In my recent breakdown of horror comics in 2020, I had to mention Black Stars Above, a massive feat of terror from Vault Comics. And yet that’s not even the publisher’s only standout as of late; that list also includes The Autumnal, The Devil’s Red Bride, and Shadow Service. Next month, they’ll expand that list even further to include The Picture of Everything Else.
Written by Dan Watters, and with art by Kishore Mohan, the series takes place in turn-of-the-century Paris. Here, two art thieves uncover a mystery involving murder victims and weird paintings — a case that may also reference Dorian Gray. I spoke with Watters recently about the book, including the importance of cities, his collaboration with Mohan, and the role of art and creation in the larger store.
The Picture of Everything Else #1 hits shelves on December 23.
AIPT: What is it about Dorian Gray (both the book and the character) that’s so appealing? Has that character’s value or perception changed in our modern era — perhaps as a metaphor for vanity and willful ignorance?
Dan Watters: Well as much as I do like Dorian Gray, and all you say is probably true, this comic is not about him! We use Oscar Wilde’s book as our starting point, as I thought there was more to be mined in the concept of the novel than there was in Dorian himself, at least for the sort of things I wanted to talk about right now. Instead of the immortal painted subject, we’re looking at the painter who made it; what happens to the man who can change the world through art- and at the dawn of a century which he can see promises to be so bloody?
AIPT: A lot of the book apparently deals with cities and people — what is it about these structures that are so compelling, essential, terrifying, etc.? I feel like cities have always been a place in literature to explore ideas of modern man’s downfall, which may be in line with some ideas within this book/series.
DW: Sure. Cities are just a lot of people jammed together in a place with a lot of history. They are places of overlap. And where you have history, you have downfall. We rise and fall and that’s how progress happens. Things collapse, making ways for new things. Paris is one of the places in Europe where this is most obvious. The amount of revolts, revolutions and wars that have swept through that city over the centuries is wild. There used to be a piece of graffiti you’d see around the city which said if you stomped on the paving stones of Paris, blood would well up between the cracks.
AIPT: Why was it so important to set this book at or near the dawn of the 20th century? It feels like this is not only an era of massive change but a real immersion into city life.
DW: The time period is crucial to the book. It seems that 1900 felt like a real epoch change- because of the turn of the century, of course, but that’s just a number. The world really was changing- I think it’s interesting that when a lot of people think of Dorian Gray they think of this very Gothic sort of thing, but it was written closer to The Great Gatsby than to Frankenstein. Wilde was very much living at the tail end of the Victorian era, and there were these growing pains- the old fighting against the new. Hell, you could make the argument that this was one of the factors behind Wilde’s own downfall and premature death. The struggle between the bohemian-shifting-towards-the-modern, and the dogmatism of the old ways.
AIPT: The story is based primarily in Paris. What do you think it is about this specific city that is so vital to the larger narrative? Does it help connect this book back to some larger cultural tradition?
DW: Definitely- particularly when we’re thinking about art. Paris is mentioned in Dorian Gray as where the painter Basil Hallward is planning to leave London for- and we’re right on the cusp of everything that’s going to happen in those circles at the beginning of the 20th Century. Picasso and Braque are young men, about to pick up their brushes and create Cubism. And from there, Dada, Surrealism; art in Europe in the first half of the century is going to spiral around this city. So where better to tell a story about art that could change the world, for better or for worse?
AIPT: I get from the statements by Dan that this book is interested in progress, and the questions we must ask ourselves as the world grows ever larger. Do you think these ideas are maybe tied back into what’s happening in the U.S. right now?
DW: In a word, yes. Because progress is not a straight line. We’ve been talking about Paris; Paris held a World Fair in 1899, which is what the Eiffel Tower was built for. It was a promise of all the wonderful things that were going to happen in the next few decades. The Paris metro opened a year later in 1900. Imagine how much the world must have felt like it was moving forward. 14 years later, it was being bombarded by German artillery and people were starving to death. But it doesn’t take open war to see this kind of backslide- only complacency. That’s what some of the characters in our book figure out. Would it be better if we could just stop everything, when we deem that nothing’s going to get any better?
AIPT: What’s the collaboration like between you two? How was it working together in trying to build this “version” of Paris and its people?
DW: Collaboration on this has been wonderful. I’ll admit, I’ve thrown difficult things to Kishore, which he’s handled with grace and gusto- I asked him to do the whole thing in watercolor, then started making small murmurs in the direction of things like acrylic paints, and he really embraced these ideas. We’ve wanted to work together for ages, so to see this book really blossom has been special. There’s been a lot of back and forth. We’ve ended up talking style and architecture a lot.
AIPT: There’s so many profound references in both the art and narrative of the book. How do you balance these ideas and energies without overwhelming the story?
DW: My main concern when writing anything is the story. That’s what my eye stays on, because that’s what we’re making the book for. All else is in service to it. Of course Kishore could do magnificent watercolors of Paris and people without a good story, but I owe it to the work he’s doing- not to mention myself- to make the story as good as it can be. So making those words and art sing together… yeah. That’s the job!
AIPT: Perhaps I’m a weirdo, but I generally only enjoy horror a few different times per year. How do you as a duo, or the writer and artist individually, approach making horror; how is it best to scare someone who is reading this in December? Is it harder to scare people now given the sheer state of the world?
DW: I don’t know that horror is about eliciting a fear response directly- particularly in this medium. Comics don’t have jump scares like film, and can’t creep up on you in the way that a reveal can in prose. For me, horror in comics is always a lens to the uncanny and unnerving. Horror is the most revolutionary genre; the nature of stories can sometimes bend towards being quite conservative, and quite often they do this by accident. Stories are acts of change, and most change happens in the form of some compromise or other. Horror cares less for this. It tackles big taboos, big traumas. It’s not necessarily about overcoming- it’s more often about what destroys us. Many of us are waking up to plenty that can destroy us, more aware of our mortality than ever before. Horror grapples with these things. It’s a time for horror.
AIPT: I love the preview art; there’s a real sense of humanity but also something deeper and more menacing. What sort of tone or energies do you think permeate the book?
DW: Thank you! I honestly think that’s for other people to answer- but I hope we’ve made a book that’s honest in an intrinsic way, and scary in the right way. I hope it strikes a chord. I know Kishore and Aditya have made it look beautiful.
AIPT: I get the sense the art and story are really aligned here — perhaps more than some other books (and that’s saying a ton considering the medium). How intertwined are the story and visuals, and do you think there’s a closer “marriage” given the motifs of art/creation in the book, the use of specific horror, etc.
DW: Well, if we’re doing our jobs correctly as comic creators, the art and story should always be as tightly woven as possible. That’s the joy of collaboration, making something that’s only possible with said collaborators, using each other as a springboard. The fact that Kishore is painting a book about painting, however, is something I think is interesting, but the intent is definitely that we aren’t just an artist and writer making a book about artists and writers. We’re using our mediums- our lenses- to talk about other things, as are our characters. That’s why it’s The Picture of Everything Else — we’re trying to look at everything!
AIPT: What’s the one reason people should pick up issue #1?
DW: There’s nothing else that looks like this book on the shelves, and though this might be the most outright horror book I’ve written, it’s also damn fun. We are building on Wilde here, so we’d be remiss not to carry a spark of playfulness into the thing. The devil himself is playful, after all.
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