There aren’t many writers that one can say defined a genre for a period of time, but when it came to the late 1980’s and into the early 1990’s, Nancy A. Collins brand of urban fantasy and her goth-punk vampire Sonja Blue certainly did.
When Collins released Sunglasses After Dark in 1989, it brought a gritty realism and punk aesthetic to the previous staid and dignified vampire, and ushered in a whole new sub-culture of horror fiction. The Bram Stoker Award Winner’s work influenced countless artists at the time, and her work is still admired by fans of horror novels and comic books worldwide.
Horror News Network was lucky enough to speak to Collins recently and we talked about her new Patreon site, the continuing adventures of Sonja Blue, her work in comics, and some exciting new adaptations that may be coming our way soon.
Nancy A. Collins: I’d been toying with the idea for awhile and Colleen Doran (A Distant Soil, Sandman) told me that I could wait for the old days of publishing to come back, or I could take advantage of the new platforms available to writers and artists. I was resistant at first, and I didn’t want to become like my grandmother who distrusted all technology besides the microwave and Mr. Coffee after her husband died.
Publishers have told me that they want a new Sonja Blue novel, but advances in publishing are not what they used to be, so this allows me to write the next installment. The Patreon page takes the place of an advance and I get to serialize the new novel on the site and include a lot of original and exclusive content for fans.
HNN: What can you tell us about the new story line, Kill City?
Collins: Well, in a lot of ways, it is my cathartic response to the Twilight series! That series effectively destroyed horror publishing, especially when it come to the vampire novel.
I like to describe Kill City as a mix of The Big Sleep and The Searchers. Sonja is approached by an old rich man, a man of wealth and power, who reminds her a lot of her own father. His granddaughter was a big fan of a romantic vampire book series called “Evertide” and has fallen in love with one of these types of vampires who calls himself “Ethan”. She runs away from home in search of him, and after the grandfather send out a mercenary squad to bring his granddaughter back, he quickly realizes that this vampire is real.
He has a connection to Sonja because he was associated with her biological father Jacob Thorne and he seeks out her help. At first. she has no desire to help another man of power who finds himself powerless, but it appears that he also is in possession of something from Sonja’s past which she would much like to see.
HNN: Sonja Blue is a character that was ahead of her time in terms of powerful, female protagonists. What are the origins of the character and what went into creating a truly unique vampire?
Collins: She was originally intended as a comic book character. It was during the mid-1980’s during the black and white publishing boom, and I said to my friend Ory who worked at a comic book store in New Orleans: “If those damn Turtles can do it, why can’t we?”. The original title was “Who is Sonja Blue?” and we were ready to start working on it when he moved to California to work with Howard Chaykin on American Flag.
After that, I connected with John Shirley, who is one of the original “Splatterpunk” authors, and we corresponded through the mail where we were effectively engaged in a cross-country writing workshop. After working with me, he asked me if I had anything that I could turn into a novel, and that became the first Sonja Blue novel, Sunglasses After Dark.
Growing up, there were virtually no strong female characters in any medium with the exception of Emma Peel from the 1960’s television series The Avengers. She was clearly the equal to John Steed, as they saved each other frequently, and she was a real role model for young women. In most of the comic books I read at that time, the female heroes were knock-offs of male heroes such as Batgirl, Supergirl, Hawkgirl, Invisible Girl. They had super powers, but they were not physical, such as Marvel Girl struggling to lift a wrench with her mind. With characters such as the Wasp or Shrinking Violet, it wasn’t hard to miss the subtext that these were the “little women”.
With Sonja, I wanted her to be a believable female character with the necessary confidence to get the job done. She’s there to take care of business. I also wanted to delve into the idea of female anger and rage which probably goes back to childhood and the fear of the mother as the disciplinarian. Mom was always the one who ended up dealing out the punishments. Sonja is a character that is female, but the focus of the narrative is not on her being a female.
HNN: It’s ironic that you mention that she was originally intended as a comic book character because a lot of fans first discovered Sonja through the comic book adaptation of Sunglasses After Dark from Glen Danzig’s Verotik Publishing Company. How did the series find its way to Verotik?
Collins: Glen contacted me and told me that he was fan of the novels and wanted to do an adaptation for his new company. Having done a lot of work for Vertigo, he thought it would be a good way to lure readers over to his line, but he didn’t tell me what the other content that he would be publishing was like! This was in the mid-90’s when a few comic stores were hit with obscenity lawsuits over some of the comics they had on their shelves, so all of the Verotik books began to be sold behind the counter. You actually had to ask for them, so I am always surprised when fans tell me they found the character through the series. It wasn’t easy!
HNN: When did your initial attraction to vampires develop?
Collins: When I was growing up, the gothic romance was very popular and I always watched Dark Shadows as a child. I was also lucky enough to see a lot of classic horror films at a little movie theater in Arkansas. The owner had an extensive collection of 35mm films and this was the way I got to see films that I would have never been able to see at that time.
I even think I saw London After Midnight in that theater. I once found a picture I drew as a three year old of a cave with water on the floor and a dark character with frizzy hair and a top hat with stairs in the background. It was only years later when I saw a still picture from the lost film with the vampire in the sewer and the vaulted chamber and realized that I had drawn the same one as a kid!
HNN: Well, we are all certainly jealous of that! You were the first female writer to write Swamp Thing at DC. What are your memories of working on the character?
Collins: I loved working on Swampie! In fact, Steven Bisette (former artist for Alan Moore’s run on the title) is currently working on a Swamp Thing retrospective featuring many of the writers and artists who worked on the character over the years, including Bernie Wrightson and Len Wein. You could really experiment with the character since DC had sold away a lot of the media rights to the character at that time, so they left you alone on the title, and that allowed a lot of creativity for those who worked on him.
HNN: You also had an extended run on the classic Warren character Vampirella and your work on the title will be collected this June as Vampirella: The Dynamite Years Omnibus Vol. 3. Vampirella has always been known more for her costume than anything else, so how did you approach writing her?
Collins: I was also the first woman to write her and never fantasized about her in that way. The character turned 45 when I began writing Vampirella and I wanted to treat her like a woman. She doesn’t have to worry about being hurt and doesn’t think twice about getting into a physical confrontation. She is sure of herself and her vulnerabilities are emotional and centered on those she cares about. She is worried that they can be hurt, but she doesn’t share those concerns about her own body.
Vampirella is also confident in her sexuality and not opposed to using it as weaponry. I took a lot of inspiration from those original stories from Warren on my run.
HNN: You have also dabbled with some classic Robert E. Howard characters such as Red Sonja and you currently have an original Solomon Kane story available on your Patreon site.
Collins: Yes, I became a fan of Howard in the 6th grade when I got my hands on a copy of Barry Windsor-Smith’s Conan story “Red Nails”. It lead me to the first appearance of Red Sonja, the Conan novel collections, Weird Tales, even H.P. Lovecraft.
The Kane story is actually 35 years old and was written for a fanzine, which is what nerds did before the internet. I wrote it and lost it over the years, but it was recovered by a collector who sent me a PDF of the story. When I got to read it again, I quickly realized how badly written it was, so I had to completely rewrite it. It is still the basic plot of the original, but it has definitely been updated.
With Red Sonja, Gail Simone contacted me about writing something for her 40th anniversary and I wrote a story for Legends of Red Sonja and then did the Vulture’s Circle mini-series (which is currently available as a trade paperback). In that story she is an older version of the character, a woman in her 40’s or 50’s, no longer wearing the steel bikini, and she is someone whose body has broken down after years of fighting, so I enjoyed telling the story of the older hero.
HNN: Aside from the Patreon site, are you working on any other projects?
Collins: Yes, I just signed with a company and we are currently working on getting a development deal for a streaming series based on the Sonja Blue novels. My urban fantasy series Golgatham was almost picked up by NBC, before they went forward with Midnight, Texas, so that is also a possibility for the future.
I also plan on turning Kill City into a graphic novel after it is completed on Patreon and I have spoken to some artists about it, so I am looking forward to that.
Check out Nancy A. Collins’ Patreon site here.