Interview conducted by Nick Couture
Bursting on the scene in 2017 with The Dregs from Black Mask Studios Lonnie Nadler carved out a lane for himself and his frequent co-writer Zac Thompson as a unique new voice in comics. Since then he has gone on to write at Marvel, spearheading the Age of X-Man line of books, writing a Yondu miniseries, and launching numerous titles at independent publishers like Aftershock and Vault Comics.
His recent work Black Stars Above is soon to be released in trade paperback and represents a confident push forward in his career. It features a rich, detailed world, a main character that feels like real human with a deep internal life, and loads of icy cosmic horror. Lonnie was very gracious to chat with us about some of his inspirations and interests and how that goes back into his work. We chat everything from Dark Souls and to westerns and many things in-between.
As someone like yourself with many interests outside of comics, from skating to film and video production, how important do you think a vast palette of interests is to your work? Do you find a lack of unique outside influences in mainstream comics today?
Weird. I was literally just pondering this right before I sat down to answer these questions. To be honest, I think sometimes I have too many interests and that prevents me from being truly great at any one thing. Don’t get me wrong, writing is my priority and I’ve made it such, so I’m doing okay there, but I have so many secondary hobbies that sometimes I wish I had fewer. I can’t help but wonder if instead of spending time skateboarding, and I put those hours into drawing, how much better would I be at the latter by now or vice versa? Yet, at the same time I just want to have my fingers in everything. The reason I’m attracted to so many different mediums and hobbies is because at the end of the day they all provide an avenue for creation, for storytelling, for self expression, and the differences between them is part of what enraptures me. I’m so obsessed with the idea of how medium and form dictates content, I just experiment with it all.
Regarding the second part of your question, and I may get in trouble for saying this, but in short, the answer is yes. I see too many comics that are influenced only by comics. The reason I think that’s a bad thing is because it leads to a kind of stagnation, an incestuous tainting of the bloodline, if you will. When someone only looks at Jim Lee, for example, they’re going to do everything they can to emulate Jim Lee and that doesn’t offer room for individuality or innovation. But if you pull from literature, poetry, cinema, indie comics, superhero comics, then in that hodgepodge you’re more likely to offer something unique in trying to mash it all together. We are our influences, and part of figuring out your voice as a creator is piecing together the puzzle that is the myriad of things we’re attracted to. I think the best comics I’ve created and the best ones I read are those that bind together things that nobody else would ever consider doing. I don’t mean it in terms of bullshit mashups like “What if you do Seven Samurai IN SPACE!?” I mean it more in terms of challenging yourself to cross mediums and influences. And for the love of god, read and watch and listen to works that are more than 30 years ago.
You’ve written some more esoteric books like The Dregs and Black Stars Above. When you’re writing books for Marvel are you writing unfiltered and then editorial has to pull the reins or are you going into it self editing a bit, aside from the obvious things like language and sex? What was that learning process working with editors like?
Writing for Marvel is a bit strange because it’s just that. I’m writing for Marvel. I’m not writing for myself. It took me a while to realize that and to come to terms with it, but the fact of the matter is these characters don’t belong to me, they belong to the company, and to the fans. There’s a lot of self editing going on, as well as editing by the editors because they are the soldiers protecting the fort, so to speak, making sure people like me don’t come in to destroy their empire. I get plenty of notes on everything I write there. It was really hard at first, and it still is sometimes, but I have to trust that my editors know best. It’s a whole new way of writing that I had to learn. There’s always part of me that wants to push boundaries and experiment because that’s who I am as a storyteller, but at places like Marvel you don’t get to do that until you’ve proven you know what you’re doing, that your books sell, and there’s only a select group of people who reach that point. I’d love to do a totally off the walls book, really trying to push the limits of what a superhero book can be, but that’s not what editors or readers are looking for. Marvel, for the most part, plays things safe and it’s as much strategic in a business sense as it is in a creative sense.
Are there certain artists, in comics or outside of comics, that you look to emulate their career?
Yes. Some of the best advice I ever heard was, “Don’t take advice from someone whose career you don’t want,” and the same applies to modeling your career. While I want my work to be unique, this is all a business and it’s important to strategize. I would love to be a Thomas Pynchon, or Alan Moore, or Cormac McCarthy and just hide away, never be on social media, and let my work stand for itself, but that’s not a reality these days. The people I look up to in this sense are Jeff Lemire, Ed Brubaker, Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, Robert Eggers, Oz Perkins, Jennifer Kent, Ana Lily Amirpour, and the list goes on.
I remember seeing somewhere on social media that you are a skater. I can’t think of too many comic creators (working at the bigger publishers: Marvel, DC, Image, etc) that are skaters, but skaters are everywhere! And I think there are some similarities with the scenes, in the sense that they're both pretty siloed off yet garner lots of enthusiasm from the people within that scene. For example Jeremy Wray might be a god to skaters yet completely unknown to anyone else on the planet, the same way Geof Darrow might be idolized by comic book people. Both scenes also have more underground, counterculture “microscenes” (can’t think of a pretty word) that are healthy and thriving. Do you see a connection there, were those 2 worlds always connected to you growing up? Were zines and board graphics a bridge to comics for you?
Nobody in comics skates and it’s really weird to me. The only other person I know who does is Josh Hixson, and I think he mostly does it as a means of transportation.
You’re right about how these scenes sort of exist in their own little bubbles, but if you’re part of one of them, it opens a whole world and that’s the most beautiful thing there is. I think at some point there probably was more crossover, like during the days of the New York DIY movement when you had guys like Harmony Korine, Shepard Fairey, Larry Clark, and Ed Templeton running in the same circles. That punk attitude lends itself to both skating and comics, but at some point they diverged. The cool kids skate now and the nerds make comics. I’m joking, of course, but there’s some truth to that in the sense that a lot of people who make comics now are introverts who hate going outside. They don’t have time to skate because they’re writing and drawing 12 hours a day.
For me personally, there was absolutely a connection between the skating and art world. I started skating when I was about thirteen, and it was my first form of artistic expression outside of school. Just skating with my friends made me realize, “Oh, everyone does this differently. Everyone is attracted to different tricks. Everyone has their own style.” And I loved that about it. Then I started watching skate videos and it was like a bomb going off. It’s through videos like Dying to Live, Welcome to Hell, Yeah Right, and This is Skateboarding that I found music I liked for the first time, that I saw art, that I saw people wearing different clothes. I couldn’t get enough of the culture because it was so different than what I was brought up with. And naturally that led to my friends and I making our own videos and that was my foray into filming, editing, and producing. It sounds like hyperbole but skateboarding is what allowed me to realize it was okay to be different. Without it, I doubt I’d be where I am today.
Not to wash over anything, skating has definitely had a storied past of homophobia and sexism to name a few, but skating arguably has come a long way. The majority of skaters today are inviting inclusivity and there are core tenets that many would call positive. Tenets like independence/self-reliance, creativity, and DIY. Have you brought any of the tenets of skateboarding into your work?
You’re right to bring this up. Skating, while it can be a welcoming scene also has some real shit heads and gatekeepers and it pisses me off. This is going to be a bit of a rant, so feel free to skip down to the next question. I follow a channel called The Berrics on Instagram and they’re pretty good about being inclusive and showing that skating is for everyone. They posted a video a couple weeks ago of a young girl landing her first kickflip or something and all these dickheads in the comments were saying things like “Who cares. It’s just a shitty kickflip.” And I have no patience for that. Like why would you want to discourage others from experiencing something that brought you happiness? Who cares if this teenage girl isn’t doing crooked grinds down a 20 set? She’s learning and skaters should do all we can to support non-white dudes in joining the culture and learning its joys. But then the other side of it is that there are more pro female skaters and pro POC than ever. Big name companies are getting behind this and that side of the industry is growing every day. So, as you say, I think for the most part it’s a positive scene, one that’s always been leading the charge because it's a fringe culture.
In terms of what I’ve learned from skating that I’ve brought to my other work, yeah that’s part of it. In skateboarding I was always around new people I didn’t know, and yet more often than not it was cool. We had skating in common and that was enough. I try to see comics the same way. The biggest thing for me is perseverance, though. Aside from dealing with some personal and family issues, I sincerely think one of the hardest things I ever did was learn to kickflip. Skating does not come naturally to me, and I spent about 2 years trying to figure it out as a pre-teen. That’s what skating does to you though, you want so badly to do something, and when you finally get it, it’s complete elation. When a skater is trying a trick, no matter their skill level, we all do the same thing when it’s just not clicking. We all say in our minds, “One more try,” and that desire to push yourself to the absolute limits to accomplish a goal as small as landing a trick carries over to the rest of my life, and especially comics. There’s so many nights where I don’t feel like writing anymore and I say to myself, “Just one more hour,” and the amount of progress that’s come out of those last ditch efforts is astonishing.
What’s your board setup like these days?
Right now I’ve got a Zero deck, Thunder trucks, no-name hard 53mm wheels, and Bones Reds. Pretty standard stuff. I’m not too picky about anything other than board size. I ride 8.25 and I can’t go back to anything smaller.
From social media I also extrapolated that you’re huge into Dark Souls and all the Soulsborne games. Those games are known for being extremely punishing and feature rich worlds with deep and cryptic lore. You really have to work for those games. What do you like about media that really challenges you? How important is challenging the reader in your own work?
Yeah I Tweet about those games way too much. It’s probably annoying at this point so I apologize to anyone who thinks so. I think all media should be challenging. It should force us to consider the world and ourselves in a new way. If it’s not, then it’s superfluous. There’s a quote from Kafka that’s always stuck with me, “We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” It’s a bit hyperbolic, but I also think he’s right. There are books, movies, poetry, games out there that have changed my life, that have given me new perspectives on the world because of the way they challenge me and my beliefs. Those are so valuable, and I have a hard time understanding why people would want anything less. I’m not saying everything has to be a downer, but that we should demand more from the media we consume. It takes the same amount of energy to sit down and watch Ingmar Bergman as it does to watch Michael Bay, but one is inarguably more enriching. Those games, too, are challenging, both in terms of difficulty and in the way they present the story, and as a result they represent the apex of the medium.
With Dark Souls and Bloodborne, another reason I love them so much goes back to my obsession with formalism. Miyazaki uses the medium of video games to mold his narratives. Games, by their very nature, should be an experience and exploratory and he’s found a way to make sure every single aspect of his story contributes to that idea. Players are rewarded for playing not for watching. The gameplay mechanics become the narrative. And there’s just something that’s more fun and engaging and cathartic when you have to work to progress or understand the world.
With Black Stars Above I know you worked very closely with your artist Jenna Cha. In the past you shared some really detailed panel descriptions with specifics on spatial awareness and placement of characters. Similar to blocking a scene in a film. You referenced the scripts of Alan Moore being an inspiration, as they are very detailed and really lay it all out there. Can you expound on what you think the role of the writer is? Is your method on Black Stars Above your approach on every project you work on?
In my eyes, and I know a lot of comic book creators disagree with me, but the writer is the storyteller. Story is not just dialogue and it’s not just actions. That’s the plot, the narrative, but not the story. Every single aspect of a work contributes to the story, and I think writers, then, have a duty to consider such things. The way the narrative is told is just as important as what’s being said, once again bringing us back to form. In a comic this means taking into account the characters, the space they exist in, the lighting in that space, the other objects and characters that inhibit the space and their relation to them, where the “camera” is positioned in relation to them, the sounds we hear or do not hear, and furthermore how all of this contributes to the individual panel, the page, the scene, the issue, and the book as a whole. I say this a lot, but comics is a language, and writers must speak it as fluently, if not better than, the artist. It’s a lot to take into account, but if you don’t care about these things, why are you writing? I don’t mean this in the sense that the writer should be the dictator and their word is god’s word, but that understanding these tools and communicating how you want to use them only helps the artist and saves them from doing all the heavy lifting. Some artists hate too much guidance, and that’s fine, but I’m not particularly interested in working with them and I suspect they’re not interested in working with me either.
This is how I approach every book, though Black Stars Above was probably the one I was most verbose and specific with, and I was able to do this because I wasn’t co-writing with Zac Thompson, like I have so many of my past projects. I think Zac would be the first to tell you I’m a bit controlling and obsessive over details.
Black Stars Above, while being loaded with cosmic horror, felt really grounded in a place, specifically Canada. What was your research process like on that book?
It was intense, I’ll start with that. It began maybe 6 years ago, unintentionally, when I read Marget Atwood’s book Survival which is about Canadian literature and its unifying factors. That book planted the seed of the idea in my head that would eventually become Black Stars Above. Once I really sat down to research I would estimate that it took roughly a year once I’d decided to set it during the fur trade and that the main character would be Métis because those are two things I simply could not fuck up. I read a textbook on the fur trade in Canada along with an encyclopedia specifically about the fur trade and the Métis people. I also read first hand accounts of life at the time through journal entries and countless articles about everything from setting trap lines, to what homes were like, to how to skin beaver and muskrat. I also took a trip to Calgary to visit their historical village in which there is a Métis settlement and I interviewed people there who are of said heritage. This sounds like a lot, and it is, but research is my favorite part of the creative process because I learn so much. Putting it all together, picking and choosing the right details afterward is the hard part.
With placing Black Stars Above in the Canadian wilderness were you playing on any of your own fears and anxieties with the location?
For me it wasn’t so much a fear of the woods themselves but of the situation surrounding Eulalie’s journey. I kind of have a vendetta against horror that just exploits cliche imagery without adding further depth. Like sure, basements are scary, but if you’re not adding anything new to that fear, or contextualizing it, or making it thematically relevant then who cares? We see this a lot in modern horror, but thankfully there are saviors like those I named before – Robert Eggers, Ari Aster, Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, Jordan Peele, Jennifer Kent, and the best of the best, Guillermo del Toro. This is a long winded way of saying yes, the Canadian wilderness is a horrifying thing in and of itself, but I tried to give it individual horror for Eulalie, and hopefully for the reader too. The woods, like Eulalie, exist in a place that’s in between. They are not a destination, a finishing point, but a means to reaching something else. I’m on the verge of explaining my book, which I promised myself I wouldn’t do anymore so I’m going to stop talking now.
Undone by Blood, the book that you’re writing with Zac Thompson and with Sami Kivela on art, is essentially a modern western. For inspiration are you looking at other modern westerns like No Country For Old Men or are you pulling from classics and more pulp era stuff?
We’re looking at everything and that’s the whole point. It’s not just a modern western, but a combination of modern and classic. The book, for us, is an exploration of the entire history of the genre and an examination of its lasting impacts, both good and bad. I have a problem with a lot of modern westerns because they’re simply trying to recreate the glory of past films without really offering anything too profound or expounding upon the roots. I’m not saying we’re making a groundbreaking book, but we’re trying to play within the genre while also saying something about it.
On the modern side, we pulled a lot from Cormac McCarthy, as you say, as well as movies like The Proposition, Nick Cave’s music in general, Slow West, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. We also pulled a lot from Park Chan-wook’s revenge trilogy, which are, in some ways, modern westerns set in Korea. We also looked at comics like Blueberry. For older work, we pulled from John Wayne movies, Spaghetti Westerns, and novels by Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour.
Why are you and Zac Thompson so complementary as writers?
It’s simple and complex. We have similar tastes, we have a similar drive, we have similar goals and those three things have gotten us through a lot. At the same time there are also differences in our storytelling and even those differences and shortcomings compliment each other. One example is that I’m a very slow writer and Zac is quite fast so he’s able to push us as a team to work on a strict schedule. I’m meticulous about every line of dialog and that helps when it comes to scrutinizing and editing lines. On the broadest level though, we just get along like brothers and we’ve made sure to foster a working environment where no idea is a bad idea and no criticism is taken personally (for the most part). I say this often, but it bears repeating: I do not recommend working with a co-writer. Most people aren’t wired for it.
What’s that collaboration process like, are you breaking up scenes, are you passing pages back and forth? What was it like developing that writing method that works so well for you guys? Was there a moment when it all just clicked?
There is no breaking up of anything aside from research. The outlines and the scripts are always written when we’re side by side, both in the same Google Doc, and every scene is discussed until we’re both happy with it. One types, and the other edits along the way. It’s a strange but natural amoebic process, which makes it so that when we say co-written, it is actually that. There’s no division of labour. It’s written by Lonnie and Zac as a single unit.
The moment it all clicked was when we got drunk together and went to see Goblin live. After that we were set. The mind meld had begun.
Do you have a favorite David Lynch project?
Blue Velvet forever and always.
Black Stars Above will be available in trade paperback at your local comic shop July 29th.
Undone by Blood #1-3 are out now and available at your local comic shop or online via Comixology. Issue 4 is due out July 15th, 2020
You can keep up with Lonnie Nadler on social media. @LonnieNadler on Twitter