Justin Cook chats with writer, director, and novelist S. Craig Zahler about the release of his debut graphic novel…
If there’s a better job for S. Craig Zahler to have during a pandemic than standing at his drawing board and toiling away on his latest artistic efforts, he would dare you to find it for him.
Who you are and where your interests lie may determine what world you’re most familiar with Zahler from. Book worm? Perhaps you’ve read A Congregation of Jackals or Hug Chickenpenny. Fan of underground thrash metal? Maybe you’ve heard his musical outings, Realmbuilder or Charnel Valley. Cinephile? Then, surely you’re familiar with his trifecta of slow-burning, uber-violent films, Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and Dragged Across Concrete. Zahler, a man of many talents, clearly still has more that he’s eager to share with his fanbase.
The Bone Tomahawk writer-director has capitalized off of his temporary hiatus from Hollywood by focusing on a creative outlet that he hasn’t truly explored since childhood: illustration. More specifically, illustrating his first graphic novel, Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus.
Don’t let the book’s wordy title fool you; Divinus is a lean, mean work of horror fiction that brings Zahler’s signature brutality and DIY aesthetic to the graphic novel world. Flickering Myth had the opportunity to speak with the writer and illustrator about what readers can expect from the book, his process for finding his own voice within a new genre or medium, his next cinematic endeavor, and plenty more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve described the productions of the three movies you’ve directed as being progressively more laborious than the last. Was working on this graphic novel a bit of a welcome reprieve from film production for you?
Emphatically, yes. Making a movie, as the director, is creative, but it’s managerial. There’s obviously a lot of stress, and there’s obviously a lot of things where you have to compromise because of all the parameters: availability of a location, of a performer, a special effect doesn’t work, you don’t have enough money to feign a location for a certain period of time, etc.
And drawing is entirely creative. There are more technical and mundane aspects and more gratifying aspects, but the whole process is creative whereas if you direct a movie, a good chunk of it is just problem-solving and not creative. As far as I’m concerned, the most creative part of making a movie is when you write it: all of the characters being created, the world, the journey, the sequences and all that sort of stuff. But a lot of movie-making is just mechanically trying to realize what you’ve had in that vision. Whereas with a comic, I could continue to manicure things again and again and get them to where, even if eventually I need to move on, I get to land at a point where I feel it at least does the job satisfactorily, if not very well. Which is not always the case with making a movie.
Like most of your work, Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus is a mashup of different genres and influences, between horror, noir, crime, family drama, and it also takes influence from pre-Code comics. You’ve said that you “surprise” yourself during your writing process, so in what ways did you surprise yourself on this project?
In the same way. I went into this knowing that I was going to need to accept an art quality that delivered the story … but that I didn’t think was terrific. I already think my second [graphic novel] has significantly better art than the first one. But the thing I went into this project with a lot of confidence in, was my writing. I knew to write without thinking about how I’m going to draw. I wrote as if it were a novel or a movie, and wrote to surprise myself. With Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus and the new comic I’m working on, I wrote very detailed short stories and then as I went, I just broke it down into panels and did layouts to realize that journey.
So, with the comic, I was able to add in things, make things more succinct, and bring in new moments in a way I couldn’t necessarily do on a film shoot. With a movie, you need to pay those actors to be there, so location all of a sudden doesn’t become some other location. There are sequences in the comic that were not in the story, mostly just little moments, but in the end, I feel the comic came out a little bit better than the short story that I wrote. Whereas I feel that I look at my movies, and with the exception of Brawl in Cell Block 99, I can look at sequences and feel that they fell short or know some stuff that I cut out that didn’t quite make it. Brawl in Cell Block 99 not having that partially because the concept of it just fit the budget better, so that was one where everything that fell below par had a scene to equal it out where it was better than I imagined. Whereas Dragged Across Concrete and Bone Tomahawk were both really super ambitious, but had scenes that didn’t quite land or I just couldn’t make happen in the time or with the tools that I had.
Of course, Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus sees you revisiting the horror genre and giving us some truly memorable horror moments and images. What is your process for creating really disturbing, unsettling horror imagery that sits with the reader or viewer long after they’ve first experienced it?
My hope is that people will like what I do, but it really just comes from a place of writing for myself. And surprising myself. Certainly, there are some moments in Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus that when I wrote, I was like, “Ooh wow, I’ve never seen this in a comic or anywhere before.” And it made me a little bit uncomfortable, but it felt true to what the characters were doing and what the world I set up would allow. That’s one of the things with that, and with the Deputy Nick scene in Bone Tomahawk, and all of the end Cell Block 99 violence — there’s really just what makes sense for these characters and then not censoring myself.
But then, add on top of that, the fact that I’m trying to surprise myself, but I grew up as a Fangoria gorehound and watching bootlegs of anime. So, the things that are going to surprise me and the things that are going to shock me are going to be pretty edgy. They’re going to be pretty far out there. I was watching Re-Animator and Faces of Death when I was 12-13 years old. All of those extreme horror movies and comics I read and watched as a child, that’s in there. That’s in my DNA. Some of the experiences that those gave me, where I read it and was like, “Oh, this is wrong,” or “I shouldn’t be able to read this,” that’s a little bit what I’m searching for when I write. Definitely, there are a handful of panels in Divinus and sequences in my three movies and also in Puppet Master, which I just wrote, where it made me uncomfortable when I wrote it, but it felt … like this is what the story calls for and is memorable, and I’m just not going to censor myself in any way, insofar as if I feel it betters the piece.
Do you ever have an idea that you don’t go through with and you think, “OK, maybe I should reign it back”? Or is it usually just no holds barred, you’re always gonna go for the edgy, ambitious concept?
Yeah, there isn’t much censorship with me. There is a realization, if you start off a movie or a book or a comic that isn’t of a certain type, promising something and then never deliver on it, that you’re then sort of setting expectations in a certain way. The only example I can think of in recent memory is the comic I’m working on now, very early on there’s a sex scene that is really explicit, but this is a hard science fiction comic. Like, there is much more talk about fundamental particles and alien biology and all of that stuff, than there is sex. So I looked at that and was like, “Maybe, this one panel, which is super explicit, is just gonna sort of set you for different expectations, that are then never delivered in this book because it’s so early on.”
In general, no, you see the stuff I put out there, there’s certainly panels and moments in Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus, that I know will trouble some people. I know that when we were doing preliminary copies of the book, that there was a printer or two or three, who was just like, “Oh yeah, we’re not going to print this.” That happened, and I expect some people will find it objectionable. I think, in general, most people, considering the medium, of comics, have fun with it, as opposed to get outraged, but I’m sure as it is more widely read, I’ll see a variety of reactions, as I do with everything I write. From my music to my movies to my novels, to now this.
There’s a really interesting thread throughout your career of sort of diving headfirst into insanely ambitious projects, sometimes even ones that you need to acquire the skills for before you can start them. I heard that you’re self-taught on the drums, you relearned how to illustrate for this graphic novel, Bone Tomahawk, a feature film, was your first time working in the capacity of a director. Where does this desire come from to explore new mediums to produce your creative projects through?
It’s easy to trace to my childhood. I would watch The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse, which was the really weird, crazy Ralph Bakshi, John Kricfalusi one. I would watch that cartoon and [think], “I want to draw like that.” And I would draw like that, not well, but in that style. And then, I would watch Voltron, and anime is such a fundamental thing for me, in terms of, I’m always watching a series, and I’ve been watching them since they were bootlegs from LaserDisc and VHS, not translated, since the 80s, and I would buy it out of the back of some dude’s car in Miami, Florida. But, I would see things, and if I liked it enough, I would keep exploring that thing — be it the Mighty Mouse, or Voltron, or Mighty Orbots, or the The ‘Nam comic book, drawn by Michael Golden, or whatever it was. And I would want to do that, and do something that looked like that. So, that interest has never gone away.
Each year, I probably add on to the list of things that I want to do. I’m into a lot of noise and power electronics music now, a lot of pretty scary stuff and stuff that also probably the majority of people on this planet wouldn’t even consider music, but I’m finding it so interesting and so fascinating. At a certain point, let’s say after I’ve purchased a hundred albums of this stuff and listened to 200, sampled 200 others, I start figuring out what my version of it would be. What I want to use, what I want to discard, and so that interest is always there. It’s just, if I like something enough, and start pursuing it enough, I then start seeing the patterns in what I like about it and what I don’t like about it. And, in so doing, I kind of determine what my aesthetic would be. I mean, that’s how I wrote my first Western, The Brigands of Rattleborge, which is what got my career set up as a writer in Hollywood. And, although that thing has not been made and I don’t know if it ever will be … that came after I saw something like 16, 17 Westerns at a revival house called Film Forum in New York City. At a certain point, I figured out what I would want to do and what I wouldn’t want to do [within the Western genre]. Tropes I would embrace and the ones that I would discard.
In doing the comic, a lot of that was my oldest interests, because it’s really been pretty much my entire life — I can think back to [being] 7 or 8 and having this interest. The illustration and the animation for comics, I just was always interested in it and always felt like this is the fundamental art skill from which a lot of other things blossom. But, I was also never happy with my abilities as an illustrator, unlike my ability as a writer. I am happy with my books and a bunch of the scripts that I have written. I am pretty happy with the movie’s that I’ve made — actually, I’m happy with them, but I have more nitpicks for those than I do, say, my novels. Probably because I spent a lot more time writing than I have directing. And so with the comic, I really was emboldened a little bit when I started reading a lot of the indie stuff. Particularly, stuff by Chris Ware, who’s clearly a master, and Seth in particular, who did a comic called, Wimbledon Green, that is one of the best comics I’ve ever read. And he did it with very simple, very achievable art. I looked at that and said, “OK, I want to do a comic.” I’ve always wanted to do a comic and I’ve always wanted to work in animation, and I just have to accept that the first time I do a comic, there are gonna be panels I don’t love at the end of it. I want to clearly tell the story, and then everything past clearly telling the story is gravy. And so that is what I set up. And then the workload aspect and the writing was brutal. I was typically working 13, 14 hours a day, 6 days a week at that rate, for about five months to do it. I’m sure there are better artists who can work much faster and produce a higher quality, but that’s how long it took me to produce a story that I felt was clear, and had the right atmosphere and all the stuff I was looking for.
I noticed the idea of deformity popping up again in Dr. Divinus, a concept that you also explored with the title character in Hug Chickenpenny? What draws you to characters with “anomalous” features or deemed as “other” by society?
Yeah, that’s there. In both of those. And there is some correlation to those on a completely bizarre coincidence. I’m reading a book now called The Devil in the White City, which is about the World Fair in Chicago, and also a serial killer. There is a page that describes the childhood of the serial killer — and there is a chapter from Hug Chickenpenny that is exactly what happened there, and there is a sequence in The Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus that’s also exactly this guy’s life. So, it was a real strange coincidence.
But, in terms of the outsider … you know, I’m not into sports, despite the fact that a lot of people don’t believe this, I don’t really follow politics, I’m not very into that. I find that pretty aggravating on both sides. I like to read. I was reading H.P. Lovecraft when I was 13 years old. And, was kind of shy with women, so I think that there’s some of that aspect in terms of feeling like an outsider. I mean, I’ve somehow made this Hollywood career happen without moving to Hollywood. And, writing all these strange pieces. And then, the other thing is taking a step back from how much of myself is in whatever anomalous outsider character you might read about in a piece of mine.
Then, there’s just the interesting thing that happens with, how do people react based on just the surface appearance of somebody? And how does that inform who they are? In the cases of Divinus and Hug Chickenpenny, those reactions affect those people quite differently. And there are extrapolations about nature vs. nurture to be taken in from both of those stories, if one cares to look for them. I find it compelling that if you watch Hug Chickenpenny as a movie, which it’s my hope to make it into a movie one day, it will be a little bit different than if you’re reading it and imagining it. Because, I think people imagine it and then they still soften how difficult he might be to look at versus when you watch Mask or The Elephant Man, or something like that, there’s no softening it. As an audience, you’re having a natural biological, psychological conditioned reflex to someone who is this different from what would be quote-unquote normal, and you have to get past that. And I think that’s an interesting experience to have as a viewer, and it’s interesting to write about.
Can you give a hint about your next film project? Are there still plans to make Hug Chickenpenny your fourth movie?
It isn’t that I’m going to withhold information from you, I would love to give a concrete announcement. I have at this point three different scripts in three different stages of ‘almost there,’ ‘pretty close to there,’ and ‘not that close to there,’ and I don’t know which one will go. What I learned from my difficult filmmaking experiences and the amount of time you put in on [projects] is, I want to have the right resources to do [Hug Chickenpenny], and if I don’t have the right resources and the right support to make it, I will not make it. And eventually, I can conceive something that is smaller budgeted, less ambitious than Hug Chickenpenny. I mean, Hug Chickenpenny would be a very ambitious undertaking to do that as a movie. The Jim Henson Company is interested, so we’ve had talks in terms of how I want to do Hug because he’s certainly not going to be a CG character. I’m not withholding an answer from you, I don’t have one. I’ve fired multiple torpedoes and I just need to see which one explodes and which ones just fizzle and sink to the bottom of the ocean, to maybe be resurrected at some other time. But, I want to be able to do the movie well.
Pre-order Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus on the Floating World Comics website or Amazon ahead of its February 23rd release.