Fans of Steve Niles are well-acquainted with Cal McDonald. Since his debut in 1990, the bad boy of supernatural detective work has been cracking cases wide open in the pages of the Criminal Macabre series. McDonald last appeared in a comic book circa 2014, but is set to return to his gumshoe ways next month. The four-issue Criminal Macabre: The Big Bleed Out finds McDonald pulled out of retirement to solve a case involving “mysteries, vampires, love, and betrayal,” according to publisher Dark Horse Comics.
Before issue #1 hits stands on December 11, we met up with Niles and the series’ artist, newcomer Gyula Nemeth. The pair discussed the origins of the project, their creative process, how McDonald’s fairing post-retirement, the possibility of a movie or TV series, and much more.
AIPT: For first time fans who may be picking up Criminal Macabre for the first time can you give us a small background on the character Cal McDonald and what the current story is about?
Steve Niles: Sometimes it feels like I’ve been writing Cal McDonald my whole life. He’s a failed cop turned private investigator, who fights monsters. His partner is a ghoul, Mo’lock, who has his back at every turn. The dead follow them wherever they go. I could not be happier to be writing Cal again with The Big Bleed Out. This one begins with Cal wandering the streets as a disheveled vagrant. Then he’s ripped from his self-imposed retirement to resume monster killing, but he’s reluctant to dive back into the fray. The question is, why? It’s a new story I loved telling and the art by Gulya Nemeth is spectacular.
AIPT: Where did the idea for the character of Cal McDonald come from? Are any of his personality traits close to your own?
SN: I was in my twenties. I was a huge horror fan but also a fan of hardboiled writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I wanted to do something that combined those two loves. Cal McDonald was the result. I’ve always loved hardboiled fiction with that the tough first-person narrative. When I created Cal, I was trying to go for that but with some notable updates, mainly his being a drug addict and not just a hard drinker. I’d say we used to share traits but I’m older now and have mellowed significantly.
AIPT: Cal McDonald is a character that you’ve been writing since the ’80s/’90s, what is it about him that keeps you coming back and wanting to tell more stories about him?
SN: I love his no-bullshit view of the world. He says and does things I wish I had the guts to. He’s a hero and sometimes walks the edge between civility and chaos. There’s something very attractive about that to me. Plus, he kills monsters while being friends with others. He’s just a lot of fun to write.
AIPT: How did you meet Gyula Nemeth?
SN: We met at a convention in London. Our mutual friend Tony Lee sat us next to each other and we started talking. I was immediately impressed with his talent. We kept talking and before the con ended, we had plans to work together.
AIPT: Were you a fan of Criminal Macabre before coming on board for this project? What was the icing on the cake so to speak that made you say yes, I have to draw this book?
Gyula Nemeth: I am a fan of a lot of Dark Horse classics, and have read several of the old Cal McDonald stories. I have always loved the abundance of monsters and the noir undertone. A blend of my two favorite genres. When I met Steve, and we started to work on a different project, I had the idea that maybe, just maybe I would ask him if he wanted to continue the series. But before I had the chance, I got his email about the “revival.” I didn’t hesitate a second to say yes.
AIPT: Where did you draw (No pun intended) your inspiration from when you’re coming up with the distinct look and feel you want the book to have?
GN: Criminal Macabre has had a lot of different looks over the years. The most iconic ones are the dark, gritty worlds of Ben Templesmith and Christopher Mitten. I wanted to approach the same characters and places in a different way, keeping in mind, that style still has to blend in the world of the franchise. I tried to put as much detail in the panels as I could and also leave some black areas here and there. It’s a different kind of dark and gritty with an older version of Cal and Mo’lock, although I think ghouls don’t really age.
AIPT: What was the collaboration process like for the two you? Were there any disagreements? How long did it take to complete this 4-part series?
SN: It’s been a very smooth process. I script tight but I encouraged Gyula to add his spin when he saw fit like adding panels when needed, things like that. We haven’t had a single disagreement. The whole team has worked very well together.
GN: Everything went very very smoothly. It took around 5 months to complete the series. Steve and Daniel gave me all the freedom I needed. From time to time I was sending messages to Steve asking about details about ghouls eating habits, or about Cal’s license plate, just to have a decent continuity with the older issues. When people who love monsters work together on a monster story, well, what can go wrong?
AIPT: What are some of the differences this new series brings to the table that makes it different from the previous? What do you do to keep the story fresh so you’re not just telling the same old tale over and over again?
SN: We see a different side of Cal in The Big Bleed Out, a romantic side. I know this sounds strange but Cal himself keeps the stories fresh. I’m tellin ‘ya, this guy writes himself.
AIPT: Your pencil work is very solid and does a great job of staying focused on the moment of each scene? Does that come off sort of natural to you or is that developed over time?
GN: I’m very glad if it looks solid and focused, because this was my first comic book series. I have a background in graphic design and illustration, but for some years I really wanted to do comics. I watch films and lots of material on cinematography and composition, read comics and doing storyboards occasionally. All this helps to make stronger images, but there is a lot to learn. Drawing this story was like first steps for a baby. As for my pencil work, well, I just try to do my best.
AIPT: With the success of the movie Joker, which basically highlights a guy with a miserably demented life, do you think you have a stronger chance of finally bringing Cal McDonald to the silver screen now more than ever?
SN: I don’t think Joker has any effect on Cal McDonald hitting the big or small screen. We keep trying to get something set up. We’ve come close so we’ll keep trying.
AIPT: Can you describe what readers can expect from this new series The Big Bleed Out in one word?
AIPT: Can either of you share with us any cool moments from Criminal Macabre #1 that didn’t make it into the first issue when it was all said and done?
GN: I followed the script, so nothing ended up on the cutting floor, but let me just point out, that any scene that takes place in the L.A. Skid Row is a lot of fun to draw. It’s a weird contradiction to the place itself, which is not fun at all for anybody. Same with dark, grimy city sewers.
AIPT: If you could cast any actor to play Cal McDonald, who is your first choice? My choices were Dylan McDermott or Josh Brolin.
SN: Brolin would be cool. I also like James Purefoy or Antony Starr. Hell, Karl Urban would be great, too.
GN: A Danish actor, Nikolaj Lie Kaas.