Talking NAILBITER with Joshua Williamson & Mike Henderson

Nailbiter Cover

Nailbiter is a twisted ride. Joshua Williamson, Mike Henderson, Adam Guzowski and co.'s new hit series from Image Comics is a creepy but compelling mystery that's similar to Se7en and Silence of the Lambs by way of Twin Peaks. The story centers around an investigation into a rural town in Oregon where dozens of serial killers all originated, notably the famous Nailbiter killer - who would kill people and gnaw off their fingers - who is forced to help in the investigation. 

I saw down with Williamson and Henderson to talk about Nailbiter, serial killers, process, and inspiration:

So let’s start at the beginning. Was Nailbiter a project you’ve been working on for a long time before it launched?

Joshua Williamson: Since about the summer of 2011. For a few years I knew I had wanted to do a book about serial killers, but nothing ever clicked. Lots of ideas but no story. But that summer “What if a bunch of serial killers were all born in the same town?” formed in my head and I ran with it.

Why serial killers? Did you have an interest in them before you started this project?

JW: For sure. It’s been a subject that I’ve been fascinated with for a long time. In a healthy way. A lot of my favorite movies are horror movies and so they’ve always been a bit of an influence on me and my writing.

The why? I’m honestly not sure. I’ve known people who have had interactions with serial killers… including myself. I knew one when I was young before he got arrested. So just something in the air? No real idea why I was drawn to it.

At Universal Studios in Hollywood they used to have this small store that focused on just their horror movies and they had a section for Psycho. Like a toy knife that let out Janet Leigh’s scream when you played with it. Think about that. That sort of stuff is just out there. So a lot of the ideas when I was younger started there.

There definitely is a strong cultural undercurrent of interest in serial killers. There is something oddly mysterious and enticing about the why's and how's of these people and the crimes they commit. Why do you think that is?

JW: People like to get scared. Serial killers are very real human monsters and could be anyone. It's along the same lines as why people like horror. It allows them to experience something scary but at a safe distance. They can leave the theater and be away from it. It's all in your head. But I think... everyone has that moment where they think about killing someone. Even if it' just for a second to think "I would never do that." The idea that someone could go through with it shows a dark side to human nature that draws people in. It's a very real life horror.

Are there any real life serial killers that you find especially intriguing?

JW: This is always a hard questions. I seem to know the most about Jeffrey Dahmer. But I've always been more interested in the Zodiac. Jack the Ripper is another. Maybe because over time he has become much more of a myth. Which again... makes him safer to think about.

Do you have a notebook full of different serial killer characters for Nailbiter?

JW: Hahah, sort of? I have a file on my computer that outlines the 16 serial killers and the rest of the cast. The Nailbiter notebook is mostly full of story notes and ideas. Scary things I want try and pull off in the book.

Why’d you choose to set it in rural Oregon?

JW: When I came up with the idea and started to develop it I had been living in a rural town about an hour outside of Portland. I would ride my bike around and see all of these empty fields and abandoned houses and would think “someone died there.”

There is a special kind of atmosphere that those kind of places can provide to the story, and emotional short hand that the reader can relate to, so I can pass along the tone of the book quickly without bogging down the story.

I’m actually watching Twin Peaks right now for the first time (and now there's news of a new series in 2015 W00T!), and Nailbiter has a wonderful kind of resonance with that show. Was that a show you were into?

JW: Very much so. To say it didn't influenced me and Nailbiter would be a lie. It was very much there in my head. Mostly the small town identity and how tragedy can bring out the real town. I didn't want to copy the odd characters too much. Really once Mike became involved and we started to shape our story we got further and further away from the Twin Peak influences but it's still there in the roots.

Really excited for the new show!

How did you and Mike Henderson meet?

JW: Ha, online? This has actually been up for debate between Mike and I. I think we started to talk online after I saw some of his art and reached out. I just really liked it and so we started to chat. Trying to find a project to work on but things never worked out. Eventually we did a short story called Masks and Mobsters. Sort of a sample for us both but then we decided to run with it as a digital comic. Thankfully we found that we worked well together and decided we wanted to do Nailbiter.

Tell us a little bit about this upcoming issue with Brian Michael Bendis as a guest character. You were a student of Brian’s right? What sparked the idea of tossing him in to Nailbiter?

JW: Bendis is easily one of my biggest influences, long before I was his student. I think it’s because when I was just starting college Bendis was one of more open creators in comics. He had just started Powers but offered a lot of back matter, including the script book. Powers came at a time when I knew I wanted to work in comics but sort of needed that extra kick in the ass.

About 10 years after that I got to be in his first Graphic Novel writing class. And the lessons I picked up there were invaluable. To this day I use things that I learned there. Some of which made a lot more sense as I worked more and improved.

Since I was a fan of Powers, I was really into the issue of Powers with Warren Ellis. And knew that I wanted to do something similar at some point. When we started to plot issues 6-10 of Nailbiter… I knew we could fit it into #7… which would line up to the Powers #7 issue, which will be 14 years ago to the month when our #7 come out. I asked Brian and he said yes, which was a crazy relief. Pretty awesome of him.

The story within Nailbiter  #7 is that Bendis comes to Buckaroo because he wants to do research on a comic book about serial killers. And then bad things happen.   

As a student of Brian's who is now also a professional comic creator, I’d love to know a little bit about his class and what you took away from it that found its way into your recent work.

JW: It’s really hard to wrap up into words. There is so much. A lot of it was about theory and technique. Almost like the muscle memory of writing.

Brian talked a lot about process, and the basic ideas of story. Ways we can use the visual to tell a story. We covered a lot of ground. I think one of the major concepts was how every page , every panel and every line of dialogue needed to be a cliffhanger of some form.

AND being true to your characters and to your story. If you create great characters you need to let them make choices that are true to what you have created.

I’m a big process junky, so I always ask this question: What’s your writing process for this book? Do you go full script or do you and Henderson take more of a “Marvel Style” approach?

JW: Full script. Mike and I will talk a few things out, but for the most part it’s full script and then Mike gets a look at it and we chat about what works and what doesn’t. If he sees any problem areas.

With issue #6 and #8, we worked out the page breakdowns and story together in person, and then I wrote the script. Which was a way different process, and worked for those issues, because of the type of stories we were telling. But I think with the rest of the scripts I like doing full scripts.

So yeah, usually it goes: Mike and I talked it out >I write the script > Mike looks it over > I make a few changes > Mike does the roughs> we talked about the roughs> Mike starts penciling and inking. There is a lot of trust between us so we don’t need to babysit each other, but we do check each other.

And Mike, on that note, tell us about what goes through your mind when you get a script from Josh and you see the story, what is that thought process like as you transform the script into a full page?

Mike Henderson: Generally I'll do a 5 minute read through of the script to get the general direction and pace we'll be going at. Then a second, longer read through to break down my shots and panel sizes before a panel by panel read to do some actual layouts. I usually know where I can bend Josh's scripts and when to leave them as is, and there's generally a flurry of text messages to hash things out. But beyond that I do some loose pencils and then do most of my drawing in ink.

Are you working digitally, on paper, or a little of both?

MH: Aside from the usual adjustments, I work purely traditional on bristol, with ink, brush and the occasional pen. My hat is off to the guys who work digitally and enjoy all it's advantages, but it's a bit too clinical for me.

What is the working relationship like with Adam Guzowski? Did you two design a Nailbiter color palette? Do you give him specific coloring notes on certain panels?

MH: My working relationship with Adam is very laid back. He's been coloring stuff of mine for well over a decade so he doesn't need much direction from me on a day to day basis. We certainly discussed the overall palette of Nailbiter with him before we started and I might have a certain color scheme in mind for a particular scene, but I generally trust him to do what he feels is right and he doesn't disappoint.

Joshua, tell us a bit about the other projects you’re working on. Ghosted is still going on. You’ve got Robocop and you’re in the writers room for the Prometheus/Predator/Aliens comics right?

JW: Ghosted is still going for a bit, and I’m having a blast writing. Love it. Just looking at art for #16 today actually. Really getting into the darker bits of that world as we bring back characters from the earlier issues who pose a major threat to our main character, Jackson Winters.

Robocop at Boom is going well, and I’m still doing Captain Midnight over at Dark Horse. Midnight has a fun pulpy super story that keeps getting bigger. It’s interesting doing a story like that with a character from before I was born.

And yeah, I’m in the writers from for the massive Prometheus/Predator/Aliens comic series. That has been an great experience as well that I learned a lot from. When I was young my friends and I would get together and talk about comics and crossover and stories we’d want to telll…. This was a lot like that except we were really making the comics and getting paid for it. It was awesome.

I also have a new series coming out from Skybound and Image Comics called Birthright that I’m super proud of. It starts on October 8th, and is my version of a big fantasy epic drama… with a twist.

Mike, I'm curious about the artists that you're influenced and inspired by. Were there any artists you saw as a kid that blew your mind and made you want to make comics for a living? And now as an older professional artist, are there any artists out there now that are doing things that blow you away or inspire you?  

MH: Jim Starlin, Frank Miller and Will Eisner probably have the most noticeable visual stamp on my work, as they were at their height during my most formative drawing years. But when I'd decided to try to make comics as my living, certainly Mike Mignola, John Romita Jr and Greg Capullo made their impression as well. All of whom still inspire me. For my money right now, though, no one is drawing prettier comics than Chris Samnee.

What are you reading/writing/listening to these days?

JW:Ah, man. I read a LOT of comics. Book wise I’m reading Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. I read her Gone Girl and it is one of my favorite books of all time now. So I had to go back and get her two other novels.

I started to reread Sandman. I buy probably 10 or so comics a week. Mostly Image and Marvel with a few others sprinkled in. And I listen to a lot of movie scores. Because I’ve been writing Nailbiter this week, there is a lot of Silence of Lambs, and Psycho soundtracks in there. Going to start the horror scores this week because I’m in the Halloween spirit.

Also I’m slowly putting together a few other projects for next year that are no where near ready to be talked about.