There Will Be Blood… Lots Of Blood: ‘Nailbiter’ Writer Joshua Williamson On Genre, Violence and Serial Killers
This week marks the release of the first issue of Nailbiter, a new Image Comics series from writer Joshua Williamson and artist Mike Henderson that examines how a sleepy town in Oregon called Buckaroo could be the home to more than a dozen serial killers. Though the cover to the first issue is a rather shocking depiction of violence, the series itself is more than just blood and guts. Nailbiter digs deep into what serial killing does to the families and neighbors of the people who commit those crimes as much as it does the killers themselves.
ComicsAlliance sat down in a noisy concourse at this year’s C2E2 in Chicago with Williamson to talk about Nailbiter, what inspired it, and how he’s perhaps upending reader expectations.
ComicsAlliance: I want to start with a broad question about the kind of comics you’re doing now. We’ve got Ghosted, we’ve got Nailbiter coming out soon, Masks and Mobsters. With the exception of Dark Horse’s superhero book Captain Midnight, you’re mostly doing genre comics — horror and gangster stuff. Ghosted is kind of a mix of the two-–
Joshua Williamson: It’s crime and horror. Same thing with Nailbiter. There’s the genre of Twin Peaks, and there’s the genre of True Detective. That’s the genre I’m going for.
CA: What makes you gravitate toward those two genres, in particular, as opposed to the more traditional comics genre of superheroes?
JW: They make me happy. That sounds really silly, I guess. But before, when I was doing different stuff, and I was trying to find my way. I was doing superhero stuff and comedy. I was trying to find my way.
Me, as a person, I need to be hit over the head sometimes to realize things. I kept saying to myself, my favorite comics are like, Preacher. I was always a Vertigo kid. So I asked myself, what am I doing? Why am I not doing that stuff? I love that stuff. I kept waiting for someone to give me one of those books, and it wasn’t working. So I decided I’m just going to do it. I missed Sandman Mystery Theater, so I’m going to do Masks and Mobsters. I miss Hellblazer, so I’m going to do Ghosted.
I like those kinds of books, so I thought, I should do that. That’s sort of what made me start heading that way. I like crime and horror. I get so much more enjoyment out of that stuff than anything else.
CA: I was able to read the first issue of Nailbiter, and what strikes me about it is how it’s a slow burn. There’s a hook in the first pages, and after that, it slows down and we peel back the layers of this town in Oregon and how strange it is. Given how the book’s being promoted, as this serial killers book, I’m not sure that’s necessarily what an audience is expecting.
JW: I thought about that, too. It’s funny because that first arc, that first trade, is called “There Will Be Blood,” but there’s not really any blood in the first issue.
CA: Kind of like the movie.
JW: [Laughs] True. That’s the thing about that. If you read issue two, you’ll see it’s a gradual build. I questioned that a lot at first, about whether I should include stuff just because, but I was interested in doing a slasher book that’s about the characters. It’s about the town. I really kept my focus on that.
CA: That’s one of the unspoken rules of the slasher movie, right? You can’t just go in slashing, you’ve got to care about the characters that are going to get slashed up before any of that stuff happens.
JW: That’s tough to do in the first issue of a new horror book. I looked a lot at Locke and Key. Locke and Key does a lot in that first issue. So much happens, but I also think it’s 40 pages long. I obviously didn’t want to copy Locke and Key.
I look at Twin Peaks a lot. I look at the first episode of Twin Peaks. The whole thing with Twin Peaks is that it’s about what happens after they find Laura’s body. It’s all about the ripple effect from this murder. When I was developing this book, I thought about that a lot. With Nailbiter, it’s all about the aftermath of finding out the serial killers are from there. Twin Peaks is about Laura Palmer’s death, how it affects the town. Nailbiter is about how the killers affect the town.
With that, I knew I really wanted to do a lot. I wanted to cover a lot of ground. I remember talking with an editor about it years ago, and they said, “You really want to do a lot with this book,” and I said, “Yeah, it’s going to take time.” But that’s why it’s important to me to have the characters, do the book the way I want to do it, and pace it out a certain way. That’s why that first issue — I’ve been trying to prepare people in a way to be like, look, it’s not going to be this gore-fest. It’s not Saw. It’s not even Seven. It’s comparable to Seven in that it’s these unique killings, I suppose, but I really wanted to develop the characters. So I’ve been telling people it’s a slower burn. It’s a fast read, I think, but it’s a slower thing where you’re not going to get serial killers a lot.
Once you get to issue two, it does start to pick up. There’s a saying that me and a friend have about the book: It’s a book about serial killers. There better be serial killing. Once you see issue two, you’ll start seeing that come into play.
CA: Issue one of Nailbiter jumps around in time a little. There’s one big time jump, in particular. That makes it so the mystery of the story is not who the serial killers are as much as it is what it is about this town that breeds serial killers, and what happened to Carol, the cop who went to the town and has seemingly disappeared. Why did you think those should be the central mysteries?
JW: Eventually there will be other mysteries and other serial killer stuff. The interesting thing about it, for me, was the mystery of what makes someone a serial killer. I thought that was the more interesting thing to do, and made it different. Other serial killer stories are about who’s a serial killer and why they’re doing it. With this, I was like, let’s go past that. Like, what made John Doe in Seven do this? What made him want to vomit on that guy on the subway? Let’s really get into that.
That’s sort of what I wanted to do with this. We know who Warren is. We know who the Nailbiter is, now what made him get to that?
CA: And I guess, why is he the last in the line of these serial killers?
JW: Is he the last?
CA: He’s the most recent.
JW: He’s the most recent. I will give this away. There are 16 killers that they know of. That’s the thing with serial killers. There’s that thing that 35 to 50 are operating in the United States at any time. That’s what the FBI has said. We’ve caught 15 of those over a 50-year timespan. Come on, man. They’re assuming they’ve caught them all, but there are more.
CA: We’re sitting in a convention center in Chicago right now. Chicago’s a city known for having some of the most famous serial killers. John Wayne Gacy, Richard Speck, the list goes on. Was there any real-life inspiration for this town that breeds serial killers?
JW: Zodiac. The Zodiac, at one point, lived and possibly operated in Riverside, California. I remember, when I was a kid, the first time heard that, I remembered that there were two other serial killers in Riverside.
CA: Is that where you grew up?
JW: Yeah. Horrible place. It’s a weird mix of a small town, with cows everywhere, but it’s close enough to stuff, you know? That’s why, when you open up Nailbiter, that’s where Warren was arrested.
I remember thinking, that’s so crazy that there were three serial killers in the same town at the same time, in this small area. It seemed so weird. I knew I kind of wanted to do a thing about a town and serial killers, but I didn’t want to do Eureka with serial killers, and then that moment just struck in my head where I thought, oh, what if I did this? After that, there was a lot of Jeffrey Dahmer in there, those people he knew who thought something was wrong but didn’t do anything about it. I think about how much that haunts those people.
When I worked in San Diego, I was an art director. This woman I worked with came into work one day really upset. She broke up with her boyfriend. I asked, “What happened? I thought you guys were doing good.” She was like, “I found out his uncle was a serial killer, so I broke up with him.” And I was like, “What? He wasn’t killing anybody.”
CA: That is a weird thing to just drop in a conversation.
JW: She said, “I just can’t be with somebody who is so close to someone so evil.” Because this guy was close to his uncle. She’s like, “No matter what he says, that he didn’t know, there’s always going to be that doubt there. I can’t have a relationship with somebody like that.” That always stuck with me. This guy had strangled five women in San Diego. That always bugged me.
JW: I found out recently that my mom, her and one of my closest friends as a kid’s moms, they were nurses, they worked in urgent care in Riverside. This kid came in. He was sick, and they didn’t know what was wrong with him. Every day, his dad would come in, and he’d spend all day with this kid. He was that guy. He was that nice dad who would come in to see his kid. Then one day, the cops come and say, “We need to talk with you, because that guy, at night, was murdering prostitutes on University in Riverside. We need to know if he was committing child abuse.” And they were like, “That guy? That was a nice guy.”
CA: Isn’t that how every one of those stories goes, though?
JW: Yeah. So all these things builds up to me wanting to do this book. Warren is interesting. It’s tough to get into the mind state of a serial killer, to really sit there and think constantly about how Warren is. He talks a lot in issue two. Writing him is tough at times. He’s a deplorable human being, but I still want people to want to read him. I don’t want him to be so bad you can’t read it.
CA: Like it or not, serial killers are kind of a novelty. They’re a thing that fascinates people, and they can become gimmicky.
JW: They are gonna get a bit gimmicky, I’ve got to tell you.
CA: Well, what’s clear from the get-go here is that each of these serial killers has a gimmick. They have a thing that they do that makes them different and weird, like Warren’s the Nailbiter.
JW: The Book-burner.
CA: Yeah, the Bookburner. Is it hard to walk the line of giving them an identifiable gimmick and still making them complex people?
JW: Warren is obviously the most developed. The story of the Bookburner is really developed. There are a few others I can’t get into because they come later down the line. We spend a lot of time with them. For others, it’s going to be quick snippets. You’re going to see a thing about them and maybe more about how it impacted their family
CA: One of the things that happens in the first issue is there’s this novelty store–
JW: The Murder Store.
CA: Yes. The owner reveals, after some conversation, that the Bookburner was his grandfather. I kind of had this reaction of, “Oh yeah, these characters have families.” It’s a weird thing to think about.
JW: That’s what it’s about. The families of serial killers. He says he’s a businessman and it’s hard to run a business when people know your grandpa was this world-famous, horrible serial killer. Charles Manson has kids. They changed their names, they hide it. The kids of serial killers have to change their names or they’ll get harassed.
These people, you see it with Raleigh Woods [the Murder Store owner]. He embraces it and says, “I’m going to make money off of it.” There’s a guy who’s going to come in one of the much later issues–it depends on how long we get to do the book, but it’s going to be one of the teen issues. We’re going to do a story called “The Devil Goes Down To Georgia.” It’s about this guy who was a really smart guy living in that town. He wanted to go to college. When the colleges saw where he was from, they couldn’t legally say they wouldn’t take him, but he could feel that no one wanted to take him because of where he was from because he could be related to a serial killer. So he changes his name. As soon as he does that and changes where he’s from, he immediately gets accepted to a college. He’s there for a few years, and then a serial killing happens. It somehow comes out that he’s from that town. So Finch goes to investigate that, to find out if he really is one of the butchers.
CA: Do you see this kind of stuff, this horror/crime mix, as being your niche in comics?
JW: It’s funny. It’s what I enjoy doing the most, but the next creator-owned book I’m doing is not this stuff at all. It is still very grounded. I like to do a weird mix of things. I like to mix genres. Is Vertigo a genre?
CA: It’s a method of storytelling.
JW: I was a Vertigo kid. Somebody asked me that recently, about whether I was afraid of being pigeonholed. We’ll see what happens, but I’m really happy with doing crime and horror. Honestly, if that is what happened, if someone was like, we’re only going to hire you for crime and horror, and that’s it, I’d be like, that’s fine.