Smash Pages Q&A | Adam Cesare and David Stoll on ‘Dead Mall’

The two creators discuss their love for malls, their approach to ‘mall horror,’ the potential for a sequel and more.

Horror novelist Adam Cesare‘s signature novel has a title that contains the two scariest words in the English language, Clown in a Cornfield, so right from the get-go you know that he gets horror. He’s also been adding comics to his resume over the last few years, having worked on Power Rangers comics, Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance and more.

David Stoll, meanwhile, was the artist for Pantomime, a Mad Cave title with writer Christopher Sebela from a few years back. The story featured students at a school for the deaf who become thieves, and I still remember how clever the visuals were in communicating what was being said and heard by the deaf characters.

The two of them more recently united on Dead Mall, a four-issue miniseries from Dark Horse Comics. Along with letterer Justin Birch, they told a complete story that combined horror and mall culture. The story takes place in — and is narrated by — the Penn Mills Galleria, a former mall that’s about to be demolished when a group of kids decide to visit it one last time. Only they find it isn’t quite so empty.

The miniseries was recently collected into a trade paperback by Dark Horse Comics, and it’s available now in comic shops and bookstores everywhere. I spoke with Both Cesare and Stoll about the story, abandoned malls and more.

“Dead Mall” explores the eerie and nostalgic setting of abandoned shopping malls — an always tempting attraction for overzealous youth. What drew you to this setting? And what sort of research did you do before creating the story?

Cesare: David can talk about the architectural side of things, since he designed our whole mall from the ground up (really, with 3D models and everything), but for me, what drew me to the concept of dead malls was live malls. 

I love malls. I think they’re the modern town square, especially where teenagers are concerned. And I think a lot of the doomsaying we see in the media about malls being an outdated concept or something that’s ultimately going to go away… I don’t know, I don’t fully believe that, because there are dead malls near me (Philly and the surrounding suburbs), but there are also malls that are absolutely packed on Friday and Saturday nights. I hope teenagers get to have these spaces for a long time, because I think they were very important, socially, for me growing up.

Stoll: Adam and I had similar relationships with malls growing up, and I think the draw for me was rooted in that nostalgia factor. He brought the idea of Dead Mall to the table wholly formed, and to start things off we sat on the phone reminiscing about mall life for a while. It left the taste of pretzels and Orange Julius on the back of my tongue. For actual research into what I was going to do with the Penn Mills Galeria, my girlfriend and I visited a handful of malls to grab reference pictures and to measure out basic dimensions of the space (the jewelry store was not thrilled), which I then used to build a 3D model of the mall itself. I designed the whole thing from the ground up – literally starting from the floor plan, which I centered around a pentagram. Because of course it’s a pentagram.

One of the fun elements of this story is how the mall itself is a character in it. Can you elaborate on its “character development” and how the mall itself has its own personality and influence on the story?

Cesare: It really came out of the idea of wanting an adversary for our teen protagonists, something less nebulous and conceptual than “they’re fighting an ancient evil!” There’s plenty of haunted house stories that engage with the idea of “the house as a force/intelligence of its own” but less of them (not none, there’s a few) tell us the story from the house’s POV.  

And then, how the Penn Mills Galleria is characterized: I love writing d*ckhead characters and that just made sense here. A creature that’s actually starving and dying, but isn’t going to let you see that worry, because it’s got outsized confidence and this limitless capacity for cruelty. I like to work humor into most of my writing, especially with my more sadistic characters, and I think the mall’s narration is a good example of that. The mall’s such a mean jackass and I love that.

Stoll: The Mall personality is one of my favorite things about the book as well. Too often, I feel like we’re presented with an adversary in a story who’s supposed to be all knowing, but because the heroes manage to slip something by this deity they have a chance to win. Adam does an amazing job not only making the mall a jackass who likes playing with its food, but really and truly keeping to the rules of what it is, which is a Place that Hungers. You can’t fool the mall, kiddos, you’re INSIDE the mall!

David, at some points you seemed to tap into an M.C. Escher aesthetic with the artwork as you create this otherworldly version of the shopping mall. Can you talk about your approach to creating the look and feel for the series, and what influenced you?

Stoll: I wish I had a really smart pop culture pull for what I used when I saw the panel direction “this looks like M.C. Escher’s nightmare,” but in reality I just got out all of my curvy rulers and started riffing on the page. I’m glad it came across so clearly! Honestly, the nebulous nature of the mall allowed us to focus on our characters and their emotional turmoil. Once we established that no, they can’t just walk out the front door, we got to focus more on how the mall draws them in and all the delicious horror that awaits thereafter.

Adam, you’ve done horror stories both in prose and in comics now. Can you talk about the difference in the approach you take to one versus the other?

Cesare: My approach to character and general story architecture is the same, and then everything else about my approach is different, if that makes sense? I try to ask myself with every comics script, every page of that script, really: “okay, but why comics?” Because there’s certain things afforded by the format that you simply can’t do in prose. I’ve done a fair bit of screenwriting too, and I think it’s an easy trap to fall into to try and look for the similarities in writing in these different formats, instead of focus on the strengths that each distinct media posesses. 

There’s a collaborative element in comics that’s completely absent in prose, which is an entire other factor to consider that exists outside of traditional storytelling skills. My scripts are basically conversations I’m having with David (and Justin and the editors), and I don’t want that conversation to be overly confusing or self-indulgent on my part. I want to give them enough that I’m communicating the scenes and characters, but not too much that I’m over-reaching. So that they’re, David especially, able to strut their stuff and bring their own elements to the storytelling. 

Now that you’ve seen the series in print (and seen people’s reactions to it), is there a particular sequence or scene that you’re each really proud of?

Cesare: Mine’s a spoiler. Because I love to make people bummed out, but there’s one page that’s a character’s death that I think is some of my best writing I’ve ever done, and David executed the idea beautifully. 

Purely visually, and I wonder what David’s answer is going to be, but I think the best page in the book is when we reveal these creatures that are living in a haunted playground ball-pit. His design there, his colors: so badass.

Stoll: Okay, so the death page that Adam’s talking about is ALSO my favorite part of the book, and I hope it lands as beautifully as I tried to make it land. The ball-pit monsters was one of the most FUN scenes to draw, since it was one of the most energetic shots in the book and I got to play with the action there, but visually my favorite impact in the book is in the last issue, which takes place in an environment that I’m particularly proud of having pulled off. Beyond all of the crazy cool monster designs Adam and I got to make together, I just hope readers get a visceral kick out of the interior of the mall.

You seem to be teasing a potential follow-up at the end (or should I say “End?”) of the story. Do you have plans for a sequel?

Cesare: Haha don’t look at me. That question mark was a last-minute change! And it wasn’t my idea, David brought it up when we saw the first lettered layouts for issue 4. He said we needed something on that panel and he was right. I don’t know how I feel about the question mark itself, a little winky for my tastes, sometimes when I think about it, but then just right on other days. 

And I have a great idea for a second Dead Mall story. It wouldn’t use the characters from the first book, at least not the human ones. It would be another stand-alone thing. So hopefully people don’t read this interview and be like “Oh it’s meant to continue, I’ll pass, I want a standalone.”  You buy our trade and you get a complete story, beginning, middle and end. So please do. But we love the world and would love to do more with it.

Stoll: Yeah, that question mark was my plea for a second book. Adam is a deft hand at horror that satisfies and leaves you wanting more, and damn if the world doesn’t need a little more mall horror in it. There’s no official word on it yet, but we’ll do our best to make it a thing.

What’s next for both of you — what are you currently working on?

Cesare: Comics-wise, just had a 40 page Power Rangers one-shot come out. Which was a lot of fun to do, the team was absolutely killer, and, for me, a very different kind of comics writing, after Dead Mall. I love superhero stories and would jump at the chance to do more. 

Book-wise, I’m finishing up final edits on Clown in a Cornfield 3 and that’ll be out next year. The first novel in that series is definitely my most widely-read/best-selling title, and the opportunity to have a slasher franchise of my own is just: I’m living the dream. Truly. Then, because publishing’s weird, I have two other, unrelated novels finished and sold to publishers, ready to be announced, but who knows when those are out. 

Stoll: Right now I’m working on a couple of comic pitches ranging from cyberpunk-ish action to rock band shenanigans to a guy whose job it is to assassinate imaginary friends. So far, I’m not tied to any particular project so keep an eye on social media to see what I do next!

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