Old School Horror Hell: Phil Hester Reveals The Darkness Behind ‘Blood Blister’ And ‘Shipwreck’
Blood Blister, the new horror comic from writer Phil Hester and artist Tony Harris debuting this week from AfterShock, tells the story of Brandon Hull, a man whose soul becomes so corrupted by the banal evil of the superficial choices he makes that it begins to manifest on his previously flawless physical form, launching him into a hellish world of monstrous evil. Hester is also currently drawing Shipwreck, an AfterShock comic by writer Warren Ellis about a man who finds himself in a surreal wasteland after (possibly) surviving a crash.
ComicsAlliance sat down with Phil Hester to talk about horror, collaborating on comics as both a writer and an artist, and the nature of evil in the world today.
ComicsAlliance: Blood Blister is a book with a strong body horror element, and it’s clearly invested in making the reader feel some amount of disgust. Would you say that’s fair?
Phil Hester: There’s no mistaking that. I mean, the point is that we’re not shying away from any sort of grotesquery in the story. In fact the whole story kind of hinges on it, because the main character is somebody who leads a superficial life in every way — his identity is tied up in money and looks and things — and when his once perfect body starts to betray him, that’s an indication that there’s some sort of rot going on morally inside him. So there’s a Dorian Grey allegory of the body disintegrating as a mirror of what’s happening to his soul. It’s written on his body and he can’t escape it.
CA: I was curious, since I’ve only read the first issue; how literal is that cover?
PH: Oh that’s not literal. He’s not going to be split down the middle and turn into a monster in a way that people can see. It’s definitely symbolic. It’s what it struck Tony to do the day he read the pitch. He got excited about the concept and he wanted to show that dichotomy between the perfect and the imperfect that’s going on with this guy.
CA: I suspected that might be what was going on.
PH: Yeah, we’re not going to do a Jekyll and Hyde thing with him. I don’t want to spoil anything, but where it’s really going is — you know, we have a scab-picking scene in issue one, and what he’ll find is that he gets so obsessed with what he’s extracting from his wound that he can’t throw it away, and he winds up keeping it. He becomes obsessed with it and it takes on a life of its own. So it’s actually grosser.
CA: I’m also interested in your influences in terms of body horror. There’s certainly something David Cronenberg-esque about this story.
PH: Cronenberg himself I don’t think is where that took root in me. I think that came to me from Bernie Wrightson comics when I was a kid. And then when I got older and explored more horror comics, I read the old EC comics as a young adult, and then as I became a professional I also read the Charles Burns comics.
I think my inspiration comes more from the world of comics than it does from film. But I definitely won’t argue with being lumped in with Cronenberg. He’s pretty good at it.
CA: Wrightson was really good at it too, now that you mention it.
PH: Yeah, I think the Un-Men and the Patchwork Man [from Swamp Thing], seeing that as a kid was really unsettling for me, and it stuck in my mind, which is where that body horror came from. Actually the horror in it, while it is body horror, it’s actually more obsessive. It’s all in that great tradition of obsession-based horror from literature.
CA: Is this your first collaboration with Tony Harris?
PH: Yes it is, actually. Tony and I both started in the business at about the same time as artists. This book had been on the docket at AfterShock for quite a while, and we were just waiting to get the right artist. Both in terms of somebody who could pull it off, and somebody who had a big enough profile that the book wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle. I think Joe Pruett showed the idea to Tony, and it played to his strengths. And we’re very lucky to have him.
CA: You and Tony have very different styles as artists, but looking at the book I feel like there’s something fundamentally similar in your approach to figures and faces.
PH: I think at the beginning of our career, even more so. I mean, he draws way better than I do. He has much more of an illustrative design sense than I do. He’s more of a classic illustrator than I am. I’m more reductionist in terms of the way I draw. I try to minimalize.
We’re both definitely into high contrast, which is probably part of what you’re seeing. A lot of heavy blacks, light and shadow. And this is kind of inside baseball, but if you pay a lot of attention to page composition in comics, you’ll see that Tony and I both use composition to draw the reader’s eye across the page in a similar way.
CA: How does your experience as a comics artist affect the way you write for other artists? Does it change how you think about the art that’s to come as you’re writing?
PH: Oh definitely. I’ve always been writing as well as drawing. It’s just that I wasn’t making a living as a writer until the last fifteen years or so. But my time as strictly an artist has taught me to be careful about what I ask of my artists. Not to ask them to do something impossible, or too complex, or too boring — which is the worst thing.
When you ask an artist to do something boring, that’s always the worst. I’m happy to sit down and draw the most complex scene, as long as it’s rewarding and moves the story ahead. But if it’s just treading water, it’s really tough. So I know what I don’t like to do, and I try not to ask other artists to do that.
I also like to leave room to let them contribute to the storytelling. I think too many writers today want their artists to be cameramen, and to give them back basically fumetti of the way the thing will look when they option it into a movie someday. I’m not interested in that; I’m here to make comics.
And the most fun thing about making comics to me is getting to collaborate with people you respect and admire. And I know Tony understands a lot of aspects of storytelling that maybe a casual fan or reader might not pick up on right away. But I know Tony can bring those things, and I try to leave room for that when I’m writing the script.
CA: When you say that your favorite thing is collaborating with creators you admire, that sounds like the answer to the question I was about to ask. Because in addition to writing Blood Blister with Tony, you’re also currently drawing Shipwreck, which is written by Warren Ellis. And it’s interesting that you wouldn’t just be drawing your own comic, but if you do that you wouldn’t get to work with Tony Harris and Warren Ellis.
PH: Well, number one, it’s an honor to work with both of those guys, because I’m a fan of both of those guys. If I could letter, I’d be happy to letter one of those books too, just to work with those talents. That’s important to me.
But also I try to be impartial about my own projects, when I’m thinking about the way they should be done. A lot of times, when I’m creating a new story, I have to step back and think, would I be the right person to draw this? And I don’t think I’d be right for Blood Blister. I think you need somebody that’s capable of drawing the real world in less abstract a way than I do. Tony’s capable of that. He loves drawing people in suits. He loves drawing people that are beautiful, but you can sense there’s something sinister lurking just under the surface.
Shipwreck is just right for me, because it’s so surreal, and far out, that I can play all sorts of games with negative space, and really kind of outlandish composition. High contrast. But Blood Blister requires a little bit more realism than I’m capable of. It also demands a little bit more --- how should I say this? --- ornate grotesquery. That’s Tony’s specialty. My horror can seem a little more brutish and blunt, and he’s got a more refined sensibility about it.
CA: After reading Shipwreck and Blood Blister back to back, I was thinking that these books could not be more different, even though they’re both about men who might be in Hell.
PH: Yeah, that’s true. They’re definitely both about people in Hells of one kind or another. I’m not going to spoil anything about Shipwreck, but it’s an intersection of horror and hard sci-fi, so he may be in Hell, but he may have found an actual door into Hell. An actual physical reality that comprises Hell. Not in any sort of Judeo-Christian sense, but he may have opened a dimensional doorway into someplace that might as well be Hell.
But Blood Blister’s definitely straight-up old school horror Hell.
CA: Speaking of Judeo-Christian Hell, as you discussed earlier the concept of morality is really central to Blood Blister, and I’m curious how much the morality of the book has in common with your own ideas about morality.
PH: I’m not a very judgey person. Everyone’s got a tough row to hoe, so however they get there is their bag. But I do think a lot of people are sort of heedless about their fellow person, and especially in America, where we’re sort of, “Go go get yours” all the time. There’s especially this sort of toxic masculinity, at least for my generation and hopefully not for younger generations, that says that whatever you do is okay as long as you’re providing for your family. And that’s wrong. It’s not okay to destroy another person’s family to provide for yours.
Blood Blister itself is not a manifesto of condemnation, but it’s a plea to examine your life a little bit, I think. And the way I do that is to hold up a funhouse mirror to the way you can warp your own soul by the little comprises you make every day to get ahead.
CA: Obviously I’m not going to ask you for spoilers, but this first issue ends in a place that’s scary, where we don’t quite know what’s going on. Without giving away too much, can you give us a sense of the shape of the series going forward?
PH: For the first few issues, a lot of it is him grappling with, “Am I crazy, or is this happening? Have I become obsessed with this and now I’m hurting myself, or is this a real physical threat to me?” He gets the answer and it’s not the answer he wants, but it’s the answer that we as readers want. Scary stuff is going to keep happening to him.
I’m not going to beat around the bush: this is a possession story. But most possession stories are about innocents who don’t deserve the possession they’re undergoing, and it’s coming from an external evil. In his case, I wanted to play with the idea that you can be possessed by your own evil — by an evil that you give birth to yourself. That you gestate.
That’s sort of the kernel of the whole thing: Where are these seemingly demonic forces born? They’re born inside of us. And the difference between him and everyone else in history to date is that he gets to see his being born. And he gets a chance to do something about it. Whether he succeeds, or whether that sort of devil he’s given birth to overcomes him is the crux of the story.
Blood Blister #1 is on sale this week from AfterShock Comics. Shipwreck #4 is on sale February 22.