It’s June of 2021, and it’s safe to say that for many vaccinated folks, the promise of Vaccine Summer 2K21 is holding up over time. After a year in which “optimistic” estimates of when life would return to normal were broken again and again, 40% of the United States population and counting can begin to entertain ideas like “What if the gang got together for a long weekend?”
Meanwhile, writer James Tynion IV and artist Álvaro Martínez Bueno have been entertaining a different idea: What if that long weekend turned into a classic horror scenario? Their new series The Nice House on the Lake collects a group of 10 people and their odd but nice friend Walter, who has invited them all to a vacation paradise. Then the worst happens, cranking the plot into an “apocalyptic horror story.”
Polygon talked to Tynion for a no-spoilers investigation of the ideas behind Nice House, with the first issue of the first “season” of the comic hitting shelves today.
There are many ways to spoil The Nice House on the Lake #1, but it feels safe to talk about it as a Cabin in the Woods-type horror story that is also set in the summer of 2021. What appealed to you about combining these ideas? Do you see this as a unique moment to make horror in?
James Tynion IV: I’m expecting that a lot of people are going to read this book, and they’re going to see this as something that is talking about specifically this current moment. The funny thing is that I pitched this book two years before the pandemic. So it is one of those things where … going a step even further than life and quarantine or our COVID year, for really the last decade, it feels like there are moments every single year where it feels like we’re living in this slow-motion apocalypse.
There are a lot of horrors out in the world every single day. It forces us to make these decisions like, “OK, are you going to look the horror in the face? Or are you just going to try to keep your head down and just focus on the people around you, and make the best of what you have?” I wanted to take that feeling, and really dial it up to 12, and do a kind of apocalyptic horror story that’s essentially set in paradise.
That’s really the core essence of what I wanted to say here, because I do think that in a larger in a larger cultural sense, this is a great time for horror as a genre. And I think we see that across the board — not just in comics, but in film, in novels — across the board, where we have a bunch of cultural fears now that are new and novel to the present day.
Basically, it felt like the ’80s, ’90s, and even early ’00s, so many of the cultural fears that horror stories were tapping into were remixes of the same sort of stories that we were being told in the ’70s and the early ’80s. Which is sort of the last big moment of major unrest, spiritual unrest, culturally, in the in this country. I think that now we’re back at that level of unrest — there’s a lot of that scares us about the world, and the world has changed so much, and we’re holding to so many things and we’re trying to figure out what to hold on to — there are a lot of fears that you can create horror out of, because I think the best horror always taps into something that people are afraid of in society.
Did the pitch change very much over those two years? Nice House is deliberately set in summer 2021, emails in the comic have 2021 dates, characters show up at the house in masks, and have their temperature checked before going in. Did the pandemic hone your pitch, or did it make you pivot?
There’s one great example of how I pivoted based on last year that people will read about in issue #4 of the series. Basically there’s a major story mechanic that I had a very different answer to, but then actually living in isolation for a year changed the the story mechanic I was going to use. I’m excited for people to see how I did that.
But even all the way back in the first issue, which Álvaro would have started drawing it last summer … it was one of those things where the first draft of the script did not have the temperature check, or Ryan wearing a mask. And we realized, “OK, this feels like something that we can tap into even even on the smaller [scale]. The goal is I want it to feel “of the moment,” but I also hope five years from now it still feels of the moment. I wanted to have a few touchstones without ever saying the words “COVID.”
You’ve been doing a lot of indie work lately, in addition to being in charge of Batman, which is kind of like the exact opposite of working in indie comics. And you have your own horror imprint. Perhaps the answer is “It was two years ago,” but why did you want to publish this one with DC?
Honestly, it was something where … flashing back to summer 2019, that was when I was putting together my two-year plan; What do I want my career to look like two years from now, how can I line all of these pieces up. I knew Something Is Killing The Children was coming up a few months away, I knew that I would be writing Batman for at least 16 issues. And I knew that I was already in development on Department of Truth, I had Martin Simmons lined up. I had one other idea that I knew I wanted to get to, and I saw it as the next step in that cycle of stories, that I really wanted to tell.
Around that time, one of my favorite editors that I’ve worked with in my entire tenure at DC, Chris Conroy, moved over into the Black Label division. This was shortly after the Vertigo imprint had closed, and I reached out to Chris, and I was like, “I have this idea.”
I just wanted to hear what he thought about it. I had no idea whether or not DC was still taking creator-owned pitches or not. But I wanted to see what he had to say, and if he liked it, and if there was a potential for us to work together on this idea. Because Chris was the editor I worked with on my Detective Comics run, which is also a run that I worked on with with Álvaro Martínez Bueno, and it was a story that dealt with a big cast. And [Nice House on the Lake] was a story that I knew had a big cast, and I needed an editor who could help me keep track of all of the moving pieces.
So, I wanted to see if he was on board and if there was a home for it, and thankfully he really responded to it and was a big advocate for it internally. And then it was approved and I was just like, “OK, I guess, I guess DC’s still developing some creator-owned stuff.” That was incredibly exciting because, I know I’m well known for my work in Gotham, but my first job in comics was I was as an editorial intern at Vertigo.
And to be perfectly blunt, one of my lifelong “bucket list” goals was to have a line of Vertigo trades on the shelf. That was what I wanted when I grew up to be a comic book writer, more than anything, more than Batman. So there there is something incredibly powerful about being a part of that; the larger story of DC’s creator-owned imprints, and my own story of working with Chris. Thankfully it all worked out. I’ve just been incredibly, incredibly happy that there also seems to be a big audience that’s excited to read the book.
It’s purely correlation, but there’s a line for me between Nice House on the Lake and the couple of preview episodes I’ve watched so far of Sweet Tooth on Netflix. The Sweet Tooth TV show is also really playing with the pandemic imagery that we have become accustomed in the past year. And those are both creator-owned comics to come out of DC’s Vertigo tradition. It’s an interesting correlation, at least.
Obviously everyone knows that I came up in the industry as Scott Snyder’s protege, and Scott was a Vertigo writer, and he was a Vertigo writer in that same generation of when [Sweet Tooth creator] Jeff Lemire came in. And so those stories were key formative works for me, that kind of helped show me. I’m extremely excited to see Sweet Tooth come to life in a new genre, and I’m jealous that you’ve seen the first two episodes.
It’s difficult to really underscore The Nice House on the Lake #1 to people without talking about its ending, but maybe we could talk about your influences. Were there specific genres or tropes that you wanted to play with? Music or media that you were consuming when you were writing to get in the right mood?
That’s a really good question, because it is a weird book. I’ll own up to that upfront! A lot of my other stories, I think I can point to much more cleanly … I can point to the evolutionary line that led to Department of Truth, and I can point to the evolutionary line that came to Something is Killing the Children. But honestly, so much of Nice House on the Lake is me working with Álvaro Martínez Bueno for the last five years and seeing the sorts of things that he does incredibly well, and wanting to tell a big story that takes advantage of the elements of storytelling that he hands so incredibly well.
The things that Álvaro does just perfectly is he’s incredible with character and he’s incredible with sets. Setting is so crucial, especially in horror, but in horror comics, even, the setting can fall out a lot of times. Just because in comics the thing that gets simplified out of a panel most often, is the is the setting.
It’s one of those things where comics can sometimes have a disadvantage compared to other media. One of my favorite tropes in a slasher or in a thriller that’s set in a house, is when the first few scenes of that movie, more than any story purpose or anything, is giving you a tour of the house. It’s the idea of, Here is every single room, here are all of the ways in and out. And normally you understand, Here’s a limitation of one of the ways out, here’s the limitation of one of the ways in. It’s giving you a map that then, when the action sequence happens later, you understand. That’s why you shout out, “No, don’t go into that room!” Because you know there’s no way out of that room. And it something that’s so much more difficult to do in comics just because of the real estate.
You mean page to page, how much you can fit in the literal space of the comic, “real estate?”
Yeah! Like you don’t want to spend, typically, you don’t want to spend a full issue just getting a tour of the house [laughs]. But I wanted to see how much I could get out of that and how much density of ideas [there could be] without feeling that it’s so overweighted and bloated that it just collapses in your hand. With Álvaro I feel like I’ve always been able to strike the right balance there. I wanted to take advantage of that.
What I wanted to do was something that was much more of an emotional thriller, where you understand there’s this group of 10 people in this house. They all have different relationships with the person who invited them to the house. Each of them is like is a vibrant, complete person in and of themselves. We’re going to see how each of them reacts, having been thrown into this pressure cooker. Then we’re going to see how that evolves the story to the next level.
Then obviously there’s the elephant in the room that I’ll be able to talk about more once the first issues out on the stands. There is still the big horror element of this story that I think helps helps push it all over the edge, but really it was wanting to tell a story about people. So when when when I talked about influences, one of the biggest influences of this story is The Big Chill. The other things that I can point two would be a story like It, or things like that, where the core of the story is it’s about the relationships and interconnections between these characters, as they’re put up against something bigger than them. And how that changes them and how they flinch away from the crisis and how they lean into it.
All this talk about horror in comics has reminded me of: A few years ago I attended a panel on horror in comics with a panelist who said that horror doesn’t work in comics because of the visual element. That once you show the monster it’s not scary anymore, and comics have to show the monster. I thought That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. What is your response to that?
[laughs] I think the obvious limitation there is just that sometimes seeing the monster is the the coolest, most exciting element of a horror story. The ineffable horror, the idea of the unseen monster; building a monster in your head is always going to be a very powerful experience, but it’s not the only experience of horror.
I will say there are there are limitations of horror in comics. Part of the issue is that horror is dictated so much by the pacing. And the reader is always in control of the pace when you’re in a comic book. They can read the book at whatever length they want, which means it is very difficult to control the drumbeat toward a reveal. On top of that, there are much fewer opportunities for a jump scare in comic books, just because the only opportunity you really have to scare someone is on a page turn.
And even on on a page turn, the way people tend to read comics is they turn the page and then they take a quick glance at the full two page spread. And then they go to the top left. So something’s happening at the bottom right of the second page there, you kind of spoil yourself, you get a little bit ahead of yourself.
A lot of times I try to control that with dialogue, because dialogue can help you get into a rhythm and move and all of that. But the the key emotion that I’m always trying to build in horror comics is dread. This kind of weighty feeling that there’s something wrong, and there’s something bad that’s going to happen, and you don’t know when it’s going to happen, but you have to pay close attention.
If you can get the readers feeling that sort of dread, then you can you can get away with a lot. But it is one of those things where, there’s dread, and then you can shock people with an incredibly horrific image. Those are the two key moves, I think in horror comics. So those are the ones that I’m always trying to play with.