With an origin story set in Vancouver, Canada, Lonnie Nadler has written for VICE, HuffPost, and other news outlets. Outside of journalism, Nadler is an incredible fiction writer. In addition to a few short films, Nadler has also written several comic books such as Marvel’s Cable, Marvelous X-Men, Yondu, and more. One of his latest books is for Vault Comics and is titled Black Stars Above. Wanting to learn more about his career as well as Black Stars Above, I was able to interview Nadler for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
Lonnie Nadler: This is a good question that I’ve never actually been asked. I usually get asked what comics I read as a kid and it was mostly Tintin and Asterix and Obelix because I grew up in a bilingual part of Canada. I was also very much into X-Men and Spider-Man comics. Anything with Wolverine, Rogue, Venom, or Carnage. I didn’t even realize I was supposed to be reading these things in order. I just took in whatever comics I could get my hands on. Obviously, writing for Marvel, this childhood obsession has come in handy. It’s kind of part of the job. Turns out I’ve been training for this one since I could read.
But outside of comics, I was a pretty big reader in general from an early age. The books I would say were most formative were any written by Roald Dahl or Louis Sachar. I was obsessed with The Witches and The Twits and Holes. After that I was reading a lot of Goosebumps and this silly series called Bailey School Kids which were fun twists on classic monsters that I could breeze through, though more so horror-adjacent than actually scary. From there I went on to read Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, which were quite difficult for me to read as an eleven-year-old, but burning through those really challenged me and I think fully ingrained my love for stories and the act of reading. I don’t revisit any of those so much, but I do have copies of Roald Dahl books that I return to every now and then just to remind myself of my roots.
When I was in my early teenage years, I started reading The Lord of the Rings which was major for me. And my early admiration for horror and the darker, more cerebral stories, really started to take off as well. That’s when I began reading more adult horror literature, which also had a huge impact on my taste. There was a book called Hallows Eve by Al Sarrantonio that I probably couldn’t read now, but back then at fourteen or fifteen, it was life changing. I was like, “You can do THIS!?” I think that coupled with the fact that I was the only kid in my high school English classes who enjoyed reading Shakespeare pretty well summarizes who I am as a writer.
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career as a writer? Was there a moment in which this goal crystalized for you?
Nadler: It just so happens the realization occurred while I was reading Roald Dahl. Now I sound like I am obsessed with the man, but I’m really not. There was just something about his books that spoke to my adolescent brain, how fun and bizarre they were compared to the often-drab stuff I was made to read for school. I have a very clear memory of reading The Twits on the red-carpeted floor of my childhood bedroom, looking at the illustrations by Quentin Blake, and thinking to myself, “This is it. This is what I want to do.” I even went and told my parents and at that point they were probably like, “Yeah, yeah. You’re gonna want to be a fireman next week.” But that was it for me. Something inside me just opened up. It took years before I actually sat down to write anything, but I made it eventually, right?
Yanes: You’ve written comic books and screenplays. While these are seen as similar, what do you think are the clear differences between writing for comics versus writing for films?
Nadler: I think there are massive differences, as there are between all mediums, the likes of which are difficult to describe briefly without being reductive. I’ll do my best though. Comics, as Scott McCloud teaches, are an active artform, meaning the reader is actively participating in telling the story as they have to fill in the gaps of action between panels and pages. As a result, comics exploit the interplay of image and word and ask that the reader both be aware of this and to engage with it. What I enjoy so much about this is how the juxtaposition between image and word becomes a language of its own, different from either of the two things individually. A certain word or phrase in a caption box can take on new meaning, depending on what image it’s placed over.
Cinema on the other hand is a passive artform, most of the time, meaning the images and story are presented to the audience without them having to do much but open their eyes and ears. There’s no participation factor. Instead, cinema largely relies on the play between image and sound, and most unique of all to the artform is editing. Unlike comics, because it’s passive, the audience is completely in the hands of the filmmaker, and thus things like pacing and tone are delivered to them, completely outside their control, a lot of which is done through editing. This also appeals to me but for different reasons. I think what it comes down to is understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the medium, the tools they offer, and using those to tell the best story possible.
Yanes: As a hardcore X-Men fan, I’m blown away that you’ve been able to write for that franchise. With that said, what are some X-Men characters you’d love to see get more attention?
Nadler: Personally, I’m rather partial to darker, more off-kilter characters. I love Legion, Magik, and Nightcrawler so I’d be keen to see them some more. I also really love Cypher for some reason. I’ve been wanting to write a Cypher book for ages.
Yanes: You have worked for various comic book companies. How do you seem them as different? For example, when pitching a book to Vault, what do you think Vault looks for that Marvel doesn’t?
Nadler: If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years of making comics it’s that every company is different yet the same. That sounds vague and like a non-answer, but I don’t know how else to put it. If we’re talking about creator owned companies versus licensed work, then it’s a major difference, obviously. When you bring something to Vault, it’s your own idea, and so you have to pitch it very strategically and make sure it’s clear, concise, but also marketable. The editor has to be able to read the pitch and go, “Okay, I can sell this.” They are looking for originality but also to fill a niche in the market that may not be currently filled. And this isn’t just Vault, but most independent companies.
Marvel, on the other hand, in my experience, is less about pitching and more so you get approached by an editor. Sure, they ask you to pitch, but generally it’s a lot less involved than a creator owned book because they already know who the X-Men are and how the books will sell, on a basic level. What unites both is the need to sell books.
Yanes: Your latest book is Black Stars Above. What was the inspiration for this story?
Nadler: Black Stars Above was born out of a few things. Firstly, a desire to tell a distinctly Canadian story. Secondly, to write something in the Weird fiction genre, which is not often seen in comics, and part of that was to write a response to some of the works by H.P. Lovecraft in particular. I wanted to address the aspects of his work that I love, that marked our culture, while also responding to his xenophobia. Thirdly, was to try to capture a specific tone and atmosphere, the likes of which I personally had not seen in comics. Something dreamy and nightmarish and on the edge of reality.
Once I had a rough idea, it was about distilling it all down into the major themes I wanted to explore, and that then led me to setting it during the Canadian fur trade at the tail end of the 19th century. I love history and I love fiction that plays with history, so I did a lot of research because I needed everything to feel authentic, lived in, and accurate. I wanted it so that when the cosmic horror elements came into play it didn’t feel like that was all the book had to offer. I wanted the genre bits to feel like an addition to a world with one foot in reality rather than the meat of the book, if that makes sense. So once all the research was done, it was just a matter of going back to my original goals and trying to make something cohesive.
Yanes: Black Stars Above has an art style that is nothing like other comic books, but is perfect for the story. How did you know that this was the right look for this narrative?
Nadler: It all goes back to the idea of authenticity and historical accuracy, to some degree. If I was going to set a book in 1887 and I was going to make everything from the blankets they use to the utensils they eat with specific to the period, the artwork, too, had to be part of generating that sense of reality. If you look at illustrations from that time it’s a lot of high contrast with plenty of cross-hatching, and delicate line work, yet it’s remarkably clean. I knew Black Stars Above just wouldn’t work if it was drawn by an artist with a more contemporary style. But it also needed to be in the hands of someone who spoke the comic book language in a similar way to myself, and furthermore someone who could draw horror. And I’ll tell you not many people fit all these strict criteria. I have incredibly specific views on what I think a comic book should be, and I need my collaborators to be on the same page or else the vision falls apart.
When I found Jenna, I knew right away she would be perfect. It was like finding that one star that glows just little differently in a sea that’s full of them.
Yanes: On this note, I think you’ll agree with me that Jenna Cha is a fantastic artist. Could you take a moment to describe how the creative collaboration between you two added to the story? Was there a specific element that Cha contributed that you would have never thought of on your own?
Nadler: Jenna and myself were very communicative from day one. From the first phone call we had, we were on the same page entirely, drawing from similar references and wanting the book to evoke the same themes and atmosphere. From then on, we spoke every single day, constantly bringing up ideas to make the book better, or discussing elements of style, or design. Needless to say, it was incredibly rewarding. In fact, we were so in sync that we ended up getting married in the middle of making the book. This might sound like a joke, but it’s not. We fell in love and committed to a life together all while making the book. I think that’s partially why you find bits of hope in the dark world of Black Stars Above. In some odd way it’s a reflection of my life.
As a result, Jenna and I were living together for a lot of the production and this made things even easier than they already were. Simply being able to go over the script in person, or to discuss layouts, or even for Jenna to shout from the drawing table to ask a question about a panel detail – well, it just made the whole experience smoother. I feel so very fortunate that we found each other.
I think there are plenty of things Jenna contributed that I never would have thought of on my own. One element I really took to was Jenna’s use of little inset panels. I always loved those in comics, but it wasn’t until I started working with Jenna that I actually started to put them in the script and to use them to guide a reader through a page. Jenna really is a master of those details, of jamming a page full of panels, all while being able to ensure there’s a beauty and flow amid the chaos.
Yanes: Black Stars Above is set in 1887. While doing research on this time period were there any facts that took you by surprise?
Nadler: I mean, where do I even start. Just for context, I read textbooks, atlases, encyclopedias, and interviewed historians. The amount I learned about the fur trade and the time period is almost embarrassing, and so much of that knowledge never made it into the book, but at the same time without it, the book would have been worse off. I think on a broad scale one of the most interesting things to me is how the fur trade is largely responsible for Canada becoming a colonized country. When you boil things down, what that means is that this nation came to exist as we know it today because people in Europe wanted beaver hats, which is hilarious but also quite sad when you think of all the repercussions, specifically those suffered by the Indigenous peoples. Fashion is responsible for everything, sadly.
Yanes: When people finish reading Black Stars Above, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Nadler: Whatever they would like to take away from the experience. Hopefully they leave the book with more questions than they came in with.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Nadler: Jenna and I are working on our next book together. It’ll be a while before it comes to fruition, but we’re both very excited. Yet another historical horror mashup. This time around Jenna is co-writing it with me. I’m also hard at work on a graphic novel that also deals with history and horror, but in a very different way from Black Stars Above, and that will likely be coming out in late 2021 or 2022. Currently on shelves I also have Undone by Blood alongside Zac Thompson, Sami Kivela, Jason Wordie, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, which is a neo Western published through Aftershock Comics.