On the day before an ominous August full moon, Harvey Award winning creator David Gallaher sits down with fellow comic creator Stephan Frank to discuss High Moon.
Stephan Franck: High Moon keeps surprising the reader by re-framing the conversation with every new chapter, as the scope of the story keeps expanding in very exciting ways. Without spoiling anything—how much world should we expect to see, and how deep do the mythological roots of the story run?
David Gallaher: The mythological roots run pretty deep. High Moon started as a Western re-telling of the legendary Irish Cu Chulainn mythic cycle, with all of these crazy story analogues and modern homages. As I dove deeper into the story, I was able to anchor those ideas with stories of black migration, mysterious High Moon has become so much more than its influences and that excites me terribly. The series will continue to highlight very punctuated moments in history from the Summer of 1890 to the Fall of 1891. Each chapter will explore a moment in history and explore the superstitions and mysteries around that moment. They’ll be tons of monsters, a spark of steampunk, plenty of scares, and maybe some dismemberment.
There’s a very definitive endpoint to the story and seeing all of the monsters we’ll explore along the way is going to be a real hoot.
Stephan Franck: The various were-beasts in the story are also super fun and always surprising. Are they all connected? What can you tell us about them?
David Gallaher: Those familiar with the series will notice a commonality to the were-monsters. The first volume of the series hints at it, but the second volume REALLY digs into the origin and evolution of our gnarly lycanthropes. Before the series concludes, we’ll discover a wide variety of were-creatures — were-bats, were-rats, multi-headed were monstrosities, but maybe we’ll throw in some were-bears, were-bunnies or were-verines — and we’ll see how they are all related. I may be teasing about those last few, but I’m not kidding when I say this is something we’re actively explaining as the story continues.
What’s interesting to me is thinking about these creatures in a way that feels abject, visceral, grotesque, and sinister. The first set of were-creatures we meet are based on the Fomorians, a supernatural race in Celtic mythology that personified chaos, darkness, death, blight and drought. Thinking about how we could visualize that and convey it in the art meant playing around with the symmetry of monsters, giving them multiple arms, malformed eyes, over-sized mouths, and irregular ears. It’s a unique challenge, but one Steve and I welcome.
Stephan Franck: I also love that the world-building continuity is always anchored in the moment by a very gripping whodunit. Is that a form that you’re planning to adhere to as we swim back upstream towards the mythological source of the story?
David Gallaher: The fun of High Moon is balancing mythology against history. Those anchor points are important to us. The first time we meet the characters is in the Summer of 1890 against the backdrop of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, a federal law which increased the amount of silver the government was required to purchase. It felt like a natural setting and gave us opportunity to build on the mythology of Matthew Macgregor. Celtic Mythology plays a huge part of High Moon. Norse mythology too, after a fashion. Just bringing those elements to the story without tethering them to specific historical moments feels somehow inauthentic to me. It feels like a disservice to our readers to have one without the other.
Stephan Franck: I’ve always been fascinated by the story form I call “the curse of the werewolf”, which basically says “you’ve killed the monster, now you’re it.” I think it plays out in real life all the time—whether it’s the person who grows up to realize they’ve become the type of parent he hated, or whether it’s the country who wins the cold war, and defeats the “Evil Empire,” only to set in place a surveillance apparatus unparalleled in the history of the world. Is that a theme at play in High Moon?
David Gallaher: Great question. The answer is no, but yes. Did you ever see the TV show The Greatest American Hero? It’s this 80’s superhero buddy cop show about a teacher who is given the world’s most powerful superhero suit, but loses the instruction book along the way. Through trial and error, he bumbles his way through. He’s the ‘chosen one’ but never really has the opportunity to fulfill his destiny. I saw that show as a kid and it always fascinated me. This idea of being chosen to save the world, but failing, was a powerful theme for me. What if you’re NOT the chosen one? What if you stumble into somebody else’s destiny? That’s really the story engine driving High Moon .
But, the ‘curse of the werewolf’ troupe you mention is certainly at play. I’ve always loved the haunting qualities of that Friedrich Nietzsche quote, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” We’ll get to see how that plays out in the upcoming volumes.
Stephan Franck: There is also a very pessimistic point of view with ‘curse stories’, where you can never escape your fate—although there is room for the characters to do the right thing, while knowing full well they won’t see it through. Your characters keep winning the battle but losing the war. Is a noble sacrifice the only available win?
David Gallaher: I don’t think curses or even death are inherently pessimistic. In fact, I think the best stories are ones where heroes win in spite of their challenges. And in the face of adversity, I don’t think a noble sacrifice is the only way to win a war. I mean, we’re all going to die. That’s an objective fact. How we choose to live … and die… is largely up to us. High Moon’s central theme is centered around that very idea — live like a beast or die like a man. We have only one life and what we do with it is up to us.
Stephan Franck: Let’s talk sequential art. First, let me gush for a second–I am blown away by the power of the art in High Moon. The line work is extremely bold, broad and appealing, but also richly detailed and textural, and strong enough to hold its own in front of those amazingly vibrant colors. The whole thing feels visually cranked up to 12. Can you talk about the series’ unique horizontal format, with the strips laid out across the double pages?
David Gallaher: High Moon was always meant to feel cinematic. There are a handful of things I really love about the horizontal format that make it a real thrill to work with. The landscape orientation remind me of Sunday-style adventure comics of yesteryear. You know… The Phantom, Conan, Prince Valiant, and Terry & The Pirates. It’s awesome to follow in those footsteps but also doing something that is uniquely formatted for desktop and mobile viewing. Have you ever tried to read a comic on your desktop? I used to find it so challenging to keep scrolling up and down to read just one page of a digital comic. The beauty of High Moon when it debuted as a web comic is that the whole page filled your screen and created a very immersive experience, that I feel helped heighten both the action and the horror.
Stephan Franck: The art is so thick and rich, that reading it almost feels like a tactile experience, which I feel connects so well with the animist streak that seems to run through the story. Was that the intention?
David Gallaher: I was sleeping on a friend’s couch in the Summer of 2004 when I dreamed about High Moon, it was this lucid vision of werewolves staring each other down at sundown. I woke from my dream, flipping out from all of the craziness that littered my dreamscape. I started scribbling down all of the major story beats that I could remember, before they left my head. I jotted down the archetypal story, the cast, and major themes, but the visceral image that really stuck with me with this idea of a cowboy wrestling a werewolf the same way that Hercules wrestled the Nemean Lion. When Steve and I met to talk about the story a few years later, that savagery was something I wanted to continue. I wanted a story where the heroes were just as furious as the monsters they were fighting. I wanted Matthew Macgregor to embody these awesome mythic archetypes, but also be as dark and twisted as a Tom Waits song.
My initial thoughts were that Mac would inhabit the same space as characters like Paladin, The Man with No Name, or Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke. These awesome outlaws and lawmen who remained authoritative and consistent during the dawn of the ever-changing industrial revolution. So, yes, the intent was always there, but Steve Ellis was invaluable in realizing that intent and creating a visual look that, certainly at the time, was unlike anything else I had seen in sequential art. The sheer power he brought to the penciling and inking was unlike anything I’d ever seen. To build the textures for the series, he and his son would drive through the rusty ruins of Syracuse, New York and toss rust, mud (and anything else that left awesome splatter marks) onto paper and make it part of the art. That’s a level of dedication that I go absolutely rabid over. I also think Steve is part werewolf. He draws these amazing multi-eyed monsters, demonic footmen, and bio-mechanical monstrosities. It such a thrill to have an idea and see him realize it so perfectly.
Stephan Franck: So, a full moon is coming soon. Any particular advice on how to survive it?
David Gallaher: August is very peculiar because we’ll have not just an amazing full moon on the 7th, but also a partial lunar eclipse on the same day. Both of those are legitimately awesome in their own right, but we’ll also have a total solar eclipse on the 21st. With all of that bonkers celestial activity happening, things are bound to be legitimately crazy. Many cultures have detailed lore that illustrates how to survive all of the lunacy, but my advice is simple: stay inside and surround yourself with plenty of SILVER! (See what I did there?)
Special thanks to Stephan Franck and David Gallaher for playing along with us horror comic fans here at Horror News Network. If you haven’t done so already, be sure to check out Gallaher’s collaboration with Steve Ellis, High Moon Vol. 1: Bullet Holes and Bite Marks, which will be republished by Papercutz in October, just in time for Halloween. Fans can also hurry up and check out Stephan Franck’s Kickstarter for his latest Silver.