INTERVIEW: Paul Cornell, Sally Cantirino, and I Walk With Monsters

A bearded man and a young teenager girl walk into a forest away from the camera

The Important Man took Jacey’s brother from her and she has spent the past little while hunting other such monstrous men to make them pay for their evil. Beside her walks David, who sometimes transforms into an actual monstrous beast. When they come upon the Important Man himself, Jacey’s hopes for revenge don’t work out as she’s planned and she must face the consequences — and herself — in the final issue of I Walk With Monsters from Vault Comics. As Jacey and David’s journey comes to an end, writer Paul Cornell and artist Sally Cantirino discuss their own journeys with this unique horror series.

A bearded man and a young teenager girl walk into a forest away from the camera

We all walk with monsters based on our various experiences. What do you imagine your own monsters look like?

Paul: They look rather like David, the man himself rather than his ‘monster’ form. His past self is what I could be unless I’m vigilant about my own behaviour. I’m very concerned, as the father of a boy, both to not perpetuate a cycle of abuse, and to create boundaries for my son, about, for instance, consent, that allow him to grow up in the best possible way, and to make sure a certain wrongness in my own history ends with me.

Sally: I think a good portion of my monsters look like pages and panels where The Important Man is disproportionately large and looming over Jacey — that feeling of smallness and powerlessness, ineffectiveness and shame in the wake of the adults who have had power over you in your life, whose unkind words or actions have left you full of insecurity or fear. I think they look like young Jacey too, either full of anger and lashing out in the wrong ways at the wrong people, or bottling down feelings and dissociating from them instead of dealing with them.

How did you come up with the monstrous designs for this series?

Paul: That’s all Sally.

Sally: When Adrian and Paul and I first started talking, they were clear that it wasn’t a werewolf story, I wasn’t drawing a werewolf. I’m trying to draw something with teeth and claws and fangs, something that feels like a blur, something that’s incorporeal and always shifting like shapes in a dark room. Since I wasn’t drawing just a wolf, I had to say, well, what creatures freak me out? The proportions of gibbon skeletons freak me out. Komodo dragons freak me out. Those elements work their way in. It really crystallized for me once I got to inking — I shredded up some Pentel Pigment brush pens to get that staticky dry brush and it felt perfect to me.

Spoilers for the last issue, but when I realized I was going to have to draw two monsters fighting each other at the end, I knew I had to render them very different texturally to keep the action clear. This new monster, I think I described my design idea for it to Adrian as like, “Saturn Devouring His Son meets the worst petrochemical run-off.” Just something that feels like the worst inky-black suffocating goo that they wash off birds after oil spills.

What were the first horror stories to really get under your skin? How has your relationship with horror evolved over time and what other stories have helped shape that evolution?

Paul: As a young man, I was a horror movie fan, but as I got older I started becoming more and more of a wuss about the genre, to the point now where I can’t watch a modern horror film except from behind my hands. The genre hasn’t changed; I have. Older means more vulnerable, in all sorts of ways. As a child, I was attracted to Doctor Who because it scared me so much, and the hero’s victory over that fear was profound for me, a light that shone straight into my heart during an awful time. It was no coincidence that the fiction I wrote while at school was Doctor Who fiction, that that was my means of escape. I guess that’s one reason I’ve been telling the audience throughout that they don’t have to worry about the ending to IWWM, that we’ve got them, we won’t hurt them.

Sally: My first exposure to horror was through things like Are You Afraid of the Dark? on Nickelodeon in the ’90s and the horror movies that showed up on MST3k — nothing really super dark or horrific! But going back and re-watching those things as an adult, as a kid my brain really ran with the premises of stuff and filled in the blanks in a way that makes my recollection of the stories much darker than they ever actually were. Later I started getting into the “classics” when it comes to horror movies, and comics, and manga.

Living with anxiety, sometimes fear gets overwhelming, sometimes it’s existential or so nebulous that it’s hard to manage or explain. Fictional horror is about being scared or grossed out for an hour or two by a monster or villain, and knowing ultimately you won’t get hurt. It’s like it teaches my brain “See? You were scared of this thing and you were okay anyway.” The book or movie ends, even if things from it stick with you. I like horror best when it’s fun for me — when things are a little over the top or silly or unrealistic when it comes to gore, when the monster design is compelling, when there’s tension and things left unsaid or unseen.

The writing leaves much unsaid, preferring not to rely on exposition and allowing the visuals to do their job. With limited dialogue, Paul, what kind of details did you share with Sally? Sally, what was your process for turning those details into what we see on the page?

Paul: I wrote very detailed emotional descriptions of what was happening in each panel, and Sally, to an incredible degree, understood exactly what I was after and used extraordinary character acting skills to render the emotions in character expression, so I didn’t have to say much in dialogue!

Sally: Paul’s scripts for IWWM were very focused on the emotional world of the characters– a lot of the design and staging was left up to me, the important details were always of the internal thoughts and feelings of Jacey or David.

The relationship between Jacey and Dave is integral to this story. What did you draw on to shape their unusual dynamic?

Paul: It’s myself, as both Jacey and David, the father I want to be and the kid I was. I’m a huge believer in found families because I think they’re often better than the other kind. My own guilt, where to put it, how to handle it, these two are both wrestling with that issue, and they’ve found a balance. Them finding the Important Man upsets that balance, and so we’re stumbling through horrors to a conclusion that’s rushing at them.

Sally: Right before I started drawing IWWM, I moved back to my parents’ house when my lease ended mid-pandemic. About a month after that, my dad’s health started to rapidly decline and we found out he was terminally ill, and a month after that he was gone. So in the span of 3 months while working on the first three issues of this comic, I had to face a bunch of old feelings and inner conflicts that came with living back at home, then very quickly come to peace with the fact that the relationship my Dad and I had was the best we were ever going to be able to do, and we did the best we could. There are elements of David that remind me of my dad, and elements of David that are what I wish my dad had been for me when I was younger.

Sketches of a bearded man
Sketches of David by Sally Cantirino

Paul, you have spoken about how personal this story is for you and how that vulnerability changes the writing experience for you. Now that the full story has been released to the world, how does it feel to have this part of you out there for the world to discover?

A relief, in some ways, and an increased vulnerability in others. It feels like a story, too, in that it has its own life in the world now, and I want it to belong to all its readers too.

I Walk With Monsters #6 is available this week.

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.