Long Lost’s fusion of southern Gothic aesthetics with family drama has quickly made it one of my favorite ongoing series. Though everything is shrouded in a supernatural mystery, it’s the relationships that keep me reading, the hints of the supernatural serving to heighten the tension that grows with every issue until it feels that the comic is ready to boil over.
It’s also unlike most of the horror comics I read. There’s little blood or gore, and the art is so clean and tidy that the moment something changes, it signals a shift into the supernatural. The husband and wife team behind the series, writer Matthew Erman and artist Lisa Sterle, were kind enough to chat with me about their work process, influences, and the comic’s concentrated atmosphere of dread.
What’s it like to work on a project like this as a married couple, especially because so many comics are created by people who aren’t necessarily geographically close and may not know one another beyond their work?
Lisa Sterle: I’ll start. I’m sure Matt has some thoughts on that too, but there’s definitely pros and cons. Brainstorming and critiques are really easy for us to do together, because we both trust each other and our creative instincts. It also means we have a lot of similar influences and interest, so we don’t butt heads as often.
A downside is that it’s hard to turn it off sometimes, so we have to set a time each night, like after 7 pm or so, when we’re not allowed to talk about comics otherwise we never get a break from work. Haha!
Matthew Erman: Yeah, I love working with Lisa. She’s a great teammate, and yeah, it’s probably because we’re married, but getting to work on stuff with her is privilege. I’m really spoiled when it comes to comics thanks to her. Haha! She is an incredible editor and really makes everything I write better; she wears a ton of hats and because of [that] collaborating with her is a dream. I think it would be easy even if we weren’t married. I’ve heard a ton of compliments about her from other writers working with her, so yeah. I’m just a lucky dude.
We also generally hate the same things, so if she doesn’t like something that means I need to change it.
Sterle: Haha, I have strong opinions.
Erman: Which is good. Because I am weak willed and will do anything to please people.
Out of curiosity, do you have spaces in your home that are used specifically for work so it’s easier to designate those “okay, it’s work time” hours versus just normal life hours?
Erman: That’s a Lisa question.
Sterle: Haha, yeah, but we don’t follow the rules a lot of times. We have a shared studio space where 80% of the work gets done, but the other 20% is talking about comics late into the night in our living room.
Erman: I can only work in a clean room. That is my weakness. I have so much trouble working in what I would consider disorganization that it is basically a crutch for laziness at this point. Not to say that Lisa’s space is messy. But she is an artist.
On that note, Lisa, what kind of media do you work in? I’m not an artist myself, so I don’t know anything about recognizing different styles. Can you talk a little bit about how you put together the art for Long Lost, especially because of all the great textures and effects in it?
Sterle: I work pretty much all digitally nowadays, with a tablet monitor and Photoshop. I love the convenience of digital (no cleaning brushes), but I really love the look of traditional watercolor and ink, so I try and emulate aspects of that in my work a lot. I love washy, abstracted backgrounds and environments, making things that are actually highly calculated and worked over look spontaneous and expressive. Horror manga is an big influence as well, and I think you can see a bit of that in my character designs and layout choices.
Erman: One time I colored a panel in Long Lost #5, and it was super fun.
Which one was it?
Erman: I completely forget, one of the ones with Joanna and Jody chatting.
Sterle: Oh that’s right, he did flats for a panel for issue 5 I think?
Erman: I was coloring shirts, that’s my contribution to the art, haha.
Sterle: I think I was running up on a deadline and was like, hey Matt I’ll show you how to color in these clothes, and he did a pretty okay job. I had to clean it up a bit. 😛
So, you mentioned horror manga, but what are some of the other influences at work in Long Lost, both in the art and writing? Also despite not having read much horror manga, I definitely see that!
Erman: So for writing, I’ve got a couple of inspirations specifically for Long Lost and then just as a general thing. I think as far as the story, most people could probably pick up on the David Lynch inspirations. I also pull a lot from video games, Silent Hill 2 and the works of Hidetaka Miyazaki, who did the Dark Souls games. I’m a huge fan of mystery and for me the puzzle of, “What the hell is going on in Long Lost,” is a really great puzzle we’ve concocted.
Sterle: My influences are sort of all over the place, and maybe some are unexpected. Sailor Moon is one; the look of the Negaverse and textures in that manga are fantastic. Junji Ito, of course. This One Summer for the beautiful brushwork in the backgrounds. The video games Dark Souls and Bloodborne were great monster inspiration. Some painters, Francis Bacon and Goya, for the tone/mood inspiration.
Erman: I love taking real things and making them seem not real. David Lynch does a great job of that, and so does Charles Burns, but I don’t know if he is a direct influence.
Sterle: I’d say Charles Burns is an influence for sure for me.
I never would have made that Miyazaki connection but now that you mention it, that definitely comes across! Lots of kind of “lost” spaces that you can tell used to be something, but are now kind of rundown and empty in a really foreboding way.
Erman: It’s my secret influence; the way he builds his worlds are beyond anything I’ve ever seen. He is a stunning creative.
Also, definitely love that the Negaverse is an influence, too.
Erman: Haha, I’m always happy when Lisa can bring in a little Sailor Moon to whatever we’re doing
Sterle: Hey, it was the first comic I ever read, I think. Other than Archie comics, and it has stuck with me throughout my life. It’s definitely not a horror manga of course, but it has some surprisingly scary/dark aspects to it throughout all the arcs.
Erman: My first comic was Spider-Pig.
Erman: With Peter “Porker.” No wait, SPIDER-HAM. My bad. Lisa is cooler than me.
Sailor Moon can be legit scary. Some episode of the cartoon gave my husband nightmares for years.
Sterle: It’s my favorite. I’ll always love Sailor Moon. <3 One of these days I hope I get to draw my own magical girl-esque comic.
That would be rad. How long has this comic been in the works? How long were you working on it, from concept to the publication of the first issue?
Erman: 2013 is when we first started talking about doing a comic together and sat down and brainstormed the thing. It was a long process. We had originally this whole other thing about a brother and sister that go to this southern town, get stuck there and have to deal with all the crazy people there.
Sterle: Also it was a zombie apocalypse story at some point?
Erman: We even did pages for that, we’ve got them somewhere.
Yeah, it was a zombie thing about a dog, and that was trashed too. We sat on it for a while while we did other things, and eventually came back to it when I had a script. That was probably two years later, and then Lisa and I started really working on it as a pitch to a publisher, we still didn’t really know what we were doing, literally winging it. We thought if it didn’t catch somewhere, we’d cut our losses and do something else later on.
Sterle: It has been a wild ride ever since the issues started coming out; I really didn’t expect to be able to launch myself into a comics career, but it’s been a real blessing. and I’m glad our first comic published was one we made together.
Erman: I totally agree, and I’m also really happy we changed them to become two sisters. Frances as a boy sucked.
Sterle: Their dynamic as sisters and sort of learning to become friends again is probably my favorite part of the whole series.
But yeah, to bring it back to the question, we pitched to a handful of publishers about a year and a half ago with zero expectations, and Scout Comics wanted to bring us on! And I’m glad we didn’t have to abandon the comic and we get the opportunity share this story.
Erman: Yeah, once we got our deal with Scout, it was in the beginning of 2017, and Lisa worked essentially full time on the comic all the way up to right now.
Sterle: Shush, I love it.
Wow, so it sounds like it all happened pretty quickly as far as going from pitch to publication.
Erman: It really did, and I think that’s in part because of Lisa’s art. She really sold the book with how it looks. The actual story came after that. In that it wasn’t written.
Oh man, about how long did you have to write the script after getting the pitch accepted?
Erman: I didn’t finish writing the entire story until November of 2017. So that’s 11 months after the pitch was accepted, before my part was finished. Chapter 5 was an absolute pain in the ass, that issue took like two or three months to figure out.
By entire story do you mean all the planned issues?
Erman: Yup! I finished writing issue #12 in November, which will be the end of the series.
Sterle: Yeah, we actually had a lot of time for Matt to write and for me to get a head-start on issues before our #1 came out. Matt misspoke earlier, since I was actually still working full-time, then part-time, for most of 2017.
It was great that Scout was able to give us so much time to make sure we were ready for #1, because now that #6 is about to come out I’m actually way ahead of schedule in production, so it’s nice to not have to stress out about deadlines so much.
Returning to what you were mentioning about Piper and Frances having to learn to be friends again, their relationship, as well as the relationships they have with the rest of their family, are really at the heart of what makes Long Lost interesting to me. They feel like family, but are also really distant. How do you make sure that those relationships feel familial despite their estrangement?
Erman: That’s a great question. Also thank you, I think the best part of the series is getting to know Piper and Frances, the reader shares that with both of them. They don’t know each other anymore, and the readers get to learn who they are with them. It creates a lot of opportunities for me to flesh out just how they act. That’s really important. Knowing who they actually are. It’s why the first issue has them separated, I wanted to show who they were unrelated to each other. I think that makes them feel more real, a little more authentic, and when they do get to interact, a large part of how I go about writing them is asking myself if they were alone, what would they be doing or saying?
Because at the heart of it, when you’re with family you’re generally comfortable enough to not mute your thoughts or guard what you’re about to say or do.
So they don’t; they act like they’re not with each other, and that is the heart of a sibling relationship I think: doing what you want and accepting the criticisms or whatever from your other half.
Lisa and I both have younger siblings too, so there is a ton of experience we share. We’re both older siblings, but I think we’re empathetic enough to understand the relationship and to give them fully realized, real feelings towards each other.
In the later issues of Long Lost, they really ended up writing themselves, because of how real their sisterhood felt, I’d ask how they felt and they’d respond by giving me my story. And yeah, that’s super pretentious sounding, but what can I do? Not be pretentious? Nah.
Haha, I get you. Once you spend enough time with characters, you have a reliable sense of what they’d do in a given situation. As a writer, you can provide story obstacles and beats, and the characters respond because they’re fleshed out enough to feel like people that have thoughts and feelings beyond just what you want them to do or think or feel.
Reading back through my reviews, I noticed I use the word dread a lot. Is this something you were consciously trying to cultivate in the comic? Like at least once per review I use the word dread, which both means I need to expand my vocabulary and that it was one of the strongest emotions I was getting from the comic.
Sterle: Totally, 100%. I don’t think either of us are the type that want horror to just be something visceral or gross, or weird. We really hope to get under the reader’s skin in anticipation of what could happen, what’s going on underneath the surface.
Erman: That’s a very accurate feeling. We are building towards a few things, and without that sense of anticipation it would feel random and byzantine. We’re stringing people along, giving them a taste here and there, and I think that builds legitimate dread. You’re expecting something to happen, but you don’t know what it is; we’re just doing it over the course of many issues as opposed to just one scene or segment.
I’m also trying to keep the reader in the dark as much as possible, because that is what Piper and Frances are going through.
Dramatic irony is frustrating.
Long Lost’s more horrific visuals are actually pretty sparing throughout. How do you choose when to lean into the supernatural horror—things like the bezoar or the sort of mushroom body horror of Piper’s dream in the first issue—and when to let things feel realistic?
Erman: That’s a hard question!
Sterle: Yeah, haha.
Erman: Let me try and parse this one out. I may ramble.
Okay, so as far as writing horror, I think there are expectations, and they can hurt or help the actual enjoyment of the story. So, like a reader comes into this expecting there to be “scares” or “horror,” so my job as a writer is to both deliver and subvert those expectations. That’s the most important thing.
So when I wrote these scripts with Lisa, a large part of that was thinking about what a reader would EXPECT to happen and thinking about how that expectation would fit into the story.
That kind of covers the entire philosophy I have when it came to writing this, because at the end of the day horror is about the unexpected, but you can’t have a comic full of random bullshit that doesn’t make sense. So you have to make the unexpected things feel built in, like a discovery of something that was already there all along.
Sterle: Also, I feel like sometimes in horror, whether it’s film or comics or whatever the medium, the characters themselves take a backseat to the action. We consciously chose to give more space in our story to developing these characters, perhaps in places where other stories would be throwing more horrific visuals at you.
Erman: Exactly. I think by taking time to develop the characters’ past being tropes we’ve thrown off the sense of structure a normal horror series would have, so the audience’s expectations are little looser, so we can get away with showing a three-page horror sequence in a 28 page comic, and it feels unexpected and exciting.
At least from my perspective, that works in tandem with the atmosphere of dread to make things feel scary even when there’s nothing overtly horrific happening on the page. It feels like everything’s always a little off-kilter, and you’re constantly on edge because you really never know when something creepy is going to happen.
Compared to most of the horror comics I’ve read, Long Lost has an art style that’s quite clean. it’s easy to see what’s happening, even if the story itself is kind of cagey with details. Along with the cream-colored background and sparing use of color, the comic has a really unique look. What made you choose to pursue that route rather than the really dense or colorful approaches of some other comics? A lot of times I think of horror art as being very dark and grungy, but Long Lost doesn’t feel like that.
Sterle: Well the monochromatic and grayscale tendencies of the coloring in particular are kind of a nod again to horror manga. It just felt right to not have this comic in typical full-color, to hopefully make it feel like it’s taking place in some dreamy world, full of memories and lost things.
As far as the clean, simplicity of it, I’m not someone that tends to get lost in the details with my art. As a one-person art/lettering team, I have to be economical at times. But I think the result does fit the story well and helps keep the reader focused on the important parts.
Erman: I think Lisa’s art helps bring a complete freshness to the series and I don’t think the story would work without her ability to do what she does. I think she does magical things with expressions.
Sterle: Also, oddly enough I think if you looked at my art outside of Long Lost, you’d be surprised I’m doing a horror comic. I don’t tend to draw horrific things, even though I’m such a huge fan of horror, so I think my artistic choices were a surprise even to me at times.
Would you be interested in drawing more horror-oriented art in the future, outside of Long Lost?
Sterle: Oh, for sure. I feel like I’m just at the start of really figuring out my style in horror comics. I’m actually currently working on another horror series alongside Long Lost. It just premiered in Previews actually, Submerged, published by Vault Comics.
Nice! Do you think that’ll be something that also appeals to fans of Long Lost?
Sterle: 100%. It’s horror, but it also has a strong story centered around family and relationships, and growing up and learning how to be strong and stop running from what is right. It’s also got an amazing team on it, from my co-creator Vita Ayala, colorist Stelladia, and Jen Bartel and Triona Farrel on variant covers. It’s a really amazing story in a way that is both horror and fantasy.
Issue six begins with a pretty substantial flashback sequence, one that reveals a lot of what we’ve been wondering about up until this point. Can you talk a bit about how you spread out the information that we need throughout the story, knowing what was going to come later?
Sterle: That was my idea, actually, I’m pretty sure!
Erman: Haha, yeah it was. I think without those flashbacks people would have abandoned our story. They hint at the larger bottom story, beneath everything. We needed a taste in each issue, and Lisa was the one that convinced me that was how we do it.
Sterle: We knew we had to give the past of these sisters some real time and space for you to understand where they’re coming from, but we also wanted for the reader to sense the trauma of that experience before fully realizing what it was. Kind of like, as they travel back to their hometown and are re-experiencing these old places and people they used to know, these memories are surfacing again. We’re literally seeing fragments of them, in a way that mirrors what Piper and Frances are remembering as well.
Erman: It’s wild too because those flashbacks hint at things we haven’t even touched on in the story.
Erman: Haha, it’s coming.
What can we expect from the next arc of the story? Not in specific events, but in terms of tone, mood, that kind of thing.
Erman: Oooooh. Issue #7, which is the Long Lost Book Two: #1, is the most wild issue up to that point. As a whole, literally as soon as you get into this next arc, things do not stop happening.
Sterle: We’ve set up all the dominoes, and now it’s time to knock ‘em over! Sorry if that was too corny. aha!
Erman: Answers, and questions and events so much. It is the payoff for sticking with the series for the first six issues. It takes everything we’ve established, and yeah, thank you Lisa, knocks down all the dominoes. You cornball.
It’s an effective metaphor, that’s what matters!
Erman: Haha, absolutely! Can’t wait for everyone to dig into the next arc, I hope Long Lost #6 sets up the next six well!
When can we expect the next arc of the series?
Erman: Long Lost #7 is literally in previewsworld now, with a release in late July and you can ask your local comic shop to order you a copy with previewscode: MAY181965. It is one of our favorite covers too.
Sterle: Also, we have a trade of the first six issues releasing in June, so if you wanted to get caught up, now’s the time to do it!