Smash Pages Q&A: Scott Snyder on ‘Nocterra’

The writer of ‘American Vampire,’ ‘Death Metal,’ ‘Batman’ and more discusses his newest creator-owned title, his Best Jackett Press imprint and more.

Scott Snyder has been in the driver’s seat for many of DC’s biggest projects over the last decade or so, including crossover titles like Metal and Death Metal, and of course his runs on Batman and Justice League. At the same time, he’s also kept a foot in the creator-owned world, writing titles like American Vampire, Wytches and Undiscovered Country, among others.

Last summer, he hit the gas on his creator-owned work, launching a Kickstarter for Nocterra, a new creator-owned series with Tony S. Daniel and Tomeu Morey that’s coming out from Snyder’s Best Jackett Press imprint. The crowdfunding effort brought in more than $200,000 and set the stage for the launch of the Nocterra ongoing title, which debuted last month from Image Comics. The explosive first issue introduced readers to truck driver Val Riggs, a woman who lives in a world where the sun stopped rising 10 years ago, plunging humanity “into an everlasting night that turns all living creatures into monstrous shades.” The only defense is artificial light; luckily Riggs’ 18-wheeler is heavily illuminated.

I spoke with Snyder about the comic, its villain, the differences between launching a creator-owned comic vs. a DC title, his plans for Best Jackett Press and more.

JK Parkin: Congratulations on the success of the book. Both critically and sales-wise, it seems like it’s doing well.

Scott Snyder: Yeah. I feel crazy lucky, honestly. I feel incredibly, overwhelmingly grateful.

When you have a book like Nocterra coming out, what’s your excitement or your nervousness level compared to, say, when Death Metal #1 came out, or your first issue of Justice League? Is it a different feeling when it’s a creator-owned book?

Oh yeah. I mean they’re both incredibly nerve-wracking [laughs]. But I think the pressure on something like Death Metal, it has this whole system of books that depend on it. The characters themselves, you’re doing things that you know are your own and different than other people have done before. So there’s a nervousness that has to do with you playing with other people’s toys and setting up things for other books. It’s a whole kind of ecosystem of anxieties (laughs).

When doing creator-owned, it’s sort of the inversion of superhero writing. There’s no 70-80 years of history around these characters. You’re inviting fans into a brand new landscape, a whole new planet of storytelling that you’re building from the ground up. So they’re sort of mirror processes of each other, each with its own really exciting elements.      

So in that regard, they’re just totally different fears. It’s almost like you’ve redone someone else’s house in a completely different way that speaks to you when it’s something like Death Metal, and you’re hoping they all like the house and then move in near you (laughs). Then with Nocterra, it’s like you’re inviting them to a whole new country they’ve never visited and beginning from the very foundation of the thing.

That’s a good analogy. So when you think about your work on Death Metal and your work on Nocterra, I imagine there’s a lot of crossover in the audience because your fans probably followed you over. But do you think you’re bringing in some new fans as well by branching out and doing something that’s not in the superhero genre?

With superheroes, you’re selling the audience on the idea that you have something to say through this character that they love, and they’re there already for the character whether you’re writing them or not. You’re convincing them that you’re the right person to write it. When it comes to creator-owned, like this, again, there’s nothing built already, so you’re selling them on the whole idea, you’re selling them on everything that doesn’t exist yet.

My hope is that there are people who maybe are Marvel fans and don’t pick up DC, or that maybe like Batman but didn’t like my version of Batman, or Metal fans that aren’t up for another event. That they just see the log line, the high concept, the art and our passion for the project, and give it a shot. I feel very, very lucky that so many people are trying it out. It’s a project that we believe really deeply in.

When you launch your first issue, you’re going to get some interest just because it’s the first one. But keeping them on board for the second one is another thing. Did you feel pressure doing the second issue?

Oh yeah. I mean, my bud, James Tynion — he’s like my best friend. We’ve been friends now for the better part of like 15 years. Maybe even more, honestly, since he was in college and I was the professor teaching comics in my 20s before I had kids. So he’ll tell you, because to this day I still give him everything before it comes out. And he’s like, “You know, you’re okay already. There’s no land mine here.” And I’m like, “No, no, it has to be one of the best things I’ve done.” And I still sweat every issue, as corny as it sounds. But especially, issue one, obviously, highest pressure, making sure folks are on board. But issue two and three, I’ll tell you, are the ones I sweat even more because keeping them on board for the big payoffs in four, five, six, I mean, the character building that needs to happen, the kind of world-building things, the sense of immersion, the mysteries, all of that stuff is key.

So yeah, I mean, this is sincerely a series that we want to keep going for a long time. I just sent Image our outline for the first three arcs with interstitial issues in between those arcs. It’s really hard outlined for at least 25 issues. So, it depends on fans reading it. As long as we can stay in the black, even barely, this is the books that I want to do to the end.

For me, the thing about this book in particular is that it’s kind of the beachhead for the whole imprint that I’m doing for myself and my partners called Best Jackett. What I wanted to do was bring the kind of bombast and over the top epic storytelling, elements and sensibility that I loved. Kind of like combining the superhero work that I’ve done over the last 10 years with the more dark, personal, intimate aspects that power books like Wytches and After Death. And I always had two different spaces to do those things in for the last 10 years. I had DC to do the real widescreen, muscular storytelling that is so personal to me. But then also do things that pushed me in a more experimental direction in creator-owned. But not being at DC this year, having nowhere but here to put everything, I wanted this series to embrace both aspects and put the DNA of both things together, and create something new and synergistic with those.

So the personal aspect of it is that it’s a series that’s written for my teenager in terms of the way that what’s personal about it and what’s urgent about it is kind of sublimated beneath the fun of it. But what it’s about is a world in which people are separated by darkness unrecognizable to each other and demands that they stay apart, and stay in the light alone. And, I’ve watched my kids in the pandemic and before that feel, I think a tremendous sense of isolation. I think there’s a tendency to silo yourself even before the pandemic, growing up in a world over the last four years, plus five years where things are becoming much more aggressively contentious. So for me, I think it’s a book that speaks to this moment and has a lot of intimate concerns as a parent. On the other hand, it’s awesome truckers and cool costumes fighting monsters on the highway, and serial killers bonded with nanocarbon so that they’re walking silhouette to burn you with their touch [laughs]

So that’s why it’s a book that’s a testing ground. I care a tremendous amount about it. It’s book that brings together the muscularity of my superhero work and the personal aspects and the darker aspects of my creator-owned work, and fuses them into one big thing to see if this one works, it’s kind of the engine for a lot of the other books that I’m planning.

Yeah. I think that’s definitely coming through in the series, too. And it makes sense that you’d work on it with an artist like Tony S. Daniel.

Thanks. Yeah, we’ve circled each other for a really long time. He was one of the first people I became friendly with when I came to DC. He was working on Batman and I was on Detective. He was a very good, very friendly and welcoming creator who showed me some of the ropes about how to handle Batman fans and how to navigate some of the waters. And I’ve always been grateful to him for that.

We’ve always wanted to work on something intimately. We did some things where we were kind of passing each other, like Batman and Robin Eternal. But you know, working solo with him has been something I’ve looked forward to for a long time. And so, we’ve also become quite close as friends over the last few years. Our families have a lot of similarities in terms of ages of our kid, and our kids have a lot of similar sensibilities. So we’ve become genuine friends. And this popped up right at the perfect time. And I was telling him, “Tony, this is the book.” And he was like,” I got it. I agree. Let’s do it.”

One of the things I really liked in the second issue was that scene where they stop at the Neon Grove, and the idea that these ports exist where the truckers will stop. I’m guessing that beyond what we’re seeing on the page that there’s probably a lot more to the world that you have developed in your head. How much world building do you do? Do you know what’s happening in other parts of the country while we’re watching this one particular trucker and her story?

Yeah. I mean, I do just because in this series’ second arc, they start traveling around the country and then you start to see the secret of what happened with the darkness, and if there is there any way to bring back the light, what would that would entail? So, I wanted to create a whole geography and culture for the world. So some series, I think, some of the other ones in Best Jackett, they’re not ongoing. They’re sort of like seasonal stories. One of them is an anthology series, for example, where it’s like every year, there’s another story that has the same science fiction tone. So those are ones that are just very cut and dry. But for some of them, like this, American Vampire and Undiscovered Country, the whole fun of it is building out this expansive and ever-widening landscape. So, yeah, there’s a lot of planning with this one. I know the end of the series as well, as we do with like Undiscovered Country and American Vampire. It’s very weird when you get there — like American Vampire is, what, like 50 or 60 issues, and we’re finally getting to the thing that is in my pitch from 2008.

So it’s nuts. But yeah, this is that kind of series, where as long as people buy it, it’ll keep going, and there’s a lot to learn, like Blacktop Bill’s identity and his whole band of marauders and how they were made. And then a lot of over-the-top story to come.    

I’ll be asking about Blacktop Bill, but I just wanted to say I still remember the first issue of American Vampire coming out and just what a fun, refreshing, cool series that was when it debuted. It was part of a resurgence for Vertigo, I think, at the time.

Yeah, it was fun. I mean, that’s how Jeff Lemire and I became so close. It was Sweet Tooth, it was American Vampire, it was the Unwritten by Mike Carey…. sitting on panels with them and some of the stuff that was coming out, I mean, it was a great moment. Karen [Berger], Mark Doyle and Will Dennis, we’re all still together. I mean, Will Dennis is my editor for all of the Best Jackett books. I hired him on retainer. He’s my partner in Best Jackett. Mark Doyle is the editor of some of the projects that we’re going to do soon as well. Mark and I, we have a weekly “friend” call, actually right after this, to catch up. So he’s one of my best friends, too.

One of the other things I really love about Best Jackett and this book is Tomeu [Moray]; he is such a great colorist and I just want to sing his praises for a second. He’s like a superstar on Batman, on everything, and he came over to do this book because Tony and he have been friends for 10 years. Deron Bennett, the letterer on the book, is one of the people I became very close with on Batman. He did a couple of special issues with me that really required some acrobatic lettering. We just stuck together and did some other things, too. And so the team is a team that really likes each other. And Will, obviously, is the person who greenlit American Vampire under Karen. Some of the creators in Best Jackett are people I’ve never worked with before, like Ariela Kristantina, who we’ve announced for this book Chain that we’re doing with Image in 2022. But then there are other people who are super familiar that you’ve seen me work with before a lot, but we’re trying new things together.

So the whole idea is to just bring people together with it that you trust and you like as human beings, and other people as well who you’re getting to know and who you admire and are inspired by. So I’m really thrilled with the whole thing. And then, there’s a component to it that’s devoted to bringing in new talent as well that we’re working on. So I really want to set up a very broad tent, and really have different posts within it. One that’s like, “Here’s what I’m doing with image. Here’s what I’m doing elsewhere. Here’s what I’m doing when it comes to new talent, and here’s what I’m doing that’s sort of off the beaten path,” and just have a whole different set of pillars than you’ve seen before.

So do you picture Best Jackett becoming your version of, say, Skybound — your own imprint?

Yeah, very much. My goal is eventually to be able to publish other people fully on our own or to partner with publishers, which is what I’m working on now, to partner with publishers and be able to help advocate for books that are by emerging creators. So that’s a big part of what I want to do. One of the highlights of my whole career was teaching at DC and doing those workshops that were designed to help bring in new talent. Not that they needed my help. So many of the people from that group I feel like I learned from over those semesters more than they learned from me. But seeing so many of them do so well now, like Matt Rosenberg and Phillip Kennedy Johnson, Mike Moreci was in one, Vita Ayala, Mags Visaggio, Joelle Jones, and they were all in that. To see them take off and to know that even in some small part I have that connection to them means a lot to me.

Yeah, that’s cool – you’re helping to bring in the next generation. And it helps comics overall.

Yeah. I mean, that’s what Death Metal was about, too, the message of it. It was about welcoming the next generation and not clinging to the past. Like instead respecting the past, always honoring the core DNA of what we are, but allowing things to grow and move past certain barriers.

Yeah. It’s great seeing DC after the event, too, and the creators they have on different books now and what they did with Future State and some of the changes you can see come into fruition there.

Yeah. That was the goal. I’m really glad that it actually worked out. I give Marie Javins and Daniel Cherry and everybody who came in while we were doing Death Metal a  lot of credit for linking up with that and creating a real varied, textured, progressive, interesting and rich line on the other side.

I wanted to get back to Blacktop Bill, who we’ve only seen for a few pages, but he’s such an awesome new villain. He feels kind of like a combination of Batman Who Laughs mixed with a little bit Deadpool. But the thing that really came into my mind when I was reading was Randall Flagg. Could you talk a little bit about where Blacktop Bill came from when you created him?

He might’ve come from Randall Flagg in a lot of ways. That character, I remember very vividly when I read Needful Things after having read The Dark Tower. The last ones weren’t out yet. But I had read The Dark Tower, the beginning of it. I had read Eyes of the Dragon, which was one of the books that made me want to write in the first place. I was away at sleep-away camp when I was my son’s age, when I was nine and turning 10, and I was away for eight weeks. And I remember I hated it. It was this sports camp. And I was always okay at sports, but I would hide up in arts and crafts all the time and just want to draw. It was all boys. It was like a very macho Lord of the Flies. I don’t know what my parents were thinking. But anyway, the fun of it was every night I had this counselor that read to us from Eyes of the Dragon.

And I remember he finished it on the last night. I was enraptured by that book. And so Flagg becoming a character that cross-pollinated in these other books, this totemic evil figure who walks the highways — I just loved it. I loved it that that was something that he could create. So I’m sure there’s some of that baked into Blacktop Bill. He’s got a great backstory as well. To me, he’s pure evil. He’s like someone who’s born in our time and was evil in our time in a really horrific way on the highways in a truck. And then is given extra power in this world because he’s so willing to be so bad and he loves it. He doesn’t want the sun to come back at all. So he’s just like built for the darkness. And I really like him. He’s in all three arcs and his character changes a lot, but not for the better. He only gets meaner and meaner.

His visual look compliments him really well.

Yeah. I want to do it so that you never really see his face. Like even back when you see him back in the present day. That he’s always hidden. He’s just primal evil. I’ve always been fascinated with that. There are the characters that have zero conscience and how they’re biologically different, like neurologically different. What happened to them? What’s wrong? I’ve always had this fascination with that, like you see it some James Jr., my first DC original creation, to The Batman Who Laughs — characters like that in different forms, some of whom are slightly sympathetic and some of whom are not.

To wrap up, is there anything else we haven’t talked about that you want to make sure you get across to readers?

I think the biggest thing is really just our gratitude. When you start creating your own series, you never know how it’s going to go. And I’ve been in this business a long time at this point. I’m waiting to be put out to pasture to some degree, but I will always give it my all, I promise, and never take for granted how lucky I am to do that. So this series is designed as a thank you and a big fun blast of twisted adventure. So I hope that people will give it a try. We’re giving it everything we have. And I genuinely believe that is some of Tony’s and Tomeu’s and my best work. So, we’ve got a lot of plans and hope you’ll sign on.

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