In an exclusive interview with Villain Media, animator/cartoonist Jay Stephens talks about Dwellings #1 (Oni Press). The diabolical first issue unleashes two creepy stories – “They Know” and”Second Tongue” – onto readers.
The Plot: “Welcome to Elwich – an oasis of small town perfection, where the schools overflow with cheery-eyed children, lovingly adorned homes line the historic boulevards… and only the crows can see the deep, festering rot that lurks beneath the pristine surface. Murder. Demonology. Possession. Obsession. Elwich has them all on offer—and behind every dwelling awaits a horrifying new story to be told.”
Before the first issue arrives on August 9, 2023, Jay Stephens opens up about how the concept came about, the inspiration of the small town, and the challenges of scaring readers. Join us in the writer’s studio as we discuss the craft of horror storytelling.
Villain Media: Tell me how Dwellings came about.
Jay Stephens: Dwellings is like if old Saturday Morning cartoons had a baby with A24 films. A fevered combination of my up till now separate passions for vintage kids comics and psychological horror movies. As we get older, we become more aware of terrible adult mysteries that our childhood selves always suspected but never fully comprehended. That’s what these stories are trying to get at…horrible truths revealed through the kaleidoscope of old-school comic books.
VM: What were the challenges of writing/drawing 72-page issues, which include two complete tales?
JS: Fortunately I had time to experiment with Dwellings initially as small-press single issue stories. Black Eye Books and I have been crowdfunding Dwellings for a couple of years, slowly building a small, devoted army of Dwellers. So I had time to really play around with the concepts and create something I’m super proud of. Oni Press saw the potential of bringing these to a much larger audience, and I’m excited for the uninitiated to get their hands on the giant-sized versions. Like a midnight double-feature picture show!
VM: What can readers expect from the two creepy stories – “They Know” and”Second Tongue.”
JS: In “They Know”, a secretive young man named Johnny Allan finds his conscience tested by an increasingly larger murder of crows that follow him after a sudden, violent incident. It’s a Poe-meets-Hithcock thriller, full of bloodthirsty birds.
And in “Second Tongue”, a stranger to Elwich named Dawn Brava investigates a case of Foreign Accent Syndrome for her Masters Thesis, and wonders if she’s dealing with a case of mistaken identity, or another entity entirely? A tribute to the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s and the films it inspired.
VM: Tell me what influenced the small town of Elwich – which reminds me of places like Twin Peaks and Eerie, Indiana.
JS: Absolutely! Or Derry, Maine. The fictional Southern Ontario town of Elwich is an extra-creepy version of some of the places I’ve dwelled in my whole life. Places that are not so much traditional, post-modern suburbs, but old towns built on rivers and railway lines. Mill towns left briefly obsolete after the invention of the automobile, their old stone buildings and towering trees remaining intact to the present day. Cute, comfortable places like these often harbor ugly, uncomfortable secrets.
VM: Tell me about putting together an edition cover, alongside the variant covers by Joe Palmer, Jenna Cha, and Brian Level.
JS: So much fun to make a wish list with Oni and get as lucky as this! The variants are hauntingly gorgeous, and it’s a real pleasure to see my world reinterpreted. And to get another chance to hook some eyeballs with my own new covers was a joy.
VM: What is more of a challenge for you? Putting together a single narrative or making a single image for a memorable cover?
JS: I began my career in comics as an artist who wanted to learn how to write, so that skill has always lagged one step behind, and sometimes takes longer to gel. Drawing 72 pages of story is certainly a bit on the exhausting side, but a cover is just plain fun.
VM: How did Dwellings change you as an artist?
JS: I’ve always had separate styles of working…kid-friendly stuff like Jetcat and Oh, Brother!, and adult projects like Atomic City Tales or Aliens: Wraith. Dwellings led me to bring them together in harmony. Like the howling of a wolf pack.
VM: What are you working on now?
JS: Black Eye Books and I will continue to crowdfund collections of my older works, like we began with Dejects and Jetcat & Friends. I wrote a delightfully strange miniseries for Dynamite that ought to be announced pretty soon. And of course, Oni and I will continue to be your tour guides to the absolutely terrifying town of Elwich.
Check it out if you’re not squeamish.
Readers can pick up Dwellings #1 on August 9, 2023.