Grave Robbing And Corpse-Smoking In Gravetrancers – Mark L. Miller On Horror

by Hannah Means Shannon

Mark L. Miller, James Whynot, and Dee Cunniffe are responsible for bringing us a new comic from Black Mask Studios this autumn that is designed to go off the beaten path of horror comics and attempt to actually disturb you, meanwhile exploring real character development and the role of storytelling. Gravetrancers has a simple but alarming premise–that “smoking” the bodies of the dead can lead to addictive and psychedelic effects and in a particular corrupt graveyard, a cult is making use of this for their own purposes.
Enter outsiders Maribel and Anthony, who are searching for their father’s grave, with differing feelings about their patriarch. They’ve entered a strange, dark world, and as they move further into the cemetery’s secrets, they move further from the world of certainties they’ve left behind.
Mark L. Miller joins us on to talk about Gravetrancers, horror, and how horror operates in the comics medium.

Hannah Means-Shannon: So, is this a story that’s a kind of “descent” with outsider characters getting drawn into a dark cult and having to try to preserve their identities on this journey? What are your goals for Maribel and Anthony?
Mark L. Miller: When I first spoke with Black Mask publisher Matt Pizzolo, I talked about structuring this story as a descent tale as most drug experiences are somewhat of a descent into something. Madness, numbness, obsession, addiction.  Some or any kind of feeling that fills a sort of hole in a person who becomes an addict. Of course, that hole can’t be filled long, so the doses increase and so do the problems.  That’s what drugs do. They change your state of being or feeling–sometimes for the better, but most of the time for the worse when done in excess.  But I not only wanted this to be a pharmaceutical descent but I wanted to make that descent more symbolic to the environment the action takes place in. So the deeper into this cemetery Maribel and Anthony go, the further they venture into this world of drugs and their own usage as well.
Maribel and Anthony both have different goals at the beginning, middle, and end of this story.  It starts out simple.  Maribel doesn’t really want to go see her father’s grave because she remembers who he was. Anthony was too young to know his father, so he is eager to find out anything he can about him. I’m really interested in the contrast between what a character says and what they do. There is usually a vast divide between what we say and do. That’s what makes this a fun story to tell as a comic because the words say one thing while the pictures can communicate something very different. It’s the beauty of comics!
HMS: Is there any kind of precedent in the real world for eating human bodies having a specific hallucinogenic effect? Something to do with fungus? I know some cultures believe that this creates a spiritual experience, whether there’s a chemical effect or not.
MLM: At the beginning of each issue, I give an account or two from history where the morbid act of smoking bodies has caused some kind of hallucinatory or transcendental effect. I can’t say I’ve tried this myself, but it has been recorded throughout history to be a thing. I take a bit of artistic license with those instances but there’s a nugget of truth in there. In some cultures, it’s a rite of passage.  In some, it’s a display of power.  In others, it’s a recreation or just a product of morose curiosity.  Look for some of these instances at the beginning of every issue of Gravetrancers and it all ties into the story in a surprising way by the end of the story.
The story of a crooked cemetery is taken right from the newspapers. A few years ago, a cemetery in Chicago was busted for reselling graves and having a massive body pit behind their lot. That’s the absolute truth and when I heard about it, I knew I would write a story about it someday.

[Pinup that represents the first appearance of character Shovel in Gravetrancers]

HMS: How did you and James Whynot get together on this project? How would you describe the kind of work he’s doing? You mention things never before seen in comics are going to appear in this series!
MLM: A friend turned me on to James’ art page and I was blown away by the visuals he can come up with. His inks are so detailed and deep. It reminds me of relief woodworking or printmaking. But once I saw his grotesquely gorgeous view of reality in his art, I knew he was perfect for this project. Add Dee Cunniff’s trippy colors and it really is something I have never seen in comics before.
When you work on a book with an artist on a more indie project, you develop a sort of symbiotic relationship. James and I talk at all hours of the day and night bouncing ideas back and forth to one another. Some of those late night talks are great. Others are just garbage. It’s what the whole messy creative process is all about.  Being an artist myself (my background is in drawing and painting), I feel I have a decent way of communicating what I’m looking for in the artist’s language which helps a lot, I think.
HMS: What, personally, scares you the most in horror stories? Is fear the only goal of horror, in your opinion?
MLM: Sharks scare me. I always dream I’m running away from zombies. A sound in the middle of the night in the dark has sometimes moved me to whimpering tears. Walking home at night alone scares me. All of the usual stuff scares me. In real life, student loans, the safety of my loved ones, my landlord, taxes, dentist visits, and car payments scare the crap out of me.  Still I sort of seek out those scary experiences. You can’t be a recluse and be a writer.  I think in order to really write effective horror, you should know what fear is. But only to a certain extent of course. I still don’t swim in the ocean in fear of encountering a zombie riding a shark like a horse.
I think the most important goal of horror is to make you feel uncomfortable. And that’s not what Hollywood movies do. It’s not that I don’t consider those films horror, but they specialize in jump scares and hollow jolts of music rather than really disconcerting ideas. In the end, Hollywood horror assures you that everything is fine in the end.  You can jump in the theater and then laugh about it.  But for me, horror has the potential to go much deeper.  The best horror stories leave me feeling on edge long after it is over and that’s what I’m trying to do with this comic.  I’ve seen so many horror films in my time. I know the tropes and I don’t feel it’s interesting to repeat them.
So Gravetrancers isn’t a Hollywood movie style horror story. It takes the characters into places they are not comfortable with (and if I do my job right and make the reader invest in these characters, it should take the reader along too). That means you aren’t going to feel happy and awesome after reading it. It may not be the most popular way to get people to read the book, but I hope that readers who like challenging reads that don’t follow the well-trodden path will go along with this one. The first issue is going to be quite a shocker and I hope folks will be intrigued enough to get them to buy issue two and see how Maribel and Anthony dig themselves out of this grave they’ve found themselves in.

[This is really Mark L. Miller. He’s a cool and occasionally terrifying dude.]

HMS: Why do you think there’s such a close relationship between horror films and horror comics? I’m assuming there are going to be some film echoes here—any big influences in particular?
MLM: In many ways, comics are just like film.  In fact, if you get an engaging comic, it feels like you’re reading storyboards to a film with your mind filling in the gaps between panels as fast as those old storybooks with animation squares in the bottom corner you could flip through and animate yourself (Am I dating myself here or is that still a thing these days?).  If I read a good comic, I think to myself, “That would make a great movie.”  At the same time, there are times when I see a good movie and think, “Man, I wish they could make a comic out of that!”, mainly because movies have roughly an hour and a half to two hours to engage the viewer and I fall in love so much with the world and the characters that I want more time with them.  Comics can go a bit deeper and flesh out some scenes that can’t be done in movies simply because of a lack of time.
At the same time, comics lack two essential elements that movies have–specifically scary movies, and that is sound and movement.  The slow pan across a dark room is difficult to pull off in comics.  The rate at which a scene is played can be manipulated by the director, but in comics you read as fast as you can turn the page.  The closest thing to a jump scare you can get in comics is the page turn and there are some comics that do a fantastic job with utilizing the page turn for the best dramatic effect.  Then again, comics can go into someone’s head with captions or thought bubbles.  This isn’t something one can do in films.  So I guess, each form of media has its pluses and minuses.
For influences, I would definitely say the story of Gravetrancers has echoes of Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  I also took a lot of inspiration from Apocalypse Now in terms of the way I structured the story as Maribel and Anthony’s descent into the cemetery is very similar to Captain Willard’s mission to bring in Colonel Kurtz–though in this case,  it’s not a bug-swallowing actor, but the grave of their father.  I also love the story structure of Natural Born Killers and I think that structure fits well in comics form as that film has such a rigid definition to its four acts.
I also took a lot of inspiration to the historical account of Burke & Hare; two gravediggers who used to sell corpses to doctors and colleges for profit.  The two real life ghouls actually started killing folks when the doctors needed fresher bodies.  It’s a story that’s been told a few times in films such as The Body Snatcher, The Doctor & The Devils, Burke & Hare, and more recently, I Sell The Dead.

HMS: What makes Black Mask Studios a good place to publish creator-owned horror comics?
MLM: Black Mask Studios has such an eclectic collection of comic books under its belt.  Sure they get a lot of coverage for their political and social issues books, and I love those, but they also have a fantastic eye for stories that take risks and shuck convention.  My previous comic from Black Mask, Pirouette, did that and I’m trying to do the same again with Gravetrancers.  But Gravetrancers has a much darker tone than Pirouette, if that’s possible.  Gravetrancers is much more of my response to a lot of the conventions we see way too much of in horror.
It’s that tendency to veer off the beaten path that I love about Black Mask books and something I try to keep doing with Gravetrancers.  Whenever I come to a spot in the story where I think, “Most horror movies do it this way.” I charge in the opposite direction because that’s the kind of surprising stuff I want to read and watch.  I hope folks will feel the same.  Gravetrancers is going to be a hell of a ride and I hope folks take a chance on it when it comes out.  My team and I are working hard not to disappoint.
Big thanks to Mark L. Miller for taking part in this interview with and going into such detail about the horror genre in the comics medium and beyond.
Make sure to check out Gravetrancers #1 when it arrives from Black Mask Studios on September 27th 2017. You can pre-order the comic using the following Diamond code: JUL171455

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