Interview with Alex de Campi about Grindhouse

Science Fiction Double Feature
Grindhouse is an eight issue limited series, written by Alex de Campi and illustrated by various artists. Based on the old drive-in movies from the 1970s (about which Alex has some very interesting things to say below), the series is actually a set of four two-issue stories. It's like reading a quadruple  feature of over the top action filled with pulp sensibilities.

The first two issues, Bee Vixens from Mars, find us in a small town with some incredibly intoxicating honey. When the sticky trail leads to sex and murder, only a pair of unlikely, drink-on-the-job cops can stop this invasion before it takes over.

Issue three, out today, moves us into space itself with Prison Ship Antares, with all the problems of a modern prison--and more as the inmates fight for survival against each other and the guards themselves.

These are all a ton of fun, with de Campi working hard to stay within the spirit of the genre but also give them a modern feel. Anyone who enjoys a little classic horror and pulp is going to love the series, which made it a no-brainer for me.

I was able to get a chance to talk to the ever-busy author, Alex de Campi, to talk about the series, in an e-mail interview that's presented here below:

Panel Patter: For those unfamiliar with you or your work, tell readers a little bit about yourself.

Alex de Campi: I write comics, mostly these days for Dark Horse, though my supernatural thriller webcomic VALENTINE is also free on I tend to write fairly lengthy graphic novels that exist in this nexus of literary/action/thriller, such as my recent SMOKE/ASHES with, well, everyone. When I'm not doing those, I'm doing crazy pulp and exploitation-flavoured series such as GRINDHOUSE.

Panel Patter: Who are your creative influences?

de Campi: Gosh, that's going to be a long list. It goes from the more artistic and literary (poets John Ashbery and WH Auden; the novellist Thomas Pynchon) through many French and Japanese comics creators (Moebius, Hugo Pratt, Takehiko Inoue, Naoki Urasawa) and some really good cinema (Melville, Peckinpah, Dassin) and ends up in the straight-up trashy (Sergio Leone westerns, giallo films, Japanese action films, the Harry Palmer franchise...). I have a very large and diverse pool of loves that I draw from.

Panel Patter: I know you do work outside of comics. Can you speak to how that changes (or does not change) your approach to writing a comic?

de Campi: It's hard to say, because I'm (deliberately) so ignorant of other comic writers' process that I can't really speak to how I'm different. I know a lot of artists have commented that my works are very visual, in a way that makes their jobs easier. There are tons of filmmakers, though, who aren't visual, and who do mostly exposition. I somehow naturally slant, both in film-making and comics, towards using the pictures to tell the story.

Panel Patter: Let's move on to Grindhouse. How did you come up with the idea?

de Campi: I had just finished writing and producing ASHES, which had so many moving parts, and so much drama, it nearly killed me. Then I wrote my strange giallo/horror OGN, Margaret the Damned, which was oddly personal and very hard to write. And I was like, "time to start the next big book!" but I just couldn't. I was so burned I was futzing about on Twitter, as you do, instead of writing. And I mentioned I was burned out and just felt like writing exploitation... "Bee Vixens From Mars". And the internet, overwhelmingly, was like, YES, GO DO THAT. DO IT NOW. So I did. I pitched my own, personal anthology series of two-issue "exploitation movies" to Dark Horse and the darn thing was picked up, approved, and through budget in 48 hours. Which just goes to prove, ladies and gents, if your comic pitches aren't getting approved? More tits. And blood.

I didn't realize at the time how odd/innovative the whole two-issue story/personal anthology series concept was, until people started commenting on it. But the format's been a godsend in so many ways. I can work with great artists who can do two issues, but (for example) wouldn't have space in their schedule to do a traditional 6-issue arc. It's been an easy hand sell for retailers, because of the two-issue format. And we keep getting reviewed, because there's a new story every two issues. The awesome covers by Francavilla and Panosian and Coop have helped a ton, too.

Panel Patter: The original grindhouse-style creations were exploitative of women. How are you changing the dynamic in this series?

de Campi: Exploitation/Grindhouse were actually a hugely diverse "genre" of films, that actually went far beyond the sort of soft porn-mixed-with-horror they tend to get tagged with. I love the genre because there are so many awesome female heroes... from the giallo horror heroines/final girls (like the young ballerina in Argento's SUSPIRIA) to the blaxploitation action heroes like Coffy and Cleopatra Jones... the girl gang films (both Japanese -- pinkie violence -- and American)... the revenge films (LADY SNOWBLOOD, THRILLER, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, MS. 45)... the female prisoner films... in some ways the Grindhouse films had more heroines and  more diverse heroines than Hollywood has today. I mean, we've had a great and unusual year for female action heroes in films... we have BOTH Gravity and Hunger Games: Catching Fire! Two solo female action hero films in one year! That's mega! Get about a dozen more and we might reach the dizzying heights hit... in the early Seventies.

So I'm not changing the dynamic, really. Though the way exploitation cinema's transgressive elements tend to get co-opted by comics, it does feel like I'm being very different... when in fact I'm just being closer to the original films. We've seen so much ultra-violence and sexual violence and horror/darkness/paranoia in mainstream cape books, done so badly (as a vehicle to add "excitement" and "legitimacy" or "grittiness" to a white male character's arc) that we forget how it was really used in these films. I'm making it a guilty pleasure again.

Panel Patter: How did you select the artists for Grindhouse? What can you tell us about them?

de Campi: Some are old friends, like Simon Fraser, who I've never had a chance to work with because of scheduling. Simon draws amazing sexy women, great fight scenes, and superb spaceships. He's doing the women in prison arc (Grindhouse #3-4, out now). Some are new friends that I just found via artist calls on twitter, like Chris Peterson , whose art in Grindhouse #1-2 ("Bee Vixens from Mars") was universally lauded by reviewers. Federica Manfredi, with whom I've worked in the past on a teen book, is handling the very dark "Bride of Blood" arc in issues #5-6... her beautiful, self-consciously Mucha-esque and decorative art makes the story's darkness even darker. There is nothing Federica can't do. She is just so talented. And we close strong with Scottish superstar Gary Erskine on "Flesh Feast of the Devil Doll" in issues #7-8. He draws amazing horror, and if you've seen his RollerGrrrls art, hot hot hot girls.

Panel Patter: There are those why shy away from horror comics, thinking only of bad examples of the genre. What is there about Grindhouse that might change their minds, giving them a reason to pick it up?

de Campi: Well, not all of it is horror-horror. In fact very little is. Bee Vixens is alien-invasion/sexploitation; Prison Ship Antares is women in prison; Bride of Blood is a revenge story... the closest we have to traditional horror is "Flesh Feast of the Devil Doll" and even that is a bit more Final Destination than Texas Chainsaw or giallo. Also, for scares, we rely fairly little on traditional gore/disembowlings/etc. We're trying for far more under-the-skin kinds of things... there is a fair amount of body horror but it's probably stuff you haven't seen before. There's certainly more story, and more action (and less just... sadism) than the current cinematic fad for straight-out gorefests (Saw, etc). And ultimately these comics are fun. They are gory action stories with great endings that will have you doing a little happy dance in your seat. Comics should be fun! And these ones are.

Panel Patter: There seems to be a rise in horror comics from Western publishers lately. Why do you think that is?

de Campi: They sell. It's that simple. People may not give a toss about a new superhero (VERY hard to launch) and unless you're a big name with a pre-existing fanbase from mainstream work, it's still almost impossible to get a *profitable* genre series off the ground. But horror has a huge audience that is well-educated in its genre and is always looking for the new, fresh thing. It's also a great way for a publisher to differentiate itself... Dark Horse especially has done a fantastic job of becoming "the" horror publisher.

Panel Patter: Yeah, when I did my "Halloween Horror" series this year, I found myself coming back to Dark Horse books frequently. They have a great eye for it.

Panel Patter: I asked about Western comics earlier, because anyone who is a fan of manga knows that the horror genre is alive and well in Japanese comics. Have you ever read any horror manga, and do you have any favorites, if so?

de Campi: AAAAA SO MUCH. Two right off the bat: Junji Ito's UZUMAKI -- it's short (3 books) and utterly creeptastic. Hideshi Hino's PANORAMA OF HELL -- parts of it still give me nightmares to this day.

Panel Patter: I love Uzumaki. I recommend it to everyone I can pin down who likes horror comics. I've even seen the movie--twice. You're right that it's hard to pick and choose.  Last question: What's next for you in comics after Grindhouse?

de Campi: I have so much happening, but not a lot of firm dates yet. I'll probably run a couple Kickstarters next year, one for Margaret the Damned and one for my OGN with Ramon Perez, Bad Girls. Neither of those have publishers yet. My supernatural horror series with Jerry Ordway is in the works for Dark Horse Presents. And Carla Speed McNeil and I have a teen/adventure story called NO MERCY which should be coming soon. The only thing I have definitely coming out, on a specific date, is My Little Pony: Friends Forever #1, which is out in January.

Panel Patter: From killer bee-creatures to cute toys adored by grown men. Now that's range!

Grindhouse #3 is out now, available at your local comic shop or in digital form in the Dark Horse Digital App. Anyone who loves pulp stories definitely needs to check it out--you won't be disappointed.