Horror comes in many forms. Heck, Stephen King made a career out of taking mundane things – a clown, a lawnmower – and making them scary.
And right now, what scares James Tynion IV, one of the top writers in the comic industry, are friends. Making them, and losing them.
Tynion is the writer of DC’s flagship and top-selling Batman comic, among several other popular titles. He is also a big name in the horror comics field, with his Boom! Studios title Something Is Killing The Children, becoming one of the biggest hits in the indie comic business in years when it debuted in 2019.
Now, he is tackling one of his most personal stories, using the horror lens, with the creator-owned comic, The Nice House on the Lake, drawn by Álvaro Martínez Bueno. And in a rare move, DC, which mostly left behind creator-owned publishing years ago when it shuttered its Vertigo imprint, is releasing the comic beginning in June, via its more mature Black Label line.
“Sometimes it helps to look at yourself from the least flattering angle, especially when you are dealing with horror,” Tynion tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Horror is a genre that is all about taking about societal fears and personal fears. And this is me taking apart those fears in this book.”
DC was determined to keep one of its superstar writers in the fold. “When James came to me with Nice House, I instantly knew this was a book for our times, exploring the alienation we all sometimes feel from our closest friends,” says senior editor Chris Conroy in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “As the editor charged with sourcing new content for DC’s creator-owned projects, I would never have let James take it to another publisher.”
Horror does seem to be one place where DC has crept into creator-owned works. A recent foray was a quartet of titles from Hill House Comics, an imprint created and overseen by author Joe Hill, which it published in 2019 and into 2020.
The story sees a group of mostly 30-somethings invited to a sylvan lake house by a friend named Walter. Some have known him since childhood, some from college, some from a party a few months ago. He’s a little odd, but after a year that everyone has had – while not mentioning the pandemic, the comic feels very current with its temperature checks and social media connectivity — people are ready for an escape. Once there however, the group learns the world has fallen into terrifying chaos and that they may never be able to leave. Oh, and Walter is so not who they thought he was.
Tynion says one of his earliest creator-owned horrors comics, Boom!’s The Woods, about students and faculty of a prep school transported to a far-off moon, was his attempt to filter his teenage experience via the lens of being in his twenties. Nice House, he says, is him looking back at his 20s while now a 33-year-old.
“There is a moment in all of our lives, I think, when we start to move away from interconnected friend groups and evolving into more individual states. You still have friends and you still see your friends, but they are not such a huge part of your life as they are in your 20s. There is a loss when you enter your 30s there that you know you will never get back even though you long for it.”
That dichotomy of “wanting to back and recreating the perfect moment in your life but needing to grow up and make your own way, that tension is the heart of the book.”
The core idea for the story came about five years ago but it really started coalescing in the last few. The pandemic has made the themes of isolation and outside horror only more relevant and universal.
“We greenlit this story before the entire world slipped into a global pandemic that put everyone on Earth into isolation and replicated that feeling of alienation worldwide,” says Conroy, “and now we have the visceral, haunting horror story that will hopefully help everyone process what we’ve all just gone through.”
The book is a 12-issue limited series and DC is calling it “a season.” More seasons could be produced if the comic is a success.
The comic reunites him with artist Bueno, with whom he worked with on Justice League Dark. The two have created a close bond over the years – “I think in terms of how he draws,” Tynion says – and the writer says he isn’t very hands on with him, giving sparse descriptions and leaving the layouts to Bueno. (The first issue features several lavish double page spreads that Tynion has been experimenting with more and more in his horror books and he credits his reading of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s superhero police procedural comic Powers in middle and high school as influencing him in that regard.)
One area the two did spend time heavily working together was on the design of the house, creating Pinterest boards of architecture they liked. This was during the early stages of the lockdown when both were cooped up in their homes, he in his Brooklyn apartment, Bueno in Torrelavega, Spain. Sending pictures of astonishing mansions was fun but tortuous as they could not leave their abodes due to the pandemic. One of the places that did serve as an influence was the Juvet Hotel in Norway, used as the home to the billionaire inventor played by Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina.
Tynion got his start by being an intern at Vertigo and then a writing assistant and protégé of Scott Snyder, the writer who reinvigorated the Dark Knight in the early 2010s. For the last decade, Tynion has been building his resume to this moment, a zenith he is cresting. His Batman work is widely read and popular, which in turn feeds his creator-owned stories. In only six issues, The Department of Truth, his last original work released late last year, has gone through multiple printings and a few weeks ago was been optioned by Sister, the production company run by Elisabeth Murdoch, Stacey Snider and Jane Featherstone,
“I know that there is a moment that you get everyone’s eyes on you. And how do you make the most of it? How can use this moment to underlie the sorts of stories that I want to spend the rest of my life telling?” he throws the questions out into the world.
He knows the pressure is on as he gives the answer to himself: “I want to deliver a bunch of really, really cool comics at this moment that everyone is paying attention.”
Below, a double-page spread, all silent, showing a horrifying realization.