Without doubt one of the finest comics writers of modern day, Alan Grant has very welcomingly taken the leap from the mainstream world of sci-fi and superheroes to bring us a rare foray into the world of horror with the mouth-watering new independent Berserker Comics line with such titles as gore frenzy zombie mag The Dead: Kingdom of Flies and sinful satanic fun in the Church of Hell so we were thrilled when Alan Grant agreed to take some time out to chat with our very own Al (Sex Gore) Simpson about his work…
SGM: Over the years you've been involved with some very popular independent comic titles (such as Toxic, The Bogie Man and more recently the underground stoner fun of Wasted and Shit the Dog) but this looks to be the first venture into a full on multi-title independent publishing line so how did Berserker Comics come about (who are the mysterious Brown brothers) and what was the thinking behind deciding to go down the horror route?
Alan: The "mysterious Brown brothers" are 3 Irish guys, all less than half my age and all burning with the energy of youth. As far as I know they run a successful business in Belfast, and as lifelong comic fans they decided to plough their profits into forming a new comics line. I don't know why they chose horror as opposed to superheroes; perhaps because horror is perennially popular, while the majority of superheroes are - in my opinion at least - looking rather tired at the moment. Simon Bisley signed on as artist with them, and I believe Simon recommended me for writing duties.
I see myself as more of a humour writer than anything else, so I was a little fazed by the need to write horror stories. Despite the violence of my work on Lobo and elsewhere, I'm actually a very squeamish person and was a bit worried about writing horrific material. However, I think I've managed to get into it, and I'm very happy with what we've done so far.
SGM: With the Berserker line, you're working with some of the finest comic talents (Simon Bisley who you have worked with before on Lobo as well as the very talented Shane Oakley of Albion fame and Star Wars artist Wayne Nichols); did you actively seek these folk out to collaborate with and is there anyone else on the radar you'd like to work with (whether established greats or unsung talents we should be keeping an eye out for)?
Alan: No, I didn't have to seek anyone out. As I said, Simon recommended me - and I have to admit it's a joy to be working with Da Biz again. Berserker chose Wayne Nichols, whose work I was previously unaware of. His ultra-real style and attention to detail have blown me away, and I think "Church of Hell" is turning out to be a very classy book.
Shane Oakley and I have been trying to find a way to work together for several years now - we had a couple of proposals turned down by Vertigo over the years because the stories featured too much action and not enough talking. When a Brighton-based company called Renegade got in touch to ask if I had any ideas for a book for them, I immediately remembered something Shane and I had been talking about for a while: the idea of doing a comic about channeling, which is a subject that fascinates me. As far as I know, Renegade are now issuing the book in conjunction with Berserker...and I have to say it's the best, scariest work I've ever seen from Shane.
I'm working with Renegade on a couple of other ideas at the moment - one of them a "funny horror" story - but we haven't yet got as far as talking about artists.
SGM: Comics fans will be very aware of your long running high profile work alongside John Wagner, will we be seeing any collaborations for Berserker or any other dual projects in the pipeline?
Alan: John recently bought a small farm in south-west England, where I believe he spends much of his time chasing alpacas in his tractor. Although we're still close friends and see each other every few months, there aren't any plans on the horizon to do any more work together. Apart from anything else, the distance between us - 350 miles - makes it difficult to collaborate on stories. I guess we could do it via e-mail, but we're both kind of old-fashioned in that respect: we like to sit down opposite each other and just talk until something happens and a story starts to take shape.
I'm hoping that we'll be able to work together on a new Bogie Man story at some point - we already have the title and main idea - but the problem is finding the market for it. Although I was grateful to the Judge Dredd Megazine for running our last Bogie story, I felt that telling the story in 8-page chunks every 4 weeks didn't get the best from the character.
SGM: The Berserker comics are most definitely aimed at the older horror loving reader (as evident by the graphic content in the gorily entertaining The Dead or adult themes of unnerving Church of Hell), was there any concerns about targeting that market specifically and is there any areas of horror that you would feel taboo as a writer?
Alan: Being so squeamish, I've always steered clear of horror movies, books and comics - so, for instance, when I started writing The Dead, I had never seen a zombie movie. But I was very well aware of how graphic Simon's art can be, so I decided to leave the actual "amount of horror" portrayed up to him.
The idea for "Church of Hell" originally came from the Brown brothers, and I adapted it into something which retained the original idea but made it more acceptable to a comics audience. I have to say, when I stop to think about it - or look at Wayne's gorgeous artwork - it does spook me quite a bit! I think it's fairly unique, in that the premise of the book is to show how an ordinary person can be suckered onto a path of evil without really intending it.
I don't believe any subject is taboo or off-limits to a writer, but there are certain things which I personally couldn't write. Cruelty to children enrages me, and I'd find it very hard to write a horror story on that theme. Also, I hate the way that sex and bloodshed are often intertwined in horror stories; that's something else which I just wouldn't be able to handle.
John Wagner and I once started to do an independent "sexy" comic with artist Carlos Ezquerra. It was kind of hard-core soft porn, called "Randy Truckers in Space", but we really struggled to find a market for it, and in the end we gave up. The first 22 or 25 pages of script still lives on somewhere in our files, though. Maybe when we retire - or die - somebody will release it as the "Long-lost Masterpiece"!
SGM: Not many folk will realise this but weren't you involved in horror comics before with IPC for their much loved and sorely missed Scream comic weekly? Any memories from that period or thoughts on why it failed to survive in the mainstream weekly comics market?
Alan: Yes, John Wagner and I did quite a lot of work for Scream - "I, Monster" (which I think we took over from Alan Moore), "The 13th Floor" (one of my personal favourites) and "House of Daemon" all spring to mind. The major reason that the comic failed to survive was that - because of the presumed young age of the readers - management insisted we keep the horror to a minimum. One has to wonder why the company put out a horror comic, when they were afraid of parental complaints about the actual horror content. I do understand the parental concern: I read my first horror comic (a black-and-white EC anthology) when I was about 10 years old. Fifty years later, I still remember the ensuing nightmare quite vividly...surely a massive thumbs-up to the writer and artist!
SGM: Your current roster of work for the Berserker line is very diverse indeed, any plans for future story/title concepts that you'd care to share or tease readers with (perhaps a horror yarn set in our native Scotland)?
Alan: Actually, I think I'm pretty well sated with horror at the moment. I'm working on a new superhero graphic novel, the superhero having been created by a major (Scottish) novelist with no experience of comics work. The publisher of my "Kidnapped" and "Jekyll and Hyde" adaptations is also involved - probably the best publisher I've ever worked for - and we have high hopes.
I'm also in the early throes of creating a new character for 4-7 year-old girls; I have two granddaughters, and you wouldn't believe the rubbish that's contained in most of the comics available for them. Perhaps strange to say, "Barbie" is one of the exceptions here; I've been very impressed with several Barbie comics and the DVD "Barbie: Island Princess" had me wishing I'd written it.
I'm also doing some work on a text-only idea, which I can't see anybody ever publishing. If I continue with it, it'll probably end up as a free InterNet download. It has an inbuilt "sue me" factor which I imagine no publisher would tolerate.
SGM: Similarly, horror comics can sometimes prove quite marketable so any plans for non-comic offshoots (novels/film licensing/merchandising etc) in the pipeline?
Alan: Yes, but because of commercial confidentiality I can't really talk about those plans. I'm not a movie or TV freak, and although I enjoyed very much working on the Action Man animated movie and the "Ace Lightning" BBC-TV animated series, I figure I'll always be a comics writer.
SGM: Finally (whilst we're discussing all things horror), as a child growing up it was always the monster in the cupboard/under the bed type fear that scared most folk but as we get older often the scares come from human frailties, fears of mortality and poorly executed governmental control. Do you feel that there's still room for those simple childhood fears of the unknown in mature society and what personally gives you the horror chills?
Alan: I have four grandkids under the age of 10, so I know very well that monsters under the bed/in the cupboard still hold enormous scaring power for young children. Back in the 70s, my own daughter was terrified of the psychedelic Jesus poster I had on the living room wall - which may be a first, being afraid of Jesus, I mean.
Throughout my life I've had a series of "supernatural" experiences which I've never been able to explain rationally. Most of them were quite frightening, although none left any indelible stamp upon me. During the 1990s I owned a flotation tank, where you float on salt water at blood temperature; it was padded and thus soundproof, pitch black inside, and I used to love relaxing in it.
Then one afternoon, I decided to use my time in the tank for working on story ideas (which had been the original idea for getting the tank.) I was thinking about the Batman villain Cornelius Stirk, and had a very vivid hallucination of a sharp knife cutting into a human chest prior to cutting out the heart (Stirk used to feast upon his victims' hearts, torn out while the poor wretches were still alive). The thought flashed through my mind: "This is what I do for a living. It's evil!"
Instantaneously, a voice inside the tank, but outside my head, said: "You think that's evil? I can show you what evil really is." I was out of the tank like a scalded cat. I worried about it for the next 24 hours, but eventually decided to get back into the tank - I knew that if I didn't, I'd never have the courage to use it again. Thankfully, nothing happened and I continued to use the tank on a daily basis...though I never again tried to use its confines for thinking up stories.
Nowadays, it's real life which scares me. Like the fact that we live in a democracy, but the lies of one man can take us all into an illegal war; it's reckoned more than a million Iraqis have died so far, but instead of standing in the dock of the World Court, Tony Blair is receiving half a million dollars every time he makes a speech. Or the fact that around 20 different nations have soldiers in Afghanistan with the sole purpose of killing Afghanis (who by the way have never, ever used terrorist tactics in Great Britain).
The real terror in any fearful situation is caused by the feeling of helplessness. If you think you can fight a ghost, or a vampire, or a zombie, then you're much more likely to survive than someone who can't. But our political rulers have inculcated a feeling of helplessness in all of us, so we can only stand by and watch as innocent people the world over are imprisoned, tortured and executed on the say-so of politicians who may very well be sociopathic in nature. And that's my biggest fear by far - that I have four grandchildren who are being brought up in a world which is run by blood-crazed madmen.
CHURCH OF HELL and THE DEAD: KINGDOM OF FLIES are both available from all good reputable comic dealers or direct from publisher Berserker Comics - SGM Approved!