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Jay Stephens invites us into 'Dwellings'

Comic Books

Jay Stephens invites us into ‘Dwellings’

The compilation of cute-but-creepy tales explores the horrors of a small town called Elwich.

A lot has been said about small towns. Be it their charm and grace, their sense of robust history, and/or even when they’re a place where dreams mostly die, we’re collectively obsessed with what these places represent. Now, writer-artist Jay Stephens has something to add to the canon of small town stories with Dwellings.

The three-issue, prestige format series (each issue is 72 pages) collects every cartoon created by the Eisner Award-nominated talent. Each story in Dwellings takes place in the town of Elwich, where “behind every dwelling awaits a horrifying new story to be told.” Add in the cutesy, distinctly vintage style of Stephens, and what you get are deeply horrific tales of small town life that speak to deeper ideas about community and the human condition. Sure, you can go home again, but should you?!

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Issue #1 of Dwellings debuts this week (August 9) from Oni Press. In the lead up to the book, Stephens was kind enough to answer a few questions, including where the stories came from, his many influences, how he views small towns, the interest in nostalgia, and the possibility of even more new adventures from Elwich.

AIPT: What’s the genesis of this project? Why was it important to organize these stories?

Jay Stephens: Dwellings is a weird exploration of two separate passions of mine, the horror genre, and vintage kids comics. Below the surface, it’s also an attempt at exorcising the modern horrors that I feel are surrounding us at every turn these days. It might not be immediately obvious that the ‘caws’ of the murder of crows telling someone to kill are a metaphor for ‘tweets’, but that subtext is in there.

AIPT: You’ve had a lot of success with Oni (like Land of Nod and Oddville). Why was it important or necessary to “come home” to the publisher?

JS: Dwellings itself is a sort of gaze backwards. A hauntological remix of mid-century styles. It makes perfect sense to return to where I left off at Oni. And, fittingly, to be nostalgic is to “return home in pain.”

Dwellings

Main cover by Jay Stephens. Courtesy of Oni Press.

AIPT: You mentioned the influence of stories/characters like Casper, Spooky, Wendy, and Hot Stuff. What about those specifically inspired the stories here?

JS: Reading the adventures of a “Little Devil” while the adults watched The Exorcist on TV in the background lead my young brain to conclude there were terrible secrets to be revealed one day. And, like most kids, I always wondered who killed Casper, and kept waiting to find the issue of the comic where his gruesome demise was explained. I found the drawings irresistibly adorable, but truly believed they were hiding something sinister.

AIPT:  This book/project is also about nostalgia. Why are we collectively interested in that notion? Do you think you’re adding to the ocean or maybe instead you’re saying something about the rampant societal nostalgia?

JS: Nostalgia is a terrible kind of curse – an infinite, inescapable possession. Forever looking backwards is emotionally unhealthy, and I’m as guilty as anyone else of trying to recapture some past joy. But Dwellings goes beyond a simple, wistful, gaze into the past into some entirely fresh Hell.

Jay Stephens invites us into 'Dwellings'

Art by Jay Stephens. Courtesy of Oni Press.

AIPT:  I kept having this thought while reading about how nostalgia is a trap: we’re trying to have the world as this one pristine, cutesy thing but it’s clearly so much more weird and intense. Does that feel like something you’re doing with this book, or am I reading too deep into it all?

JS: You’re right to the jugular with that assessment. Nothing in life is certain except change, and the more we cling to something old and familiar, the less reassuring it becomes. A drug that gradually loses it’s effectiveness. Dwellings‘ nostalgic visual style is familiar and comforting, making the visceral and psychological horror elements all the more shocking and disturbing. It’s an attempt at moving beyond nostalgia to embrace the strange and the new.

AIPT: What is it about this juxtaposition between the super adorable and quaint and the ultra bloody and dark that’s so funny/terrifying/compelling?

JS: Horror, like comedy, must be shocking to work. I think the sweetness of classic cartooning quite simply adds to the shock value. Some of my favourite manga-ka have been playing with this dynamic since the 60s… Kazuo Umezu, Hideshi Hino, Shigeru Mizuki…

Dwellings

Art by Jay Stephens. Courtesy of Oni Press.

AIPT: This series doesn’t shy from blood and violence. Do you somehow “get away” with more based on the more cutesy style here? Or does that aesthetic make it better/worse?

JS: I guess that’s up to the readers to decide. I’m just trying to tell believably terrifying stories within an unbelievably cute-looking world. Horror is, by necessity, revolting, and I’m sure these tales won’t be to everyone’s taste!

AIPT: How much thought went into the story pairings across the 3 issues? Is this the cream of the crop of your self-published series?

JS: This is a straight-up reintroduction of the crowdfunded, small-press series I did with my dear friend Michel at Black Eye Books, presented in the same sequence as double-sized issues for the mass market. Ready to traumatize a whole new bunch of eyeballs. I originally chose the sequence to vary the tone and content as much as possible from tale to tale, but the original concept was that they could be read in any order, as they are all self-contained stories.

AIPT: Do you have a favorite story or moment across these 3 issues? Something that encapsulates what this is all about?

JS: It’s very hard to play favourites with your little monsters. Fans online all seem to have a different top story pick, which is fantastic. But you always remember your first in a special way.

Jay Stephens invites us into 'Dwellings'

Art by Jay Stephens. Courtesy of Oni Press.

AIPT:  Is Elwich like some place in the real world? If it were a city, it’d sort of be wonderful and horrific, which totally screams “hometown!” to me.

JS: We moved around a lot when I was a kid, and I continued to be locally nomadic after I left home. Elwich is a fictional, haunted version of these Southern Ontario towns and small cities I’ve dwelled in. Places that are not so much traditional, post-modern suburbs, but old towns built on rivers and railway lines before the invention of the automobile. Places that became obsolete for a time, and therefore retained, by accident, architecture from the past. Cute, comfortable places like these often harbor ugly, uncomfortable secrets, and Elwich certainly has those.

AIPT: Could we see more of Elwich beyond these three issues? Are there any new stories being cooked up right now?

JS: I have more stories set in Elwich that I’m sure will claw their way out of my head one day. We’ll see what the world thinks of these oddities soon enough, and whether or not they want more Dwellings lurching around.

AIPT: Why should anyone grab this first issue?

JS: It’s my best work to date, by far, and if you’re not squeamish, I recommend visiting Elwich for some disturbing sight-seeing. Maybe during the daylight, just to be safe.

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