Sam Costello Gathers Ten Years of Horror For The ‘Split Lip’ Anthology Kickstarter [Back Pages]
For ten years, the Split Lip series has brought a new sense of horror to comics, influenced not by slasher stories and monsters-of-the-week, but by Gothic suspense and "weird fiction". It's a macabre selection of black and white chills, and for the series' anniversary, writer Sam Costello has brought the series to Kickstarter to publish a collection of his collaborations with artists Iain Laurie, Kyle Strahm, Savannah Horrocks, and more.
Back Pages spoke to Costello about how Split Lip first apparated into morbid existence, and what readers can expect from the tenth anniversary collection.
ComicsAlliance: What’s the basic premise of Split Lip?
SC: Split Lip is an anthology of short horror comics written by me and drawn by artists from all over the world. All the stories are totally self contained, and there are no recurring characters.
The things that recur are themes — the instability of the self, the difficulty of knowing other people, the secrets hidden by those closest to us, the supernatural. Split Lip is often compared to The Twilight Zone and other horror/speculative fiction anthologies.
CA: When did you first start putting the comics together? What inspired the creation of the series?
SC: Split Lip is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month. The first story, "The Executioner Is a Lonely Man," with art by Brian A. Laframboise, was published on the site back in October 2006. I’d been writing comics for a good long while before that, though.
The core idea for Split Lip sprung to mind when I was watching one of the Twilight Zone marathons they run on SyFy on some holiday weekends. I was glued to the couch, loving immersing myself in that world, and feeling especially taken with the episode "The Arrival." I liked the episode so much that I immediately started thinking about adapting it to comics. I still have the notes for that adaptation on my hard drive.
Quickly enough, though, I decided to skip the adaptation. I understand the impulse — you’ve found something you love and not only do you want to share that love, but you also want to be part of it by translating it to another medium. It’s understandable, but I don’t think it’s really in the spirit of the thing, you know? Rod Serling wasn’t mining books and plays and radio shows for Twilight Zone scripts; he was writing and producing original material. I felt like I could most show my love for his work by creating my own original material.
That didn’t mean I started on Split Lip right away, though. Instead, I followed the standard breaking-into-comics advice for a few years: try to get short stories into anthologies. I didn’t have much luck --- I think I landed one or two stories in about as many years --- and was feeling frustrated. That’s when I remembered The Twilight Zone, and the idea of a series of self-contained stories springing from the mind of one author. I had some scripts I’d already written, came up with a few more, and started contacting artists.
Now, 10 years later, we’re celebrating that milestone with a 10th anniversary hardcover edition that collects 13 stories from the first decade of the series. Add in 50 pages of new material and you’ve got the 350-page book we’re Kickstarting now.
CA: On your Kickstarter page, you describe this as "weird fiction" --- can you speak a little on what exactly that is?
SC: Weird fiction is a speculative, dark, uncanny sort of fiction that encompasses things like horror, the supernatural, the cosmic, the literary, and the genre boundary pushing. Split Lip can certainly be seen as horror, but I’ve made a conscious decision to avoid standard horror tropes: vampires, zombies, werewolves, dark humor, twist endings. As a result, I tend to hear from people who don’t usually like horror --- at least as it’s defined in the general imagination --- but do enjoy Split Lip.
The writer Jeff Vandermeer, author of the really excellent Southern Reach trilogy and editor of The Weird anthology, has some useful notes on the form, from his introduction to The Weird:
“The Weird has eschewed fixed tropes of the supernatural like zombies, vampires, and werewolves, and the instant archetypal associations these tropes bring with them … The Weird instead largely chose paths less trodden and went to places less visited, bringing back reports that still seem fresh and innovative today. The Weird is also darkly democratic … you can feel the pull of The Weird in only some of your fiction; it doesn’t matter, authenticity exists in the words on the page, on the shared frisson that rises from them"
CA: How did you find people to join you for each story? Who are some of the people involved with the project?
SC: The artist roster is fantastic; I’ve been lucky to work with terrific artists. Some people may know the work of Kyle Strahm or John Bivens, both of whom have drawn Spread at Image, or Felipe Sobreiro, who colors that series. They all have Split Lip stories. Sami Makkonen, who’s drawn Deadworld books for IDW, has done a trio of stories. UK indie stalwarts David Hitchcock, Iain Laurie, and Shane Oakley have drawn stories and covers. And that’s just a small slice of the artists who have contributed to Split Lip; there are far too many to name here.
I find artists by keeping a sharp eye focused on social media, portfolio sites, indie anthologies, and what I see on tables at conventions. It’s always a matter of matching the material and tone of a story to an artist’s style. For a strictly realist story like "Unsub," which is in the 10th anniversary book, you want an artist like T.J. Kirsch, who creates really lived-in feeling environments and conveys great emotion through the characters. For something more surreal or supernatural, like "See No Evil," the expressive, dream-like style of Trevor Denham is perfect.
CA: When did the idea come for each story to be told in black and white, rather than color? What does that choice add to the comics?
SC: I’ve always been a huge fan of black and white comics. To my eye, badly applied colors can ruin an otherwise good comic, and that’s doubly true of horror comics. Scary comics are so dependent on tone and style, the spell they cast on the reader is so delicate and easy to break, that any misstep can ruin things. Poorly thought-out color can shatter that spell from the first panel. That’s not to say that I’ll never do color, but I want to do it right.
For me, black and white both lets the reader project themselves into the world of the story more --- by giving them fewer specifics, they can fill them in and thus engage more deeply with the story --- and just provides a nice, crisp image.
CA: As someone with a lot of experience in the area, what do you think are the keys to telling good horror stories within the comics medium?
SC: It’s important to recognize that horror in comics works differently than horror in other media. You can’t do jump scares. (Not that you’d want to!) You can’t generate tension through editing as easily, and unless you’re doing a book full of splash pages, the reader can see what’s in the next panel. Because of that, you have to focus on characters, emotions, and ideas.
You need to have thought through your characters and establish them as real people. Short comics don’t give you a lot of space to connect with the reader and the more well rounded and realistic your characters are, the more likely the reader will feel for them. If you don’t feel for the characters in horror, the story probably won’t affect you much.
Paying attention to the characters’ emotions is important for the same reason. For me, many of the best horror stories are tragedies as much as anything else. But a tragedy doesn’t touch the audience unless they can identify with the characters’ emotions.
Beyond that, you’ve got to have good ideas, preferably ones that aren’t too worn out. There are probably no new stories, of course, but horror tends to be pretty hidebound by its tropes and traditions. I’m not sure the world needs another straightforward take on zombies or serial killers or whatever. If you’ve got a truly different, incisive take, go for it. But otherwise, I think we get the best results when we push ourselves.
CA: Why take the anthology to Kickstarter?
SC: There are two reasons: one economic and one about readership.
Printing a 350-page hardcover isn’t cheap. Add in shipping costs and I was looking at a multi-thousand-dollar bill to produce the book. That wasn’t something I felt I could invest in without knowing that at least some of the copies would be pre-sold before I printed them.
On the other hand, I hoped a Kickstarter would get Split Lip in front of readers who had never encountered it before, but who might love it. And I think it’s done that so far. I suspect a large percentage of the backers of the campaign hadn’t read Split Lip before. Hopefully they’ll be dedicated fans after reading the book.
CA: The book will also contain essays alongside the comics --- what can we expect from the extra material in the completed hardcover?
SC: There’s 50 pages of great, new material in the book. Every story has bonus materials of some kind --- script excerpts, character designs, pencils. Beyond that, I’ve written a commentary on each story explaining some of the story’s origin and what I was hoping to accomplish with it. The book is broken into four sections --- the four main themes that Split Lip explores: The Supernatural, Monsters and Creatures, Tragedies, and Hell Is Other People. For each of those sections, I’ve written a short essay examining the theme, what it means to me, and how it fits with horror as a genre.
I’m also very happy to be joined by two excellent writers about comics. Sean T. Collins, who’s written for Rolling Stone and The Comics Journal among many other places, introduces the book with an essay about Split Lip’s themes. Lauren Davis, who’s written for io9 and other publications, closes the book with a look at Split Lip’s place in the history of horror webcomics. It’s really a treat to have them in the book; they add great perspective.
CA: What stage are you at with the book? If you achieve your goal, what’s your estimated delivery on the final project?
SC: Well, as I write this, the campaign is already 115% funded, so we’ve made it! There are lots of stretch goals, though, so I hope people will check out both the campaign and all the terrific bonuses they can get. There are books and PDFs, of course, but we’re adding on prints, bookmarks, extra comics, and much more as the totals climb.
The book itself is basically done. It’s all laid out, all the writing done. I’ve even gotten a few proofs of it. I’ll do a final editing pass to look for spelling errors and to try to catch any last-minute places it can be tweaked for the better, but we’re pretty much good to go to the printer. For most people (except for those with a few of the more complex rewards), I’m expecting to have the book shipped to them in January 2017.
Letting people start off Split Lip’s 11th year with some of the best moments from its first 10 seems like a happy new year to me!
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