Trevor Hogg chats with Chris Dingess about his fateful encounter with the world of comic books…
“One of my brothers used to paint as a hobby, but that’s about it,” states Chris Dingess when discussing whether or not he comes from an artist family. “However, my parents took in and became guardians to this kid who went to high school with my brother; he had a talent for drawing and painting, and was great at copying comics and mimicking different artists. I was already into comics before he moved into the house, but he really kicked my interest up to the next level. Plus he was way into Conan and Frazetta artwork and got me into that stuff.” The love for comics started early on in life for Dingess who grew up in Accokeek, Maryland. “My folks owned a small market in my town. I’d go there, sit in the back room, eat junk food, and read. I reread those books so much that they all kind of stick in my head. Two that really left an impression were Ghost Rider and The Hands of Shang Chi Master of Kung-Fu. The covers of Ghost Rider and Conan were always nuts. I don’t even remember the stories super well, but I remember the artwork, which was dark and creepy. Actually, there were some issues of ROM that were around to that were really creepy. I think they had the Dire Wraiths in them! I liked some goofy stuff too. I was a sucker for Marvel-Two-In-One with The Thing. I read the #7 annual where he boxes the Champion and issue #96 when he’s in the hospital afterwards. I don’t know why, but they were goofy and I loved it!”
“It’s a huge business and comic book publishers are here to make money, especially the bigger houses,” notes Chris Dingess. “They can’t not look at how much money is to be made from other media and merchandising. [Now excuse me while I take a sip from my slurpee in a Thor: The Dark World Slurpee cup.]” With the success of The Dark Knight (2008) and The Avengers (2012), comic books adaptations have achieved blockbuster status. “I guess it’s a ‘golden age.’ I wish this had happened when I was a kid and could enjoy them more. As far as where they go? It’s an endless blue sky for that as long as they keep making money. Isn’t it? I don’t know where they go from here. I do enjoy them and think they’re neat and then kind of forget about them. The direction I find weird is that a lot of them are going darker and more adult, yet they’re still marketed for kids. It’s the same with books too.” When questioned as to his favourite comic book movie, Dingess asks, “Does Ghost World  count? Hellboy  is really good too. Damn. I hate ‘favourites.’ Here’s a quick and ever-changing top 5: Ghost World, Hellboy, The Dark Knight Rises , X-Men: First Class  and Blade  or Blade 2 . I was really hungover when I watched them.”
Being an experienced television screenwriter responsible for shows such as Being Human (SyFy, 2011 to present] and Men in Trees (ABC, 2006 to 2008) has assisted Chris Dingess in creating his debut comic book series Manifest Destiny. “An episode of TV is usually around six acts. So I’m sort of plotting out my story arcs for the comic series in six acts, with each book being an act. I want to end each book with something that keeps the reader coming back the same way I want an act of TV to keep the viewer from changing the channel. It’s also helped me with dialogue. I read some comics and the dialogue is stuff that barely fits in the speech balloon and would never come out of a mouth. I like to keep the dialogue as real as possible, as though I’m expecting an actor to have to say it on camera and not glare and fight with me about it between takes.” Dingess has taken a historical event that occurred in 1804 where Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark set out on an expedition to explore the American frontier and added a fanciful twist to their adventures. “I was bitching about all the supernatural alternate history stuff out there now and this idea struck me. I do like that people back in the day did believe that creatures, like dinosaurs and woolly mammoths, could still be out in the wilderness.”
“Swamp Thing and the film Creepshow  are a big inspiration for some of the creatures found in this first story arc,” explains Chris Dingess. “In my mind, before Matt [Roberts] worked his magic, I was visualizing the art, landscape and characters from Michael Mann’s version of The Last of the Mohicans . As far as stories go, I’m sure I’ve ripped off a ton of stuff without thinking about it.” Some historical research was conducted for the project. “Not a ton. I will peek at the journals to get a sense of time and space. I watched some documentaries on the actual mission. I also check some stuff out online for equipment and weapons. I believe Matt has done more thorough research for his art.” A creative challenge was to merge the historical and pulp fiction elements into a tale that resonates with current times. “For me, it’s been keeping the characters as human as possible. Everyone is real and has faults and doesn’t always deal with situation in the best way. People of every time period can be jerks.” The real Lewis and Clark were not used as role models for their comic book personas. “I’m not basing their personalities on any factual accounts. I’m kind of trying to jam my thoughts on what attitudes and characteristics might be prevalent in that era into the two of them, and the other characters as well.”
“It starts with Sean Mackiewicz,” explains Chris Dingess. “I send him my outlines and scripts. Sean is great at seeing ahead of time how a story will read, look and how a reader might react; he then gives well thought out notes and questions. I then look at his thoughts and questions, and get outraged and rant to myself about how no one understands me and I prepare to fight to the death defending my work. I call Sean who quickly deflates me because he’s a rational and decent person. We have a calm conversation and explain our thought and by the end we’ve come up with a mutual idea that we can agree is cool, strong, and will be fun to see illustrated. I hang up and feel bad for all the things I said in my imaginary argument. Matt and I talk on the phone sometimes. So far it’s been amazing because I will write something in a panel description and then, a little while later, I will see art where what I was seeing in my mind will be represented almost to a T. Every once in a while Matt will call and say, ‘Hey, here’s what I’m thinking about this.’ He’ll draw it and it will be awesome. The creepy beautiful skull flowers in issue one are an example of that. That was all Matt; he’s amazing. After that it becomes a group activity. Owen [Gieni] shows us what he’s thinking and everyone throws their thoughts in. Usually, it’s already spot on and then we keep moving.”
A pivotal female figure appearing in Manifest Destiny goes by the name of Sacagawea. “I simply wanted to put a twist on the character that we read about,” remarks Chris Dingess. “They said she was a guide and interpreter. I wanted to make her more. I wanted her to be a warrior who saves the crews’ lives a lot. I get nervous about making her the stock character of the ‘magical Indian’ but I also want to give her a great amount of inner strength because she has witnessed greater suffering than most of the other characters. The same goes for York, Clark’s slave. You have to walk a tightrope with these two characters.” Other historical figures will make an appearance in the series. “Not too many on the trail but maybe some political figures in flashback, which are difficult to fit in because there is some much happening in the current timeline.” As for what is essential in creating a memorable introduction for a character, Dingess confesses, “I don’t know. Give them a splash page showing them diving down on a Buffalotaur camp?”
“Lewis’s journal has helped a lot with that as far as pushing plot goes,” states Chris Dingess. “It allows me to frame and re-frame the story with ever issue. As far as character exposition goes, this crew hasn’t known each other forever, so there will be conversation where they reveal more and more about themselves… and then the conversation will be interrupted by a creature on a murderous rampage.” Dingess reveals, “The comic is based on the actual journal and the idea of keeping two journals was part of the very early nucleus for this book.” Successful character narration relies on not revealing everything at once. “For me it’s keeping some mystery to the character and watching how you dole out the information. At a certain point, people have to care for them, too. That’s the trick in this book, because everyone’s kind of a bastard.”
Essential ingredients for producing an engaging story are drama, romance, humour, and action. “Finding the mix is something that happens organically,” observes Chris Dingess. “I will write the scene, then go back and think about it and the dialogue. Is this really the place for a joke? He they really be in the right frame of mind to say something this clever? Would they really flirt? I’ve often found that when it’s really hitting the fan, people are more inclined to say one dumb word before fight or flight kicks in. There’s rarely a super clever monologue. Sometimes you have to do that, but it usually doesn’t work for me. And a lot of it comes down to pacing. When I started, one of the first things Robert Kirkman [The Walking Dead] got me to figure out is what happens on each page. Then, you know how to parcel out the character stuff, the romance and punctuate it with action.” Manifest Destiny explores a particular idea. “The theme I’m most interested in with this book is selfishness vs. selflessness [Is that even a word?]. The mission itself is a selfish one: conquer the land for whitey and a good deal of the men involved are selfish personally. But as they move forward and come together, hopefully they’ll be able to shed some selfishness and embrace brotherhood. And will that affect the mission as a whole? As far as monsters go… I CAN’T TELL YOU THAT! Obviously, we might see a Sasquatch. I dunno. But be warned that will be waaaaaay down the road.” Dingess remarks, “I hope for it to evolve past the smaller monster missions and get into the greater mystery: what waits for this crew once they reach the other end of the continent?”
Photo courtesy of Chris Dingess and Manifest Destiny images courtesy of Image Comics.
Many thanks to Chris Dingess for taking the time for this interview.
Make sure to visit the official website for Image Comics to learn more about Manifest Destiny as well as Chris Dingess on Twitter.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.