Ten years have passed since Stephen Thorn’s fiancée vanished without a trace, and he has grown into a prominent, if bitter, victim’s rights crusader. Despite the cold trail and lack of leads, he stubbornly refuses to give up the search. And then…he begins to hear her voice in the strangest of places.
Pursued by his own organization and questioning his sanity, Stephen embarks on a grisly journey to save his long-lost love. As he unravels the truth of her disappearance, the body count rises and Stephen finds himself ensnared in a trap that had been set for him long ago.
When Jason McNamara and Greg Hinkle originally released The Rattler in 2014, it effectively ruined independent/self-published comics for me.
Allow me to explain.
Back then, my comic reading was just starting to branch out from its steady diet of superhero titles. I was also wary about pledging to Kickstarter projects. The idea of paying money for something that may or may not come to pass—or might completely suck—was more than a little daunting.
But after reading McNamara and Hinkle’s great write up at Bleeding Cool, I decided the concept looked cool enough to give it a shot and pledged to the book’s Kickstarter campaign. I was rewarded with consistent project updates and a product that was delivered months ahead of schedule. It also ended up being one of very best comics I’d ever read.
I’ve since held every other Kickstarter comic project to the same standard, which I’ll admit might be a little unfair. For starters, the book actually got made.
via Matt Inman at The Oatmeal, who totally gets the struggle on this.
But more importantly, the book itself was a beautiful and gut-wrenching piece of graphic storytelling. Two years and thousands of comics later, The Rattler continues to be one of my favorite comics of all time. It’s not just good for a self-published product—it’s as good or better than anything being sold by the major publishers, too.
Last month, Image announced that they had picked up The Rattler and would be releasing it in comic shops on March 23, 2016. This news caused me to squeal with joy for a couple reasons:
- I can stop loaning out my signed copy to everyone, which was incredibly stressful.
- A much wider audience now gets to have the same reaction I see from everyone else who reads it, which consistently falls somewhere in the “HOLY #%$& THIS BOOK WAS AMAZING HOW HAVE I NOT HEARD OF IT BEFORE?” range.
There are also a couple of downsides to Image releasing The Rattler, though.
- I don’t get to feel special anymore for owning a copy.
- They waited until March. If Image had released the book back in December, it would’ve made my Christmas shopping all types of easy.
I’ve already gushed about the book at length on AiPT! (and to my friends, family, uncomfortable/terrified looking people on the subway, etc.), so I decided instead to grill its brilliant creative team about their inspiration, their process, and what we might see from them in the future.
How did you two meet and begin making comics together?
Jason: Greg and I met through the Isotope Comic Lounge in SF; he and I would switch off working the door for their events. Eventually we were in a writing group and doing cons together. When Greg was putting together his Parasomnia horror anthology, he asked me to write him a piece and I came up with Baby Talk. We both really enjoyed how it came out and started thinking about a larger collaboration, which became The Rattler.
I know you’ve probably told this story a million times, but can you walk us through the creepy true story that inspired The Rattler?
Jason: In the book I get into a little more detail, but the basics are this: A few years back I went on a road trip with my friend Stephenie. We had a broken gas gauge and broke down in a very rural area where there were no houses or even lights. Because it was pitch black, we rolled the car off the street and waited for another car to pass. After an hour, a truck finally came along and we flagged it down. The driver, a mid-forties gentleman, offered to tow our car, and us, to a gas station a few miles away.
But we had to get our car out of the ditch first. As luck had it, he some very thick rope in his truck. He tied his back bumper to our Ranchero’s front and asked that Stephenie steer our car out of the ditch while I got behind it and helped push while he towed it forward. Seems legit right?
Well, we got our car out of the ditch but he continued driving away without me, taking Stephenie, captive in our inert car, with him. I gave chase but it was useless. Stephenie honked and swerved but he didn’t stop. She pulled the emergency brake, which broke the rope holding them together. She hopped out of the car and we ran for it; we got off the road and hid behind a tree. The driver stopped, backed up and got out of his truck. He looked around for a minute and then drove away.
Later, when we were safe and back home, I wondered what would have happened if he had had a chain in his truck instead of a rope. That’s where The Rattler starts.
Was the choice to make the comic black and white (with blood/red accents) a purely artistic one, or was it partially a budget consideration?
Jason: We wanted black and white because it sets a tone right away. The hardest part of making a horror comic is establishing the right mood; there’s too much safety in color. The problem was, black blood sort of blends into everything else and doesn’t pop the way it should. Greg made the case for using red and having the effect increase in parallel with Stephen’s unraveling. Something like that could easily feel trite if it isn’t used in service of the story, but Greg nailed it.
What made you decide to publish the whole book on your own via Kickstarter? Did you pitch it to any traditional publishing companies first?
Jason: We didn’t pitch it to any publishers beforehand. I didn’t think that was a good use of our time or energies. We had really strong ideas on how to successfully present the material to an audience and we got to do it our own way, which worked out great. Instead of telling a publisher what we’d like to do, we were able to show them what we did.
Let’s talk nuts and bolts for a second. You guys avoided the Kickstarter Kurse of rewards being delayed (or never sent) by actually finishing and shipping the product early. How did you pull it off?
Jason: My answer to this isn’t going to be very sexy. We were patient, we made a plan and we respected our own work and those supporting it.
We avoided any potential delays by completing every single production aspect before we launched. Every. Single. Thing. When we launched the project, poster, prints and stickers were all print ready and loaded on a server, ready to go to their respective printers. And our goal was very simple: To print enough copies of The Rattler for whoever wanted one. We weren’t back door funding a company or stock piling convention copies. We did not promise more than we could deliver.
We researched vendors, shipping costs and knew the weight of every shipping box, book and postcard and how much it would cost to mail it to each corner of the world. We had a cost analysis for every category that allowed for upward scaling without breaking fulfillment. We had a printer lined up for the book, and a back up printer and a back up, back up printer. If our KS generated a million dollars the books still would have shipped on time because there was nothing left to do but write a check.
Greg and I worked very, very hard on The Rattler. And it would be a disservice to our work if the conversation around our book was “where is it?” My childhood dream was to be a comic book writer, it wasn’t to be a grown man making excuses for himself. I’d rather blow my brains out than have to write a sob story to my backers explaining I didn’t understand shipping costs. With a KS you have an amazing opportunity to create lifetime advocates for your work; many of our backers are now good friends of ours.
Finally, when you run a Kickstarter, you have a responsibility not only to your backers, but to all the creators that might use the platform after you. When backers have an unsatisfactory experience they are less likely to support other projects on the site. And yes, I’ve been burned pretty good myself.
What made you decide to do The Rattler as a graphic novel rather than a multi-issue miniseries?
Jason: Conventional wisdom dictates that the miniseries followed by a collection is a better business model. But for a book like The Rattler, it’s not the reading experience we wanted people to have. Establishing tone and suspense is so hard in a horror comic book–breaking that into fourths was never going to be as effective. Image agreed and we were able to produce the book the way we want it to be read.
What did you learn making a comic on your own that didn’t know when the process started?
Greg: This was my first real foray into long form storytelling, so every day was a different set of challenges. I’d never really worked with anyone in such close collaboration, so it was a bit like starting a new relationship while switching jobs. Learning to collaborate was, and is, real important. If I hadn’t learned how to work with someone else, I wouldn’t have been able to move forward. And I figured that if I could learn to get along with this dude from Long Island, then I could get along with anybody…
Jason: Greg is a big fan of prog rock but I didn’t hold that against him. I treat him like he’s a regular human being with feelings and stuff.
Now onto the story stuff. The whole damn book is great, but part of why it’s one of my all time favorites is the gut punch ending. Was that the conclusion you always envisioned for the story, or did it evolve over time?
Jason: I had a complete script locked and ready to go when Greg came onto the project. But once his pages started coming in I threw away 50% of the story and just started writing for him. It was an intensely collaborative process. Greg is very invested in creating a complete story world and we reworked a lot of ideas together. After the book was illustrated, I lettered the pages and changed it even more in the process. By the time Greg got to read The Rattler even he didn’t know how it ended.
Another thing I enjoyed was the unraveling mystery about whether what we saw was supernatural or a product of Thorn’s fractured mind. Did you have a firm idea which direction you wanted to go from onset?
Jason: We had a different direction in mind when we started but honestly, knowing for sure isn’t as satisfying as deciding for yourself. I worship Hitchcock’s Psycho, but the worst scene in the movie is at the police station, when a character we’ve never seen before gives a long and overly scientific description of what is going on with Norman. It derails the flow and impact of an otherwise superb narrative, so I took our explanation scene out when I was lettering the book.
What type of stories (besides the horrifying real-life one you experienced) would say influenced your style and tone in The Rattler?
Greg: It was all that great EC Horror stuff, for me. Horror movies and thrillers from the ’80s and ’90s were more of a subconscious influence for me. I spent most of my formative years watching movies from those decades, so the visual language was burned in.
Jason: Same here, although I’d say 70/80’s horror. There is a lot of John Carpenter and Dario Argento in The Rattler’s DNA. Stephen King was, and still is, a huge influence. In the book we sneak in a nod to Misery and its near-publication under King’s Bachman pseudonym.
Did Jason give you specific character designs, or do you come up with them yourself?
Greg: I wish I was someone who did model sheets for each character (which would probably save me some grief down the line), but I kind of like watching characters develop naturally over the course of a book. Jason had a pretty good idea what the characters were going to look like beforehand, so a lot of the design was just done on the fly. By the middle of The Rattler I was beginning to get familiar with everybody and discovering their visual shorthand, so it was easier to focus on the acting and story clarity. Since we were ultimately working on our own schedules, we’d review pages and adjust things as we went.
For Jason: You’ve talked about doing another story based in The Rattler universe. Without spoiling the book too much, can tell us original Rattler fans what it might be about?
Jason: The next book follows a 15-year-old prodigy as she attempts to catch a child killer who has returned to her hometown after a 13-year absence. It will be a stand-alone story, but will also fit together with The Rattler in a very interesting way. But everything depends on how well our first collaboration is received. I like the idea of creating more interconnected stories in the “Hinkle-Verse.” There’s even a tiny bit of connective tissue between The Rattler and the gonzo-brilliant Airboy series that writer James Robinson co-created with Greg.
Greg proved he could draw old school superhero action (and lots of dong shots) in Airboy. Jason has proven that he can write a tortured protagonist who is equal parts heroic and dangerous. Any chance you two might ever team up to write an anti-superhero-ish book?
Jason: Did you see the two page aerial dogfight in issue 4 of Airboy? Jaw-dropping. There isn’t anything Greg can’t absolutely kill on the page.
Greg: Only if it’s a Spider-Man analogue. I’d love to see Jason’s take on a depraved Spider Man type.
Jason: I’d kill to get my hands on the Scarlet-Spider, I think there’s so much still to be done with that character. Could you imagine Greg drawing The Creeper or Werewolf by Night? I think he and I could really take a lesser-known character and just go batshit with it.
While the premise of The Rattler is an easy hook to get people interested, I’ve had trouble describing the genre—mostly because it’s so many things. What would you call it?
Jason: Well, this might sound strange but the book is really about relationships. Almost every character in the book has a partner and their relationships are tested, or destroyed, by Stephen’s loneliness. But The Rattler won’t be shelved in the Relationship section of your local bookstore anytime soon, so I’ve been calling it a horror thriller. That’s its also a love story with very dark humor is an added bonus.
What other projects are you two working on? Anything else together besides the potential Rattler sequel?
Jason: I have a pair of books that will be announced soon. Without angering my editor, I will say I’m pretty excited for people who only know me for horror to see me take on some different genres. Greg has also started on a new project but can’t say anything yet either.
And if we get to do a follow up to The Rattler, we probably won’t tell anybody it’s happening until it’s completely finished.
Thanks to Jason McNamara and Greg Hinkle for taking the time to give us so much insight on a truly fantastic piece of storytelling.
If you haven’t preordered The Rattler yet, stop whatever you’re doing right now (even if it’s searching for your missing fiancé) and tell your comic shop to pull it for you. Or preorder it on Amazon. Just make sure you get a copy, because I’m not loaning mine out anymore.