If you like great horror mixed with steampunk mixed with Westerns, well, does Dark Horse have the comic for you. And if you like literary adaptions or just comics that are completely unique and wonderful, well, the same comic will make you smile a lot. See, Mark Alan Nelson, head of Clive Barker’s studio, has scripted a delightful four-issue adaptation of Joe Lansdale’s delightful short story The Steam Man. I had the chance to speak to Mark about Steam Man, working with Clive Barker, the approach to adapting a very literary work, and much more.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: I’m here with Mark Alan Miller, the co-writer of the upcoming Dark Horse series The Steam Man. Why don’t you tell us about the Steam Man?
Mark Alan Miller: The Steam Man is a sort of like a Pacific Rim set in the old West. It’s about a gentleman who causes a rift in time and because of that, everything from history comes piling in this era in the 1800s. It’s up to one man, Captain Beedle, who builds this giant steam man to navigate it through the prairie to destroy the greatest threat the world has ever known.
CB: It’s a mash-up of Westerns and, as you say, Pacific Rim and horror. It is just a bizarre comic, in the best possible way.
Miller: Oh, yeah, bizarre is the only way to do it.
CB: Plus with some very interesting characters as well. The Native American character is a scene stealer.
Miller: Yeah, John Feather, he’s pretty hysterical. He makes Captain Beedle very uncomfortable. He was a ton of fun to write. He’s fun to read. Obviously it’s based on a short story written by Joe Lansdale, who’s one of the best in the biz. It’s always been one of my favorite short stories. It’s a dream to be able to adapt it.
CB: How did you get involved with it?
Miller: Joe was kind enough to lend a blurb to a comic book that I co-wrote with Clive Barker for BOOM! Studios called Next Testament. He sent the blurb in and I thanked him. Then I said, “Also, if you mean what you said and you like what I am doing, I’d be happy to adapt something for you.” He said, “Sounds cool.” We batted around some ideas. I told him what some of my favorite stories were and my favorite novels. We zeroed in on Steam Man. It really seems like the best idea for a graphic novel.
CB: Well, it’s very visual. Kind of what struck me is if I didn’t know it was based on a short story, it would just read like an original comic. Often pieces that are adapted from short stories are very wordy, but this has a kind of comic book-y flow that felt more natural.
Miller: It’s a pure action story at its core. There’s horror and sci-fi and a Western and all that stuff. But it is just from start to finish pure action.
CB: What about the story really resonated with you that made you want to adapt it?
Miller: It’s sort of this mash of a lot of different classic pieces of literature. It takes a lot of things from the story The Time Machine. There were characters from The Time Machine that cross over with this. That’s always been one of my favorite stories. And I didn’t realize what was happening until halfway through the short. And then when I realized what he had done, I just immediately endeared me to the story. From then on out, I knew that he was letting his imagination run wild. There were no rules to the story. It was just full and, as you said, bizarre and just so much fun to read.
CB: Yeah, I think that’s a big part of what I got from the comic, too. It feels like there are no rules. It opens with the scene with the three moons to the sky. Then you see the Steam Man and creatures skittering around on the ground. All of it feels very alien.
Miller: Yes. We opened that first page to let people know you’re not in Kansas anymore. This is the world that you thought you were entering.
CB: Now were you friends with Lansdale before this?
Miller: No, no. We connected through… He had written an intro for one of Books of Blood for our publisher. I got his email from our publisher and just said, “Hey, would you be up to doing a blurb for this book for Clive?” And from then on out he was super friendly and super accommodating. Just the nicest guy around.
CB: Kind of belies his dark writing. Although this book is just so fun and whimsical, too. Whimsical is maybe not the right word. It’s light for such intense horror, if you know what I mean.
Miller: Right, right. It’s fun and it’s funny, while at the same time being horrifying and just absolutely shattering.
CB: What do you think of Piotr Kolwaski’s take on the art? Do the characters look how you imagined them when you first read the story?
Miller: Piotr is so much more and so much better. His visuals patterns surpass my paltry mind’s eye. He’s incredible. He was illustrating the Night Breed comics for us here at Seraphim for a while. Obviously that was a lot of fun. He blew us away with every page. And then when I was talking with my editor at Dark Horse, Daniel Chabon, he was pitching artists and said, “What about Piotr Kolwaski?” I said, absolutely.
His line work alone was ridiculous. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. So I’m still getting pages now. I think Piotr is up to halfway through issue three right now. Every page is better than the last. I forward everything I get from Piotr to Joe for his approval. I’m just sounding like a broken record at this point. Everything I email to Joe is amazing. I feel like I’m repeating myself, but this is amazing. Every time I think it can’t get better, it does. I’m so stoked to be a part of this.
CB: The preview pages that Dark Horse sent me are half in color and half in black and white. I’m not sure if it looks better in color or black and white.
Miller: That’s a true testament. It’s sort of the Man Who Wasn’t There effect, right? That Coen Brothers movie where no matter which was you see it, it’s just gorgeous.
CB: There’s this noir feel with the black and white artwork that is rendered completely differently in color. They both work, but they work in different ways.
Miller: Piotr’s pretty darn good at what he does.
CB: You mentioned Clive Barker in there. I wouldn’t be doing my job as an interviewer if I didn’t ask you to talk a bit about what you do with him and what your experience is like working with him.
Miller: Well, for those who don’t know, I run Clive Barker’s company, Seraphim. We do everything under the sun. For those that know Clive, they know he does everything.
So my job consists of bringing in things for approval, whether it’s movies, TV, comic books, or novels. We have a very close working relationship putting comic books together and done everything from typing his novels to editing them at the end. It’s a dream come true. You couldn’t ask for a better career than Clive Barker.
CB: Except he makes you feel like a slacker because he never stops being creative.
Miller: Except for that. What’s fascinating about Clive is he taps into something that the rest of us are not. If I ever encounter a bit of writer’s block or I don’t know where to take a story that we’re working, I will go to him in his office. Before I can even ask, he’ll give me something. He’ll say, “I don’t know what this is, but I think we need it.” Sometimes it’s an image or something he’s written on a scrap of paper. But every time it’s the thing I’ve been looking for that story. It’s creepy how he does that.
CB: Oh, that’s interesting. It really is almost like this almost subliminal instinct or something.
Miller: Yeah, or he might be a conduit of some sort. I don’t even know what it is or how he does it. But he’s done it more times than makes me comfortable.
CB: Yeah, that’s really interesting. There’s just a few artists who create like that, very few. They talk about Jack Kirby being the same way. There’s the famous story about Jack Kirby never being able to drive because his mind would be too distracted by all the thoughts in his head.
Miller: Oh, yeah.
CB: It sounds a little like Clive Barker is a bit like that.
Miller: The ideas come to Clive so fast that he barely has time to get them out. I’ve seen him paint with whatever is in the vicinity. He paints with paper towels. He paints with nasal spray. He paints with butter knives. Anything and everything, he’s grabbing to get it out of his head and move on to the next one. It’s fascinating to watch.
CB: Did his approach influence you at all with this book? Or is he just such a singular individual?
Miller: That’s a good question because he has without a doubt taught me how to be a better writer and to just access my imagination and understand that everything in front of me can be an inspiration. Just in working with him, I’ve gotten better at what I do. That’s all because of him. But when it was finally time to sit down and write the dialogue for Steam Man, it was a complete hundred and eighty turn. Because I’ve been living in the sort of Clive Barker voice for eight years and then suddenly I had to put Joe’s stamp on it. It’s a completely different voice. It was definitely like flexing a different muscle. It was fun, but it was completely different.
CB: Yeah, that’s interesting. Right, because you’re so used to hearing that voice all the time. It’s taking up ten or twelve hours of your day, every day.
Miller: Oh, yeah. It was a totally different voice. Obviously British and informed by a completely different set of inspirations. His prose is very fluid and sort of flowery and elegant. Joe’s is also brilliant is his own right, but just the style of the metaphors are different. I think one of Clive’s is this one where he talks about the hills in the distance that are thumbed out of clay. It just gives you this very sort of elegant image of these pastel hills.
One of my favorites of Joe’s is a harvest moon that looked like a cracked yolk. It’s two beautifully different styles, but both effective in their own right. It’s been an interesting experience writing for both of those voices.
CB: Right, and then writing for comics where you can’t really convey those analogies in the same way.
Miller: Yeah, there’s definitely a distillation that takes place from the written word to the a medium that is sort of a hybrid between movies and books
CB: Right, you do that sort of thing in comics and people complain you are being too purple with your prose or just too verbose.
Miller: I don’t generally like comics with too much narration or too many big, fat blocks of text. If I felt I wanted that I would read a book. Still, I want something that is a little more spartan. I try to apply that rule in my comic book writing.
CB: See, now you have me intrigued to go back and read the original story and see where it is similar and different.
Miller: I am sure you‘ll find that there are lots of similarities and differences.
CB: Are you planning on doing any writing based on your own ideas or are you going to do another Lansdale book as your next one?
Miller: That’s a great question. To misquote Stephen King, I just kind of go where the wind blows. Obviously if the wind of the projects that need to be done here at Barker headquarters. It’s when I branch out from that is just when I’ve found a small window to be able to tap something out. There are a few things that I definitely want to tell. There are stories that I have yet to tell that are my own, but there are also still a ton of other short stories and novels out there that I would love to adapt to various forms.
CB: Yeah. Do you ever feel it’s imposing being around such a fount of creativity to kind of live up to some of those ideals you see around you every day?
Miller: At first, yes. But now I understand it can only serve to make me better. There’s no reason to be intimidated by it. It’s there to inspire and it does every day.
CB: Yeah, you go to find your own level in life. You can’t be comparing yourself to others, right?
CB: And I know you want to work in films at some point as well. I guess working with Clive gives you a good chance to get involved in that side of the creative field as well.
Miller: Oh, yeah. I got to produce the director’s cut of Night Breed. That was a dream come true. I still can’t believe it happened. Twenty-five years we were waiting to find the footage and somehow we managed and it’s out there. It’s one of the greatest experiences of my life. It’s fantastic.
CB: Was it like a detective story to track down lost footage from that film?
Miller: Kind of, yeah. There were a lot of clues and red herrings and places we looked. We were told it was there and it wasn’t there. There’s even a twist ending when we finally got a reply. We thought we were going to have to use the VHS footage that we found, Three months before we were due to turn it in, we get a reply from the storage facility saying, “Yeah, there’s some footage, but we are not going to let you have it.” And then Shout Factory, our distributor, in their infinite wisdom said, “The studio that owns the movie kind of has a right to it. So no isn’t really good enough.” So the studio said, “Yeah, yeah, you’re right.” They told the warehouse, “It’s our movie. Give it to us.” And they were going, “Oh, okay. Since you put it that way…”
CB: I am thinking your movie should be a documentary about the making of the director’s cut.
Miller: I think there’s definitely a documentary in that. There’s all this sort of lost film memories coming out now, like Jodorowsky’s Dune and Lost Soul, which was Richard Stanley’s Island of Lost Soul mishap. I think there is room for Night Breed. It’s definitely we’ve discussed. But with so much on the slate, we just haven’t had the time to fit that one in. But you’re not wrong. You’re not wrong at all.
CB: It just sounds so interesting. Anything else you want to mention, Mark, before we end the interview?
Miller: I think just follow me and Joe on Twitter and read Steam Man because it’s a hell of a mind fuck. And then go watch Night Breed on Netflix.