Creating stories in a medium that is as kid friendly as comics may seem simple, but as the hundreds of all-ages comics gathering dust on comic shop shelves proves, it is anything but. Age friendly books must preform a delicate balancing act between content and tone on every page. Keeping subject matter age appropriate while avoiding talking down to young readers is an art form that takes a deep understanding of the audience you are writing or illustrating for. Now consider this, in addition to all of those extremely difficult all-ages necessities, add content about the world-crushing, soul-eating elder gods of H.P. Lovecraft lore.
This impossibly difficult project is a reality in Ian Thomas and Adam Bolton’s Where’s My Shoggoth?. This new comic duo has taken the all-ages genre and flipped it on it’s head with their Archaia published comic detailing a boys quest for his missing shoggoth. For those of you unaware of what a shoggoth actually is, I’ll let Mr. Lovecraft take it away with a passage from At The Mountain of Madness:
It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming.
Needless to say, with a description that horrifying, Where’s My Shoggoth? needed to perfect the tone and content to keep this book all ages. Much to their credit, Thomas and Bolton created something fun and compelling while honoring Lovecraft’s vision in a kid-friendly book. I’ve only seen some preview pages of Where’s My Shoggoth? but what I did see was stunning and truly innovative.
I caught up with the creative team behind Where’s My Shoggoth? to talk all-ages horror comics and why we are still obsessed with Cthulhu.
How did you two first start working on comics together?
Ian Thomas: It all started with a wedding…
I wrote something to read out during the ceremony, and wanted to get an illustrated copy as a present to the newlyweds. At the bachelor party, I met Adam – he was introduced to me as an illustrator. We spent the day crashing cars and being shot by paintballs, and at some point that evening Adam agreed to do the wedding present, but we’d also ended up talking about this idea I had for a kids’ Cthulhu book…
Adam Bolton: Exactly right. I had also recently signed a contract with a member of the Ancient Race of Yith and so was contractually obliged to complete at least one book before I was 30 or my soul would be forfeit. I would be forever lost to time as a mere shadow. Which, you know, would suck.
How did you pitch Where’s My Shoggoth? to Archaia? Why did you want to publish with Archaia?
Ian: The pitch was pretty straightforward to put together – just the first few pages along with a fairly late draft of the whole text. Happily, Adam managed to grab five minutes of Mark Smylie’s time at the New York Comic Con, and Mark was keen – it all came from that. Mark understood the idea from the get-go.
As for it being Archaia… well, Adam’s always been a fan of Mark’s series Artesia. And once I realised this was the same company who did Mouse Guard, which I love, I was completely sold on it. Archaia’s production values are fantastic – the books are solid, beautifully made things that you want to keep in pride of place on your shelf. Who
wouldn’t want their book to end up like that? Who else would have suggested, and created for us, a glow in the dark cover?
Adam: Yeah, we had actually tried a few UK publishers before I headed to NYCC and we hadn’t had much luck. They wanted to make drastic changes to the hook that was central to the book. It’s good to be open to changes, suggestions and constructive criticism but I also think sometimes it’s worth just hanging on to the idea. Make improvements here and there, but make sure it ends up at the right home.
Sometimes the idea owns you, rather than the other way around.
Why do you think that your pitch was successful?
Ian: Cthulhu for kids! A lot of my friends are having kids. This is a group of people who’ve always been into horror, comics, movies, gaming, and now suddenly they have a new generation to bring up. This is for them, and I think it’s obvious that there’s a market out there for it. I think it was a very easy concept to get across to Archaia in the pitch, whereas if you were trying to sell, for example, a new long-form graphic novel, it’s a much more difficult thing to explain.
Adam: Pastiching the literary works of a (now) well known writer! We have no shame. But seriously, Lovecraft actually invited fellow writers to adapt and develop his work. Robert E. Howard ( Conan ) inlcuded. It was nice to take an opportunity like that seriously and I really think it helped Archaia to quickly see where we going with it. And hopefully we will find an audience for it too.
Either that or my soul is, again, very much in forfeit. We have to succesfully convert 10,000 people or I’m not long for this world, I can tell thee.
Where’s My Shoggoth? is an all-ages comic, what is the key to making a scary but family-friendly book?
Ian: Keep the language simple, but don’t dilute the concepts – don’t talk down to the kids! I don’t like sugar-coating things, sanitising them, and shutting the bad things away. There may be monsters out there in the dark, but maybe they’re not the things to be scared of — it might be worth taking a closer look. So in Shoggoth we take the
supernatural, and our protagonist treats it as if it’s an everyday thing. We try to keep an edge of danger to all of it, but in a way that the protagonist is never really frightened by it.
Adam: I agree. A natural part of being a child is that you know next to nothing. But then that’s part of being a good adult. Not to make them feel bad for not knowing something, but inspiring them to fill in the blanks!
So fill a book with good ideas, references to other works and enough blank spaces for them to use their imagination and hopefully they will do the rest.
I was always drawn to the odd and the unusual when I was younger. Naturally a lot of that stuff has helped develop my tastes as an adult. So ”Where’s My Shoggoth?” is a hand-me-down to any new up and coming weirdos with overactive imaginations!
Have you guys pitched comics before? How have you dealt with the rejection that typically comes from pitching as a comic creator?
Ian: I haven’t pitched that many comics, but have had plenty of rejections in other media. It’s just a case of keeping on going forwards! Maybe your project didn’t suit a particular publisher – that’s no reason not to try another. Adjust your pitch if need be, send it to someone else, but in the meantime start something new and push that forward. If that runs into trouble, keep it on the back-burner, move on. The old projects are never wasted – you’ll find yourself coming back to them with a new spin Maybe you’re in a conversation with a publisher years later, and when they ask ‘what else have you got’, you realise you already have the perfect project on your shelf. You learn from everything you do, and failure’s a big part of that.
Adam: I have pitched comics before. Also pitching ideas at projects that are already being commissioned. The latter is definitely easier.
But, as I have unfortunately experienced, even if your pitch is successful it doesn’t mean you’re safe. Sometimes the real world can intervene and cancel a book from underneath you.
It can be very frustrating but you’ve got to remember that you’re running a marathon. Remember why you’re doing it. Is it for money? Give up now. Is it because you love artwork and want to see how good you can get? Keep going then!
Or you could go on a shotgun rampage, though that’s not adviseable. Probably a bad idea actually. Scratch that.
As a writer, how do you write your scripts (i.e with lots of artistic direction or with less direction and more focus on narrative)?
Ian: Maybe because I work in a bunch of different media, I tend to think very visually. Normally if I’m writing a story I’ll have a pretty well-defined picture of the scenes in my head. Not in detail, but the feel and shape of them. With the comic scripts I’ve done I’ve been fairly heavy on the layout and description and pacing.
With Shoggoth it was totally different. I had the text without any visual description whatsoever. I gave it to Adam, he worked up some rough layouts, and we back-and-forthed over them a few times. The pacing came out of that. The whole setting – the house, the lake, the gardens, the way it ties together – came from Adam. I’d started with some really simple ideas for pictures, and Adam came up with things that I hadn’t dreamed of.
As an artist how do you interpret scripts (i.e literally or do you take layouts with a grain of salt and do your own thing)?
Adam: I start from where the writer left off and let the thing develop. Sometimes I have read scripts and, to me, it seems as though the writer is telling me what to draw simply because they feel they should. I tend to deviate then if I have a better idea but am always mindful of what the intent is.
At the same time it’s pretty obvious when the writer wants a specific thing on the page. And at those points you would hope it works just right.
Really, both sides need to be flexible and if there’s a disagreement then it probably means that there’s a gap in each other’s understanding. If both writer and artists are serious about the creation then they know the whole thing is bigger than any one of them and it should be following it’s own rules not be a slave to any one person’s ego.
So yes, I deviate. But lovingly and not out of arrogance.
Egos attract Mi-gos.
Where do you think the public’s fascination with Lovecraft elder gods comes from? Why are we so interested in Lovecraft’s creations decades after his death?
Ian: I think it’s the viewpoint. In Lovecraft’s tales, the universe is massive and uncaring, and humans are insignificant specks. There’s a certain relief, and a certain humour, in knowing that in his universe we don’t have to live our lives according to a particular god’s tenets, because the god-like beings just don’t care. There’s nothing we can do to cheat these beings – in fact, they probably won’t even notice us as they accidentally crush us. So we reduce it all to a human level and make a joke about it — create cuddly Cthulhu toys, for example. Maybe it’s our way of coping!
Adam: Yup, what Ian said. He brought us a horror grown out of the beginnings of modern scientific knowledge. To me it is like reading H.G.Wells or Jules Verne on a massive horror binge. There’s very little romanticism in this horror so it sits alongside a lot of modern horror tastes.
With that, Lovecraft’s work is pretty nihilist. But instead of wallowing around crying “It all means nothing!” you can create your own meaning, and these writers’ mythos certainly provide a nice toy box to get started with.
As Steve Aylett wrote “If the abyss stares into you, bill it!”
What advice do you have for aspiring comic creators?
Ian: Write! Draw! Make things. You have all the tools you need – it’s easier than ever to create stuff and get it out there in the world. Above all, make up stories. Stop making excuses. Too many people I know have wonderful ideas, but because they assume they’ll fail, they don’t bother trying in the first place.
Adam: I could write an essay on this but, in short:
Learn to laugh at yourself failing ( it softens the blow ) and never forget why you’re doing it.
And for goodness sake read and draw. Lots and lots and lots and lots…
What can readers expect from Where’s My Shoggoth?
Ian: A tale about a perfectly ordinary kid setting out to look for their perfectly ordinary pet. It just happens that their world, and the things in it, might have a different definition of ordinary from our own. With some wonderful illustrations from Adam… spend some time diving into those pictures, there’re all sorts of things from the Cthulhu mythos hidden away in the corners. We’ve tried to mix Lovecraft with a pinch of Doctor Seuss and Where the Wild Things Are, and maybe even some A A Milne. I hope people have fun with it!
Adam: A darkly comic story that doubles as a very re-readable puzzle book! Ian and I hid all sorts of things in there: references, clues, even some optical illusions.
And afterwards pick up a pen and take the time to delve into your imagination. There are all sorts of messed up things in there waiting to find a new home.