|Interview conducted by Stefan Blitz|
One of the coolest aspects of comics is discovering a unique talent or voice and watching them build their career and eventually explode. One of the latest writers on the verge of superstardom is Dirk Manning, who for the past several years has been perfecting his craft and publishing both in print and online an expansive body of work under the Nightmare World banner.
A longtime columnist as well, Manning’s book, Write or Wrong: A Writer’s Guide to Creating Comics is an invaluable resource for the writer aspiring to build a career in the comic industry.
Today, Manning’s latest work, a double size/double feature one shot flip book, Love Stories (to Die For) has been released through Shadowline and later this month, his debut issue on his four part arc on Big Dog Ink’s The Legend of Oz: The Wicked West will likely expand his fan base even further.
I had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Manning to discuss his work; past, present and future.
As most people who are familiar with my comic work know, I’m very much a “horror” guy… but I’m also – and I say this with no sense of irony – a romantic at heart. Anyone who has read any of my Nightmare World work will tell you that despite the stories all being in the horror genre, many of them are very genuinely emotional and passionate stories where you care about the characters and the situations they find themselves in.
Love Stories (to Die For) is, at its core, a sort of spiritual successor to Nightmare World. Wherein with Nightmare World I told these quick little eight-page “in and out” stories, with Love Stories (to Die For) I’m getting to tell these bigger, deeper and much more involved stories about compelling characters in very complicated – and horror-based – situations.
Were there any particular reasons why you chose the fantasy and sci-fi genres for the two stories?
When Shadowline agreed to do make Love Stories (to Die For) a flip-book containing two-separate 22-page stories I knew immediately that I wanted the two stories to not only be about two different kinds of “love,” but also take place in two completely different genres of horror.
|From “Bloodlust: Deceiver of the Gods”|
The first story, “Bloodlust: Deceiver of the Gods” is a story about Vikings vs. Vampires with the fate of a group of monks fortified in an isolated monastery hanging in the balance, while the story on the other side of the book, “Symptom of the Universe,” is a story of forbidden love on a doomed space station overrun with aliens.
|From “Symptom of the Universe”|
Even the art styles of Rich Bonk and Owen Gieni are completely different – and all these choices were made to enrich the reading experience for the people who pick-up the book. Both stories are equally beautifully illustrated – and well-written, if I do say so myself – but in completely different ways in order to make Love Stories (to Die For) a book that will not only really impress people when they read it, but also be a book they’ll go back to read again and again and again.
Or at least that’s what we’re aiming for, anyway. [laughs]
Much of your work is told in short stories, often with an EC Comics or Twilight Zone twist at the end. What’s the most attractive thing about constructing a short story?
In a day and age where so many stories are constructed with a “waiting for the trade” approach in mind, I really think being able to tell compelling and complete stories in eight page installments (as we did with Nightmare World) or even one-shot 22-page stories (as we did with Love Stories (to Die For)) is really a bit of a lost art-form. I’m a voracious reader of both comics and prose, but I grew-up on short stories by authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, H.P. Lovecraft and even the Stephen King short story stuff. Those authors all proved time and time again how effective and enjoyable short stories can be.
As for what attracts me to that format as a writer, one of the biggest compliments I consistently receive from people who pick-up and read my work for the first time is how impressed they are by how well the artists and I can tell an engaging, complex and complete story in the short-story or one-shot format. Like I said a moment ago, I think too many people are programmed to not expect to get bang for their buck on every page of every comic they read… and I think that’s a shame. I see it as my job to start any story I present to readers as late into the action as possible, starting at the most exciting point possible and going full throttle from there, even if that means starting in the third act, you know? [laughs]
Do you have any plans for longer tales?
I do! In fact, even as I sit here talking to you I have two pages left on my fourth and final issue (for now) of a four-part story-arc for Big Dog Ink’s The Legend of Oz: The Wicked West sitting in front of me on my computer screen. Given that I’m such a short-story and one-shot junkie, this 88-page story (broken over for issues, of course) is the longest single story I’ve written in my life to date – or at least it will be once I’m done talking to you and finish those last two pages! [laughs]
Is this your first time coming on to write a longer story for someone else’s property? How did you get the gig? Did you pitch them or did they approach you?
Yeah… like I said, this is my first time ever writing something so long for someone else’s characters. I’ve written specifically for other creators and other books before (such as the story “Te Vas Angel Mio” for Riley Rossmo’s Dia De Los Muertos mini-series from Shadowline, but in situations like that I was still creating the characters for the short story from scratch.
With The Legend of Oz: The Wicked West #12, which is the first issue of my four-part story-arc that will and it will be hitting shelves nationwide later this month… well, it was kind of a mutual admiration thing. I had previously answered a call to write a short story for Big Dog Ink’s superheroine book Critter, and after I wrapped that up I had dinner BDI co-founders Tom and Kim and we started to talk about what – if anything – would be next.
When they brought-up The Legend of Oz: The Wicked West I immediately blurted-out that I would love to do the origin of the Flying Monkeys, to which Tom replied “That’s the story everyone wants to write.” In response I did something I’ve never done before, which was blurt-out my pitch for the story right there on the spot.
One week later I had the contract in my hand. [laughs]
What specifically can you tell us about your story?
Well, like I said, it’s the origin of the Flying Monkeys – who, in The Legend of Oz: The Wicked West are actually Flying Gorillas. My story picks-up with the reemergence of Dorothy as the new Witch of the West and her desire to learn where the Flying Gorillas came from and why they not only served The Wicked Witch, but are now obligated to serve her.
It’s a very emotion story that is based on the actual origin as laid-out in the Oz books… but I also fill-in a lot of the gaps – a lot of the behind the scenes stuff that went-on with the Flying Gorilla’s when first approached by The Wicked Witch – and what ultimately lead to their life of servitude.
It’s equal parts an action story, a tragedy, and a horror story and I can’t express enough how happy I am with it. I really made it a point to make The Legend of Oz: The Wicked West #12 a perfect jumping-on point for new readers, too… so everyone reading this interview should ask their local comic shop to order them a copy of Issues #12 through #15, as The Legend of Oz: The Wicked West really is one of the best-kept secrets in the comic industry right now.
I recently finished your book Write or Wrong: A Writer’s Guide to Creating Comics, which is a must-read for any creative person looking to turn their writing it into a career. It’s also somewhat autobiographical, which is interesting, and you mention early in the book that you were never a huge comic fan growing-up and didn’t really get into them until you were a teenager. Given this, what attracted you to comics as a storytelling medium?
Would it be a cop-out to just say Watchmen? [laughs]
Like I said earlier, I’ve been an extremely voracious reader my whole life, and by the time I was a teenager I was burning through books so fast that my local librarians could hardly keep up with me coming in and out of the library every day.
Well, one day I was at my local skateboarding shop and I saw this huge wall of comics – and I then realized that by reading comics I would have new material every month about the same characters. While I wasn’t much of a fan of superhero stuff, I was a fan of the old Incredible Hulk TV show when I was little, so I wandered over to the wall and picked-up an issue of The Incredible Hulk, which was written by Peter David.
It was a very, very compelling issue – especially for something about the Hulk, you know? – and I was hooked.
A short time later I started going to my local comic shop, and the guy working their foisted Watchmen into my hands when I expressed some curiosity about it. The storytelling techniques Moore and Gibbons used in that series – especially the way they so masterfully juxtaposed the text and the images – really blew my mind and made me realize that this was, without a doubt, the most dynamic way to tell the stories I wanted to tell.
One of the ongoing themes of your book is how to make a career out of comics. Despite people expecting it to happen overnight, you very bluntly explain from your own experience how much work and patience is required to make it happen. At this point in your career you’re well on your way into building your brand. What’s your next step?
The next step is always the next step: Working with more great artists to make more great comics.
Thus far in my career I’ve been fiercely devoted to creator-owned stuff, and while I will also continue to tell my own stories, I can also see the “next-next-step” being doing some non-creator-owned stuff just to help people who don’t buy creator-owned books see the kind of work I do.
Desert Island Time: If you were going to a desert island and could only bring five storylines or runs of any comic series with you, what would you bring?
Off the top of my head I would say The Goon by Eric Powell, The Walking Dead, Palmiotti & Gray’s criminally overlooked run on Jonah Hex from a few years back, Daytripper by Fabio Moon and Gabrial Bá and…Boneyard by Richard Moore, since it’s another sadly overlooked book that never ceases to make me smile every time I read it.
Mind you, if you ask me tomorrow and I’m in a different mood I might name a bunch of more hard-boiled stuff like Scalped, Blacksad, Crossed, 100 Bullets and the Garth Ennis run on Punisher: Max… but that first list is my list today. [laughs]
You have a ten week/ten city tour to promote Love Stories (To Die For). Where are you going to be appearing to do book signings and “Write or Wrong” writing seminars?
I grew-up in the Midwest, and as a result I am very familiar with a lot of the great comic shops, comic conventions and horror shows throughout Ohio and Michigan, so that’s where people will be able to find me every weekend in September, October and into November.
Details of all my appearances are located at my newly minted personal website www.DirkManning.com under the “Appearances” tab, but some of my “bigger” stops will include Cincy Comic Con and Wizard World: Ohio in September, Detroit Fanfare in October, and the Akron Comic Con in November.
I’ll also be appearing at a few horror conventions and some of my favorite comic shops in Ohio and Michigan throughout those three months, too… and I’m even thinking about possibly extending the tour to 13 appearances in 13 consecutive weekends since, clearly, I’m insane. [laughs]
People will be able to read all about my exploits – and see if I decide to go for “13 in 13” – on Facebook, Twitter, and/or my website.
As we wrap this up, why should folks pick up your books?
Anyone serious about wanting to help themselves write comics should see me at a convention or go to Amazon and pick-up a copy of Write or Wrong: A Writer’s Guide to Creating Comics. Period. There’s no better book on the shelves that will help aspiring writers get their butts in gear and writing, meeting artists, etc.
Anyone interested in reading some good, engaging, and heartfelt horror comics that are NOT “blood-and-boobies” wank-fests should make sure they get their hands on a copy of Love Stories (to Die For) since it’s two self-contained 22-page stories in one cool flip-book all for under $5. Then, if they like it, they should check out the three Nightmare World graphic novel collections for more similar types of reading experiences.
As for The Legend of Oz: The Wicked West, like I said, it’s one of the best undiscovered comics on the shelves right now and – point blank – retelling the Wizard of Oz in the Wild West works much better than it has any right to. It’s an amazing series, and I’ve made sure that Issue #12, which is the beginning of my four-issue run about the return of Dorothy as the new Witch of the West and the origin of the Flying Monkeys, is the perfect jumping-on point in the series.
Your profile/publicity photo is of a guy wearing a black top hat, a black scarf and sunglasses, and you often appear in photographs with your face at least half-covered. What was the origin of this?
As a writer it’s much harder to build a “brand” or “image” for yourself than it is for an artist to do so – especially in the comic industry – so I started using the coat, hat and scarf picture as a bit of a gag for my online avatar and such. Well, the picture almost immediately became associated with my name – and vice-versa – to the point where it’s now part of who I am.
That picture was – and remains — obviously very tongue-in-cheek, though, and when people come to see me at signings and conventions and just see this normal-looking guy sitting there in a suit (after all, I don’t dress-up like that for signings unless it’s a signing on Halloween Day!) my readers would razz me and say “You can’t be Dirk Manning! We can see your face!” In response I would hold-up a book or my sleeve over the lower half of my face and then people would say “Oh! There you are! Can I get a picture with you?”
So, yet again, what started as a joke has now become part of my image. In fact, last year at C2E2 some friends of mine even brought me a homemade “Dirk Manning” doll which resides in my office.
I’m sorry there’s not a scarier story behind it all, but, well, I guess I get all my horror out on the page, you know? [laughs]
What’s your next project?
I’ve got a lot of stuff in the hopper for 2014, but the thing I’m most excited about is that I just signed a deal with a publisher to bring Tales of Mr. Rhee to print.
This, along with Nightmare World Volume 4, is the book I’m asked most about at every appearance I go to. Riley Rossmo just sent me the cover illustrated for the first collection yesterday and I’m really, really excited about finally getting to take that whole first online series to print and then continuing the series in print (at least) from there.
After that, I have a few more creator-owned projects in line, hopefully some more work with Big Dog Ink, and, if all goes according to plan, next Halloween I’ll be releasing that other book that people have been asking about and patiently waiting for these last few years…