It’s been a little over a month since one of my favorite comic series ended. To help fill the agonizing void that has taken its place in our lives, the entire Nailbiter creative team agreed to sit down with AiPT! for an exit interview on their brilliant 30-issue run … and maybe even give us a little peak at things to come…
Writer Joshua Williamson
AiPT!: I’ll probably end up asking a few questions you’ve heard before … like this one: Where did the inspiration for Nailbiter come from?
Joshua Williamson: For a long time I knew I wanted to do a comic book about serial killers … but also small towns. There was a time when it was two different ideas. I was living in a small town, and I would ride my bike around town and think of all the horror tropes I would see around me. I’ve always been a big fan of horror and I feel like I can see it sometimes around me in the world. Just dark imaginations, I guess. And I wanted to tap into that somehow. BUT I could never land on an idea that I felt right about for a comic. That felt original. That felt like me.
One day I was on an airplane flying down to SDCC. This was July of 2011. I was thinking about the book, and jotting down some ideas and reading up on the Zodiac Killer. How in the 80s he was suspected to be in Riverside, California at the same time as two other serial killers were believed to be operating. And I started to wonder … why? Why were they all there are the same time? And then it hit me … ‘They were born there.” I wrote that one note down in my notebook and circled it twice. I knew that was the key.
I had written a short horror story a few years before called “the Nailbiter.” I took that short, ripped it apart, turned the monster in it to a serial killer and then started to develop the world and history of the series. I had a one-page pitch doc ready about a month later. But for about two years I worked on the story … until the summer of 2013 when Mike Henderson and I started to talk about him drawing it and the look of the world. That’s when it really started to come together.AiPT!: What made you choose to set the series in Oregon?
JW: I live here. And the Pacific Northwest is already known for some odd stories…
AiPT!: Is the ending to the series what you and Mike Henderson always had planned?
JW: YUP. There a few small elements that we changed and some we left on the cutting room floor … and some we saved for a rainy day.
BUT the biggest pieces are the same. That final sequence was always planned to go down the way it did.
AiPT!: Are there any aspects of the series that changed significantly from how you first envisioned them?
JW: Hm. That’s tough. No? I wish I had more time on certain elements. Some character beats I wish I could have done different. Expanded. There is one arc that I think didn’t work out the way I had intended. The fourth arc “The devil went down to Georgia” I wish had been one issue longer. In the middle, not the end. That arc I saw being a bit different in some spots. BUT I loved what Mike and I did with it, still. The scenes in the bar with Finch were really well done by the team.
As a writer, I learned a lot on this series. If you look at some of my work before you might see I was testing the waters on some comic story telling ideas. But by Nailbiter, I was really taking them for a spin. But now when I look back I do see a few things I would change. But only because of what I learned on the series. If that makes any sense.
AiPT!: Are there any characters who evolved in ways that you hadn’t initially planned or expected?
JW: Barker was not created to be what she became. That is by far the biggest change in the story, I think. She became very crucial to the story. His role before was much smaller. Simpler. But by issue 11, that had all changed and I knew Barker’s new role throughout and in the end.AiPT!: Are there any of the underlying themes in the series you think some folks may have missed during all the chaos and carnage?
JW: Not for me to say. I’m a big believer in letting the work speak for itself and for the readers to draw their own conclusions. I’ve mentioned this before but I THINK … and I’m paraphrasing here, but I THINK David Lynch was once asked if he liked to talk about the work and he said no. The work IS him talking about the work.
I love when people read a book or watch TV and movies and take away different things from it.
AiPT!: Who was your favorite character to write?
JW: Warren. He was the voice in my head. If I didn’t hear Warren the rest was lost.
AiPT!: Was Edward Warren always destined to be a killer, or was he made into one?
JW: Haha, again … you tell me…
In my mind, Warren choose his role. He was playing a part in what he thought was his destiny.
AiPT!: Do you think Warren should still carry the full burden of responsibility for his actions as The Nailbiter … or is it possible to see him as being somewhat redeemed?
JW: That’s tough … but no one will ever be harder on Warren than he is on himself. There was always hope in Warren’s fault that it wasn’t his fault. He wasn’t guilty. That’s why when Finch asked him in #20 if he really killed all those people he said it was complicated. He really believed it wasn’t cut and dry. But by the end, I think … after he learned the truth. He stayed a killer. We saw that in #30. He chose it AGAIN. So yeah, I think he should take on the full burden.
AiPT!: Do you ever worry that Brian Michael Bendis will enact some revenge by putting you into one of his comics? If so, which one do you hope it is?
JW: HA! Aw, man. Bendis. Um, yes? If he put me in Powers that would be great. I didn’t kill him in Nailbiter. So the revenge shouldn’t be too bad.
BUT to be honest. The highest form of flattery would be if someone put me in a #7 issue of their own creator owned series. Kept the legacy, that Bendis and Oeming started in Powers #7 with Warren Ellis, alive. Artist Mike Henderson
AiPT!: Were there any characters’ whose designs changed significantly from how you first envisioned them?
Mike Henderson: It’s not a sexy answer, but no. If Josh has a certain look in mind I usually get it on the first or second try, and if he doesn’t we’re usually on the same page with what I come up with.
AiPT!: Leading up to the final issue, the action in Nailbiter quickly escalated from close-quarters terror to widescreen spectacle. Did you enjoy drawing so many giant (and gorgeous) two-page spreads/splash pages?
MH: I enjoyed building that tension immensely. A lot of planning went into it and Joshua and I have had this ending mapped out for so long that when I finally got to it, it was incredibly satisfying. And to get to do it on such big canvases made it that much more impactful.
AiPT!: What was the design process like for various characters and killers? Did you and Joshua Williamson work together to create them?
MH: Early on I did some design sheets for our main characters but as we moved along I worked more on the fly. I can’t remember which characters specifically, but several were designed right on the page. Sometimes Josh had an idea in mind before I started, sometimes not. We’ve been working together so long that we’re only rarely not on the same page about this kind of thing.
AiPT!: Who was your favorite character to draw?
MH: Warren, hands down. He had the most range of all our characters and it was a joy to “act” him.
AiPT!: I’ve asked you a similar question before, but where do you get the inspiration and/or reference material for the copious amounts of gore in the book?
MH: At first it was a bit Silence of the Lambs, later a bit Re-Animator. But more often than not, we were being self-referential and trying to one-up ourselves. My main goal was to at least make it grosser than Josh intended and I knew I hit my target if I got a simple “Ew” text message.
AiPT!: What was it like to draw Brian Michael Bendis?
MH: Challenging! I can do likeness reasonably well these days, but they’re not particularly enjoyable for me and Nailbiter isn’t the most photorealistic book out there. So it seemed like my job was to mostly make that experience fun rather than accurate. Opinion is divided over whether I pulled it off!
AiPT!: Do you ever worry that Brian Michael Bendis will enact some revenge by putting you into one of his comics? If so, which one do you hope it is?
MH: I would welcome it! Something cosmic, if I have my druthers. Guardians of the Galaxy maybe?Colorist Adam Guzowski
AiPT!: True or false: Everything looks cooler in rain.
Adam Guzowski: AHHHH I’d have to say false. I love the rainy pages, and I think the effect really started to come together over the course of the book. I love trying new ideas and playing with lighting, if we did 30 issues of rain it would have been very one note.
AiPT!: In all seriousness, Nailbiter #22 might be my favorite-looking issue of the series, thanks in no small part to the coloring work. Was it your call to add the rain to that terrifying opening scene?
AG: Thanks, I love that issue! No I’m pretty sure that was in the script, at the very least Mike drew in the rain. Vol. 5 is a good example of what I was talking about. That arc too place over the course of one night, so also most all of the outdoor stuff had the same pallet, after five months of working with those tones it was very gratifying to work on that sunrise in #25.
AiPT!: Did you and Mike Henderson collaborate on character designs?
AG: Before we started, Mike sent me little swatches for all the main characters so that was all his talent coming out through my filter. Over the course of the series, I kind of assigned colors to different characters. Crane was blue, Warren’s white and red, Alice is purple and so on. It’s not a hard and fast rule but something that I tried to keep in mind.
AiPT!: One thing I love about the book is how the blood red coloring vacillates between over the top bright and washed out/more realistic. How do you decide which palette to use?
AG: Well, if it’s a big impactful moment you want to wing for the rafters while we might have a few beats before a bigger pay I’d tone them down a bit. Ultimately, whatever suits the story.
AiPT!: Speaking of palettes: I know Nailbiter is more known for its gore, but how did you create that gorgeous Georgia sunset in #16?
AG: Thanks, I love that stuff. I constantly point out all the crazy colors the sky makes during a sunset to my friends pointing out how light reflects off clouds and the beautiful gradients the sky can make behind the clouds. As I’m rarely up early enough to catch a sunrise, I just drew off that.
Letterer/book designer John J. Hill
AiPT!: Most of the time, good lettering work (like yours) means it’s not being noticed. But Nailbiter utilized you in a couple of cool ways I wanted to ask about. For starters, how do you go about your job differently for big/crazy exclamations like the opening double page spread in #21?
John J. Hill: Josh and Mike have been great, letting me go with my gut with stuff like that … seems to turn out pretty well that way. There’s an obvious roller coaster ride to some scenes, so for added impact and drama I’ll treat standard dialogue more like sound effects. Otherwise (like in the opening to #21), what should be a huge, disgusting, horrific moment would come across with a whimper instead of a shriek. From a technical standpoint it’s obviously different, but I think the actual job itself is the same with pages like that. Just storytelling, really.AiPT!: I loved the way The Butcher’s dialogue looked muted and different compared to everyone else’s. Was it your decision to do that or a note given from Joshua Williamson?
JH: While I’d like to have a crazy answer to that one, it’s literally just a note from Josh saying the Butcher should be whispering. Ultimately, that really just sets his dialogue apart from the other characters, and adds to the mystery (especially in his early/brief appearances).AiPT!: You are also credited as Nailbiter’s book designer. What does that job entail?
JH: For single issues I’m doing the design and production, in addition to lettering. I’ll composite all the art and lettering, update and do any additional design to the cover and design pages and prep all the files before sending them off to the Image production department. On the trades, I design the wraparound covers and most of the design pages. Then for our Murder Edition hardcovers, I’m dealing with every page since it’s oversized. All of the original story pages need to be scaled up and adjusted, then there’s all of the design work throughout … covers, credits, intro, chapter breaks, all the behind the scenes pages, etc. It’s quite a bit of work, but that first volume is something I’m really proud of. Can’t wait for folks to have the other two volumes on their shelves.
The Whole Nailbiter Crew
AiPT!: Who was your favorite Nailbiter character?
JW: Warren. The most fun to write. There were days I enjoyed a scene or two with the other characters but even if Warren wasn’t in a scene those characters were playing off of him, y’know? The series wouldn’t have existed if not for him.
MH: Sheriff Crane, easily. As much fun as Warren was to draw, Crane owns Buckaroo in my mind.
AG: Alice she seems to like a lot of great music + her hair is fun to color.
JH: My opinion on that changes every time I take a good look at everyone. I think right now, I’d have to say it’s a tie between Alice and Bendis.
AiPT!: What was your favorite scene or issue from the whole series?
JW: I’m proud of #1. #2 I really liked with the kid being stalked in the graveyard. #3 with the lights flickering. Finch ambushing Warren at the end of #10. And I think Mike and I had hit our stride by the time we did #11.
And then the last scene of #30. That scene was planned out in great detail by Mike and I. But at the end of the day that scene is all Mike, Adam and John and they nailed it.
MH: Wow. I might be proudest of the final issue and final sequence as a whole but it’s still very fresh. The Butcher/Alice chase scene in the woods of and our very first murder in the graveyard also spring to mind.
AG: Can I say all of 30 as one scene? I think the whole team was firing on all cylinders for that whole issue and it came out really well on all levels. If you’re going to make me pick a specific part, I’m very proud of the first three pages of that issue. As soon as I saw the pages, I knew what I wanted to do and it’s one of the cleanest translations of what’s in my head to the page.
JH: The last two issues are probably the most intense comics I’ve ever worked on, and left me with a HOLY S--T feeling once I finished working on them. Wall-to-wall intensity. Kind of like when you look back at a TV show like Star Trek: The Next Generation or Sons of Anarchy, there are a few episodes that stand out as the strongest and most definitive of the bunch. That’s how I see #29 and #30, and it’s tough to narrow it down much more than that.
Burning questions from Nailbiter #30
AiPT!: How come we didn’t see The Gauntlet? Is that something you might be saving for a future installment?
JW: Nothing we could have shown would have completely lived up to the hype. If we ever do the series again, we’ll come back to that element. A tour of it would probably take up a whole issue.
MH: The Gauntlet was one of those things that seemed more ominous in the abstract. It’s certainly possible we could revisit it, though.
AiPT!: Was Warren’s “second wind” a hint that there might still be a supernatural element to his psyche, or was that simply an homage to the horror genre?
JW: Well … that would be telling, wouldn’t it?
Now that I’ve said that. Listen, there was no way this book could have a totally closed ending. It had to end in a cliffhanger jump scare homage. Anything else would have been a betrayal of the genre that we loved and influenced this series.
MH: I like to think of it as more of the latter, but if readers want to think of it as the former they’re not wrong either.
AiPT!: Okay, one thing that’s still bugging: What was up with the guy from a few issues ago who injected himself with blood and exploded?
MH: I’ll leave the story explanation to Josh. I was just trying to gross people out.
JW: I left that one bit of business with the blood open on purpose. Can’t say too much about that … for now.
AiPT!: If someone handed you the serial killer gene test, would you take it? What do you think it would say?
JW: My answers on this change all the time. Once upon a time I would have said yes … and the next day I would have said no. Knowing that would be hard.
But today, I’m going to say yes. I’m stubborn enough that if my test came back positive I’d still try to fight it back against my own killer urges.
MH: Generally speaking, I’m an empiricist, so I’d want all the facts. But in this case, I’d probably take Finch’s lead and pass. I’m pretty sure a positive result would mess me up for life.
AG: I think I’d go the Finch route, no test for me. I’m not a killer, no need to check.