Preview & Interview: Sarah Vaughn Exhumes Gothic Romance in Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love

Comics Features Sarah Vaughn
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Preview & Interview: Sarah Vaughn Exhumes Gothic Romance in <i>Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love</i>

Though his name is featured in the title, Boston “Deadman” Brand isn’t the first face readers see when they open Deadman: Dark Mansion Of Forbidden Love, out this Wednesday—and not because the incorporeal hero is possessing another body. Writer Sarah Vaughn (Alex + Ada) kicks off the story by introducing the characters who Deadman, a deceased trapeze artist seeking justice for his murder, will aid over the course of the three-issue miniseries. Berenice, most pertinent to the debut chapter, is caught not only in tangled relationships with her boyfriend Nathan and friend Sam, but also faces the terrifying reality of seeing the ghosts that haunt the massive home her significant other has inherited.

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Deviating from the pulp and superhero yarns Deadman has historically headlined, Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love embraces gothic romance and horror at their finest, with broody art from Lan Medina accented by beautifully textured colors from José Villarrubia that render the ghoulish lead suitably insubstantial and turn the house into a character all its own. Berenice and Boston’s interior monologues signal a throwback to old-school romance comics without feeling stale or tired, and the entire effect is one of timelessness, a story told without a chronology. Each of the three issues runs a weighty 48 pages, a draw for new readers familiar with Medina’s run on Fables or Vaughn from her pervious romance work in anthologies like Fresh Romance.

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Paste: This is the longest project you’ve written solo, as Alex + Ada was co-written alongside artist Jonathan Luna. Was there anything that surprised you about the process?

Sarah Vaughn: Nothing too surprising, other than getting the hang of a new process and better understanding the inner workings of a major publisher. I still feel like I have a lot to learn. It’s the first time I’ve worked with artist Lan Medina, José Villarrubia the colorist and Janice Chiang, who is the letterer.

To be honest, I never feel that I write comics solo, even if I’m the only writer. I like working with editors, and they drastically change the shape of the book with input and notes. Other team members can change it, too, whether it’s discussing general opinions about the story they’re working on, or changes to the script to better serve the artwork and layout. I always want the book to be as good as possible, and other perspectives and input are vital to that process for me.

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Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love Interior Art by Lan Medina and José Villarrubia

Paste: This is also the first time you’ve worked with a character with such a long history and backstory. Deadman was featured prominently in Justice League Dark and has a fanbase all his own. Did you approach this differently than your creator-owned work, knowing that audience exists?

Vaughn: In some ways, yes. Deadman/Boston Brand has a legacy that I’m aware of, and doing everything I can to honor and incorporate, all the while wrapping my own ideas around him to create something new.

Paste: It seems like the industry has reached a turning point when it comes to recognizing the demand for romance comics, thanks in no small part to groups like Rosy Press, which you have contributed to. While clearly informed by the history of romance comics, Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love reads specifically like gothic romance. What made you interested in exploring that genre?

Vaughn: The idea actually came from DC. Alex Antone, our editor, reached out to me and asked me to specifically pitch a gothic horror romance comic featuring Deadman. But really, Deadman is perfect for the genre. Horror romance was a comic sub-genre back in the day, and I was really excited to play with it, and get to use The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love title. My answer to why I like a genre is usually always, “Melodrama and angst.” No exception here!

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Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love Interior Art by Lan Medina and José Villarrubia

Paste: Berenice, the protagonist, is clearly entrenched in the romantic aspects of the book, but she’s also isolated from the other characters by her fears and abilities, which is a common theme in a lot of Romantic and early feminist literature. There are pages in issue one in particular reminiscent of stories like Jane Eyre and The Yellow Wallpaper. Did you have any specific literary inspirations you turned to while working on this book?

Vaughn: No specific inspirations, though I’ve read Jane Eyre a few times, and other gothic horror such as The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian by Ann Radcliffe. Georgette Heyer actually wrote a couple, too. And the gothic romance novella was very popular in the 1960s. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen was really the first book that got me into them (hence Ann Radcliffe).

But really, the inspiration was Deadman and his abilities, and thinking about characters who would be really great to interact with in that regard. Gothic horror so often revolves around a house with mystery, so that just seemed to be a given, and I wanted everyone to need to interact with the house, too.

Paste: There are a slew of examples of male protagonists appearing suddenly and “saving” female companions from their pedestrian lives, from Doctor Who to the most recent Silver Surfer run. But Berenice shows little interest in Boston Brand from the get go, and seems more annoyed by his appearance in her life than anything else. Did you want her to have that attitude from the beginning, or did it develop over time?

Vaughn: It was there from the beginning, but certainly developed more during the plotting of the story. I’ve always enjoyed books where someone swoops in to save the day, and no one appreciates them, or they find they just makes a worse mess. Once I get a sense of characters individually, I put them together and see how they interact with one another. Berenice’s initial response to Boston was really fun to write. But I can’t say I consciously wrote that specific aspect with gender dynamics in mind.

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Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love Interior Art by Lan Medina and José Villarrubia

Paste: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love is pretty divorced from chronological context: Sam drives a truck that’s several decades old and there’s no reference to electronics, but there are some indications of modernity in the characters’ words and relationships. What was the thinking behind that?

Vaughn: Personally, I love stories that are removed from time. With the speed at which technology evolves, movies and books can look dated pretty quickly. Granted, fashion and society change quite a lot, too. But I wanted to tell a story that didn’t have to be the past or the present, it could just be its own time, while also being aware that the first readers of the book are in 2016, and that society will only progress from here.

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Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love Interior Art by Lan Medina and José Villarrubia

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Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love Interior Art by Lan Medina and José Villarrubia

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Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love Interior Art by Lan Medina and José Villarrubia

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Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love Interior Art by Lan Medina and José Villarrubia

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Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love Interior Art by Lan Medina and José Villarrubia

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Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love Interior Art by Lan Medina and José Villarrubia

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Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love Interior Art by Lan Medina and José Villarrubia

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