Steve Niles: The Dust Settles on Arc One of this City

A comics interview article by: Troy Stith
Steve Niles took some time out while getting ready for this year’s WonderCon to talk about City of Dust, which wraps up with issue #5 this week. Up to this point, Niles has thrown at us: robotic monsters, a futuristic sterile society, and plenty of questions about what’s going on in Philip Khrome’s world. Thankfully, Niles was happy to open up about the series and some of his thoughts on how he created Khrome’s story.

Troy Stith: How did this story originally come to life?

Steve Niles: I originally pitched the idea to Barry Levine like “how about something like Bladerunner with monsters?” All I wanted to see was a robotic Nosferatu.

TS: What do you tend to stay away from when approaching such an idea?

SN: For City of Dust, I didn’t want to get too technological, that’s something someone like Warren Ellis is really good at but I’m not a real ‘tech-head’. I wanted to keep it accessible to people. That was about the only thing I wanted to avoid in this series.

TS: Of course this isn’t your first horror book, how do you keep your monsters and characters fresh?

SN: With City of Dust I was able to look through a character’s eyes, who had no idea what monsters are. That’s part of the discovery. It’s kind of fun to write something where they don’t know what a werewolf is. I always compare it to Criminal Macabre because the attitude with Cal is “Oh, another damn werewolf” it’s like an old hat. This is just really fun and I was really surprised on how well it really came off.

TS: Issue #3 exposed the monsters as Bio-sapiens, what made you take the mechanical monster route?

SN: You know, it just started with the idea, and this is one of the frustrations with doing horror these days. There’s a lot of stuff you just can’t do. If I just did like let’s say my Cal McDonald character from Criminal Macabre, if he walked into a case and found somebody lying in bed with two puncture wounds in their neck, he’s just going to go “Oh he’s a vampire” like there’s nothing to it. But having this world where they don’t even exist, I got to have the fun of rediscovering that.

TS: We’re approaching the end of this first arc of City of Dust and we’ve already had the characters involved turned upside down, without giving away too much…how many more twists can we expect from the series?

SN: I feel like we haven’t really explored the world all that much. I’m excited to get in there and really explore and get into the different things that have been hinted at and hidden from the people.

TS: I know Khrome’s world is an extreme case of sterilization, but did our current climate of “political-correctness” have a hand in the inception of this reality?

SN: It sure did. That’s the whole thing, I remember at one point stuff like censorship was something that was considered a conservative thing. Now with the advent of ‘PC’ we’ve got the ‘right’ and ‘left’ censoring, it’s really dangerous. That’s why I finally felt safe doing something as extreme as making everything from comic books to religion illegal. It’s no different than the way people treat music, video games, and movies being blamed for killing. What it comes down to is that human psychology isn’t as simple as pointing your finger at one of those things. As far-fetched as the world of City of Dust is, it really isn’t. You could see it in a few hundred years, just look what’s happened in the last fifty, what could happen in the next few hundred years, as far as us evolving as a society when the technology keeps growing. We as humans start to shrink and become all soft and squishy and we need all these things to protect us from bad ideas. I wanted to address these issues without being preachy, or really left or really right in my view. I just wanted to create this world that this was a possibility and you can directly see the dangers of it. And if anything, I say it is all our fault.

TS: Do you have any future plans for Khrome’s imprisoned father?

SN: Oh definitely, that’s why a lot of characters -- although we lose a couple -- but there’s just enough there that we can continue with. We’ll definitely be seeing more of the father because in the next sort of ‘phase’, there will be a certain amount of civil unrest.

TS: [Possible Spoiler] With the revelations made in issue #5 about Ajax, will Khrome ever be able to trust anyone in his dark city?

SN: That’s a big part of setting up the private detective, he never gets the girl. No, if anything we’ve created that he’ll probably go in the other direction, being very untrusting. At the beginning, he was a guilty character who followed every order he was ever given. Now, ending as a cynical paranoid character will be something that sticks with him for a while.

TS: How has it been working with Radical?

SN: It’s been great; they’ve been treating me great. They’ve been letting me do just about everything I want. I have great editorial assistance and guidance by Dave Elliot. My biggest single problem is that I take on too much work, so I’ll be writing three or four comics at once, and then I’m working on a movie and a video game and a novel. Then, when I come back to City of Dust it’s like “Where the hell was I?” Dave Elliott was always right there and able to get me back on task, that’s just a good editor. Radical has been fantastic that way. I also have a great editor at Dark Horse and DC.

TS: Did you choose Zid to do the art for this book or did Radical already have him in the wings for the project? I also noticed that the art team grew as the title went on, any reason that Brandon Chng seemed to become the main artist on the book?

SN: They let me pick him. That was one of the lures they used on me. They basically showed me all this amazing art they had access to. I had been going through this thing that we seemed to be losing so many great artists to videogames and movie concept art. If you look through an issue of Spectrum now, you can see there’s this style of art that never sees print, because they’re all used for concept art. I remember pointing at one specific image and saying, “I want to do a comic like that.” In a way, even though so much of it is computer now, it reminds me a lot of that old Men’s Adventure stuff -- the fully painted style -- no one was doing comics like that and I always wanted to do one in that style.

I think the art team change up is due in part to the fact that we’re using a studio. Which there is a studio look and they have a team working on the book so they’re able to keep things moving. It’s very different for me, I’m so used to working with a penciler and inker, and they’re usually the same person. This has been a very different sort of process for me and it has really gone smoothly. I feel that the art has added so much to the story.

TS: Do you have any other books lined up with Radical?

SN: Oh yeah, things are going really good with them, so I just want to keep going. But at the same time I’m trying to slow down a little bit since I’m working on a lot of stuff.

TS: You’ve tackled quite a few monsters in your writing career, any monsters you haven’t done yet that you’d like to take on?

SN: I’ve always wanted to do something with werewolves, but we’ll see. I’ve had a couple different stories I wanted to try. My thing is that there are a lot of mainstream characters I’d like to get my mitts on. I’ve had a couple chances like the Hulk in some short stories and Thing and now I’m getting to do Batman. Stuff like that is really fun for me.

TS: What can we expect from Steve Niles in ’09?

SN: Right now I’m working on getting the sequel to “30 Days” moving along, we’re having pretty good progress with that. I’m always trying to get other movie titles going, from Criminal Macabre to Wake the Dead, but boy it’s hard to get movies made. I just keep slugging away. I just recently -- I guess you can call it a panic because I was worried about the SAG strike -- picked up a videogame job, which is turning out to be a lot of fun. All I can say is that it’s for a franchise game and I guess I can say it is a part 3 of something. This video game company is really fun to work with. I’m doing a novel with Simon and Schuster. And Kelly Jones and me are just wrapping up Gotham After Midnight, so we’re going to think about what our next project is going to be, but definitely something for DC. Keep Criminal Macabre going -- the usual assortment of stuff. Too much stuff, I’m just exhausted listening to myself. But I’m lucky right now, especially in LA, to be working, so I’m not complaining. Part of my reason is that I’m incapable of saying no. After 20 years of people saying no, I just can’t do it. I get to do what I want and I have a lot of fun with it.

TS: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview and have a great time in San Francisco.

SN: Ahh thank you so much.

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