Interview: Caitlin R. Kiernan On Angels, Demons, And Owning Her Own Creation With Dark Horse’s ‘Alabaster: Wolves’

For years, Caitlin R. Kiernan anchored Vertigo’s successful comic book spin-off of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, The Dreaming… And then, for over a decade, disappeared from comics. Until now. Her new series, Alabaster: Wolves, based on a character created for her novel Threshold, launches it’s third issue from Dark Horse Comics this week. Oh, and it’s great.

The series – which has been favorably compared to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Fear Agent, and more – follows an albino monster hunter named Dancy Flammarion, who may or may not be taking orders from an angel, and may or may not be totally insane. Dark, comedic, and appropriately dream-like, the book has rapidly jetted to the top of our stack each week, and we’re eagerly awaiting the next issue as soon as we’re done.

In advance of the third issue’s release, we chatted with Kiernan about returning to comics, why it isn’t sent in a post-apocalyptic world (that’s just what the South looks like), and why this time in comics is different than the last (hint: it starts with “creator” and ends with “owned”):

MTV Geek: Let’s start off talking about the creation of the world of Alabaster, and Dancy Flammarion… How’d she come about, and what was the inspiration be-hind this world?

Caitlin R. Kiernan: Honestly, that was so long ago I have trouble recalling pre-cisely how and why I created her. I was writing a very strange novel, Threshold, back in 1998, and I needed a sort of anti-hero. There’s a scribble in my notebook from September 16th, where I wrote about wanting “a creepy little ‘Boo Radley’ albino girl.” Then I found the last name, Flammarion, in an autobiography of Harry Houdini, because of his association with the French astronomer Camille Flammarion. Then I saw the name Dancy on a road sign in South Alabama, where there’s a tiny town named Dancy, which is, of course a French surname. And there I had the name, Dancy Flammarion. I’m not sure why she wound up being an albino. I liked the imagery. Maybe it was an influence from Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné. Her world, well, that goes back to the world of Threshold, where monsters were very real. And it was much clearer in the novel that she was quite insane.

Geek: I have to admit, I haven’t yet read the novel/short story this is based on, but in the comic it seems like a very lived in world. How much of this world build-ing did you have to do, versus improvisation when you’re writing the stories?

CRK: I grew up in the Deep South. Dancy’s world is a world I know firsthand, all those back roads, ghost towns, gas stations at the side of the road that you can pay a dollar to see a bear in a cage out back. That’s just real. So, I can’t say there was a lot of world building to be done. I simply gave her the seraph and added all the monsters. A lot of people are getting the idea, by the way, that it’s a post-apocalyptic South, and it’s not. It’s just the landscape of a world many peo-ple probably aren’t familiar with. Though, we do learn in the fourth issue…okay, no, that would be a spoiler, so never mind.

Geek: What about the approach to the supernatural? There’s certainly recogniz-able ideas here, but very different spins…

CRK: I’m always trying to take my influences, contemporary and otherwise – in this case, say Lovecraft, Angela Carter, Peter Straub, Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Manly Wade Wellman – and use them as jumping off points. I don’t want to just write more of what they’ve already done, not pastiches. What’s the point of that. It’s lazy writing. Instead, these writers have planted the seeds that grow into my own ideas. In the Dancy short stories there was some doubt, to varying degrees, as to whether these things were actually happening to her, or whether it was her imagination or whether she was actually schizophrenic.

The comic, there’s still a touch of that. No one but her ever sees the seraph. But you can’t deny the werewolves are real. Have I given the supernatural a different spin? I’m honestly not sure I can say that I have – though it would be marvelous if I could. I look back at say, Shirley Jackson, a huge influence, and it’s often un-clear whether a haunting is real or a figment. And the seraph, for example. I’ve seen some readers very confused about why it’s such a terrifying creature. This has surprised me. I’m not a Christian, or even religious, or spiritual, but I know a great deal about the literature relating to angels in various Abramhamic and other religions. In the Christian Bible, angels are scary guys. Luke 2:9 – “And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.”

As for the seraph’s appearance, look back to the Torah, where they’re described in the Book of Isaiah as fiery six-winged creatures. I didn’t make that up. The He-brew plural, Seraphim, literally means “the burning ones.” Elsewhere, they’re de-scribed as serpents. That said, I did take a few liberties. The multiple heads, for example. But angels are, throughout these holy texts, including the Qu’ran, often soldiers and ominous portents.

Geek: Why make the jump to comics with Dancy? What about her worked in the graphic form?

CRK: Of everything I’ve written, all the published prose – and we’re talking eight novels and over two hundred short stories and novellas – Dancy is the only char-acter I ever imagined could easily make the transition to graphic novels. Her character and her world always seemed, to me, destined for comics. I never ac-tually thought it would happen, but I could always see it. Then Dark Horse ap-proached me about working with them. We talked over a lot of possible projects.

Then I showed the collection of Dancy short stories, Alabaster, to Rachel Edidin and Mike Richardson, and everything clicked. Of course it would be Dancy. I think we all saw her and the seraph as very visual beings, and, of course, you get all these great monsters in the bargain. Ted Naifeh had illustrated the collection, and his take on her was great. But we aged her from about fourteen to almost seventeen, because I wanted a more mature character. After just a couple of ex-periments – using Elle Fanning as an inspiration – Steve Lieber nailed her ap-pearance.

Geek: I know the immediate comparison with her is probably Buffy, but if any-thing, Alabaster strikes me more as a supernatural version of Dark Horse’s Fear Agent… Particularly as, the farther she gets, the worse things get for Dancy. Is there ever a light at the end of the tunnel for her, or is she just traveling further into her own personal Hell?

CRK: Well, wow. Hard question. In Threshold, her first appearance, she actually dies. Then all the stories in Alabaster, the prose collection, those were sort of a reboot/prequel. Then we rebooted her again for the comic. But her existence has always been an ever-more terrible descent into, as you say, Hell. Another inspira-tion for the character was Joan of Arc, and look how well that turned out. There are a lot of times I create these characters I genuinely love, and then I inflict all these awful trials on them, often ending in death, and I feel like some hideous, sadistic goddess playing with people just because it’s pleases me. This even happens with my antagonists, the “villains.” No one deserves what I put these characters through! That said, no, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for Dancy. In fact, in Alabaster: Wolves, it gets a lot worse, even worse than her death in Threshold.

Geek: I almost don’t want to know the answer to this, but there seems to be the omnipresent question of whether Dancy is crazy or not… Do you have a definite opinion on that, regardless of playing it both ways in the book?

CRK: I’ve already touched on this, of course. I always tried to leave it as open as I could, to let the reader decide. This was especially true in Threshold, though I think, ultimately, in the novel, the reader sees that whether or not she’s insane, the monsters are real. It’s like that adage, Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you. So, is Dancy Flammarion sane? Does it mat-ter, in the end? Lots of scholars think Joan of Arc, and there she is again, was crazy. Same with Paul the Apostle and many of the Christian saints and William Blake. So what if they were? It doesn’t change their personal demons, and an-swering the question doesn’t solve how Dancy battles hers. But, having said that – I love immediately undermining my own arguments – much of what we see in Alabaster: Wolves is Dancy doubting her beliefs and trying to judge her own san-ity. It’s central to the story.

Geek: Wolves, naturally, deals with werewolves, but beyond that, what’s the idea of this series? What journey does Dancy need to go on?

CRK: The werewolves are just the next hell. In Dancy Flammarion’s life, there is, and will always be, a next hell. So long as she is alive, and, you know, maybe af-terwards. I love her so much, I wish it were otherwise. But then she wouldn’t be Dancy. The werewolves, all the monsters, they’re a catalyst to the path she’s walking, which is one of self discovery. I hope that doesn’t sound like New Age bullshit. It’s just true. On this one level, she’s the “red right hand” of a merciless Old Testament sort of god, slaying demons. But on another level, she’s a teen-age girl whose life has been screwed up beyond belief, and maybe all she wants is to find a way out. She never asked for this burden, and it’s crushing her. If she is sane, what she sees and does is surely raveling that sanity. She’s looking for a way out. She’s not just driven to question her sanity. She’s driven to question whether maybe she’s one of the monsters.

Geek: What’s coming up for the rest of the series?

CRK: I don’t do spoilers. All I can tell you is that it gets weirder and it gets worse. Dancy goes places she’s never gone, and it will change her forever. Readers will likely be surprised. I hope they are.

Geek: Briefly, I loved the free comic book day story, just because it seemed to infuse this simple humanity in a very fairy tale/horror story… What was your idea there? Other than “fitting in four pages,” what was the impetus behind that story?

CRK: Yeah. That was completely my idea. It’s a lot like one of the short stories, “Highway 97,” where Dancy’s just walking along a road in southern Georgia, and it’s a dark night, and she’s talking to this truly creepy dog that’s following her. My editor called and told me we had a slot for FCBD, but Steve and Rachelle and I, we had to do it in just a few days. I wanted something quiet. I wanted to introduce the character, and show these two sides of her. That monsters are real, at last to her, and that maybe she even sympathizes with some of them – even if it’s a bridge troll who eats people.

But, in the end, she has to do the angel’s bidding. And the idea just came to me, the whole thing at once, which is how stories sometimes occur to me. I knew it would be dialogue driven. I knew it would very much draw off a fairy tale, “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” but with the edge of a Dancy story. Here, I knew, I had to show readers both sides of Dancy in only four pages. Not easy.

Geek: Do you have further plans with Dancy beyond Wolves? Other places to take her?

CRK: I do. But right now, those are Top Secret. All I can say is what Dancy would say: “Ain’t nothin’ ever over. You just gotta wait and see what’s coming next.”

Geek: Now that you’ve gotten back into comics, do you have other plans to work in the medium?

CRK: When I left DC in 2002, I swore I’d never do comics again. I was adamant. I told Neil Gaiman, nope, no more for me. Then there were a few comics projects that almost materialized between now and then – because when I say “never” I usually mean “probably not.” A couple of those projects, had they materialized, would have been cool, but that’s how it goes.

Anyway, now that I’m back, I do like being back. The big difference is that Dancy is my character, that this is a creator-owned project. I cannot stress strongly enough the difference that makes. I worked for Vertigo for seven years, seven long years, and I have nothing much to show for it. But Alabaster: Wolves and anything else I may do with Dark Horse, that will always be mine. So long as the arrangements remain this way, yeah, I plan to do more work in the medium.