Joe Harris: Supernatural Presence

A comics interview article by: Nick Hanover

On the Preview Night at SDCC 2011, we had the opportunity to sit down with Joe Harris and discussSpontaneous, his incredibly well received new series at Oni Press with Brett Weldele. In between discussions about his long standing interest in spontaneous human combustion, we also spoke about how Veronica Mars has inspired him, his top secret upcoming projects and even got attacked by birds.

Nick Hanover: I'm really interested in what the genesis of Spontaneous was...was spontaneous human combustion a subject that you've always been interested in?

Joe Harris: Well, I've always been interested in the concept of spontaneous human combustion. As a kid there was an episode of a show called That's Incredible! that delved into it a little bit. I grew up a big Spinal Tap fan so I'd seen the concept played for both comedy and for serious supernatural mystery potential. And one day I was just thinking about it and the first word "spontaneous" and I thought, you know, that sounds like a classic Hitchcock starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. So it all started to fall into place for me then. 

I wanted to put together a thriller with enough mystery that really lived up to that ideal and I'm sure I failed miserably at making a Hitchcockian thriller but I'd like to think I aspired to do that, and we'll see how people react and whether or not they think we pulled it off, but that was the goal, to do something like that.

Hanover: Now that you mention it that makes a lot of sense. It's fascinating the way we learn facts as the characters learn facts, we're learning the story with them as it goes...

Harris: That's how I like to craft these things, where each issue introduces a new element into the overall narrative that maybe wasn't there at all in the previous one so there's always something new introduced in each chapter of the serial. I think we did similar things in Ghost Projeckt too, so the way you just described it I think is applicable to how I like to tell these stories. 

Hanover: Right, and what's pretty interesting to me too is that in the first issue you have a different expectation for what these characters are, especially with the "reporter," Emily. At first she just seems like this annoyance and you aren't even sure whether she's a good reporter and by the second issue you reveal that she actually has some smarts and is actually investigating. Through her you also reveal that there might be a logical explanation for what's going on...

Harris: Well, there might be...there'll be a few more ideas for what's actually going on introduced so that you're never really are certain what's happening. I think there are some moments where you say "ah ha! I think I know what's up!" But then you find out that there are other other elements that are yet to be revealed that hopefully alter your expectations.

Hanover: The idea you had of it coming from industry, of it being perhaps from an industrial accident of some sort...was that something that came to you from research on similar phenomena?

Harris: Well...I like movies and fiction that deals with stuff like that, stuff like Scanners...or what's another example I'm going for here? Just the idea that the big corporation might be responsible for not only hurting people but covering up what their practice does to people that's a theme and an idea that I like. They're an easy bad guy to create. I'm not saying that's what's going on here or might be but these elements came about as I started beating out the story and deciding what it could be, that seemed like the natural way to go. Because it lets us explore the idea that there this was this organization in town that used to employ a lot of people and even if they were doing nefarious things they allowed people to bring home a paycheck so it's not hard to understand how people who work in a very dangerous profession might not be so fast to point the finger and demand that they be shut down, they actually might be protective of that organization because they depend on it so much. These are all things I'm interested in so when I sat down to beat the story out this is how they all fell into place, I have a lot of different interests and themes that are always bubbling up here and they just kind of knit together.

Hanover: You also have the element of the combustion "speaking," it has its own voice, you can't tell whether that's something that's imagined or whether that's real, you leave it ambiguous. Was that your intention from the beginning?

Harris: Yes, you don't know if there's really this supernatural presence or if Melvin is hearing voices in his head. As you'll learn soon, he refers to that thing as "the fiery god," that's the name he's given that sort of face in the fire, as it were. But yeah, we'll find out...or we won't. He's a thing about Melvin that I think it's safe to say is that he's a little odd, so it fits in that regard. He's been through some trauma so it's not hard to imagine that he might have an imaginary friend.

Hanover: You spoke about Hitchcock being an influence on the book but something like that kind of reminds me of Dexter as well, where he refers to...

Harris: The "dark passenger..."

Hanover: Exactly. 

Harris: It is along those lines. 

Hanover: Are there more contemporary influences you had going into this as well? You mentionedScanners when we were talking before...

Harris: Scanners, like I said, definitely. What else have I tapped into here? I think in terms of the actual mystery, the actual detective work going on, I looked towards movies that I've really enjoyed in recent years, like Rian Johnson's Brick and even Veronica Mars is a little bit of an influence on this. And that again, when I sat down to really deal with what the supernatural horror element of this would be, I could have gone a particular route where our characters were a little older and it was a full on horror film but I just thought this really fits when it's juxtaposed against this story of two young sleuths trying to get to the bottom of this really dark mystery in this otherwise idyllic town. So a lot of the influences for me came from that side of things.

Hanover: Right, this book is more of a psychological detective horror story. You mentioned Cronenberg but this isn't a body horror story like it could have been with the spontaneous combustion angle...

Harris: Sure, sure...

Hanover: It's almost abstract. Like with the art in this, instead of us being shown the gore and the gristle it's almost this tranquil bright light. So do you think that with the tranquility angle this is almost a story of people coming to terms with death? Our protagonist has seen his mother horribly scarred by the incident that killed his father. Do you think there's a message about coming to accept that?

Harris: I think there might be a universal message here about finding your place, about being an outcast, about accepting who you are, accepting who you're not and getting what you want out of life. Both of these characters have ambitions, and the person they interact with-- Emily interacting with Melvin, Melvin interacting with Emily-- doesn't necessarily get them to the goal they were looking for but it gets them some place they might not have thought they wanted to be but are reasonably happy with at the end. Or maybe they're not. Maybe everyone dies. But I don't want to ruin anything for you.

Hanover: Right, anything could happen...

Harris: Sure.

Hanover: I wanted to ask you about Brett [Weldele] because he had a similar book published at Image called The Light. Did that work attract you to him? Or had you been planning to work with him for a while?

Harris: Well, you know, James Lucas Jones, Editor in Chief at Oni Press, put us together when he had seen Brett's recent work. I believe Brett had shown him the artwork for The Light and James had said "You know what? You'd be perfect for this new Joe Harris book we're going to do." So that's how that kind of came together.

Hanover: It's a really interesting fit because, as you mentioned before, you have this abstract notion of what...

Harris: Oh man, there's a bird in here! Did you see that?

Hanover: Yeah, that happens in convention centers all the time. It's because when they set up the booths they leave the loading bay gates open and they just fly right in. But anyway, it's a fascinating pairing to me because he seems to match your abstract notions with his art. There's this build-up of light in the panels even when there isn't any spontaneous combustion happening, it's always threatening everything. Was that a direction from your script or did that just come about organically?

Harris: I think it came about organically. I mean, I conceived this a while ago, long before I knew Brett. You know, I probably had a little bit of a different vision for what this series might have been before I met Brett. But once Brett started doing the conceptual work for it and especially once he started turning in pages, suddenly what I'm seeing influences what I'm going to write next. And that's the best, when the person you're collaborating with brings something you weren't expecting to the material and then you take it in and you learn to expect certain things from them because of that. So the style and this "abstract feel" you're talking about really came about collaboratively. 

Hanover: I know that lately with comics there's a lot of interest from outside groups, TV doing adaptations and everything...have you had any of that interest withSpontaneous yet? Because it seems to me that it's something that'd be perfectly suited for the screen...

Harris: Uh...check this space...[laughs] That's all I'll say. Nothing I can talk about yet. But it has not gone unnoticed. [Shortly after this interview, it was confirmed that SyFy had picked up the rights to Joe Harris' previous project for Oni, Ghost Projekt-ed.]

Hanover: [laughs] Alright, well, that's good to hear. I'm curious what other projects you might have coming up, too.

Harris: Well, at Oni Press I've got a Young Adult fantasy that I'm collaborating on with Adam Pollina that we'll be announcing hopefully as the year winds on. What else am I doing? I'm still finishing up a graphic novel with Trevor McCarthy called The Hashishin, which is a stoner adventure. We describe it as Harold and Kumar meets The Bourne Identity.

Hanover: Oh, wow, that sounds fantastic!

Harris: So that's coming down the pike. I have a super secret horror series that I've created with Ethan van Sciver at DC Comics that we'll be announcing as the year goes on. Wish I could give you something more tangible, but that's a smattering of what I'm doing right now. 

Hanover: Sounds like you'll be keeping busy...

Harris: Yeah, yeah, I've got a lot of stuff going on.

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