Get Stuck Into ‘Limbo’ with Caspar Wijngaard and Dan Watters [Interview]
Welcome to Limbo, a world where ‘50s noir and ‘80s neon are smashed together to produce one truly surreal comic. Think Lovecraft meets Cronenberg as Innsmouth and Videodrome collide in an explosion of magic, myth, jazz and Kafka. It's an Image comic that's hard to define, but it’s clear that artist Caspar Wijngaard and writer Dan Watters are having the time of their lives.
From color palettes that follow narrative and character while also setting the tone, to the clean sharp lines that somehow still scream punk, Limbo is worth buying for the art alone --- which makes it all the more satisfying that the story is so wickedly sharp, embracing the surreal world that Wijngaard brings to life with existential humour, a subversively twisty plot, and a complete refusal to hold the hand of the reader. This is subjective storytelling at its best, which made an interview an absolute must.
ComicsAlliance: The two of you have worked together before but this is your first independent comic. How did the collaboration come about, how does that collaboration work, and from what depths of imagination did Limbo crawl forth?
Caspar Wijngaard: On our previous collaboration we were working with an existing property/narrative so respectively we were working within the limitations of that world designs.
At the time we were both formulating concepts for future comic projects, and we would talk at lengths and share our ideas. I had an idea for a 1980s noir comic and Dan had the workings of a voodoo script.
We played around with the ideas and found a way to incorporate both concepts together and with this we decided to blow the roof of any limitations; it was our book, our rules. It was really fun and that's what creating comics should be.
Dan Watters: Yeah, that pretty much covers it. Limbo is a Frankenstein's monster of all the comics we've always wanted to make, but somehow all the pieces fit together really effortlessly. We built a world and then we broke it to see what would happen.
CA: From the very beginning of the first issue we’re introduced to some characters that are hiding their true Lovecraftian horror, and other nefarious characters are also introduced through smoke and darkness, eg the all-powerful Teleshaman and the terrifying Second Line that bring forth snakes from innocent bellies. How do you go about building up that existential dread, and what influences are at play?
DW: Lovecraft's definitely there in a big way... that'll probably get more obvious as we move towards the end of the book. I always think that unknowable horror is the most unsettling; it's why Lovecraft doesn't really translate to film. The monster has to exist within your imagination... or preferably, just beyond it. Once we know too much about them they become neutered to an extent. The threat is tangible, and just has to be dealt with in whatever way we now know will work, so that's what we've tried to avoid to some extent with Limbo's villains. We're keeping them in the shadows. We know what they want, just not how they work.
CW: For my part, with the teleshaman it was about the slow reveal, not unlike a monster movie, just giving the reader a glimpse at a time.
With the second line, their presence was to overwhelm and give unease. It went from Alien to Aliens. It's harder to build a sense of dread with a ensemble of characters, they didn't really have a singular voice. So I made them visually unsettling and the snakes meant you could never really out run them, they were always lurking.
CA: There’s a tangible sense of fun throughout Limbo, the feel of creators who are being very playful while committing to a strong vision --- is that part of the reason why it comes across as such a subjective read?
CW: Totally, I'd spent my entire career in comics working to real world scripts. That's not really me, not what I was drawing outside of work --- that's not to say I wasn't happy with the work, however I beginning to feel I wasn't putting my mark on it as a creator.
Before the book was picked up I was becoming quite fatigued with comics, I needed to make my own book and rejuvenate what I loved about the medium.
Everything I know and love has gone into the pages of Limbo, it reflects myself and Dan's personalities and interests very clearly, and Image could see that.
DW: Thanks for saying so! And yes, I think so. We get really excited when coming up with ideas for Limbo. Sometimes big things can spin out of just a single image that one of us has in our heads, or a desire to play with a panel layout in a specific way. As far as I'm concerned, the book should be subjective to a certain extent. Our protagonist doesn't understand the world around him. He can't trust his mind or eyes. So why should the reader?
CA: Clay is the Kafka-esque character; awakening as a stranger in a strange land where everything gets progressively, well, stranger. But the break out character is surely Sandy. Where did her character come from and what do you think as creators that she brings to the comic?
CW: We both fell in love with Sandy early on, she's the heart and soul of the book, the human element, we even joked about killing Clay off and letting it be her story.
We pitched Limbo as five volume arc, each volume is a separate case.
This mini-series being the first case --- Clay's personal case. Sandy has some great stories ahead of her, so if the first arc is received well and myself and Dan are in a position to return, we can really delve into her character and give her the story she deserves.
DW: Sandy's importance definitely ballooned as we worked on the book. She grew really organically and it didn't take long for us to know who she was and where she came from. She really offsets Clay as he's really uncomfortable in his own skin, not knowing who he is or really who he wants to be, and so he wears all these different masks around people. Half the time he's trying to be Dick Powell, but that facade tends to slip around Sandy. She knows exactly who she is, almost to a fault. She's someone who helps people, even when it's not in her best interest, and that's how she's ended up stuck with Clay.
CA: Caspar, I’ve been following your work for a long long time and telling everyone you’re a destined star --- can you describe how you go from script/idea to page (or vice versa!) and how you go about the coloring choices?
CW: Well issue one of Limbo for the most part and the entire pitch were Marvel method, we had an outline of how the issue would work and I went away and drew it without a detailed script. That's not the case with the other issues, but with issue #1 it really helped me build the world and characters in a way I felt was consistent and held itself together.
The colors played into this as well. Each character was to have a strong presence on the panel and compliment the relationships they have. Clay and Bridgette (blue and red) contrast, so their scenes have a sense of unease, however, Sandy and Clay (green and blue) are mutual and calm together which reflects their alliance.
I also wanted each double page to have its own unique feel, sharing colors and themes.
I also wanted to make something unique, for better or for worse, I had to stand out visually. Myself and Dan are relatively unknown, this was our time to showcase our work so it really has to stand out.
On the Image website my profile states, "Caspar has a crisp and clean style," which I find amusing, not only because I sound like wine, but I'm also a really messy drawer.
My pencils are very messy and I spend a lot of time cleaning my lines up.
CA: Speaking of layouts, I notice that in Limbo there are no panel borders and there’s a specific focus on objects that have been abandoned, left behind, or are between uses. Along with the Morrison-esque touches of climbing through panels, the 3D spin on the 2D A-Ha-type video, and the motif of people watching or being watched, are these all deliberate choices to make this a story that can really only be told in this particular medium? (Or I'm reading way too much into things!)
CW: It's all very tricky, but again its more about making it visually rewarding for the reader. There is definitely a sense of that, but maybe not as deep as you have described, but it was definitely important to make it feel unique.
I meet people that say they don't read comics for the art, which infuriates me to no end, the artist takes a lot of pride in telling these stories and building the world for the readers, keeping each panel and page fresh and exciting.
If people aren't looking at the art, the artist isn't doing their job and from what I have seen in recent comics, that's total BS because artists in the industry are killing it at the moment and raising the bar to exciting new levels.
CA: Noir is a big influence on the story of course, but with the neon love comes the art of magic. The focus on analogue over digital, adapted magic rituals and a kind of shamanistic view on various world religions and mysticisms is very striking. What amount of research goes into those various practises, and what influences inspired you?
DW: I've always been fascinated by magic. As a teenager I was introduced to Chaos-Gnostic ideas through black metal bands like Dissection, which led to me reading a lot of really vile little black magic grimoires. Then I think I discovered Phil Hine and Peter Carroll when I read The Invisibles. The Chaos approach to magic resonated with me a lot more, and that more freeform, adaptable approach to the occult is definitely something that worked its way into Limbo and the way people in Dedande approach magic. Particularly Sandy.
The idea of music as magic is nothing new, and to take that further, art as magic. The goal of both magic and art is to bend the world to will of the user, and as such they can be one and the same.
This is something I really wanted to explore, so magic was definitely going to play a big part in Limbo.
Another big influence on that end of things was William Burroughs, and his experiments with cut-up, which extended past paper and onto cassettes. Burroughs firmly believed that cutting up and reforming text, media, content, whatever we want to call it, could change and reform the world around us. Art as magic again.
If we follow this thread, television then becomes a really powerful tool, as it's capable of transmitting all of these different ideas and worlds in front of our eyes, not just effortlessly, but at great speed as we channel-surf. Who hasn't done that? It's such a bizarre thing to be able to do, but we think nothing of it. Hopefully we've put some weirdness back in the idea.
A guy can hope.
CW: To me there is something very charming and personal in the analogue technology, mix tapes and home videos.
There is a soullessness in digital culture, not a lot of effort goes into making a digital playlist with mp3s downloaded from iTunes and simply hitting a button to skip tracks, but digging through crate after crate for a rare vinyl and finding another from an entirely different genre and placing them together in a way that compliments both their strengths? That's magical.
The same could be said about the theme and mysticisms of Limbo, we're hoping to merge them together in a way that is complimentary and unique.
CA: World influences aside there’s a major current of Mexican and Cajun art and tradition at play within the aesthetics of Limbo --- what was it about these that you were drawn to in particular and, with the understanding that this is a fictional world, how did you go about retaining authenticity when touching upon these cultures?
CW: Well death is a theme that overshadows Limbo, so we wanted to incorporate themes that celebrated this. I'll let Dan handle the cultural side, especially in regards to the voodoo, that's his area of expertise.
DW: There's a lot of death imagery in Limbo, and a big thing I looked at was the different attitudes to death held by different cultures. I feel that we as Western readers, we get very caught up in medieval Christian ideas of death-and-skulls-equals-spooky-and-bad, and then think of death gods as demons or malevolent entities. You don't really get that in either Voodoo or Mexican folk traditions. Santa Muerte is not a demon or evil force, and neither are the death Loa. They have a different role, a positive role, and as Caspar says, this bears celebrating.
CA: Limbo is described as a 1950s/80s neon-noir, i.e. completely unlike anything that has come before, but the '50s noir does normally come with some tropes that are often problematic. Limbo looks to be subverting a lot of these in just the first three issues alone. Is genre disruption and trope rebellion something that appeals to you as creators?
CW: Yeah, it's good to flip the table on tropes. Clay is a noir protagonist trying to fulfill his role in this world that keeps changing the rules. It's really fun making him jump those hoops.
DW: I love classic noir so much, so we've drawn a lot of direct influence from films like This Gun For Hire and the work of Hammett and Chandler, but yeah obviously that stuff gets very dated and cliché in a number of ways. A lot of the fun for me is that Clay thinks he's one of those classic noir detectives and plays that role when he's on a case, even when he should realise that it really hasn't been working out for him in Dedande, as the city flat out refuses to follow the genre's tropes. I definitely wanted to comment on those tropes, because it's interesting how mythologized they seem to have become, particularly in American culture, with hundreds of stories following the same beats to similar conclusions in a really interesting, almost cyclical fashion.
Limbo #4 is in stores today, February 10.