Keith Davidsen of Avatar Press talked to Garth Ennis and Mike Wolfer about Stitched, the movie chapter and comic book from Avatar, out in November. First, Garth…
Keith: Many filmmakers rely on the darkness to tell horror stories, but you’ve brought terror out into the harsh light of day. Why did you make that creative choice?
Garth: I like that harsh, bleached-out light you get in the desert, that sense of everything being rock and dust and bone, all dried-out and used-up and dead. It all helped to make things a little different, and it also echoes the feeling I wanted to communicate with the Stitches themselves- not squishy, bloody, gory zombies but dusty, ragged things that look like they baked to death in the relentless sun and heat.
Keith: When you saw the Stitched creatures for the first time in-person, as actors in costume and as special effects props, was it a surreal moment for you?
Garth: The whole thing was slightly surreal. I think Joe Badiali’s team did an amazing job. We had a happy little accident there: I hadn’t actually been very specific regarding the ragged costumes of the Stitched, thinking – well, rags are rags. But our costume designer Brooke Wheeler chose a sort of dirty off-white color that turned out to match the rocks and dust of the location almost exactly, and when Adam suggested one of the Stitches slide down the slope to begin its attack, it suddenly occurred to me – this is camouflage, the Stitched masters have thought militarily and created a kind of stealth weapon. Which gave me all sorts of ideas.
Keith: Zombies seem to be all the rage right now, and Stitched has certain characteristics in common with zombie horror. How does your story differ?
Garth: The Stitched are essentially undead war machines. They’re animated and controlled by a specific process; their masters have been in conflict for a long time and have learned to use the dead as weapons.
Keith:How involved were you in the physical packaging of the DVD?
Garth: Really just the cover – the notion of the huge looming Stitched and the three lost, lonely little figures below.
Keith: What can fans expect to see from the behind-the-scenes footage of the STITCHED filmmaking?
Garth: Exactly what you’re hoping for: interviews with the people involved and several shots of me looking like I know what I’m doing – you know, that classic “making of” moment where the director nods his head or waves his arm and you cut straight to something dramatic happening, so it seems like he’s responsible. I got a bit of a kick out of that.
Keith: What are your thoughts on how the STITCHED premiere at San Diego Comic-Con went? Any particular memories that you walked away with?
Garth: Oh, it seemed to go over pretty well! I’m told we had a packed house on both occasions. And I got a kick out of finally seeing the thing on the big screen.
Keith: Like CROSSED, you created a world with STITCHED which someone else (in this case, Mike Wolfer) is expanding upon with further storylines beyond your first story arc. What are your thoughts on how Wolfer’s storyline has been developing?
Garth: I very much like what he’s come up with so far. He’s going to take STITCHED in some directions I’d never have considered. That’s the great thing about Mike – he has a pleasant sense of the unpleasant.
Keith: Will you be revealing the origin of the Stitched creatures and their black-robed masters in the comic book series?
Garth: Yep, you’ll see it all. Quite gruesome stuff.
Keith:After all this time working on it, the STITCHED DVD and comics are finally live this month, available to retailers for pre-order (for November release). Anything you want to express to comic shop owners about STITCHED?
Garth: (Laughing) Please order lots and lots and lots. And thanks!
With a career spanning over twenty years, Mike Wolfer has been both writer and illustrator on many of Avatar Press’ most popular titles, collaborating with some of the industry’s most renowned writers including Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis and Alan Moore. As the guiding force behind such horror titles as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, FRIDAY THE 13TH, and LADY DEATH, as well as the upcoming WAR GODDESS series from Boundless Comics, Wolfer cemented his reputation as one of today’s top creators of supernatural action tales, a trend has continues with his credits on Garth Ennis’ STITCHED. Keith Davidsen caught up with him to discuss his work on the ongoing STITCHED comic book series, expanding the story from Garth Ennis’ short film.
Keith: How did you become involved in the STITCHED multimedia film / comic project?
Mike: Having collaborated with Garth in the past, it was always an assumption that we’d someday work together again on a new project, but it would all have to be a matter of timing. For the last few years, I’ve been very busy writing and illustrating Warren Ellis’ GRAVEL, along with writing and occasionally drawing several other titles for both Avatar Press and Boundless Comics, so doing something new with Garth was one of those “Someday” scenarios. It was just coincidence that the whole STITCHED project was in its formative stages when Avatar decided to take a bit of a restructuring hiatus with GRAVEL, which fortunately made me available to illustrate Garth’s latest brainchild.
Keith: It was STREETS OF GLORY, a Western comic book series, that you’d previously worked on with Ennis. How would you describe your creative partnership?
Mike: Working with Garth was a fantastic experience in the past, and that has not changed. The vision of the writer and the artist don’t always calibrate perfectly and one of the things which I enjoy about working with Garth is, if I’ve drawn something which he doesn’t quite agree with, he’ll tell me, but the man is such a diplomat that I’m never made to feel like an ass for misinterpreting his ideas. I think that’s what sets Garth apart from many other writers, and why his characters have such resonance with readers. His creations have the same heart, compassion and spark as their creator.
Keith: At the time you began working on STITCHED, had the short film existed yet in a rough cut or final form? Or had you begun work on the series relying on the script and still photography from the set?
Mike: I’ve been involved with the project almost from the very beginning; not actively involved, but I was invited to the initial brainstorming sessions with William Christiansen, Brian Pulido, and Garth. Even though my active involvement wouldn’t be required until just before production of the film, the guys still included me in the entire process, which was not only a nice thing to do, but helped to create this sense of “family” that all of us, including the actors, have recognized. I really had little to contribute as budgets, locations, and casting were being discussed, but the publishing facet of the franchise is a vital component of the quite ambitious, multimedia release, so I was “put on the team” very early on. But to answer your question, I did do some pre-production work, providing storyboards for a few sequences, and I designed the “Stitches” themselves, but it wasn’t until after on-set photography of the costumes and actors had been completed that I actually began drawing. I wanted to have that exact reference available so that the comics and the film felt cohesive with one another.
Keith: What are your thoughts on adapting the Ennis-penned feature film script to the comic book form? As a script originally intended for a different medium, does it differ from other scripts you’ve worked with?
Mike: Comic book scripts and screenplays are very similar in form, but they differ quite a bit in that a screenplay doesn’t contain the “shot for shot,” detailed scene and non-essential action descriptions you see in comic scripts. Part of an actor’s job is to take a character’s dialogue and actions and assign unique personality traits, emotions, motivation, etc. to that character. In comics scripts, however, we tend describe everything a character does, like, “Confused, he scratches his head.” A screenwriter doesn’t need to spell that out, and a good actor is going to consider that option on their own. What’s really fun about this project is that I’ve been given this incredible reference material, the short film. I’ve had the costumes, locations, and even facial features of a large portion of the cast delivered to me before pencil ever hit paper, so this project is much different from when I’m making all of it up myself, or doing my own research.
Keith: So, for the first chapter of the STITCHED ongoing series, you’ll be translating the actual short film to comics…
Mike: Right. The first issue of STITCHED is an expanded adaptation of the short film, and the short film is essentially the opening of a story to be told in a feature-length movie. Issues #2 through #6 of STITCHED will adapt the screenplay for the full-length feature which Garth has written, and after that I’ll be scripting new material based on the premise established in the first story arc (screenplay adaptation).
Keith: Have you found that the cinematography of the film dictates the way you frame the panels?
Mike: It was really interesting to see the film after I had read the script and already mentally envisioned the entire thing in preparation for starting the art. Surprisingly, what Garth put on paper and how I imagined that action would look was very similar to what he eventually put on film! When watching the movie, there were many instances when I thought, “That’s exactly the angle that I imagined for that shot.” But for the comic adaptation, I’m not “redrawing” the film; I’m using my own angles and panel compositions rather than copying screen caps. What readers see in the first issue of the comic will be the same story as the short, seen through different eyes. Of course, with #2 and on, the visuals will be totally new to all of us, as this part of the story has yet to be filmed.
Keith: With actors as reference for the characters, do you find illustrating the characters easier or more constricting?
Mike: That’s an interesting question, and it’s something which I contemplated early on: Do I try to do exact likenesses of the actors? Some artists have a natural talent for caricature, but I’m not one of them, so knowing that I’d be pulling my hair out trying to make every single face in this series perfect, I decided to take a different route. What I’m doing is trying to capture the “essence” of each actor’s performance, rather than attempt to replicate everyone’s exact facial structure. I’m focusing on things like Lauren Alonzo’s steely gaze, and Kate Kugler’s intentionally nervous body language, and Tank Jones’ understated strength of character. Interestingly, when I told William (Christensen) what I was shooting for, he thought that the characters on the comic pages very much resembled the actors. So go figure!
Keith: STITCHED is very much a war story. William Gravel’s adventures in the STRANGE KILLINGS and GRAVEL series, which you co-wrote and illustrated, also called for lots of military hardware and combat. How does the visual depiction of STITCHED differ from your previous work?
Mike: Actually, STITCHED is very similar to GRAVEL in that we have some very otherworldly events occurring in very real-world settings. Maybe one of the reasons that I got this gig is because I strive for the most realistic locations, backgrounds, and props that I can draw. If we’re in a totally believable world, we want to hammer home the horror aspects of the stories and kind of put them into the realm of possibility for readers by contrasting the fantastic with the mundane. At least, that’s my hope. Horrors encountered in a fantasy realm aren’t so shocking, because we’re predisposed to the thinking that anything can happen. But if that same horror occurs in a Wal-Mart parking lot, it’s shocking because it’s totally out of place and unexpected. Okay, maybe that’s a bad example…
Keith: You’ve worked on a lot of horror books in your career, so I’m going to say you’re an absolute authority on the subject. From that perspective, how would you rate the horror seen in the STITCHED series, and specifically in the Stitched monsters themselves?
Mike: Do I now owe you money for giving me that compliment? How would I rate the horror… Hmmm. Okay, let’s put it this way – I’ve done zombies in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, magically-powered protagonists in GRAVEL and LADY DEATH. But in STITCHED, this is a new kind of horror, and if you’re expecting another CROSSED, you’re wrong. I think this is the scariest thing I’ve done, because these creatures aren’t pathological, hereditary, or fantasy-realm horrors. They’re the dark products of black magic, and with that said, anything is possible… and actually, everything is probable.
Keith: Without giving too much away, what’s in store for STITCHED beyond the first story arc?
Mike: Well, you said it yourself, “Without giving too much away,” so yes, I can’t say much at this point. But I can tell you that the threat of the Stitched is not relegated only to war-torn Afghanistan. That’s where this modern terror has its roots, but we’re going to find that those roots go back centuries, and unlike the uncontrolled spread of zombie viruses or Crossed plagues, the Stitched might be the most destructive force of all, because their acts are not impulsive or instinctual. They are directed by subversive, human intelligence. Evil human intelligence.
Keith: Who is the STITCHED comic book going to appeal to? How would you describe the STITCHED fan?
Mike: I think STITCHED will appeal to a wide cross-section of readers, much the way CROSSED has surprisingly captured the imaginations of such a diverse readership, despite its intensely-graphic depictions of torture and depravity. STITCHED is a unique animal. “Classic” horror fans will enjoy the supernatural elements. Warfare buffs will be drawn to the cast and backdrop of the story. Anyone who loves Garth’s writing will have a new buffet of very real, interpersonal relationships and cracking-good dialog to savor. And gore hounds will enjoy things being done to human bodies that defy description. So, you know, there’s a little bit for everyone… except the kiddies. Sorry!
And here’s some video footage from the premiere of Stitched at San Diego Comic Con…