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Stargazing at 'Black Stars Above': An interview with Lonnie Nadler, Jenna Cha, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou

Comic Books

Stargazing at ‘Black Stars Above’: An interview with Lonnie Nadler, Jenna Cha, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou

A Lovecraftian journey into the Canadian wilderness.

Black Stars Above is a comic that explores humanity in the face of the unknown, and how we confront the cosmic mysteries throughout our universe. It uses an epistolary narrative framework to explore the vast and uncultivated environment of 19th century Canada through the lenses of horror, historical fiction, and mystery while revealing the impact nature can have on people far different from ourselves.

Yet there is no one element that ever takes precedent in this first issue, and even when horror’s the primary focus, the book reads like a historical piece thanks to the research and creative efforts of writer Lonnie Nadler (Marvelous X-Men), debuting artist Jenna Cha, and letter Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou (Fantastic Bandits).

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In the lead up to issue #1’s release on November 13, we connected with Nadler, Cha, and Otsmane-Elhaou to discuss the creative process behind such a fascinating read. It’s an in-depth, insightful chat for a similarly thrilling story.

Stargazing at 'Black Stars Above': An interview with Lonnie Nadler, Jenna Cha, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou

AIPT: Beginning with the epistolary framing that drives a lot of the narrative in Black Stars Above, why did you choose to use that device, and how do you think it relates to the sense of intimacy the reader is able to feel from the story?

Lonnie Nadler: I chose this format for a few reasons. Firstly, because the series is working in the tradition of cosmic horror and weird fiction in the vein of Lovecraft, Machen, and Blackwood who often employed the epistolary form, or some derivation of it. So, it made sense for Black Stars Above to follow in their footsteps, not merely in terms of content, but formally as well. I wanted the book to feel almost as if it were a lost text from the era those above writers were occupied and the framing device needed to reflect such a decision. Another reason this form made sense was simply because I wanted to be able to put readers directly in the mind of the protagonist, Eulalie. I needed it to feel like a first hand experience, like an actual document one might discover, rather than the story being just sort of narrated by them internally as the story progresses. Because this eliminates any sense of the omniscient, everything is told from a single point of view, and the hope is that it feels more grounded and authentic this way, and also creates a more intimate sense of horror.

AIPT: How do you try to convey such a sense of intimacy through writing?  

LN: I’m glad those elements are coming through. Eulalie is an aspiring young writer herself, which is a bit of a trope in horror stories, but if Stephen King and Lovecraft can get away with it, I figure I can, too. In all seriousness though, it made sense for her character and the themes I was exploring. She’s from a family and an era where a woman being a creative writer wasn’t even an option. She was born into the fur trade, and that’s where she’s expected to stay. However, in this cabin, where she spends most of her life, all Eulalie really has are the books and newspapers that surround her and as such they influence her greatly. As an individual she values this minor form of escape. So the narrative we are reading in her journal entries throughout the series is Eulalie’s first attempt at storytelling and it’s not coming from a place of creative liberation, as one might expect, but instead she writes because she believes she might die soon and thus feels a need to record the events as some sort of warning for whoever might find her journal.

This sense of desperation is coupled with Eulalie figuring out what works and what doesn’t work for her as a writer, and how similar to life this process can be, in that it has to come out naturally. To convey this, I try to let her speak through me. It’s always difficult to do this at first, to get your own preconceived notions about writing and your own beliefs out of the way, but after spending time with characters they start to have their own voice. I know pretty much as soon as I write something down now whether or not it’s something Eulalie would say, or whether it’s me speaking through her. I just try to be aware of that and to step out of the way so she can tell her own story. I’m just the pen behind her hand.

Stargazing at 'Black Stars Above': An interview with Lonnie Nadler, Jenna Cha, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou

AIPT: Something that really set the tone for me in terms of the relationships between these characters was the language. Did Eulalie come to life because of the societal circumstances you wanted to talk about, or did her character come into focus before her trials were placed on her?

LN: This is a tough question to answer because it’s a bit of the former and a bit of the latter. I had a pretty good idea of who Eulalie was before I started outlining the series, but it wasn’t until I did all my research and fully understood the world she inhabited that she became fully fledged. I think this speaks more broadly to how people are in general. Everyone is both a product of their environment coupled with the individual, interior self and who they strive to be. The same can be said for characters. So, it wasn’t so much that I set out to write a story exploring Eulalie’s specific societal circumstances because I think that kind of writing often comes across as preachy, and it would be especially odd in this case since I’m not of the same lineage as her, which is a whole other can of worms that I needed to be wary of. Rather, this was about creating a genuine person who made sense in this historical context, and then looking at how the world around her would then impact her personality, her dreams, her desires, her shortcomings, her daily encounters, etc.

Stargazing at 'Black Stars Above': An interview with Lonnie Nadler, Jenna Cha, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou

AIPT: At one point, Eulalie says, “There’s the world outside the tent and the world inside the tent.  I tried to think of neither.”How do you think the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns affect us differently?

LN: I think that largely summarizes the human experience. There’s the world we know, and the world we do not know. We are creatures made up of our simultaneous knowledge and ignorance of the external world, and the horror comes when we accept the fact that while humans have learned an impressive amount about the cosmos in our limited time, ultimately we know very little. This lack of knowledge doesn’t just apply to the cosmos, but to ourselves and others as well. It is this quest for knowledge, for understanding in its many forms, that keeps us going as a species and as individuals and so we are always on the precipice of the unknown and the known, and that’s a scary thing to consider. This also relates to us being creatures who strive for order and rationality and yet our actions are consistently chaotic and irrational. And this idea of division, of contradiction, of existing in between two things defines Black Stars Above, in the most philosophical and pretentious terms. I hope people reading this don’t think I’m totally off my rocker. I promise the book isn’t as dull as I’m making it sound.

AIPT: These views are visually counterbalanced by the imagery of the inkblot and how it is used in a number of important ways. How challenging is it to try and extract new ideas from a consistent visual element like that across the course of a story?

LN: I’m glad you bring this up because my favorite part of the book, and one of my favorite things about writing comics in general is coming up with recurring images that shift and change over the course of the series. It’s always a challenge to come up with new forms of recurring imagery and not just borrow from what’s come before, and once you’ve dug yourself into the hole of exposing it in the first issue, you’re bound to it like a curse. But it becomes one of those “limitations are freeing” cases because it forces me to look at the same image over and over again in order to see it in new ways. In this story we’re dealing with a black circle, or blotch of ink, as you say, and thankfully I chose a symbol that was abstract and simple enough that it lends itself to all sorts of interpretations and recontextualizations.

Generally speaking, I can tell if I get excited about how this recurring motif is shifting, it will whet the readers’ appetite as well. It’s something I shamelessly take from Alan Moore’s work because he is constantly using recurring imagery in all his books and nobody is better at it than he is. For Black Stars Above I really studied the way he did it in Watchmen and in Providence, and he employs the technique to such great effect that his recurring images are hidden all over the book to the point that you miss it half the time because it becomes part of the scenery. The hope is that in really understanding how he employed it, I’m no longer just copying his methods and beginning to find my own manner of using this age old literary convention.

Stargazing at 'Black Stars Above': An interview with Lonnie Nadler, Jenna Cha, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou

AIPT: You’ve talked about a lot of influences and resources that have brought the story to this point, whether they be Margaret Atwood’s Survival  At the Mountains of Madness, The Revenant, as well as notes from McCarthy, Lynch, and Bergman. Two other notes that I noticed were Eulalie’s grandfather’s use of Amor Fati, a common from Nietzche and eternal recurrence, and Eulalie reading Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a story with similar themes of journeying into the unknown. Why did you choose to include these elements?

LN:Starting with the Nietzche reference that the trapper writes in the opening scene, it’s a philosophical concept that means “love fate,” and Nietzche didn’t mean this in the sense that we must believe absolutely in the idea of determinism, but more so that we must love all we do and all that happens to us, the good and the bad, and know when to resign to fate and when to invoke free will. It’s part of his eternal recurrence philosophy, which I don’t personally subscribe to, but Eulalie’s journey is all about her struggling with the idea of freewill vs. providence, and wondering whether or not her path has already been decided or if she has any say in the way her life plays out. This will come to test her at almost every turn, and so I thought including the Nietzche reference was not only a nice nod to a man whose work continually inspires my own, but something that directly speaks to the themes at play.

As for The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, it bears several thematic and narrative similarities to Black Stars Above, and I thought it was an interesting piece of fiction for her family to have in their secluded cabin. The under-the-surface implication, which I don’t expect readers to get is that this is her grandfather’s book and now Eulalie is reading it. The book influences the story her grandfather tells in the issue, and furthermore, Poe’s writing style is clearly a big influence on how Eulalie is writing herself. I think if you’re a reader who is familiar with Pym, you’ll realize that perhaps the book is influencing Eulalie’s experiences a bit too much, and so it’s uncertain, at least at the beginning, if certain elements are actually happening, and how many of them are simply augmented as a result of her recent reading? There’s also a nice little connection between Pym, At the Mountains of Madness, and Black Stars Above. Anyone who finds that will definitely get a prize from me.

AIPT: What’s been the most challenging?

LN: That this book is 100% Lonnie Nadler.

AIPT: Jenna, How are you able to strike a good balance between making the world realistic and grounded while injecting it with your unique style and personality?

Jenna Cha: Portraying the world of Black Stars Above with historical accuracy includes the spirit and mood of the time period as well as the fashion, architecture, etc. Presenting the rough quality of rural 1800s life is an aspect of the storytelling that coincides with the personal conflicts of the characters themselves. In terms of the elements of design in comics, the ways in which an artist can express feelings of confinement, coldness, dirtiness, heaviness, exhaustion, and terror is where one’s personality shows through. It helps that my drawing style is already pretty rough, but Black Stars Above has been extremely advantageous to me in how much emotional material there is that has allowed me to go creatively nuts with.

AIPT: What have some of your primary influences been as you approach your first major comic debut? 

JC: Junji Ito and [Bernie] Wrightson were definitely two big names that came up when Lonnie and I first started talking about the project. We’re both very much inspired by their work, and for me personally, even though I can hardly handle looking at his comics because they genuinely scare me so much, Junji Ito is probably my single biggest influence. Other than those two comics giants, for this book in particular I looked at a lot of Gustave Doré’s engravings. He was able to capture this sense of man fending off monstrous nature in a style that very much speaks to me and to the tone of Black Stars Above. I was also influenced by the photography of Edward S. Curtis and Ansel Adams. In terms of other comics though, I looked at a lot of art by Stephen Bissett and Gou Tanabe’s Lovecraft adaptations.

AIPT: The paneling seems relatively formal for the first issue, at least until the end when you’re able to really let loose. What led you toward this style?

JC: My approach to comics in general is a bit more restrained in this sense with a focus on clarity and storytelling above all else. I never want the layout to overshadow the page content and you run the risk of doing that if you begin to experiment too much and too frequently. I think the two should always work together, and I’m very aware of page design as a whole and what it’s communicating at certain points in the story. With Black Stars Above in particular, it’s very deliberate in its pacing and for the first issue everything needs to feel grounded and authentic, so this formal style you’re referring to is making sure that readers experience this era as something real rather than something fantastical. However, I definitely apply more experimentation to the layouts as the story unravels and the events topple into madness further down each issue.

AIPT: There’s such a powerful use of silence that dictates most of the pacing, and I’d imagine it takes a very high level of trust and communication to produce a book that’s able to ebb and flow between various levels of writing and silence. How were you able to form that rhythm?

JC: One of the first things Lonnie and I talked about in regards to the book is how much we both appreciate silent pages in comics, and how we wanted the book to have many quieter moments in order to communicate the sense of isolation and dread that Eulalie is feeling. It mostly comes down to the way Lonnie scripts the book and thankfully he understands that not every page needs to have text on it. Though sometimes he’s verbose, those moments contrasted with these silent pages that allows for the visual storytelling to shine through.

AIPT: I really like your use of smaller panels of close-up, intimate moments that sort of flow down the page. 

JC: Thanks! They’re really satisfying to draw.

AIPT: For you, what’s the most important part of drawing a character?

JC: I tend not to like doing too many character sketches, so usually when I’m designing a character they kind of just come to me. It was a bit different in this case because Lonnie already had a pretty good idea of who these characters were and he gave me biographies and visual characteristics to go off of, which helped me to visualize them clearly right away. In Black Stars Above we are dealing with a period in history and a place in the world that was rural, far removed from anything like industry and fashion, so the characters here aren’t beautiful people who care about their appearance. They just simply exist as they do, out of necessity. So, it was important to reflect that. I didn’t want anyone to be stereotypically attractive or macho because we see that too often, but again, to feel more authentic to the period in history.

Stargazing at 'Black Stars Above': An interview with Lonnie Nadler, Jenna Cha, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou

AIPT: Hassan, I really liked your take on the standard epistolary style of captions. Are there any special considerations you need to make when using a cursive font?

Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou: Legibility is *always* going to be decreased with cursive, no matter what really. The decision then for me was just to lean into the effect with the torn-page style captions. In a practical sense, I ran the pages full size to see how easy they were to read in print. I also wanted the font to convey something of Eulalie’s character with the font, so something that’s quite loopy and fluid and open in places was needed, contrasted to some of the inkier cursive we see for other characters.

AIPT: Additionally, something I found very interesting was that the balloons are rectangular, which is not too common. I think it echoes or complements the journalistic, more intimate narration quite nicely. Were there any challenges in terms of placements with balloons like that?

Hassan: I wanted to create something that looked almost like woodcarvings. I don’t think that specifically translates to a reader, but there was something about Jenna’s art with Brad’s colors that felt like it could have been carved out on the page, and I wanted the lettering to match that. So it made sense to me that you’d carve in straight lines, because it’d be easier, and not in ovals. I think it’s also quite a literary comic, in a sense, and so to me there’s some subliminal sort of messaging with the style, and the yellow faded colors of them. In terms of placements, I think actually rectangular balloons are easier to work with because you can stack them a little closer than you can with oval balloons, and squish things right against each other if need be.

AIPT: Of course, you then always have to point out the exception, which is Eulalie’s grandfather. His balloons are more amorphous and mirror the balloons coming from the unknown wilderness towards the end of the issue. Can you talk about your design process for those balloons and differentiating them from the rest of the issue?

Hassan: It came from the script, originally. It was to denote a different strength in the voice, and is something we come back to in other issues, too. It’s just about creating tones to the type of voices you “hear” on the page.

AIPT: Was there anything about lettering Black Stars Above that you found particularly challenging?

Hassan: There’s a balance in everything, but I think with Black Stars Above there’s a reality to it that you don’t want to break too much. So I wanted to keep most of the lettering fairly similar against everything else, to establish a sort of baseline reality. Mostly that meant just being restrained and holding back until the darker parts of the series!

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