Historical fiction set around World War II is fertile grand in comics, novels, and even films. (Editor’s Note: It’s all my uncles read!) Dark Horse Comics is adding to this must-read pile with Secret Land, a new four-part series written by Christofer Emgard and with art by Tomás Aira. It tells the tale of a couple separated by a war on two fronts, with Ben fighting in the Pacific while Katherine is uncovering Nazi secrets in a “secret land” (where the Third Reich hopes to return after the war).
With issue #1 out now, and issue #2 dropping tomorrow (July 14), I had the opportunity to chat with Emgard and Aira about their approach to historical fiction, writing a romance, tackling Lovecraftian themes, and much, much more.
AIPT: I was a fan of your previous work Whispering Dark and the utter horror mixed with realism got under my skin! What made The Secret Land the logical next series for you?
Tomás Aira: Thanks! I wanted to continue our collaboration and delve deeper into the world we started to set up, but I left everything else to Chris, who pitched me the complete story.
Christofer Emgard: Glad to hear you enjoyed TWD! I’ve wanted to write a story about Operation Highjump and Base 211 for a long time. When looking for the next project to do with Tomás, The Secret Land felt like a perfect fit due to his excellent grasp of all things WW2. Since this story combines war and horror it also makes for a nice follow-up to The Whispering Dark. This tale is more colorful and fantastical than TWD, but I hope it still gets under your skin!
AIPT: Whenever I read a book set during World War I or II, I think of how much research did it take to get to this story? So I ask you, did you need to do a lot of research?
CE: Growing up I was hopelessly fascinated with warfare and weapons (I blame Kelly’s Heroes, First Blood, and Top Gun), and I’ve always been a history buff, so I already had a bit of knowledge about the time period and equipment stored away. But I still had to do some extensive reading on subjects ranging from Operation Highjump to the US Navy Scouts and Raiders, and the different layouts of German WW2 bunkers (there is a rare book out there detailing their every feature all the way down to the toilet design…). The Secret Land rests on historical events, and I wanted to get them right, but I’ve taken the liberty to bend them a bit when needed to fit the story.
TA: If there’s a chair drawn, you can be sure I’ve researched if it was period-appropriate. I pay a lot of attention to details–mostly to clothing since the military equipment is a given and the easiest to research, though I still pay a lot of attention to that. I love it and have a collection of books on the subject.
AIPT: If one were to call The Secret Land Lovecraftian, how does it stand out amongst other Lovecraftian works in your opinion?
TA: It has a little more hope, and it’s not that victim-driven but hero-driven, so it’s there, a little to the side.
CE: I haven’t read everything Lovecraftian out there (though I try!), but I’d argue that the emotional depth we’re showing with this story is not quite seen elsewhere. The Secret Land is full of worldly and otherworldly horrors, but it is ultimately grounded in the relationship between Ben and Katherine, and I have tried to portray their emotional journeys as faithfully and realistically as possible. I hope this will provide the reader with a plausible gateway into the more fantastical and terrifying elements of the story.
AIPT: I like how patient this story is and how it unveils its horror in emotional ways early on in the first issue, but in a supernatural way as well later on. When approaching the plotting of a book, how do you know there’s enough for the reader, or when do you know if you’ve given too much?
CE: I’ve always enjoyed horror stories that read like crime novels, i.e., as mysteries that are slowly unraveled, and I tend to write my own tales in a similar vein. So, it’s a lot about planting hints and clues, and building up toward a revelatory climax at the end. This is always tricky, and in part something I work out together with Tomás and our editor Dave Marshall–making sure to stay sensitive to any input from them regarding whether the pacing works or not.
TA: I leave most of the pacing to Chris, his storytelling skills are superb, and I’m constantly amazed by how much and how well-paced he writes.
AIPT: I don’t want to spoil anything, but Tomás, how did you end up with the design of the “machine” in this story?
TA: I went to a Lovecraftian space to search for it. I remember reading Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward when I was very young, and the alienness of the monsters were forever fixed on my mind, how you can put so much into such a strange array. When designing the machine, I wanted to capture some of that alien awe, something which cannot be understood as just a mechanical device, and yet it’s just tubes and valves and a big cowling. I know there are other takes on the same machine from other artists, but I avoided them since I had a pretty good idea in my mind of what to do (I hope it was not the thing whispering it to me, but I guess it’s too late now…).
CE: Just to say that it was love at first sight for me. I didn’t give Tomás much to work with other than “make it disgusting and terrifying” and to my mind, he nailed it.
AIPT: The idea is presented of losing a loved one, or thinking you have, which is so foreign this day and age with cellphones and constant contact. That element hit me as poignant, and it’s a reminder historical pieces like this allow you to do different things. Do you prefer a story set in another time like this one?
TA: I like the challenge of researching another period. I think it’s a fascinating balance of completely different worlds and yet people are much the same as us, with their hopes and motivations and aspirations. But I don’t actually have a preference when it comes to time periods, to be honest.
CE: I’m definitely enamored with the past to some extent, and I guess both the Indiana Jones movies and Lovecraft himself are to blame as their romanticized versions of the 20s, 30s and 40s is what I grew up devouring (or Stephen King’s 50s for that matter). I guess some of it comes from the fact that we knew so much less back then–there were even white spots left on the map, and there are few things more inspiring to me.
But as you say, the lack of cellphones and ubiquitous Internet is also a factor as it allows for different narrative setups and forces the characters to act in ways they wouldn’t necessarily do today. Not having to come up with some contrived reason as to why the cellphones don’t work is a great relief…
AIPT: If you could evoke a single emotion in readers with certainty in The Secret Land, what would it be?
TA: Hope earned through perseverance
CE: Bittersweet sorrow. It’s a tall order, but if just one reader can get that from The Secret Land, I can call it a day. And of course, it won’t hurt if you also feel some horror, disgust, and excitement along the way.
Secret Land #1 is now available wherever comics are sold.
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