Sarah Dyer & Evan Dorkin Conjure Cosmic Horror and Digital Comic Craft in Calla Cthulhu

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Sarah Dyer & Evan Dorkin Conjure Cosmic Horror and Digital Comic Craft in Calla Cthulhu

The titular character of the new Stela series Calla Cthulhu makes her debut battling a tentacled monolith in the sewers, a fight that quickly moves from underground to high above it. The flashing swords and leaping acrobatics take full advantage of the vertically scrolling smart phone format. Writers Sarah Dyer and Evan Dorkin (Beasts of Burden) and artist Erin Humiston make a bold introduction for Calla, who—as the narrative reveals—has a familial connection to the cosmic events unfolding around her. For the first two chapters, the series maintains a buoyant blend of action and intrigue, rooted around a charismatic lead.

Calla joins a host of other recent works bringing innovative takes to the existential dread of H.P. Lovecraft. Novels like Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom have both earned acclaim for telling stories of the horrific that also engage with the racism found in many of the early-20th-Century writer’s works. (Talking with Dorkin and Dyer, this was a concern for them as well.) Unlike those novels, Calla may be the first Lovecraftian coming-of-age tale. Paste chatted with Dyer and Dorkin about their takes on weird fiction, the evolution of the series’ characters and how the comic relates to their other works in the horror genre.

Included is Erin Humiston’s artwork from Calla Cthulhu Chapter 3, available only on the Stela app.

Paste: Calla Cthulhu is a comic with a trio of co-creators. What did each of you bring to the project as you were conceiving it?

Sarah Dyer: It’s a little hard to separate out what Evan and I do since we work so closely, but I think I’m bringing the POV, he’s bringing the Weird, and then together we make it all make sense. Erin is of course bringing fantastic new takes on Mythos designs; he’s not familiar with it at all so he’s able to bring a really fresh approach. We give him some basics about each character, and then he comes up with his own version. (His Hastur is just amazing.)

The funny thing is we each have a different relationship to the Mythos: Evan is a reader of Weird fiction and is very familiar with Lovecraft’s work and inspirations; I have read some Lovecraft, but I’m now actively avoiding it and I approach it as a sort of anthropologist of the Mythos, making connections and interpreting things my own way. Erin knows very little, so he’s not being led by previous interpretations as he works (with some exceptions). I think combining our different viewpoints helps keep Calla something new.

Calla Cthulhu Art by Erin Humiston

Evan Dorkin: Erin has an animation background, and he brings all the things that goes with that to the series—character design, expression, gesture, composition, depicting action, etc. We thought his style would make for an interesting take on the material, that it would give us something distinct from what you usually see if you Google “Cthulhu Mythos” images. And it definitely has, we’re very happy with the way everything looks.

Paste: What have been the biggest challenges you’ve found in terms of writing for serialization in a mobile digital format?

Dyer: The biggest challenge was learning to write for the vertical scroll! It changes so much—you lose page turns, and large splashes—but you gain a lot, like constant reveals and really being able to guide the reader’s eye. I really like it now, but it was difficult for all of us to adjust to.

Dorkin: I had a lot of difficulty at first working in the vertical format. I’m used to pacing out beats on a page, organizing everything within the limitations of the page, and the number of pages in the comic. It took a few chapters for me to get used to the way the scroll looks, works and “feels.” I don’t really think about it now.

Paste: The look of Calla’s hair was one of many small details that I liked about the story. Where did the idea and movement of that come from?

Dyer: That’s one of my favorite things! We knew she would have the tentacular hair almost immediately, I think because our daughter and I really love variations on the Gorgon myth and it just seemed obvious. Originally it was going to be white, in a nod to madness making your hair white, but it didn’t look good in early color tests. By the time Erin was on board, we’d decided on the green and he was able to really interpret the idea beautifully. I really love Calla’s hair.

Dorkin: The hair design was Sarah’s idea, something to give the character some visual flair. She went over it with Erin and he really went to town on it, really nailed the concept and brought it to life. I also like it because it’s a nice, distinctive visual to indicate that she’s different, and because unnatural hair color is so commonplace these days, she doesn’t need to wear a hoodie all the time if she’s in public.

Calla Cthulhu Art by Erin Humiston

Paste: The comic’s website also links to a design that the two of you came up with for Baby Cthulthu—where did the idea of turning mind-melting cosmic horror into something that’s cute come from?

Dyer: Actually, the Baby Cthulhu print at PinUp Girl Clothing is the very first piece in the Lovecraft puzzle here—it got underway back in 2014! Laura Byrnes (owner of PUG and our friend) was visiting, and she’d been bugging Evan to draw something for her. He showed her these monster drawings he’s been doing for our daughter since she was tiny, and one monster with tentacles made Laura think of Cthulhu, so she suggested that. The monster series is all cute, so he’d been doing that for years. In a way the print is what got us started not just reading Lovecraft, but digging into the Mythos ourselves. It was only afterwards that Evan wrote the Peanuts mashup and we created Calla.

Dorkin: After we did the Cthulhu design for PinUp, I was asked to do a story for BOOM!’s Peanuts tribute book, and I guess I still had Cthulhu on the brain because I ended up writing a script that explains the 50-year history of Peanuts in terms of the Mythos. I had a lot of research material in my studio, which led to [daughter] Emily seeing the HPL “genealogy,” Sarah and Emily discussing it and then the concept for Calla.

As far as the cute angle goes, lots of folks have been doing cute Cthulhu stuff for some time now, plushes, action figures, t-shirts. We didn’t set out to design Baby Cthulhu items or use the Mythos as a basis for any projects, but once we started, we kept getting new ideas for stories. One of those ideas turned into a story we wrote for this year’s CCAD student anthology, Spitball—a horror story about Cthulhu’s growing influence on pop-culture.

Paste: This is one of a number of different horror-influenced comics that you’ve been involved with—I’m thinking mainly of Beasts of Burden, as well as the issue of The Goon that Evan wrote. How do you put your own spin on a familiar genre?

Dorkin: If you put your own personality and feelings into your work, honestly, the work will reflect that, and it will have a voice and tone that isn’t exactly like everything else out there. No matter what genre you’re working in, the tropes are the tropes, it’s your take on them that makes them seem new, or different, or at least engaging.

Calla Cthulhu Art by Erin Humiston

Paste: In writing something that takes some inspiration from the works of H.P. Lovecraft, do you feel that you need to address some of the more unpleasant aspects (racism, mostly) of Lovecraft’s work somewhere along the way?

Dyer: It’s definitely something we’re mindful of. In general, my approach is that the Mythos is this real thing, and Lovecraft was a racist interpreter of it, forcing his own worldview onto something that existed separately from him. You have to watch for places where he injected his ideas on race—into things like the physical appearance of the Deep Ones—and avoid following him there. And when it comes to his misogyny, well, we’re obviously all over that.

Paste: In terms of the Mythos, do you have a particular favorite from it?

Dyer: You know, it kind of changes all the time, but I’ll have to say the obvious—Cthulhu for the pop icon status and pure weirdness factor. I mean he/it/whatever is the King of the Monsters of the Mythos. Nyarlathotep I really like for being such a busybody and his interesting potential, and for some reason even I can’t really understand, I am very fond of Shoggoths! I’m still mad my plush Shoggoth never came in and I missed out on it.

Dorkin: I’m a Cthulhu fan, to go with the obvious one first. He looks great and he’s dead and dreaming and has his own secret bedroom headquarters beneath the sea and little clone-like versions of himself, which is hilarious. I like Dagon and Mother Hydra and the Deep Ones. Everyone pretty much likes a Shoggoth, I’m no different. I like the Old Ones, they’re weirdly endearing. Nightgaunts are nifty. I’m fascinated by The King in Yellow, even though as a character he was shoehorned into the Mythos by August Derleth. I also like Smith’s Tsathoggua, Long’s Chaugnar Faugn and Tindalos Hounds, Blackwood’s Wendigo (brought in by Derleth as Ithaqua in another one of his Roy Thomas moments). I tend to like the more traditional monster-type beings more than the aloof cosmic entities like Azathoth, but almost all of it appeals to me to some degree. Except maybe Brown Jenkin. He’s just a jerk.

Calla Cthulhu Art by Erin Humiston

Paste: Is Calla Cthulhu fairly open-ended, or do you have an arc in mind for it?

Dyer: At the moment it’s basically an open-ended adventure series. I can’t say much without spoiling the ending of series one, but it’ll end with some major questions resolved and establish some allies for Calla to move forward with.

Dorkin: We have a lot of plans for Calla past the initial thirteen chapters that make up the first arc. There is an extended storyline, but it’s a large world, so even if we wrap it up we have lots of places to go with the series. Hopefully there will be enough interest from readers for us to keep Calla’s adventure going.

Calla Cthulhu Art by Erin Humiston

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