If you’ve been paying attention to the Big Comic Page at all in recent months, you’ll have heard us singing the praises of Black Stars Above from Vault Comics since its very first issue. And with the trade paperback collecting the entire five-issue series going on sale in a couple of weeks, we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to sit down and have a chat with its co-creators Lonnie Nadler and Jenna Cha about its development and some of the themes that went into this thoroughly unconventional historical cosmic horror story.
BIG COMIC PAGE: First of all, thank you for agreeing to answer some questions on Black Stars Above ahead of the release of the collected edition.
To reiterate some of the observations and comments from my reviews of the single issues, I think that this series was superbly well delivered, by the whole creative team, and it’s one of the more inventive and thought provoking “cosmic horror” stories I’ve read in a long time.
Okay, so for those who will be reading the collected edition for the first time, can you give us a quick introduction to the story?
LONNIE NADLER: I generally prefer to let stories speak for themselves and I think too much knowledge up front can ruin a thing. I know that makes me sound like a bit of an asshole though, so what I will say is that this is a very strange mash up of genres, touching everything from cosmic horror to historical fiction, and many others in between. It’s set in rural Canada during the fur trade in 1887, a time of great change for the country, and the world at large. As with all times of change, there’s great turmoil and it reverberates through the world and through the cold woods. There are few things more horrifying than history.
BCP: I know you did a lot of research into the history and cultures of the world Eulalie inhabits, which for me, delivered a story that was steeped in that history and culture rather than just making a superficial nod to a “style”. How important is it to you that this level of detail infuses your writing?
LONNIE: It’s absolutely essential to my process and to the kind of stories I want to tell. The research, learning the history, is my favorite part of the creative process. You discover so many amazing things about the world and our place in it, and this other time and place feels both incredibly foreign yet familiar. With Black Stars Above in particular, to think just over a hundred years ago that that was, in part, how the nation functioned is just incredible to me. We’ve come so far, but then when you start digging, you realize maybe it’s only changed on the surface and all the problems people were dealing with then, we’re still paying for it now. Indigenous cultures in particular, unfortunately.
So, while this is a work of fiction that veers into surrealism, it’s grounded in reality and I think writers have a duty to uphold the ugly truth of whatever reality they are presenting, within reason and so long as it serves the themes. To do otherwise is irresponsible and, quite frankly, lazy. Putting these historical details in the book, like the type of cutlery they use and the design on the blankets, enriches the world on the page. While so many readers may not notice these and they may seem inconsequential, it all goes toward creating a mood, and bringing people back to another time and place. I obsess over details and I like to think it’s not for nothing. I believe readers feel it in the whole experience, even if they may not notice the individual parts.
BCP: The easy pigeon hole for this story would be “Lovecraftian”, but as I’ve mentioned in my reviews of the series, there are so many other influences in this series that it really defies being placed in any one category. I know that you like to push the boundaries of the subject matter you’re working on, was this then a conscious effort to make the whole more mysterious and otherworldly?
LONNIE: This was very much a conscious effort and I’m glad you picked up on it. To add some context, I’m a big Lovecraft fan. I own at least 5 different collections of his work along with numerous semi-valuable collectors paperbacks, and a biography or two. I even have a Lovecraft tattoo. He’s largely responsible for me wanting to write horror in the first place, and I’m a sucker for his baroque style. With that said, however, I’m more than aware of his xenophobia, racism, and obvious struggle with social anxiety. I’m also acutely aware that while he’s thought of as the father of cosmic horror, he is not the only one. There were many before Lovecraft and after who tackled the terror of the unknown in equal merit.
Part of my goal with Black Stars Above was to both pay homage to Lovecraft while also stepping beyond him, bringing in other influences, and addressing his racism and bigotry through the text, but not in a way that felt like I was pandering or speaking for a group of people to which I do not belong. Lovecraft thought himself to be the outsider, but in reality he was as normal as a man could be. So, by having the protagonist of the book be part of a marginalized group, an actual outsider, it’s seeing the cosmic horror through a very different lens, and thus, hopefully, allows for a new perspective on some of the themes common to the genre. I also hate reading cosmic horror that’s derivative. The kind of stuff where you can tell the writer only read Call of Cthulhu and so it’s all just tentacles and the deep ocean. While there are some tentacles in this book, I wanted to use that trope to sort of trick readers into thinking the monster is something it’s not.
All this combined with my over-active brain that tries to do too much, and so in addition to Lovecraft there’s also plenty of influence from writers like Cormac McCarthy, Anna Kavan, Farley Mowat, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Alan Moore, and Hidetaka Miyazaki. And this is only my own influences, not accounting for what the rest of the team brought on board. The number of texts and films and games that influenced this book is innumerable. That’s probably why it verges on incomprehensible for some people.
BCP: Lonnie – Personally, I thought the finished product was damned near perfect but, are there any ideas that you had for this series that didn’t make the final story, but you would really like to have included?
LONNIE: Oh, yes. There were many darlings I had to kill, many scenes left on the cutting room floor, and many ideas still dwelling in my brain that won’t ever see the light of day. That happens with every project, especially in comics, because we’re so restricted by page count. I’m afraid mentioning specific ideas that didn’t make the roster might be rather fruitless at this point and probably boring. The story exists as it is now, and that’s how it will always exist, and ultimately I think it’s for the better.
BCP: Jenna, I made quite a fuss over your artwork in my reviews, I particularly loved the way you used the huge and expansive landscape to define the isolation of Eulalie while simultaneously making it feel crushingly claustrophobic. How much input did Lonnie have on what you produced and was there a particular influence or reference you used?
JENNA CHA: Lonnie and I have a lot of the same influences in both comics and film, so right away we were on the same page with how the book would look and feel. Gustave Dore, Junji Ito, and Gou Tanabe were a few artists that influenced the visual style of the book. Ansel Adams influenced the landscapes, lighting and portraiture; I wanted a blend of beautiful and dreary/creepy. I draw a lot of inspiration from spaghetti westerns when it comes to space and landscape, and the vastness of those movies came to mind when envisioning the vastness of Black Stars Above, though entirely different settings.
BCP: The standard description in any Lovecraftian text on a creature like The Infant is *indescribable* or not conforming to any known biology and I think you nailed that brilliantly. How did you also manage to imbue such a range of emotion in and intelligence in this creature? I have to say that you had me invested in its welfare pretty much from its first appearance so whatever you did, it certainly worked!
JENNA: I tried to think of the emotional descriptions Lonnie gave me—pitiful, grotesque, helpless, alone/abandoned. I think he used the term “sympathetic pity” a few times. So, I wanted the infant to look really delicate and physically vulnerable, like it would fall apart if you picked it up, so it’s anatomy ended up being kind of loosely strung together like each segment of its body was hanging onto each other for dear life. As it grows over the course of the book, it gains a little more strength, power, influence and independence, so by the end of it, the infant looks a bit more sturdy.
BCP: There are some really interesting and unique designs and themes in this series, which did you enjoy developing most?
JENNA: As a comic artist I’m always fascinated by the infinity of things comics can allow you to do, and it’s always in my best interest to try and construct the flow and design of a page with some level of unique togetherness, pacing or visual communication. Lonnie of course shares the same sentiment and we were able to work together to achieve as much as we could in that regard with this book.
BCP: I thought the use of journal entries to present a lot of the dialogue was a great way of developing the narrative and maintaining that period feel, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou does a REALLY great job of delivering this. In issue three you really push the limits of this by having an eight page section that is purely entries in a commonplace journal (which for the record I thought worked really well). Did you have any concerns over this section, that such a chunk of solid text might be too dense for a comic book?
LONNIE: You might be the only person on the planet who liked the journal text section. That’s not true, but I did get a lot of complaints about it, which I think are ridiculous and actually make me quite happy. I got one just yesterday in fact. I’m not the first person to do this kind of thing, which is partly why I think the reaction to it was so absurd. Alan Moore does it all the time. Hickman and Gaiman have done it. And! This was the only book on shelves out of hundreds to have pages of text, so I think people can deal with a little extra reading. I love to provoke. I love to illicit a response. I love pushing readers to new places, but with this, I did it because I thought it was right for the story. I didn’t even think twice about it, or that it would be a big deal. It was seeded from the very first pages of the first chapter, so I don’t think it was even that much of a surprise.
It’s also funny because readers complain so often about the cost of comics, how there’s not enough content to make it worth the cover price, and then I give them a book that has more content and takes more than 10 minutes to read, and that’s also a reason to complain. In essence, my answer to anyone who didn’t like that section is: deal with it.
BCP: Without giving too much away, the ending is left in such a way that there could be more entries in this series, is that something you have planned or would like to see?
LONNIE: Thank you for saying so. It really does mean a lot to me because we all worked on this book in isolation and many times I was worried I’d made a huge mistake in crafting such a weird story for my first solo book, and dragging Jenna, Hassan, Brad, and Vault down with me. I will say that this story was always meant to end the way it did. There are, however, ways for a story to continue without it being a sequel or prequel, and I hope to bring that to life someday soon. Nothing is set in stone, but keep your fingers crossed if you’d like to see that.
The collected trade paperback of Black Stars Above is available on July 29th 2020 from your local comix shop or online via Comixology.
The writer of this piece was: Mark Scott
Mark Tweets from @macoy_comicgeek