On Horror: Interview with Dillon Gilbertson, writer of Sweet Heart

I'm switching gears a bit with the "On Horror" blog series that I've been doing. I decided to bring in some fellow horror comic creators and run by the same questions that I've discussed in other blog posts. First up is Dillon Gilbertson. Recently, his short was selected to appear in Alterna's IF Anthology and he is currently focusing on completing the second issue to his horror series: Sweet Heart. This 5 issue comic focuses on a small family being terrorized by monsters over the course of several decades.

These are the only two stories I've read from him thus far, and I was thrilled to include him in the series, not just because his stories are great, but he's delivering some quality scares that don't stray out of the horror genre.

In the interview he shares his thoughts on the genre in comics and we discuss when real life horrors should be examined through fiction. -- Check out the interview below and be sure to check out Dillon's work online as well at dillondoescomics.com!


Why horror? Where did the pull to the genre begin?

That might be the toughest question for me if only because it goes back so far. As for my general interest in horror, the first horror content I can remember consuming was JAWS (if you classify that as horror) when I was 4 or 5. My parents told me I would pop it in the VCR while my dad was watching football and I told him "maybe later, Dad." Their decision to let me watch stuff like that a such a young age may have been questionable (I was scared of the bathtub for a short while), but I feel like it turned out pretty well.

From there I was drawn to movies like Leprechaun and Child's Play, things that actually scared the crap out of me back then. I usually liken it to a roller-coaster ride or skydiving. People like those things because it's a rush. It (usually) scares people, but they trust it's actually safe. They like the feeling of danger without actually being threatened. I sometimes talk about it like horror is all psychology and emotions but, in reality, sometimes nothing can scratch that horror itch like a good, bloody slasher film!

As for why I was drawn to writing stories in horror, I think it's just because I understand horror the most. I've been consuming it for so long that I'm familiar with all the ins and outs and tropes and what have you. It feels like second nature to write my own. I've written (and am currently writing) other stories in different genres, but horror is the one I can wield with the most confidence so it was the best genre for me to cut my teeth on.

There's limitations in this medium, especially with the horror genre. I've noticed it's far more difficult to get a scare out of a reader than with narrative fiction or film. Why do you think that is the case?

In short, I think it has a lot to do with control. With film you can't control the pace and I think that plays a huge role in how scary something can be. In film, you see the threat/monster is coming and it is coming with a life of its own with movements that can be inherently unsettling. It moves at a speed completely out of your control and that's scary as hell. You know it's coming and there is nothing you can do to stop it aside from stopping the movie. Even if you cover your eyes, there's still the sound of the monster to invade your thoughts. In comics and reading in general, the audience has the advantage of controlling the pace. They can linger on certain pages or panels as long as they want and delay its arrival. Or, if they want, they can limit how much they see by peeking at the next page or jumping to the end real quick to see how it ends.

There's not many horror comics that I would say are 100% horror. A lot of them stray into genres like fantasy, action, or comedy. Why do you think there are so few comics that are straight horror?

That's a great question. I think I have seen a few straight-horror comics, but the majority of them are limited series. Horror is pretty difficult to extend indefinitely. Two reasons for that might be: A) Eventually, the audience learns too much about the threat/monster(s) or sees them "do it all" which lessens their effect. Most horror will utilize "shock factor" (some a little too much) and it's hard to keep that going and not have the audience think "yeah yeah, we've seen it already". So horror comics tend to borrow from other genres to keep their toolbox full. Or B) Flat-out exhaustion. Real good "pure" horror can be an exhausting and emotional experience; it's dire and traumatic. Even for die-hard horror fans, it's hard to keep something like that going indefinitely without getting fatigued and asking for a little more humor. What tools or techniques do you think creators have in horror comics to achieve that terrified or horrified reaction from the reader?

Knowing why your story is scary. Making comics is about distilling and utilizing the space you're given. From visuals to dialogue, everything has to be necessary because you get very little room to do it. If you are making a horror comic, you need to know exactly why it's scary; what its particular strength is. Then utilize that to drive your art and story.

You said " Knowing why your story is scary." How does a writer know if their story is scary?

Intuition I think? Horror, to me, has always been hard because different things are scary to different people. So your best bet is trying to translate what is scary to you as best you can. And if you're writing a horror book, you gotta have a reason for making it horror. You know there is a reason it's horror and not drama or action or thriller or whatever, and that reason is usually because there is something you find scary about it. So isolate that "something" and utilize it as best you can.

Without diving into spoilers, I think one of the best tools you have used to incite that reaction in your work is to subvert the reader's narrative expectations and remind them that no one is safe. I've been reading horror my whole life and in both stories this still got me. I think it's masterfully done in Sweet Heart #1, because just when you feel a character has secured their safety and has proven to be fully capable to fight back, the rug is pulled out from under them. Can you go into some detail on why you chose that route in either story?

Thank you so much. I'm glad I managed to fool you a bit. Haha. There were a few reasons I wanted to take that angle for Sweet Heart. It sorta goes back to what I said earlier about "yeah yeah, we've seen it already." It took cinema however-many-decades to realize the audience is expecting the killer to be in the bathroom mirror when she closes the medicine cabinet. Now you almost never see it and when she closes that mirror, you're a little taken back because you "knew" what was gonna be there. But the primary reason is that I wanted there to be that genuine feeling that NOBODY is safe. The whole 5-issue series of Sweet Heart is sort of a thinly-veiled analogy for diabetes and it actually started as a 32-page one-shot. I'm a Type-1 Diabetic so I drew from a lot of those experiences while writing the story and I honestly didn't know how I wanted *that* scene to play out when I was leading to it. I wrote to that point with as much ignorance as I could manage about the situation and when I got there I thought "well this is obviously what's gonna happen". But as I thought more about it, the "reality" of the situation kinda sank in. Things don't always work out that way and, in a situation like this, in real life, they almost never do. Literally nobody is safe and that scares the hell outta me. So I want to inject whatever realism I could into a story like this.

You said Sweet Heart was an analogy for diabetes and a way to explore your own situation with it. Can you go into that a little?

It's been with me most of my life so it's just kinda life as usual. In college, I actually used to joke that diabetes would never kill me because it was a type of "symbiote" (please don't sue me, MARVEL). It would never kill me because it needs me to live; if I die, it dies. Haha. But in the back of my head, I always understood and sort of accepted that this is a serious thing that shouldn't be taken lightly so I've always taken good care of myself and my diet.

Why did you think horror was the best route for you to explore diabetes?

In the first chapter of Sweet Heart, I projected my own worst fears and difficulties into this family's life as they struggle with these monsters. They follow you wherever you go and the most dangerous thing you can do is forget that they're there. And while the monsters function as exaggerated avatars for the disease, the fears and trauma they inflict are real in every sense. And my mom, in some ways, took it harder than I did. It was just a part of my life, but for her, it was watching her son fight an uphill battle against his own body. I was lucky to have her to teach me how to manage it.

And when I started making the horror connections and writing this story, I realized that the real story was the emotional turmoil that surrounds the monsters more so than the actual monsters. So latter half of the 5-issue story is the reverse; a cathartic projection of my most optimistic views of what can be done. I think that's what makes many great horror stories so great. Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Clive Barker, etc., they've all stated at some point that their greatest works were inspired by things that truly scare them. And I'm not saying this is or will be my best story, but I think Sweet Heart was a great way for me to explore the horror genre first-hand; though I think this will be my only story that deals with it this closely.

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest fears a parent will experience is the dread that something could happen to their child and that they won't be able to save them. Was it intentional to have a story layered with different fears for each character?

Absolutely. Few stories discuss it, but there are always ripple effects to threats. It never ends with the primary victim. The victims have friends and family that are affected by what is happening and I wanted to voice those effects as best I could.

Where do you think art plays the biggest factor in this genre?

It's literally the heart of horror comics. I was actually talking about this recently with a writer friend of mine; how horror comics rely on art more than most. All comics NEED art to convey the feel and emotion of the story and its charters. But in horror, you can write all the scary dialogue you want and if the art looks funny or doesn't fit or the design is wonky, the threat is almost impossible to connect with. A newer film example I like to use is The Ritual. They took a HUGE risk making such a ridiculous looking monster. It was straight-up weird looking. BUT the monster was the perfect design for what the story was and the effects department nailed it. If the effects for it had looked hokey, the monster would have been comedic and it would have ruined the entire movie. But the monster looked amazing and the movie was fantastic. It's the same with comics; if the art doesn't fit, the threat isn't as scary and the book might just come off as ridiculous or melodramatic.

Do you think the art should be a bit more abstract leaving the reader's imagination to piece together what the monsters look like, or do you its best to show the monsters in full light and detail?

This is a great topic for debate. And I think it depends on the nature of the monsters. Creepy cave dwelling creature? Keep 'em in the shadows. Giant lizards terrorizing the city? Let me see them! It depends both on the nature of your monster (creepy or forceful) and then the story itself. Freddy Kruger worked great as this shadowy figure you couldn't be 100% sure about in the original because that was the story; that fears are somewhat universal but everyone has their specific poison. So it made sense to give him a "true" form, but not show it off too much and let him hang in the shadows a bit to let people put their own imaginary spin on him. But The Thing (1982), while also a great paranoia piece, showed off the monster because that was the story. A monster that could be anyone. They had to show how horrifying it truly was or else it was just a psychological murder-mystery. Which is also the reason I gave so much information and visual time to the creatures in Sweet Heart. The real story is the emotional turmoil they cause and I wanted people to see that it doesn't matter how much you know about them or how much you see them; they're hungry and will do whatever it takes to feed

What do you look for when choosing an artist to hire for this genre?

I think either anatomy or texturing. The rough look and feel of the art I think can ground the visuals and you can almost feel the surfaces just by looking at them. But then again, anatomy is important because nothing makes a kill-shot more gorgeous than anatomically correct bones and viscera.

Give me 3 comics that scared the crap out of you.

Wytches, Harrow County, and House of Penance.

Follow Dillon on Twitter at @DillGibertson

If you're a horror comic creator that wants to ramble about the genre in the next "On Horror" piece, email me at SilverSkinComic@gmail.com or DM me at @Ant_Cleveland