Titan’s softcover collection of the first three issues of Rachel Deering’s Anathema hits stores today. The book is a lesbian werewolf horror epic. And if the concept isn’t enough to sell you on it, rest assured that the art is arresting and the story brisk and affecting: young lovers are separated by murderous puritans, a death cult takes advantage of this to consume an innocent soul, and the survivor vows revenge. In order to protect the soul of her dead love, Mercy werewolfs up and goes on a quest. Anathema explores the familiar territory of revenge-driven adventuring and transference of the monstrous, but Mercy is unusually accessible.
I had the chance to chat with Rachel about the creation of Anathema and its journey from Kickstarter to Titan.
First of all, thank you. Another woman werewolf, yes yessss. Ginger Snaps created in me an enormous appetite for female werewolf stories. Not because of the too typical lunar/menstrual cycle association, but because werewolves are angry, furry, and not usually sexy. What got you interested in werewolf stories, and what, in your opinion, makes a good one?
1981. That year gave birth to both The Howling and An American Werewolf in London. I didn’t see either film until years later, but those were some of the earliest horror films I remember seeing, and they stuck with me forever. Werewolves were my favorite from the start. As far as what makes a good werewolf, I’d say a character you can relate with and feel for when they’re in human form and who you dread seeing the change come to with the full moon. Also, big ears. Big, pointy ears. I tend to prefer bipedal designs. Slender, wiry, insane looking. Full on wolf head. That’s just my taste, though.
Anathema is built around a quest: a woman turned werewolf seeks to save the soul of her dead lover from a monstrous cult of men who prey on women. Mercy, our werewolf heroine, isn’t an epic hero, though: she’s vulnerable, self-doubting, and often scared. And it’s not that werewolf transformation that worries her; it’s all the killing that has her wondering if she’s becoming a monster. Tell me a bit about the origins of Mercy and what you want to accomplish with her story.
Mercy is my version of Solomon Kane. She is a tortured person who walks the fine line between good and evil, never knowing quite where she stands, but never wavering in her resolve to put an end to her enemies. I never had an agenda behind Mercy; I just wanted to tell a cool story. Sarah’s father had a bit of an agenda, but I think that’s pretty obvious.
You’ve said before that the comic is a tribute to Hammer horror and that lineage is obvious in the feel of the book, and in characters like Henrich the hedgewitch (wiseman?) and Count Karnstein. What is it about Hammer horror that you love and wanted to recreate and reinterpret in Anathema? (Anathema feels like a Hammer story, but sweeter, because that is some true love, and more personal to me, because I can see myself in Mercy.)
Hammer always appealed to me because of how over-the-top everything was. The acting, the set design, the music—it was all bigger than life. I also prefer Gothic horror and the implied scares over the modern, gory, splatter horror. I knew I wanted to tell an emotional story, and the Gothic moodiness of Hammer’s style lent itself more to that kind of thing.
I love the creatures in this comic, especially the female monsters and the lack of objectifying gaze. In her werewolf form, Mercy is depicted as powerful, calculating, fierce, and very furry. Karnstein is very Count Orlok and his raven disciples are gross bird-men. What kind of cues did you give your artists regarding their designs and the look of the series overall?
I know I described Mercy in wolf form as, “Insane, not sexy. Terrifying, not tantalizing. She’s a monster, not a model.” As for Karnstein, this is directly from the script: “I like vampires who are much more animal than human. Perhaps he looks like a mix of Nosferatu and a bat, but with long hair,” and, “This should show that his lust for blood is far more predatory and less ‘precious’ than conventional vampires. We want to really drive home the fact that he is a MONSTER!” For the cultists: “Members of the cult are in various stages of transforming from twisted looking plague doctors into ravens. Some of them have outstretched arms that are becoming wings. Anything that would show the men transforming into black birds. The plague doctor forms should be more creature than costume, sort of like the costume is made of flesh.”
Chapter one is called “Wolf & Raven” and it lays the groundwork for Mercy’s change into a werewolf, and her hunt for the pieces of Karnstein’s heart, following “as the raven’s fly.” Wolves and ravens have an interesting relationship, both in nature and in mythology. Generally, it’s ravens who follow wolves, scavenging their kills, but sometimes they lead packs to prey upwind. In Anathema, it’s Mercy following the raven-men, trying to save people from them, and stealing their treasure. Which myths, ancient or modern, did you draw on in developing this relationship?
“Wolf & Raven” is a song from Finnish heavy metal band Sonata Arctica. All of the issue titles are either heavy metal songs or album titles. Beyond that, Viking mythology uses a lot of wolf and raven symbolism, and I’m a big Norse nerd, so it was inevitable that those elements would show up in my work. The series has a habit of reversing roles, so it made sense for me to have the wolf stalking the ravens. I don’t want anything to happen as expected.
Anathema has had a complicated publishing history: a 2012 Kickstarter, two artists leaving the project after test pages, your early entrance to ComiXology Submit in 2013, and now print publication of the first volume at Titan Comics. How does it feel, having taken this project so far, to see it now in print?
It feels better all the time. There’s still so much personal turmoil wrapped up in this series for me, and there are days when I want to forget it forever because of all the trouble it’s brought upon me, but I love it way too much to do that. I’m glad things are on an upward swing with the book, and I just hope it continues. Not trying to jinx myself.
You designed and lettered the single issues. (I love the lettering, by the way, it’s so on point for the tone of the comic!) How involved were you in designing Anathema: The Evil That Men Do?
I self-published the trade and did all of the design myself. Some of that made it into the Titan version, but a good bit of it was reworked by their people. I had no hand in creating the new design, but they did run all ideas by me before they committed to it.
How was the transition from self-publishing to working with a publishing house? In previous interviews, you’ve said that you’re a creator, not a business woman, and that you struggled with the initial Kickstarter, because you hadn’t anticipated all the costs involved in publishing Anathema. Was it a relief to have someone else managing marketing, schedules, and dealing with printers, or did you find the adjustment difficult?
Well, I had already done all the hard work with Anathema by the time Titan came along, so all I really had to do was hand off the files to them and let them do their thing. It’s nice to kind of sit back and let things happen, though. It’s nice to know that experienced people are putting their talents to use in helping the series achieve the success that it deserves.
Has Titan committed to publishing volume two of Anathema? When will we see issues five and six and future hardback collections?
Yeah, the contract we have is for all six issues, broken up into two trades with the possibility for an ultimate hardcover collection. We’ll discuss that when the time comes, but I’m hopeful that it comes to pass. The second trade will be out whenever Titan decides it should come out. I am very hands off with their scheduling.