One of the strangest and most delightful introductions to comics of the past year has been Scout Comics’ Long Lost, from the husband and wife team of Matthew Erman and Lisa Sterle. I’ve written about the series multiple times before, but its particular brand of creeping unease and sincere family drama has kept it close to my mind. With perhaps the biggest issue of the series yet on the horizon, I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity to talk with Erman this month at New York Comic Con. Before you pick up this week’s seismic issue, join us as we talk about setting, ritual, and how Erman is finding his niche within the comics industry.
Noah Sharma: The first question I had was why Hazel Patch? Why is that setting so necessary to Long Lost?
Matthew Erman: Oh, yeah, so a little backstory about myself: I spent a lot of time growing up in a small town in Kentucky and a lot of the formative ideas of Long Lost kind of came from certain experiences that I’ve had in that part of the United States. It’s a town of like six hundred people. It’s between two medium-sized cities. It’s literally a holler. It’s in the middle of a valley between two giant- there they call ’em knobs. ’Cause they’re like mountains with this little, like, cupcake top on the top of them. And I always was really fascinated by this part of the United States, the people there.
There are people that I grew up with that are still there and they never left. They were born there, they were raised there, they died there. And they know everything there is to know about this place. They know the people. They know the history. They know the weird mythology and the folklore behind this one little place. There were some stories that I really wanted to put in Long Lost that got cut, but they were just in reference to a place that’s kind of secluded from the rest of society that builds its own mythology, that builds it’s own stories around the things that have happened there in the past and the strange things that have happened before people were recounting that stuff.
There’s a train line that runs through the town that is a reference to Hazel Patch called the L&N. And it’s the Louisville and Nashville. I don’t think it’s operational anymore, but everyone was always talking about these haunted train tunnels and these haunted places that people would go to and they would see weird shit, weird things. And that’s- I don’t know, that’s so inspiring to me. And I love- I love that. I really wanted to capture that. I really wanted people that don’t have a reference point for these stories and this mythology to come in and experience it as if it should be common knowledge. That’s kinda how Long Lost was written and constructed and I think that’s why Hazel Patch is such a weird little place. ’Cause it’s kind of a real weird little place.
NS: So we kind of touched on place, but one of the things I’ve been noticing as I’ve been re-reading is that there’s a very strange relationship with time in Long Lost, both on a very small scale, just the degree to which it can be decompressed and talking heads and being in those small moments until all of the sudden–I think of issue #3 when the fairy light just comes at the car–
NS: But then also we have some grander stuff. The idea of the story kind of existing in several times, literally now in the last couple issues we’ve seen Piper and Frances’s mom existing kind of in this weird stasis time.
NS: And they have, in fact, been gone for three years. How does that sense of time influence how you write the series?
ME: The time thing with Long Lost came to Lisa and I because, on the larger thematic scale, when you’re away from a place for so long and you revisit it, the nostalgia and the memories are almost pervasive and toxic. They come with the movement of time in a way that’s like you’ve been away and now all of these things are flooding back to you. And it really affects your perspective of the place and how you view things.
I think in issue #4 when Piper first comes to Hazel Patch and she’s kind of walking through the town with her sister, that’s the first time that the readers get to see Hazel Patch and, to me, it’s also the first time that Piper gets to as well. And I think that a lot of those memories and a lot of those feelings flood back to her when she sits in the diner. And I really wanted to play with time…because it’s important. Going back to a place that either has caused you trauma or has given you so much memory and has been such a foundational aspect of who you are, time is the ingredient that makes that stuff happen. So it’s an important part of the story in that, y’know, being away from a place, coming back to it, being away from it, coming back to it, it’s this weird pull and take. It’s this weird thing that happens, I think, with everybody that has left home or left a place that they grew up in.
NS: So, before I kind of get to some of the content, the narrative stuff, you’re kind of new to the comics scene. This is–
ME: My first book.
NS: Your first book. How has it been working in that formatting? How’s your process developed working in comics?
ME: It’s crazy. I wrote Long Lost having never worked in the comic industry and having never had a book published and not really understanding how it works. I just knew that there was a pitch process that I needed to develop for and then that’s how we kinda got started. When it got picked up and when I actually started to write the issues, I found that it’s a really unique way of writing.
It’s not like writing a movie script. It’s not like writing prose, it’s not like writing short stories because you have to account for things that no other medium has to account for. You have to account for page flips. There’s that dramatic tension before you move the page. I mean, that’s something that I think strong writers pay attention to. Accounting for the unseen, unspoken movement between the panels. Figuring out how to script action- You have to script action in a way where you show exactly what is happening. You can’t show the lead-up, you can’t show the after, so it’s this weird trying to figure out how much you let the reader intuit the stuff between the panels.
And it was a learning curve. And I learned it as I was writing Long Lost. I think the first three issues you can kind of see a progression of understanding how to write comics. And then when I get the hang of it – I think I’ve got the hang of it – you can kind of see issue #4 and issue #5 and issue #6 start to play around a little bit with the rules and how time works and how paneling works.
And I obviously want to give as much credit as I can to my wife, Lisa, who does so much work in making this comic work in paneling and layout and such. She’s a legitimate genius when it comes to that stuff, especially when it comes to readability. Like she makes this comic so readable and so simple, but infuses it with just enough weirdness and just enough experiment that it’s new and exciting and weird.
NS: How do you guys like to work together? Like how much do you like to put into your scripts versus how much you let her kind of decide how things are done?
ME: Yeah, so the first script is overwritten. It’s like when I first wrote Long Lost, I was writing so much stage direction and I was like ‘this is what this means’ and it was just like- I think the first script is twice as long as any other script. And I didn’t know how she was gonna work ’cause this was also her first comic too. So we learned how to work with each other as we worked on Long Lost.
And we kind of really came into a cohesive flow when she started to script out issue #3 and issue #4. We really started to understand how we work together and how long it took. We had no idea. And that really informs us as creators and how we can work with other people and the collaborative process.
Obviously because we’re married our process is a little different. We can be a little bit more brutal with each other. But it’s just cool to be able to know that you can work with someone that you trust to know that they’re gonna call you out on the stuff that isn’t good, they’re gonna help you fix things that aren’t good, and they’re gonna make the good stuff even better. And that’s the beauty of collaboration. I think that’s part of the beauty of comics too.
NS: Being that this was your first book, how did it feel to do this very- I don’t want to say dense, because it can be almost very airy at times – but very kind of tangled, twisted family saga in two series of monthly comics?
ME: So, my background as a writer is prose and short stories and a little bit of poetry. And those are the things that I’ve always liked writing about. I think–it’s hard to make a clean jump from those things to comics because comics is such a specific medium and people go into a comic book expecting very particular things. Especially out of a first issue.
And our first issue is like a glacier. It’s so slow and it’s so plodding and I think you only- you only really hang out with two characters and there’s maybe four scenes total. And it’s just like very meticulous, I think, in how it demonstrates who these characters are. I mean, we’ve gotten so much feedback from our first issue and how different it was. And I really didn’t have an idea as to how different it was until it was out there. Which is cool and it’s exciting and I think that’s kind of the fun part of being a new creator and having your voice be out there is you kind of get to see how it fits into the greater narrative scheme of comics. Which is super exciting.
Hold on, what was the question again? I started to trail off.
NS: No, that’s okay. I was asking what was it like getting a story like this and sectioning it out not only into six issues monthly but then into two series?
ME: Oh, yeah, so that was- that was a lot of work. That was a complete rewrite on our whole concept because we originally had pitched it as a graphic novel. ’Cause that’s what I felt I was gonna be most comfortable writing and that’s what Lisa felt like she was gonna be most comfortable to do for her first thing. We’d never even considered doing a monthly series until Scout was like, “This can work as a monthly. We want to put this out as a monthly.” And we were super nervous about that. ’Cause I think I had written a first chunk, like up until like issue #4 or #5 before we had pitched and I had to go back and completely rewrite everything to make sure that it worked in a monthly format. Y’know, have like an end lede so that people are excited for the next issue and have these self-contained stories that have a legit beginning, middle, and end so that the issues themselves work as standalones but also work to the greater narrative structure of it.
I used Scott Snyder as a really good example of how to do big storytelling and also like smaller, really well-defined character beats for these issues. I think he does that super well. I wasn’t reading it at the time, but Saga does it super well, similarly. I think everybody loves Saga. But it was definitely process. It required a lot of rewrites. Issue #5, I think, took me- I think I rewrote issue #5 four or five times before I was able to really figure out what that issue was gonna be and how it was gonna feel. So, um, it required a lot of work, but I think it ended up being a lot of good work, so…
NS: Yeah. Like I said, I had to go back and just look at old books again after I read the latest issue. And one thing that really struck me is, um, how Frances’s anger is played throughout the book.
NS: I think it’s subtle. It only comes out occasionally and it comes out very differently with Piper than it does with a lot of other people.
I feel like Frances is tied into this, very gendered, idea of kind of accepting things.
NS: Of y’know, Piper does what she needs to do and Frances accepts it. And that festers.
ME: I think so. I mean, if you look at the dichotomy between the two sisters, I think that -although Piper is pro-active in doing things, especially when she gets to Hazel Patch and when she’s thrust into this situation – I think Frances is more in tune and more receptive to the emotions that she feels. I think she feels angry more than Piper. I think she feels happiness more than Piper. I think she feels more than Piper as a whole. And I think that comes across in the book, especially when you look at them, it does come across as Frances is more angry or more happy or more exuberant than Piper. And that’s because I think Piper is so withdrawn from her situation, especially at the beginning of the story. So withdrawn from her life and so withdrawn from people in general that the difference between them is really stark.
But yeah, I think Frances has a lot of toxic anger pent up inside of her from what has happened to her in the past with her mother. And then with Piper leaving when they were kids and not seeing her for so long. I think there’s a lot of bitterness and I think there’s a lot of resentment for the people that she has trusted in her life that have just left. And I think that’s a big part of her theme and her character arc is figuring out how to deal with the people that are no longer in her life or no longer present or no longer available to her.
It’s kind of vague as to what happens to their father. I think it’s kind of spelled out in the book, but I think it’s left open for specific reasons, but, y’know, the father’s not in the picture anymore, the mother’s obviously not in the picture anymore and, at the beginning of the story, Piper’s not in the picture anymore for her. I think that informs a lot of her emotions and a lot of her actions throughout the story.
She wants to keep those relationships when she has them and I think that’s why she follows Piper and why she listens to her and why she goes along with this insane situation. Because she wants to have that relationship with her, almost at all costs.
NS: So we’re about to see issue, I guess that’s overall #9? Part Two issue #3. And that issue changes a lot and puts a lot of things into contrast and into context. And with it I really feel like there’s this kind of weird feeling that suddenly Joanna is this almost twisted protagonist of another story within the book.
ME: That’s a really cool way to put it. Joanna is a really weird complex character. I’m still not quite sure like a lot of- and you’re not supposed to say this as a writer, but I think a lot of her motivations and a lot of what she does and a lot of the things that go through her are still mysterious to me. And I really like that about her. She is, um, a very alien character to the story and especially to the world that we’ve written. And I think that’s really exciting. When I was writing these scripts and writing these issues, it was really to see where she would take the story. ’Cause it almost felt like when I was writing her she would take the reigns and do things that didn’t make sense, but they did make sense because…she’s her and she’s so weird. And when you read Part Two issue #3, you get a really good sense of kind of how distant she is from everything.
ME: And, that’s a cool way to put it.
NS: Well, she suddenly gains this kind of weird vulnerability. I think the most explicit thing is that you just say ‘this is what she’s afraid of.’
NS: And seeing how she’s been in control and not in control really kind of gives her her own arc that’s very strange and kind of hypnotic.
ME: I’m really excited to see how people respond to her arc. I think she’s one of the more tragic figures in Long Lost. And I think that even though a lot of it is left up to mystery and ambiguity, I think seeing how her story plays out- it’s really sad and beautiful, I think.
NS: So, the other thing that just kind of blows my mind- or that is such a core thing I’ve been wanting to talk to you about forever is, just what do you think is the role of ritual in Long Lost and who do those rituals really serve? And not serve?
ME: Yeah! So a little backstory, a very strange backstory. When I was younger, I was actually in a cult. I’ve never talked to press about- I’ve talked to friends and family about it – but I was.
I don’t think I can legally call it a cult. And I don’t think I can legally say their name, but it is considered a cult by most modern standards and I was in it for a couple years. And I think that really informed how I saw ritual and the idea of higher powers and religion and, um, it’s weird! It’s a really weird thing to have it as an experience for a kid too. Especially when you’re brought to the reality of the situation in which this is all gobbledygook.
And I know religion is important for a lot of people and it has a lot of really beneficial things that people can latch onto. And it has a healing property too because it helps inform… a certain guidance to it. But, when you’re in such a weird cult, that doesn’t have any basis for why they believe the things that they do and… I think the guy that was like the main dude, his name was, uh, Harold. So I was praying to a guy named Harold. It was so bizarre. And so, to me, ritual is a baseless, continued act that may have good repercussions, it may have bad repercussions, but it’s about the intentions behind the ritual.
And, I don’t know. I think that’s part of the thing that makes Long Lost so interesting to me is that there are a lot of rituals in the story. There’s the augur stones that people are swallowing. And there’s the well that has a ritual behind it as well. And what those rituals mean, I’m not sure. I think that’s part of the mystery is that rituals are so antiquated. And have gone throughout time without being questioned that, when you introduce a ritual to somebody, they don’t question- they typically don’t question what the purpose is or what it’s there for. And I think that happens a lot in Long Lost.
NS: I’m curious then. A lot of these rituals, to my eye at least, they seem relatively new. I mean it’s not clear exactly at what pace Joanna came into contact with the town. But, by the time we see Piper and Frances come back…it’s in there.
ME: It’s pervasive. Everyone’s hanging those stones from the ceilings and everyone has a stone. And yeah, I think fifteen years since they’ve been gone, those rituals have been unquestioned and unprodded. And so they’ve continued and existed and snaked through the town in a way that it makes them impossible to get away from. It’s become a way of living in this town is you do these things. And I think that’s always super interesting.
Lisa grew up Catholic. And if there’s one religion that is all about ritual, it’s Catholicism. And I didn’t – outside of the cult – didn’t technically grow up religious. So, whenever I hear about Catholicism, it’s so interesting to hear all of the minute, strange things that they do that are part of this larger mythology. And there’s reasons and there’s stories behind everything. But when you…
NS: Without that context it’s–
ME: When you have that context it makes sense, but when you just do it, it’s just this bizarre- like I’ve been to mass a few times and, not growing up Catholic, you just- you’re required to do these things.
ME: And it’s so- it’s so interesting. And I love it and it’s weird and it’s a part of society that I think a lot of people experience but don’t really look inward as to what it means for them and I think- I don’t know. I think personally that’s always been a really interesting thing for me.
NS: Yeah. I think, even the- I guess I don’t know what fully to call them, but I was calling the one the Magician.
ME: Yeah, no. That’s a really cool way to put it.
NS: I think even there they speak in a ritualized, formalized way and I don’t know what you can say, but I’m fascinated to see how that affects Joanna who has a very different relationship with [ritual]. And whether or not that’s a choice she’s making or something she can’t help.
ME: I think Joanna has made some very clear choices to distance herself from the, we have called them thralls in the book. I think a few times- or maybe that’s in…
NS: I think that the first one was in [Part Two] #3 and it was unclear, at least for me, if they were all thralls or if some of them were thralls to someone else.
ME: I think that’s made a little bit more clear in the next issue that’s coming out as to their allegiances and who they belong to in a way… Sorry, I lost my train of thought again.
NS: That’s okay. We were just talking about how the thralls kind of speak and how that relates to Joanna’s version of ritual when they are so…clockwork.
ME: Oh, yeah! I think Joanna is very adhered to the rituals that she’s created for this town. And I think that she is protective over them. And I think the thralls are, in a way, an antithesis to those rituals because they don’t belong to this world. And so they are the-
I mean, the thing that I’ve thought of. So you have Catholicism. Like how do those rituals still exist if, say, aliens were to come down? How do those rituals change and do those rituals still behave the same way if you have an entity or a creature that is in direct opposition to the purpose of those rituals? And I think that’s in a similar vibe to Joanna. When she sees these creatures and when she knows about them and when the townspeople know about them, it is in direct opposition to her power that she’s gained and what she believes in. And what she’s forcing other people to believe in.
NS: On a related but distinct note, you also have a story coming out in the CORPUS anthology.
ME: I do, yeah!
NS: It actually starts out the mental health section of that anthology.
For anyone who doesn’t know, CORPUS is an anthology about living and dealing with various illness and how everyone has some connection to illness. And [Matthew’s] is a very short piece and kind of, in some ways, similarly dreamlike to Long Lost.
But I just – and again I don’t know how much you want to say – but I wanted to ask a little bit about how you envision the relationship between these two characters. ’Cause it kinda- it changes very, very much. It goes through a lot of emotions over a very short period.
ME: So, the story I did for CORPUS was with a very good friend of mine and incredibly talented artist, Renee Kliewer. She did beautiful, beautiful work on the story that we did. And we both have had struggles with mental illness and mental wellness specifically and figuring out how to navigate the things that are sometimes harder to articulate: feelings of loneliness or, for me in particular, was death anxiety. That was really hard to overcome and figure out how to let that coexist in how I live my life. I think when you’re talking about the character, who’s unnamed in our story, and also when you look at Piper, I think they share similar mentalities and I think they share similar struggles. The story in CORPUS goes into the struggles a little bit more clear and also a little bit more abstract. Um, but I think they are related. I think they share a similar side of the same coin, if that makes sense.
NS: Certainly. So Long Lost has been an incredible and well-deserved success.
ME: Dude. Thank you.
NS: …And it’s your first comic. And it’s over in December. Right?
ME: Yeah. December or January. One of those two months. But, yeah, it’ll be wrapped.
NS: So do you have things lined up. Do you have just dreams in comics? Do you want to stick primarily in comics?
ME: So, yeah. I have two unannounced books coming out probably in 2020. I hope they get announced soon. I would love to talk about them, but I’m gonna wait until they get announced.
ME: I don’t wanna take the steam away from any publishers. But, no, I’m really excited about where my stories are going. I think one of them is wildly different than Long Lost, like tonally just on a different planet. And the other one is a weird mishmash between a lot of the things that I’ve kind of written about. About mental health and wellness and working through those things in an adult way. I’m really excited about that one. But, yeah, I’ve got projects and I’m really excited and I hope to have more. I think that’s the idea.
NS: Are there dream projects that you’d just love to work on? Do you want to stick to creator-owned stuff?
ME: I mean, no, I’d love to work on a licensed property. I mean obviously working on something for the Big Two would be rad. But there’s a lot of publishers with a lot of cool licensed properties. IDW and Boom! have some killer properties and…I don’t know. I think I have a really specific and, uh, particular way about creating stories. And sometimes it is a stretch and a hard fit for people to figure out how I would go about creating a story for a licensed property, but it’s always an opportunity that I would love to be able to have. I don’t know, I like taking things that people are familiar with and trying to make them unfamiliar again. I think that’s a really cool way to write stories.
NS: Well thank you so much, Matthew.
ME: Dude! Thank you so much!
NS: Of course.
Long Lost Part Two #3 is available today in shops, October 24th, 2018 from Scout Comics!