As I write, Giant Days is one day away from its final issue. A four-year telling of a three-year period that came hot on the heels of (and partially concurrent with) webcomic stories that creator Allison has been working on since 1998, as well as anther BOOM! title, By Night, Giant Days was a phenomenon that inspired a novelisation (rare!). Having drawn a line under previous projects Bobbins, Scary Go Round and Bad Machinery, and having finished the Giant Days story, where does this man turn next?
Toward Dark Horse, and a miniseries called Steeple. Steeple is about the age-old battle between the Church and Satan and His Minions, at the edge of the land and the sea. It’s also about a young woman, hopefully settling in to a new community, discovering she’s already made the wrong sort of friends. Small towns next to large bodies of water are old hands at hosting tales of the unwelcome, and John Allison is no neophyte when it comes to mixing the bizarre and the occult with the mundane. The reader meets Billie in a roadside service station, being casually welcomed by a service worker and two lorry drivers—having a nice chat. By the end of issue one we’ve seen odd creatures come out of the sea and seen the cooling arse of one of Satan’s ministry. It’s a solid fit for Dark Horse, an inverse vision of Hellboy’s strange beings dealing with depression and existential monotony. I asked some questions, and I got some answers—and if you like this, come along to the chat we’ll be having at Thought Bubble.
Why it is that you’ve chosen Cornwall for this story?
I had half a comic worked out in autumn of last year – I knew it would be about a young priest moving to a small town, but the other half of the comic, the satanic stuff was missing. Really it was just a few good drawings and a day of research into the clergy. It sat on the shelf for a few months. But my girlfriend is from Cornwall [the journalist Laura Snapes, whose article Rocking the boat: how Cornish class war inspired a masterpiece can be read at the link] and she suggested setting it there when she saw it in my sketchbook. I’ve spent a lot of time there over the last eight years and it made a lot of sense – once I had the location, I could see the characters much more clearly, and the idea of having it show both sides of the holy/unholy divide came quickly after that.
What sort of thoughts went into the character design of your big buff beardy priest, Billie’s supposed mentor? Were you thinking “people will be horny for this,” or something else?
It was important to me that the comic had a real daddy for people to be horny about. This was critical. No, I just envisaged this as a monthly American comic book that I would draw, and I wanted a character who was muscular like an American comic book character. I wanted some of that fighting physicality in the book so I could draw some action pages if I wanted to.
I’m interested in the decision to feature a hot woman with grey hair. Not only grey, but on the cover at least also featuring a whiter streak. This definitely says “natural aging” to me, instead of “active fashion decision.” Why is this lady, in this “corruptor” role, older than young Billie?
I’m not specific about the ages of the characters in Steeple – Maggie is probably older than Billie, but I like to leave that area fluid because it allows for more interpretations – there are different connotations for fecklessness, in particular, at different ages. What’s charming at one age is a little worrying if you put a few more years on the clock, but I want readers to be able to spin things as they want. As for grey hair, I don’t know if it’s real or a “look” but there is a suggestion in later issues that Maggie may have worried herself prematurely grey. If there’s anywhere in Britain that you can just go with going fully grey at 26, it’s Cornwall. And what if they’re both corruptors?
You never give ground on the speech patterns you chose for your characters, how they sound like people you or I (two British people) know. Is it important to you to feature “local”—non-American—sorts of dialect and syntax?
It’s very important to me, though I’m very wary of spelling out localized dialogue in a way that makes it impenetrable, full of weird apostrophes and gnomic vocabulary. A little goes a long way. Americans can get Britain so wrong, and we laugh about it, but when I was writing By Night, I made about 100 dialect and syntax mistakes per issue with the American dialogue. I shamed myself in front of my editors on a monthly basis.
Is this comic about Brexit, John.
It’s about Brexit, but it’s also about modern polarized politics, and social media purity tests, and virtue signaling – but in the sense of leaning across the divide because there is no other option if you want to go forward. If your car needs fixing and the AA rescue repair van driver voted for Brexit, you hold your nose because otherwise the car won’t go and you’re sleeping in the ditch tonight. We are all more flexible than we let on in.
Rather than lettering independently, you’re working with Jim Campbell on Steeple, as you did with Giant Days. Why is that?
Jim is a much better letterer than me, and Sarah Stern is a much better colourist than me. But I still might have lettered and coloured had I not been writing Steeple and Giant Days, and finishing up a Bad Machinery collection, at the same time as drawing the book. I also did covers for Steeple, which are not my specialty, and take extra work. For two years, until about a month ago, I was writing a comic every two weeks – usually comics with a whole new story each month -and I think my reserves of human energy may have been a little drained.
Did you, he, or someone else design the logo? Tell me a little about that. It’s rather good.
I designed the logo! I did a cover for Squirrel Girl a couple of years ago and when they sent me the logo, the filename told you who designed it – it was Mike Allred. I had always thought that comic logos came from deep in some internal bureau. I didn’t know I could design my own logo. Putting the inverted cross bar on the descender of the letter ‘P’ was a rare burst of graphic design inspiration. I was trying to capture the feel of silver age DC logos, the really popping stuff.
Your eye for style is something that’s been winning you readers for twenty years now, and your young curate, in her slim-fit khakis and wee jumper, cuts a very particular sort of figure. Are there maybe three garments you can give us that Billie would not be likely to wear? If she were being dressed by a stylist, what would misrepresent her?
After the events of issue 1, Billie is rather stuck with her limited wardrobe, so I was keen that she should have a very set look. At some point in the series you can see that she’s been to the charity shop and bought a borderline acceptable skirt, second jumper, and cardigan. But that initial ensemble is, I think, what she thinks an arriving trainee priest should be wearing when she pitches up in a Cornish town. It’s a disguise. The truth of who Billie is, and what she would have worn before she arrived, probably doesn’t start to become obvious until issue 4. But this is classic question avoidance. Billie would never wear a floral romper, cowboy boots, or a lacy gothic lolita ensemble. This I swear.
Steeple #1 is available now from Dark Horse Comics.