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Do you love horror comics? Do you love superhero comics? If you answered “yes” to either or both of those questions, just take a gander at what David Server and Jackson Lanzing have to say about their three-issue Ape Entertainment miniseries FREAKSHOW (the first issue of which we reviewed here).
FANGORIA: Tell us what FREAKSHOW is about.
DAVID SERVER: The book is set in a world like our own where all of a sudden a superhero named Vanguard appeared. No one knew where he came from or how he got his powers, but just as suddenly as he arrived, he was struck down by a giant chemical explosion. The chemical, called The Smoke, spreads, infecting and killing thousands of people. The entire city is quarantined and a paramilitary organization swoops in to impose martial law, but no one knows if they caused this explosion or what they’re trying to accomplish, but they’re researching something in secret. In a few instances, rather than killing a person, The Smoke causes genetic mutation that results in something resembling superpowers. But not ones you would want; they’re defective and uncontrollable.
JACKSON LANZING: The series follows the five survivors who developed these “faulty” powers. They include Critter, a frightened young boy who develops lizardlike agility and a barbed tail; Stronghold, the hulking militaristic leader of the team; Rot, an amnesiac zombie who can regenerate muscle tissue; Fog, who is now a sentient gas trapped inside a containment suit; and Psychosis, the team’s straightjacket-clad mute psychic. They have to make a choice: do they rise about circumstance and save this seemingly doomed world, or do they indulge their frustrations and embrace their new monstrous appearance to get revenge. When thrown into the worst possible scenario imaginable, where one could argue they’ve already lost and there’s nothing left to fight for, will they ultimately overcome their own urges and make the right choice?
FANG: What influence did the horror genre have on FREAKSHOW?
SERVER: A lot of what we deal with in the book comes down to taking the conventions you may be used to from superhero comics and then playing it off conventions more traditionally found in the horror genre. For example, our “heroes” go through a chemical accident that gives them their abilities. But rather than springing out of it with perfect muscles and ideal superpowers, their faces are gone, their bodies are transformed and their identities are ripped away from them. They’re monsters, and when the series starts out, they’re embracing that mindset and lashing out at the people responsible. The arc of the story is whether they can overcome the horrific events that have happened to them and still be, in the classic sense, superheroes. That being said, they’re surrounded by those killed or dying from the accident, trapped and being hunted like animals inside a quarantine zone and furious about their own personal losses, so that decision may not come so easily to them.
LANZING: We commonly describe FREAKSHOW as a superhero/horror hybrid, and we mean that in a very literal way. Each of our five characters is, conceptually, a combination of a superhero and a monster archetype. We have a “scrapper” named Rot, a hand-to-hand regenerating brawler in the vein of Wolverine—but he’s got the visage of a zombie, rotting flesh and all. That combination of the superheroic and the monstrous isn’t some cool gimmick or a way to shoehorn a zombie in the book for the horror fans, it’s key to our thematics and to the story we’re telling.
SERVER: There’s definitely an element of body horror at play here as well. Cronenberg’s THE FLY could certainly be listed as a pretty significant influence. When your body is no longer your own, and its been twisted and completely deformed, are you still you? And by extension are you still responsible for your actions, or is the old you gone?
FANG: Tell us about your previous work and how you came to meet.
LANZING: David and I both went to film school at USC, and became friends on-set through a mutual love for comic books. I’d been cooking up a script in my dorm and figured I’d let David take a peek. The next day, he and I went out to lunch and he told me about FREAKSHOW.
SERVER: I had originally come up with the story when I was living in Boston before I moved to Los Angeles for school. It’s always been my love letter to everything I adored in comics—superheroes and monsters, epic moral struggles, issues of guilt and remorse and redemption. The problem was I was struggling with the format, and I hit horrible writer’s block. When I met Jackson and read his work, which was tremendously accomplished, I knew he was someone who could help. Sure enough, within seconds of hearing my ideas, he had both identified brilliant solutions for all my story problems and added new characters who brought the whole project to a new level. I asked him to co-write the project with me on the spot.
FANG: How did artist Joe Suitor get thrown into the mix?
LANZING: Once we had a story and script we knew would work, we went searching for artists. After a long process of peaks and valleys we finally stumbled upon Joe Suitor’s blog, and he was clearly the visual stylist we’d been looking for all along. Since joining the book, Joe’s gone on to draw Spider-Man at Marvel, Batman at DC and Transformers at IDW, but I can say with total certainty that FREAKSHOW is written and designed to Joe’s strengths and shows off his incredible skill in a way that no book has before.
FANG: I love designs of the monster and the heroes. What influenced them?
LANZING: As I said before, we’re taking a monstrous approach to superheroes and a superheroic approach to monsters, and that collision leads to some cool design choices down the line. The physical designs came out of an attempt to represent the iconic traits of each monster, then we added a layer of clothing. I like to think of them as “found object superheroes”—people who were less concerned with look than functionality and who had very little means to create their “costumes.” So while readers will spot some spandex and the odd chest-centered symbol, they’ll hopefully be given a deeper appreciation of each character’s background and complexity through the non-iconic elements of the outfits as well.
It’s important to note that while David and I both had very detailed ideas of how these characters should look and feel, it was Joe’s incredibly detailed design work that brought them to life. The book walks a fine line between iconic and chaotic, and Joe managed that dichotomy with incredible grace.
FANG: Is there a certain character that you put a little of yourself in?
SERVER: Yes, I’d say there’s absolutely a bit of myself in all of them, which is in large part where they came from in the first place. Everyone on our team is in mourning, for their human selves, essentially. And the burden of this sadness has affected them all differently. Critter is initially racked with guilt and a sense of helplessness in the face of this disaster. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Stronghold is just outraged, he’s an engine of revenge and he’s totally self-righteous. For better or worse, I’ve had variations on all of their coping mechanisms when I’ve had to deal with my own frustrations in life. We all have. It actually makes them very cathartic characters to write. That being said, I like to think I’m closer to Critter than the rest of the team.
LANZING: While I didn’t have a hand in the initial creation of our five lead characters, I quickly found a kindred spirit as I began writing them. When I was 10, I watched my mom, who loved to surf and run, discover that she’d been born with spina bifida, a back disorder that suddenly left her unable to walk for days on end. At 15, I was diagnosed with the same problem, and to this day I walk with a cane at least a month out of every year. And while my problem is fairly minor in the grand scheme, I know firsthand what it’s like to be betrayed by your body. I know what it’s like to struggle with the difference between the person on the outside and the person on the inside. My coping mechanism changed through the years, but if I’m most like any one of our characters, while I would love to say I have the moral strength of Critter, I’m probably much closer in spirit to Rot. That makes him my favorite character to write by a long shot.
FANG: What sets FREAKSHOW apart from your average superhero comic?
LANZING: As far as we’re concerned, everything. We’ve got characters with more pathos and gray area than the genre usually affords, a story set in a world you’ve never seen before, rendered by an incredibly unique artist and published by an independent publisher that never once forced its will on the creators. It’s also a perfect jumping-on point for new readers of comics; this is the first story of the FREAKSHOW saga, told completely within three-issues, so you don’t have to worry about knowing the continuity or minutia of the universe before diving in. And unlike most dark superhero books, FREAKSHOW doesn’t conflate being a “badass” with being a “hero.” We’re seeking to address the modern assumption that heroism is an inherently flawed or idealistic concept, and that the guy with the coolest guns or the biggest muscles must have right on their side.
FANG: Any plans on working together on future projects?
SERVER: We’re currently co-writing THE PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR comic for Ape Entertainment and DreamWorks, which has been a blast. And we’ve got some new ideas cooking that we’re hoping to launch after FREAKSHOW wraps. In addition to my comics work with Jackson, my day job is as a literary manager and producer at Archetype, where we currently have HIDING IN TIME, based on the Image Comics series by Christopher Long, set up at Warner Bros. I’m attached as a producer. We’re also currently shopping LOST SQUAD based on the comic series by Chris Kirby. I’m hoping to get some more material set up this year. And there’s the recently announced FREAKSHOW movie adaptation with Mark Protosevich, who wrote I AM LEGEND, attached to write and possibly direct, which of course we’re beyond thrilled about.
LANZING: What David said. I also write as part of a screenwriting team with Collin Kelly, and we’ve got some cool stuff coming down the pipe that’ll hopefully break through that tough Hollywood wall.
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