Born in prose short stories, novelist Caitlin R. Kiernan’s pale-skinned monster hunter Dancy Flammarion is coming to comics next month with the all-new limited series Alabaster: Wolves. Although Kiernan is best known for her dark fantasy prose novels, the Irish writer is no stranger to comics; she was hand-picked by Neil Gaiman to write the Sandman spin-off series The Dreaming in the late 90s, and did several additional miniseries for Vertigo following that. But now after a 10 year hiatus, she’s returning to comics on her own terms with this creator-owned series via Dark Horse. Joining her to make these stories come to life is Whiteout artist Steve Lieber.
For those unfamiliar with the character Dancy Flammarion and her prose stories, the new comic series Alabaster: Wolves is a fresh start for both readers and the character itself, according to Kiernan. Dancy is what you call a monster hunter, and although she now joins a comic publisher with others like Hellboy and Buffy in that line of work, she approaches it differently than others. Described by the author as “Old Testament hellfire-and-brimstone stuff,” Alabaster: Wolves shows the maturing Dancy on the hunt for something lost in her past amidst a town and neighboring bayou full of monsters both living and dead. As you could gather from the book’s subtitle, there are wolves involved, and a whole lot more.
Readers of last month’s Dark Horse Presents #9 received a preview of what’s to come in Alabaster: Wolves when it debuts on April 11, 2012, and we spoke with Kiernan about the series, the character, and her return to comics.
Newsarama: Caitlin, Dancy Flammarion started life in your prose novel Threshold and a series of subsequent short stories. With that in mind, what can you tell us about Alabaster: Wolves?
Caitlin R. Kiernan: I’m really lousy at synopsizing, describing, stories. It’s this story about Dancy, and you’ll get to read it soon. Usually, that’s the sort of thing I say when asked this sort of question. But, Alabaster: Wolves is sort of a “reboot” for Dancy Flammarion. She’s older, wiser, more world weary. She’s walked a slightly different path here than I’ve had her on in the past. Just slightly different.
Nrama: You’ve said that Alabaster: Wolves is about Dancy following a new path. What’s setting her down this new direction in her life?
Kiernan: She’s tired, I think. Her angel, the seraph has driven her from one monster to another, driving her to slay this and that, and surely that’s the sort of sh*t gets to someone after a while. In Alabaster: Wolves, I begin by having her trying to reclaim something precious that she lost in the past. She’s lost almost everything, and she means to get this one thing back, even if it costs her everything. And it almost does. Which sets her on this new path we’re talking about. For once, she’s on her own, stuck in a ghost town and a bayou full of werewolves with nothing but her wits, a talking blackbird, and the treacherous ghost of a werewolf to help her along. This is about doubt and losing faith. If I say anymore, we’re going to get deep into spoiler territory.Nrama: And I take it from the book’s subtitles that there will be wolves in it. What can you tell us about what Dancy’s getting herself into?
Kiernan: Oh, there are wolves, yes. A ghost town stricken by a sort of werewolf plague back in 1975. A bayou full of werewolves, wolves that aren’t werewolves, but also far worse things than werewolves. The story starts out one place, with the werewolves, and leads her to a much more insidious sort of evil… or whatever you want to call it. A greater Lovecraftian menace. That works.
Nrama: In the prose short stories you’ve done of her, Dancy is driven by visions given to her by an angel that seems sort of amorphous. Will the comic dig deeper into the truth behind Dancy’s visions of the seraph?
Kiernan: Very much so. Dancy has to face the possibility that there never was a seraph, or, worse yet, that the seraph might be something worse than all the monsters she’s come up against. That she’s being used by the forces of this Heaven she’s always relied upon. I opened my prose collection, Alabaster (2006), with a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost: “…abasht the Devil stood, and felt how awful goodness is…” That quote’s always, always been at the back of my mind when writing Dancy. In the past, I’ve had Dancy wonder, if only in passing, if maybe the seraph is worse than the monsters, and if maybe she’s a monster herself. If maybe this line between good and evil doesn’t even exist. But in this story, she’s finally forced to come to terms with this possibility. By the way, it’s often very weird for me, writing about Dancy. I’m not a Christian. I think, sometimes, people read Dancy stories and make that mistaken assumption. Frankly, I think it gives me more latitude, freedom, in writing the character and her world, not holding her beliefs. Or anything like them.
Nrama: Dark Horse has its share of monster fighters from Hellboy on down. How would you describe Dancy in comparison to him and others out there?
Kiernan: I’ve known since the beginning that these comparisons were inevitable, that they’d come along sooner or later. Think of Dancy Flamarion as the anti-Buffy. This is Old Testament hellfire-and-brimstone stuff. It’s hard, ugly, gritty. Dancy’s not some chosen teenager with superpowers. She’s just an albino girl with an umbrella, a duffel bag, and a butcher’s knife. And maybe that seraph of questionable intent directing her. And, unlike Hellboy, there’s no secret government organization or Scooby Gang backing her up, no Watcher. She’s utterly on her own. Even with these new companions, she’s pretty much on her own. By the way, I’m a big fan of both Hellboy and Buffy, and I don’t want to imply otherwise. But this really is a different character. Readers will see that.
Nrama: Although this will be Dancy’s formal debut in comics, I’d like to think that you had some idea of her being comic-related after you had comic artist Ted Naifeh do artwork for the Alabaster short story collection. Can you tell us how comics came to be involved with this character, and what made now the right time to usher her to comics completely?
Kiernan: I never really thought of Dancy as a character that would work as a character in a comic until Ted drew her. He took off the printed page, out of the prose, and made her visual. That was in…2005, I guess. But since then, it’s always been in the back of my mind, that if anyone ever gave me the opportunity to do a Dancy Flammarion comic, that she’d be perfect. The episodic and yet interlinked nature of her misadventures, that’s part of why I started to this, Hey, this could work as a comic. And all the cool monsters. The idiosyncrasies of her character. The fact that she’s not a superhero. And there are far too few strong female protagonists in comics, so here would be an opportunity to add one more. Dancy is very, very strong – strong in mind and heart, determined, even if maybe she’s a bit crazy. Even if she doubts. I want to say, Here’s this strong, independent teenage girl, forced to make her way through a nightmarish landscape on her own, and she doesn’t need superpowers to kick ass. But she’s also vulnerable. She can get her ass kicked, and she does.Nrama: You’re not new to comics – you did a long run on Vertigo’s The Dreaming as well as some other smaller works around that time. Some might ask what brought you back now… but first, what made you leave in the first place?
Kiernan: It’s no secret how unhappy I was at Vertigo, almost from the start. I think there were maybe seven issues before the disillusion began to set in. I was young, and here was this great chance to break into comics. Neil Gaiman called and said, “Do you want to write The Dreaming,” and I think I told him I’d write it for free, I was so in love with The Sandman. So I wrote The Dreaming, but I was naïve, and it was good money, and I didn’t know I was being handed damaged goods, that it had already tanked sales-wise. At least, given that it had been expected to sell as well as The Sandman had. I began with Number 17, and I hung in until 50, when I asked to end the series. Readers weren’t happy with it, mostly, I think, because it wasn’t The Sandman: The Next Generation. But I was convinced to keep going. I even made some inane comment in the comic that we’d still be going at 100. Then, out of the blue, after I’d very reluctantly agreed to keep writing the series, I was told it would be ending at Number 60! I had to scramble to finish up the last story arc, and pretty much murdered it in the process. And, of course, this was all work-for-hire. And there was a constant and truly unacceptable level of editorial interference. Do it our way, or we’ll have someone rewrite it for you. Even the characters I created and brought to the book, they would never be mine. Now, none of this was Neil’s doing. Neil was always wonderful. He recently said, “If nothing else, The Dreaming taught you how to be a professional,” which is absolutely true.
Anyway, what brought me back now? After The Dreaming, and my last work for DC, the Bast mini, I swore I’d never do comics again unless it was a creator-owned project with a minimum of editorial interference. Then, in 2010, I was Guest of Honor at the H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon, and I had a meeting with Rachel Edidin from Dark Horse. It was a great meeting, and over the months that followed, we discussed a lot of different potential projects before finally settling on Dancy. But it was always understood, from the very beginning that Dancy was mine, would always be mine, that everything I write about here is mine, along with any other new characters I bring to the story. Editorial suggestions would be just that, not editorial demands, the sort of thing I’d had to endure at Vertigo. I was promised almost total control, and so Dark Horse was offering me exactly what I’d said it would take to bring me back to comics. And I’d always wanted to come back to comics. But on those terms. And having worked with Dark Horse for almost a year now, I’m very happy with how it’s proceeding.
Nrama: Artist Steve Lieber joins you on this, and although Ted Naifeh can claim to be the first artist to work on Dancy, I’ve read that Steve is taking it a different route. Can you tell us about your conversations with Steve and the results you’re seeing as comic pages come in?
Kiernan: Well, okay, this is a hard question to answer. But, here goes. In the Alabaster short-story collection, I think Ted fixed a visual image of Dancy in the minds of my readers. I figure, however they saw her before, after Ted they’d see her as Ted drew her. And I was really happy with Ted’s take on her. There was months of back and forth on that, by the way, getting Dancy the way I wanted her and how Ted wanted to portray here, making us both happy. But when I began working with Steve – who is utterly brilliant, by the way – I’d already decided on the reboot thing, and that this would be an older Dancy. Sixteen or seventeen instead of fourteen, almost fifteen. And I told Steve to look at El Fanning as a guide. That she was almost exactly how I saw this incarnation of Dancy. So, we quickly began to move away from Ted’s interpretation of the character. Steve showed me a lot of studies, and we traded ideas until we got her just right. What I’m seeing on the page, it’s the somewhat new Dancy we created, that older, wiser, more hardened girl who’s been scarred by the life she’s led.FACEBOOK and TWITTER!