesson from it. [laughs]

Nrama: Although you’re done with the stories, I hear you’re working on a new series of Nightmare World stories; can you tell us about that?

Manning: Sure!

With the recent online publication of the 52nd and final story in the series just taking place a few weeks ago at Nightmareworld.com, Nightmare World is done. I did all I set-out to do with it (and more, truth be told)… so in that sense, there will be no more new Nightmare World stories aside from two more prose stories that I’ll include in the next two TPB collections hopefully through Shadowline if/when they go to print… which is yet one more reason why everyone should pick-up a copy of Nightmare World Vol. 2. [laughs]

However – and here’s some exclusive news for you – starting at about Halloween I’m launching FOUR new properties online and at least one of them will have some pretty prominent ties to the Nightmare World universe. That particular property – the one most blatantly connected to Nightmare World a – is Tales of Mr. Rhee , a horror-noir series that follows the exploits of an enigmatic supernatural trouble-shooter named “Mr. Rhee” throughout a story that unfolds in the Nightmare World universe several years after the major events in that series concluded. I originally published the first six (of twelve) stories of Tales of Mr. Rhee online several years ago just to see what people thought of it, and the response was overwhelmingly positive – so much that rarely a week passes when someone doesn’t e-mail me asking me when the series will be returning and concluding the first set of twelve stories. Considering this, I’m really excited to now be bringing it back in its entirety, as Josh Ross is currently finishing the last six stories even as I talk to you right now. While some of the subplots from Nightmare World will leak into the pages of Tales of Mr. Rhee, people won’t have to have read one series to enjoy the other. Those story elements are for fun more than anything else, but readers of both series will certainly enjoy the “Easter Eggs” and be rewarded accordingly for their dedication and loyalty.

I’ll also be launching at least two new stories (initially) under a collective banner tentatively called Love Stories About Death with some of my Nightmare World pals such as Seth Damoose and Anthony Peruzzo, respectively, for starters. The Love Stories About Death stuff should also appeal to Nightmare World fans since it takes the same concept of stand-alone short stories and tells them in a bigger fashion. Basically, each Love Stories About Death story is a 22-page morality tale, and in truth several of them are Nightmare Wold stories that were too big or complex to be squeezed into eight pages. I’m also really excited about the stories and think people will be really blown away at what we’ll be doing there, especially now that I can cut-loose with the length a bit more.

Finally, the fourth and final property I’ll be doing is Hope, which some Newsarama readers may remember as my pitch for a superheroine book that made it to the finals of the Shadowline “Who Wants to Create a Superheroine?” contest a few years back. It’s the story of a woman who must fight to regain custody of her daughter after she’s “outed” as a superhero. I’ve been waiting for the right time and artist needed to tell this story, and the stars have finally entered their proper alignment. Austin McKinley will be fully illustrating Hope and it, like all three of the other properties I mentioned, it will be released in weekly increments starting right around Halloween weekend at online locations to be determined.

I’ll be sure to let people know where they can read them here through my Write or Wrong column and at my Facebook page, though, which is why I encourage everyone to take a moment to connect with me over there if they want to be kept in the loop.

Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning that over time eagle-eyed readers may find a tangential thread or two connecting Nightmare World to Farseeker, the fantasy series created by myself and Len O’Grady over at Act-I-Vate, but, again, any such connections will be for fun more than anything else.

Nightmare World has been a property I’ve been connected to in one way or another for the last eight years and I’m immensely proud of what we all accomplished with the series… but it’s also time to move on to new projects like Tales of Mr. Rhee, Farseeker, Hope and even Love Stories About Death – all different types of series that will continue to show the same wit, passion and excitement that people have come to expect from me and my comic-creating friends people have been exposed to in small does via Nightmare World.

In other words, if you’ll excuse the cliché, yes, Nightmare World is over… but the dream is marching on.

Manning will be appearing as a guest at Detroit Fanfare in Dearborn, Michigan October 30 and 31st. He will also be in the Creator's Common at Mid-Ohio Con in Columbus, Ohio on November 6th and 7th. If you're attending either show, make sure to swing by and say "Hi!"

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