Smash Pages Q&A: Lonnie Nadler and Jenna Cha

The writer and artist of ‘Black Stars Above’ discuss the Lovecraftian horror tale, the tone and texture of the tale, and more.

Black Stars Above is a comic by Lonnie Nadler and Jenna Cha, which was just collected by Vault Comics. Set in 1887, this Lovecraftian horror tale is set in the Canadian frontier, and the story itself is this eerie, atmospheric horror story. You can read the complete first issue right here on Smash Pages.

But what fascinated me most was the small details in how both Nadler and Cha told the story — from the artist’s details that went into capturing the feel of the period to the language and the journal entries to the landscapes.

It’s a stunning book, and the two were kind enough to answer a few questions about the project, what they took from Lovecraft and more.

To start, I always ask people, how did you come to comics?

Lonnie Nadler: I grew up in Ontario, which is a bilingual province in Canada, and as part of my education, I had to learn to speak and write French. One of the tools they used to enhance reading comprehension was forcing kids to take French books out of the school library. I wasn’t particularly good at my second language, in fact I was quite shit, so I always opted for the few comics they had, which were Tintin and Asterix & Obelix. I would take them out over and over again, first because it was easier than reading “real” books, but I pretty quickly just fell in love with those stories and the medium. I still consider Hergé to be one of the finest masters of comics and look at his work regularly.

Those were like my gateway drug, but from there I got into superhero comics. They were the English counterpart to my burgeoning Euro-filled comics obsession. I loved the X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons, and pretty much as soon as I found out there were comics with these characters, I wanted them. My older brother and cousins read comics, and they would hand me stuff to read all the time. I also remember that the dollar store near my house had these grab bags of Marvel and DC comics, and it was a mystery what you would get. They would always make the outward facing book a cool Spider-Man lenticular cover or something of that sort, and the other three books in the bag would be like Conan the Barbarian ripoffs, which were inevitably disappointing. But these bags were super cheap so that’s what my parents bought me. I didn’t even realize I was supposed to read these books in any order. I just read random issues, had no idea what was going on most of the time, but for some reason it appealed to my frazzled adolescent brain.

There were a couple years when I was a teenager that I stopped reading comics because I thought it made me a nerd, but I pretty quickly realized I was depriving myself of something I really enjoyed and went back into them with renewed vigor. I think I was in grade 10 when I became a regular Wednesday shop-slug. So, aside from that brief break, comics have pretty well always been a part of my life. 

Jenna Cha: I’ve obviously loved comics all my life and drew comics as a kid; I actually grew up solely with newspaper cartoonists like Bill Watterson, Gary Larson and Jerry Scott/Jim Borgman. I thought newspaper comics – and Marvel/DC – were all that existed for the longest time. I like bringing this up because it’s funny how my (current) style and aspirations couldn’t be farther from that side of the comics world. I didn’t get into superhero comics until I saw Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man; I remember my dad just happened to have a copy of the Spider-Man’s Greatest Villains trade lying around the house after we saw the movie. However, the artist who changed my view of comics forever was Junji Ito, whom I unwittingly discovered in sixth grade when one of my friends was passing around a printed page of the spiral-forehead-eyeball scene in Uzumaki. Life—and my nightmares—weren’t the same after that, for better or for worse. Thanks, Nina!

While drawing and reading comics was always simply something I could reliably escape to, I never considered it as a career or trade, mostly because it was never an option educationally when the time came for me to start thinking about colleges. Instead, as a teenager and young adult, my passion was rigidly homed in on film. To put it short, I would say my need to tell stories was catalyzed by a love for film, and my influences on writing, pacing, editing and visuals almost entirely come from movies. It wasn’t until I was introduced to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, which has a Comic Art department. Simply because the option was available, a career in comics immediately felt viable; very quickly school made me realize that “need” to tell stories I felt my whole life had to strictly, uncompromisingly be told through comics.

Where did Black Stars Above begin?

Nadler: It’s a bit of a dull story that I’ve told a few times now and I wish I could make it more exciting.I find that whenever an artist or writer talks about where their idea came from, it’s always kind of disappointing and removes some of the magic. I feel like people expect some elaborate story like I was stranded in the Canadian wilderness during the winter, no food or shelter, and only a box of matches in my pocket. I had to hunt my own food, build my own shelter, and learn to skin muskrat by trial and error. I nearly died when I fell through a patch of ice that was covered by a dense layer of snow and I was under the freezing cold water for nearly five minutes. I thought I was done for, but I heard the stars calling and managed to pull myself out by kicking through the ice. It went on like this for months and during this time I came up with the idea for Black Stars Above, partly based on my experience, but with some added cosmic horror to really dramatize the terror I felt inside throughout this harrowing experience.

That’s, fortunately or unfortunately, not the truth. In earnest, it began several years ago when I was reading Margret Atwood’s non-fiction book called Survival, which is an examination of Canadian literature, and while I was reading this, the image of a young fur trapper stuck in the wilderness came to mind and there was something menacing about it. The book all grew from that single image after months of research and outlining and planning. 

Who is Eulalie Dubois?

Nadler: Eulalie is a smart but naive girl who knows nothing but her family, the life they’ve provided her, and their trapline that she helps to tend, situated way out there in the harsh Boreal forest of 1887. Of course she has ambitions and dreams and yearnings of her own, and as a result resents her family for locking her into the same life they have. And I’m afraid if I say anymore it will spoil the book. I wanted her to be a strong female character without being so on-the-nose about it, more so an authentic product of her time and culture than anything. She’s not skinning animals and a survival expert to be badass, that’s just the only life she knows.

When did you first encounter Lovecraft?

Nadler: It was fairly late for me, actually. I was too busy reading comics, I guess. It was in the summer in between my first and second year of university. Without getting into details, that was a rough time in my life for very personal reasons, and part of my coping mechanism and self-prescribed therapy was to just sink into something that allowed me to forget about whatever I was dealing with. It so happened that thing was horror literature and cinema. I’d always taken to genre stories as a kid, but never fully explored that aspect of my tastes until my adult years. This was around 2008, and while there were some mainstream articles and such online at that point about horror literature and its history, there weren’t a tonne. One name that kept coming up, however, was H.P. Lovecraft. And fortunately for me I think this was just one of those things that was in the cultural zeitgeist at the time because as it turns out a number of publishers had just reprinted new collections of Lovecraft’s work. I went into my local chain bookstore and went to the horror section and they had quite a few of his books and I was like, “Wow. How did I miss this before.” Anyway, I bought a couple of them along with some books by writers like Clive Barker, Shirley Jackson, and Arthur Machen. I recall reading the first few sentences of the first story in the Lovecraft book, which was The Dunwich Horror. I felt like I’d discovered some sort of divine tome. His baroque style, the coldness of his prose, and this uncanny atmosphere I’d never encountered before. I even made my mom read it because I was so excited about my discovery. I thought I’d found this obscure author and that he was all mine, but it turns out he was, you know, one of the fathers of modern horror. 

After reading that first book, it set me on a path to read everything Lovecraft had written. While most people only peripherally know him as the Cthulhu guy, he means so much more to me than that. Now I’m one of those nerds who has several special edition Lovecraft collections, and even rare copies of his old pulp paperbacks. I feel like it’s become kind of cool and hip to hate Lovecraft and to say he’s a shitty writer recently, but I think he was actually incredibly brilliant and one of the finest horror writers we’ve ever had. I suppose that reaction is largely a gut response to his racism and that’s understandable because it’s tough to reconcile with that aspect of his work, which was in part why I wanted to write Black Stars Above, to figure out how to both pay homage to Lovecraft, while also moving beyond his unfortunate qualities and beliefs.

When you were working on this, did you think of the story as Lovecraftian? And what did that mean to you? What did it have to include?

Nadler: Yeah, it was wholly intentional for this to be a Lovecraftian story. However, I didn’t want to simply take his lore or imagery and do the old tentacle monster thing because that’s pretty trite at this point. I find that, generally speaking, when people do “Lovecraftian” stories they seldom have the elements that make it such. But, at the same time, as I said before, I wanted this to move beyond Lovecraft’s work, in a way that Black Stars Above functioned as a sort of dialogue with stories like At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. I wanted to try to address his racism by not having a white, male, scholarly protagonist, but someone who was an actual “other” and as a result would react entirely differently to these otherworldly threats. It’s not dissimilar to what Alan Moore did in Providence, but the hope is I made it my own.

To me, Lovecraft Cthulhu mythos is his most boring. He has an essay titled “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” where he outlines what he considers to be the general requirements for a Weird tale, which is the subgenre of speculative fiction his work technically fits under more than horror, if I’m being a pretentious lit geek about it all. In that essay he states that his stories “frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of nature-defying illusions.” And all of this is tied to his desire to explore the limitations of reality as far as our human minds perceive it, both outside of us and within, to transcend our physical reality. And that right there is what is Loveraftian to me, and what I sought to explore this concept my own way through Black Stars Above, but on a more personal, relatable and grounded level. It’s not just cosmic monsters, but they have an impact on Eulalie and the nation as a whole. The unknown for me is something both inside and outside us. 

Cha: I think the concept of fear of the unknown is much more stronger thematically than a lot of popular horror/weird fiction writers like Lovecraft allow it to be. ‘The oldest emotion of mankind is fear and the strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown’—yes, “the unknown” is as vast as a concept as incomprehensibly colossal and godlike space creatures, but as animals, how has fear of the unknown evolved beyond our primal origins? How can we express that artistically? I love the idea of exemplifying the struggles of a young, naive Metis woman in the middle of a racially, economically, politically-torn nation; these struggles are so large in the scope of the beyond her foresight, and just as large personally in how it effects her family and their future. Manifesting real human struggles in the form of nature’s sheer mercilessness—from this planet or not—is how the weird fiction genre can really thrive.

On that note, the typical “Lovecraftian” tropes didn’t really apply to me when drawing the book, even in designing the infant creature. I didn’t want it to be a typical Cthulhu alien, or I at least didn’t dwell on that aspect. Instead, I tried to focus on its humanlike descriptions: pitiful, grotesque, helpless, alone/abandoned. The early design of it turned out to look like something that would fall apart if you picked it up; its design grows with each issue in accordance to its influence and independence amidst the story.

I’ve read the book twice and I keep thinking about the textures of it. The texture of the art and capturing this period, the texture of the prose which was also about giving a sense of tone and rhythm to the written text and journals. As you were working, how important did you see the tone and these details to the story?

Nadler: Thank you for saying this because it’s something we put a lot of thought into and I think, or hope rather, that the book becomes richer with every subsequent reading. Tone, form, and details are perhaps the three most important things to me as a writer. More so than character or plot, which I don’t think is very typical. One of the main goals from the outset was to create a book that instilled in the reader the feeling of being in a dream, of “unreality” as I say several times in the text. Dream sequences aren’t anything new in comics, of course, but I didn’t want it to just be another story with dreams. I wanted to create a mood so that by the time the reader put down the book they were in a different state of mind, almost like there was a lingering fog or sense of dread that would follow them for the rest of the day or week. 

It was also about making sure we evoked the time period with a sense of authenticity. While the journal entries are a nice narrative tool for me to have, and the epistolary form fits within the Weird lit traditions, the most important aspect of it is that such would be Eulalie’s only real means of self expression at the time. It was a means of getting into her head, but doing so in a way that didn’t distract from the history.

To achieve this tone and sense of detail you describe, it meant really thinking about the medium, the form, and the textures we could achieve in ways that maybe others comics didn’t. I very much enjoy considering every detail of a page and thinking about layouts, but on a more micro level I also love thinking about every little detail of a panel, what’s in the foreground, background, and midground, how it’s lit, how it leads us to the next one, and how the words either compliment or contrast the imagery. Thankfully, Jenna is the kind of artist who also speaks the same comics language as me so being specific was something she responded to as a storyteller. Of course, Hassan and Brad are also creators who understand this and bask in it. Brad added so much depth and character to Jenna’s linework. And without Hassan’s unique aesthetically perfect lettering, the book wouldn’t work the way it does. I can’t imagine being able to claim this book has historical authenticity if the captions were simply black text in white boxes. In this sense, Hassan and Brad complete the atmosphere.

Cha: The feel of the art was something Lonnie and I talked extensively about during the initial production; we cross-contaminated a lot of different worlds of visual inspiration like photography by Edward S. Curtis and Ansel Adams, Gustave Dore, Junji Ito and Gou Tanabe, as well as movies like The Witch, The Revenant, and weirder stuff like Kwaidan. Portraying the world with authenticity and respect was of utmost importance, as well as illustrating the realism of how difficult and rough life was back then. Visually, that aspect came out as a literal roughness to the art itself, which was augmented by the great Brad Simpson, who colored the book. He provided a fantastic layer of dreariness to the world, where nothing was allowed to look too clean and unscathed while still making everything look beautiful.

Why is the book set in 1887?

Nadler: For several reasons. The book is set during the fur trade, which spans over a few hundred years, and so I had quite a lot of years to choose from. But since the book is dealing with transitions and states of change, and is about the formation of the nation in some aspects, I wanted it to be at the end of it all just before people were ushered into a new century. The year 1887 was the last vestiges of an era, about to shatter and give way to a new one. This is fairly common for turn of the century narratives, especially for those working in Gothic traditions, so it’s not like I was inventing anything new or particularly brilliant. It’s a fairly surface level metaphor for the ensuing change or lack thereof, I suppose. But by 1887 the fur trade had already been dead for about a decade and anyone still working as a trapper or trader was either desperately holding onto the past or had no other means of contributing to the new Canada that was forming around them. This included many Europeans, but it was particularly hard on the Indigenous peoples who got screwed over time and time again during this period. There were also a number of historical events that I wanted to already have taken place for additional context to Eulalie’s journey and what she learns about the outside world, such as the trial and execution of Louis Riel, the creation of Manitoba, the completion of the Canadian railway system, and the confederation of the nation.

There are a number of pages, especially in the final third of the book, especially that section as she approaches the town, which are beautifully drawn and designed. I wonder if you both could talk about the process and how the two of you worked together.

Nadler: As I said before, both Jenna and I are people who care deeply about the language of comics, and what that means is considering how the form a story takes impacts the contents of what is being told. With a medium like comics, this means really considering how to lay out a page as a means of communicating tone, theme, character mood, etc. Generally when I’m scripting I’ll consider these things and put suggestions into the script for the artist for how I imagine the page would best be laid out. I even block out scenes sometimes with an overhead map to show character movement and such. But since Jenna and I live together, it was pretty easy for us to have chats about details like that. For some issues we would sit down and lay out the book page by page. But as we got to later issues we were so on the same page that we understood what each other was looking for and could execute it on an intuitive, primal level. Since I’m pretty specific in scripts, sometimes Jenna would ask about changing a page around and then I’d rescript it based on her suggestions, other times Jenna simply knew how to communicate certain ideas in a better way than what I’d written. 

I think there’s an odd thing going on in the industry now where it’s frowned upon for writers to write long, detailed scripts, and to leave the visual storytelling entirely up to the artist, but I think that’s irresponsible and lazy to do so. As a writer, my job is to tell the story, and that means considering the way it’s told. I’m not saying this has to work for everyone, but it’s the only way I can work. In my mind, having a detailed script that tries to communicate why you want the story told a certain way is a means of allowing the artist to have faith in you and the world you’re building together because it shows you care enough to put the time and effort in.

Cha: An aspect we planned on was having the visuals and mood for the book get exponentially weirder with each issue, the last one being the most dreamlike. It was important to portray the town as something that shouldn’t exist in every sense, like a relic of time that overstayed its welcome and has twisted into something horrible. Lonnie gave a lot of visual references from photographs and films for how he wanted these more dreamlike scenes in issues 4 and 5 to be portrayed.

Jenna, you craft these beautiful page designs, and now and then you would warp and distort these otherwise orderly pages. You weren’t working in a strict grid, but you were constantly helping to set the tone and establish a rhythm, and then you’d throw that off in interesting ways. I wonder if you could talk a little about how you were thinking about page design.

Cha: Excavating through the infinity of possibilities of visuals, pacing, layout, etc. that the comic medium allows one to tell a story is the best part about being a comic artist. 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, and sometimes that calls for a lot of craziness. 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.

What else are you working on? What do you want to make next? What are you thinking about?

Nadler: Jenna and I are currently working on a new project together that she’s actually co-writing with me. It’s another historical horror story but in a completely different way from Black Stars Above. Otherwise I’ve got Undone by Blood coming out from Aftershock Comics, which is a metatextual neo-Western. I’m also working on a horror graphic novel that’s yet to be announced, but it will likely take up most of my time and brain power for the next little while.

Cha: Around the time production for Black Stars Above began, I pitched one of my horror stories to Lonnie where we’d be co-writers and I would draw. Unfortunately for him he didn’t realize that by saying yes, he’d be enabling me with a currently-still-untamed gulf stream of weird-ass ideas, but this project is alive with teeth, and I’m very excited. I have a number of my own stories, horror and non-horror, that I plan to entirely commit to as artist-writer hopefully in the foreseeable future.

We’ve kind of been dancing around it this entire interview, so just to close, what is Black Stars Above to you? 

Nadler: It is both dream and a nightmare. Real and unreal. Factual and fictional.

Cha: It is an example of modern folk horror, expressing worlds from the past in order to understand the present.

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