Dark Horse Comics has a long tradition of horror comics and the latest entry into their large library of titles is Nick Keller and Conor Nolan’s Bedtime Games. Just as the first issue in the four part mini-series hits the stands, the creators revealed many of their inspirations for the series as well as how the story came together.
Horror News Network: Why do horror stories lend themselves to tales of adolescence and the transition to adulthood?
Nick Keller: In my opinion, the best horror stories are about the unknown. And for an adolescent, there’s just so much you don’t know at the age. For this book, I wanted to take the horrors of childhood — things that are rarely shown, but most people go through at one point in their lives — and see how it would affect our characters. One of our main leads Owen learns a few months before our story starts that his younger brother has brain cancer. This is awful news at any age, but even worse on the heels of seventeen. No one can be prepared for something like this, but I think it molds a person in their early years.
I wanted to take three characters that we could put through unbelievable tests of will and see how they transition into adulthood. The events in these first issues exist in a relatively short period of time, so we did several flashbacks to give weight to their backstories. I think that’s really important in a comic since you have such a limited time to tell your story.
Conor Nolan: Adolescence is existing in a maze. It’s fraught with personal challenges that exist as obstacles in your path. Existing in this maze is hard enough inherently, but when you throw a pursuing monster in the mix, the entire thing becomes fertile ground for horrifying experiences. Horror stories are malicious in that they’re meant to scare you. Characters in the peak of their youth having the worst experiences done to them is on brand for that.
HNN: Where did the idea for Bedtime Games originate?
Keller: I had an image in my mind before I had any idea for the story — the corpse of a young girl underwater, holding an ancient book in one hand and a camera in the other. I knew I wanted it right up front at the beginning of the book and it ended up as our first reveal of Issue #1.
I wanted this comic to be a character study first, horror story second. We only got one shot to set these characters up in the beginning, so I spent tons of time just writing and rewriting these characters. It took a long while (much longer than coming up with any mysteries in the book) to find out who these three characters were: what they like, their pasts, their dreams, their obsessions, their regrets. I think I spent 6 or 7 drafts on Issue 1 to find their voices.
The comic is heavily centered around dreams, both the ones we have at night and while we’re awake. I wanted to play with the idea that the nightmares we have while we’re awake are far more terrible than anything while we sleep. Avery, one of the leads in our book, goes to live with her aunt following the tragic death of her mother in a robbery gone wrong. Her aunt is a terrible person who puts Avery through an emotional hell, unlike anything she has ever experienced. For this book to be a satisfying emotional ride, we needed to take our time establishing empathy, so I gave each character their turn in the spotlight. I find these things far more relatable and interesting than any creature that crawls out from under the stairs. So when the villain eventually comes along looking for trouble, you’re in the passenger seat next to them hoping they make it out alive.
The character of Mr. Bedtime, a literal nightmare, came from this idea of a creature who can control nightmares. And he’s just obsessed with them. Once he enters our story, he’s hellbent on finding the grimoire Bedtime Games — an ancient tome that holds the power to manipulate dreams. Once we established the characters and the bad guy enters the picture, we were off and running.
HNN: The art works very well in telling a realistic story and a horrific one as well. How do you strike a balance between both?
Keller: Conor does a fantastic job of drawing both emotional characters and horrific scenes. We both wanted to ground the comic with emotion, so that was our priority. Almost the entire first issue focuses on character interactions without any glimpse of fantasy or horror at all. The horrific elements in the first 27 pages focus on emotional abuse, cancer, the loss of a loved one, the importance of friendship in the face of darkness. We knew people can relate to real-life nightmares like this, so that was a priority when balancing the two.
At the end of the first issue, we get our first glimpse of the horror that’s in store for the book. Originally, I had fantasy elements showing up within the first few pages but decided to hold off since I think it provides an even bigger shock down the road.
While Mr. Bedtime may be our “villain,” I wanted other characters in the story to be even eviler than him. Avery’s aunt, the prevalence of cancer, absent fathers, and unavailable mothers… these are things that set the world in reality while keeping the horrific tone right at the forefront.
Nolan: I intended to show the sort of visuals that I’d find striking in a horror story. When I read a script, I try to picture it as a movie in my head. I think horror movies work best with scenes of regularity sandwiched between moments of intense excitement. The regularity is relatable, making the inevitable horror that follows all the more jarring.
HNN: How did the design of Mr. Bedtime come together?
Keller: I sent Conor a folder of reference images for him. There was this photo of a Halloween prop that stuck with me. It was a half-human, half-creature mental patient wrapped up with gauze and foaming from the mouth. I wanted Mr. Bedtime to feel half-finished like he’s still molding from clay. Conor sent over one sketch, and I knew right away that it was perfect. That original sketch ended up being the final design for him.
As for the way he speaks, that took much longer to nail down. I wanted him to feel inviting and manipulative. Always a few steps ahead. While I was writing Issue 2 where he first starts to shine, we didn’t have any art yet, so I printed out the sketch and used it as inspiration while trying to find his voice.
Nolan: Nick and I talked about the character for some time. We wanted first to nail down his motive and build off that. I wanted him to feel as if he were barely contained chaos. The bandages and mouth contraption are all inspired by a Halloween decoration that Nick found. The thought behind putting him in a suit was that we had to put him in something that didn’t make him fully a monster. The suit feebly asks for you to trust him, despite it being blatantly apparent that you shouldn’t.
HNN: Why are mysteries involving schools such a cultural touchstone?
Keller: The school aspect came into play late in the process of breaking the story. Our kids go to a school called Westlake Academy, which probably has been around for close to a century. Lots of kids have passed through those halls and mysteries have come and gone with them.
I think many mystery stories are about schools since it’s something that everyone has experienced. Everyone goes through it and can relate to the adolescent years, both the good and bad. These things give a writer the perfect breeding ground for a great horror tale.
Nolan: Schools are microcosms, capable of self-contained lore. Teachers easily become characters; hallways are scenes where great dramas unfold. Schools are usually large too, with many wings of rooms, gyms, auditoriums and more. All these things make schools ripe for mystery and adventure.
Bedtime Games #1 is available now at finer comic book shops everywhere.