Unlocking and Accessing the Darkness Within: 7 Keys for Comics Creators

Evil eye and tree[WARNING: Some comics, film and book plot spoilers ahead!]

Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.
Stephen King

At Australia’s Supanova (Brisbane) 2009 pop culture convention, I had the privilege of meeting US comics creator Jhonen Vasquez whose satirical work Johnny the Homicidal Maniac I greatly admire. Despite the fact that I’m not usually drawn to creative properties with the words “homicidal” or “maniac” in the title or indeed ones that hint at or overtly promise great acts of depravity, my business partner and artist Jozef Szekeres persuaded me to read it and I’m very grateful to him for doing so. Vasquez’s portrait of insanity in the form of a deranged serial killer was not only convincing but, in my estimation, was a multi-layered and brilliantly executed tour-de-force. Johnny is not quite my idea of the quintessential anti-hero, as his methods of dispatching victims would make even Dexter cringe. Yet in his quieter insular moments Johnny possesses a modicum of self-awareness and displays moments of a kind of distorted sweetness as he strives to find the meaning of life and ultimately find out who he is.

In the ten minutes I spent gushing to Vasquez about the impact of the work on me, I asked him a question I’d been wondering while reading the series: “Did you do a lot of research on profiling to understand the psychology and pathology of serial killers or is this all you?” Vasquez paused for a moment and with a glint in his eye, which could have been interpreted in any number of ways, confessed, “It all came from me.”

Vasquez’s revealing admission got me thinking again about something I’ve been grappling with for a long time—when my personal internal and seemingly benign archetypes include the healer and the seeker amongst others and when the genres I traditionally work in are fantasy or visionary (metaphysical) fiction, how do I step outside of my emotional comfort zone and into the darker side of myself in order to channel it into creative works?

Outside of resorting to chemical means such as drugs and alcohol and the subsequent cliché scenario of spiralling down into a psychologically disturbed oblivion brought on by childhood trauma, I’ve identified seven practical keys that have helped me create some of the darker characters and moments in my own fiction work and that of the Elf~Fin: Hyfus & Tilaweed comics series. These keys could prove useful for both comics writers and artists to harvest the darkness within and ultimately redirect it into their storytelling.

Before we examine them, it’s important to discern the necessity of introducing darkness into your stories. The actual argument in favour of it is threefold:

  • Without going into abject darkness how can a character experience the light in forms such as love, joy and redemption, which invariably accompanies traditional happy-ending plots?
  • Without understanding the evil lengths an antagonist and his / her allies will go to in order to fulfil their objectives, how can we create obstacles and conflict for the protagonist’s journey?
  • And without these stark contrasts, how can we get readers / viewers to identify with the lead character/s and, in the process, give those readers a visceral experience that evokes a large range of feelings and emotions (which is one of my success measurement tools about whether or not a work translates into a rich reading or filmic experience)?

The reality is that outside of creating a fiction work for pure entertainment value, many of us choose to step into the darkness in our stories in order to challenge a society in denial and to expose controversial themes that in the past were commonly excised from our attention. The objective here is to introduce these issues not for titillation sake but to shine a spotlight on humanity’s evil-mongers and hopefully provide solutions and hope to the lost and forlorn spirits out there who relate to the characters and situations. Audiences and readers have also reached new levels of sophistication, and black-and-white portraits of good and evil just don’t cut it any more. Characters actually need to be multi-faceted. Some of the best examples of deep and complex characters I’ve come across in the last few years are on the television series Lost and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In comics and graphic novels, the aforementioned JtHM, as well as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (the serial killer convention was quite extraordinary!)

But getting back to the seven practical keys that can help you access multiple parts of yourself…

(1) Personal Experience

Dredging up traumatic or dysfunctional personal experiences and using them as the foundation for story and / or art is the most obvious key. Australian comics creators Christian Read and Paul Abstruse’s graphic novel WitchKing is a case in point. It’s a veritable blood bath. I cringed over entire sequences while reading it. Having said that, it’s also a stellar piece of writing and is quite brilliantly illustrated. At its very core it’s a story about chronic bullying and the aftermath—that is, what happens when a victim fights back against his perpetrators. When I talked recently to Paul Abstruse (whose body of illustrated comics work is characterised by dark themes) about how he approached the script he said he is usually attracted to the murkier stuff because it often parallels his own difficult upbringing. He related to the WitchKing material so much so that in his own eyes he became the embodiment of a tortured artist who descended into his own personal hell in order to channel those experiences onto the canvas. While working on the art, he specifically remembers recalling instances of his own anger, shame, and resentment, which echoed aspects of the script and, in turn, helped him endow the artwork with a powerful energy.

Similarly, Colleen Doran’s graphic novel A Distant Soil (Volume II): The Ascendant offers up what I consider is the most shocking and confronting scene in the entire four volumes. It comes in the form of a ritual known as “The Choosing”. The Ovanon, she writes about, don’t believe children have souls until they go through a ceremony, whereupon adults in the upper echelons of the society’s hierarchy capriciously decide who is worthy of a soul and who is not. Children become disposable objects and in some cases are offered up for sexual gratification and profound physical and emotional abuse.

Colleen didn’t directly experience the horror of this first hand, but during her childhood she witnessed several incidents that left an indelible impression on her psyche and gave her the starting point to explore these ideas in her story. At a very young age Colleen recognised that children – the most helpless and vulnerable people in our society – were not valued as fully fledged human beings and often underwent a kind of devaluation process. This even happened in the court system. Punishment meted out to the transgressors of physical and emotional abuse against children was less than that given to offenders who had abused adults. Children who could not articulate their pain and who had undergone horrific trauma were relegated to the roles of second-class citizens with no rights. In particular, Colleen witnessed an incident where a little girl who had been starved and tortured was wrested out of her abusive family situation only to be returned to the same family after she had sufficiently recovered. The family then picked up their bags and moved – never to be seen or heard of again – and Colleen has always wondered what happened to that little girl. Justice in this case was not served, and merely served to reinforce in young Colleen’s eyes that there seemed to be an habitual violation of children’s essential humanity.

Your emotional reactions to traumatic events (or even seemingly minor injustices) are all fodder for your stories and characters. And for those of you who feel vulnerable and anxious about exposing too much—just remember that characters are actually composites / collages / patchwork quilts (all these synonyms and more). Writers rarely duplicate the living exactly, but usually borrow facets or idiosyncrasies of themselves and others, then add part research and then part imagination and sew all these pieces together like Doctor Frankenstein sews together body parts from various corpses to create his monster.

Using personal experience can ultimately be therapeutic and cathartic—the act of reconstituting your own demons and darkness and channelling them into your characters can be liberating and healing.

(2) Introspection and Self Analysis

This key is closely linked to personal experience (mentioned above) but differs in the method—it’s a conscious and active process of getting to know yourself and releasing blocks that may impede or in fact shut down your creative facilities. This process often requires an element of detachment where you become an observer of your inner and outer life as it unfolds. You ultimately become a student of yourself.

In the first instance, I encourage writers to experience various therapies to release negative repressed emotions that may be causing creative blocks, do psych tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which identifies whether you’re an extrovert or introvert, are thinking or feeling oriented, intuitive or sensing, and perceiving or judging. Understand your archetypes (read Caroline Myss’s book Sacred Contracts for a comprehensive list)—these include advocate, warrior, rescuer, trickster and victim. Embrace the feminine and masculine traits you possess inside and identify how they manifest in your life. Examine your developmental journey through various ages. Strip away your barriers and lean into your authentic self so you can endow your characters with emotional honesty. If / when you experience emotions such as jealousy, obsession, rage, and resentment as a reaction to triggering incidents, ask yourself how you can translate them into words and pictures. Then ask yourself how characters could exhibit some of your personal characteristics, as well as traits that are alien to you, in various conflicts.

Many creatives also talk about possessing a kind of split personality (not in the true sense of a Dissociative Identity Disorder but a disconnection nevertheless)—that is, they may find themselves participating in real life scenarios but also be observing (as if they’re outside themselves) at the same time. This observer part of them captures and imprints all the detail of the unfolding scene in their memory, and then, with a twist of the imagination, may play out that scene into several different takes with different resolutions.

For example, a writer friend once told me that he cannot have an argument with his wife without his mind offering up several different simultaneously-dramatised scenarios about how the argument will unfold—in one she slams the door and drives away, and the opposite end of the spectrum is that they tear off their clothes and make love on the floor there and then.

Maybe we all need a dose of Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now to keep us in the moment, but the simple truth is that this ability serves our profession and our creativity.

(3) Create Boundaries – Honour Yourself and Your Readers

Differentiate between who the character is and how they act and who you are and how you act, but also be aware of crossing any boundaries that may undermine, conflict or betray your personal values and your essential self. This is not about pro- or self-censorship: it’s about making conscious choices and having a vision and a message of what you want to say about yourself and your stories in the world. If you want to experiment with genre and story and darkness then that’s great—it will be a personal challenge and a process of self-discovery. However, if it means betraying a personal core truth or belief system then be aware of the implications for yourself and for your audience in the short and long term.

A few years ago I attended a publishing conference in the USA, where one of the key speakers was Eric DelaBarre, a screenwriter who worked on the television crime series Law and Order. He mentioned that whenever he attended parties, he forgot to have a good time. Rather, he began scouting locations and looking for possible weapons he could use to create violent murder scenes in his upcoming television work. His entire outlook was focused on energising darkness. One day he snapped to attention and decided that this was not the projection of himself that he wanted to stream into the world. Instead he decided to honour his spiritual self and then he did what many Hollywood insiders would consider to be the unthinkable—he left his television job and began working on adapting popular spiritual books for the screen.

I’m curious about exploring different genres and so I may enter some darker territory in my future writing, but I personally draw the line at depicting acts of extreme and savage cruelty and perversion towards children and animals because these things strike at and damage a very deep psychic core within me—neither do I want to inflict these images on other people. Once these scenarios are imbedded in the memory they cannot be removed, although we can use the conscious act of suppression to push these thoughts away and to avoid them. My particular stance could be a function of age, gender, spirituality or something else but the upshot is that I have a great love and affinity for animals and children and I have no wish to depict their suffering in reality, in the realms of my imagination, or in fictional worlds. The only rare time I have killed animals in comics fiction is as food sources (mostly fish), although a bear featured on one occasion in the second issue of the original WaveDancers, which still makes me feel uncomfortable when I think about it. My co-creators Jozef Szekeres and Bruce Love debated the subject with me for a long time. In the end in order for me to make peace with it and have some level of acceptance, we transmuted the tragedy of the death into a comedy scene whereby the protagonist and his companion are full of bravado, out of their natural element (water) and on land with just a small hunting knife between them, completely drunk on berry juice and where they have no comprehension about how much damage a full grown bear could do to them if they got on the wrong side of its teeth and claws. The bear’s death ends up being an absolute fluke.

I was to find out later on while attending a scriptwriting workshop that deaths which occur in comedies or comedic scenes are much more readily accepted by readers / audiences than those which occur in dramas because ultimately we don’t believe that the character was in pain or suffered [see (5) Understanding the Conventions of Genres]. An example of this is the ironic running gag of the three dogs accidentally getting killed by an animal lover in A Fish Called Wanda. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the film’s pre-production history, the original print of the movie, which was shown to test audiences, featured lots of blood and guts in it when each of the dogs was squashed and killed. The audience was absolutely appalled and quite hostile. When the director removed the gore, the violence was rendered more of a cartoon violence and the deaths raised a laugh, simply because there was no outward representation of the unfortunate dogs’ suffering.

Finally, as a reader or viewer, how do I personally deal with abject violence on the page or screen? Well here are two cases in point.

I was a long-term devotee of Stephen King and consumed his earlier works with great abandon but he lost me in It, which was, in my view, a story of extreme and unnecessary brutality. Two scenes became branded in my mind as horrible in the extreme. The first was about a sociopath who puts a puppy into an empty fridge just to watch it slowly die. The second was what I consider to be the completely unwarranted and gratuitous scene of the prepubescent character girl “bonding” with the boys in the Losers Club in the sewers in a bid to conquer the monster. Brilliant storyteller that King is, I thought he had gone too far for my liking and that he had lost his way. I switched off him for a long time and never quite made my way back to being a true devotee.

[As a slight aside, I’ve always wondered whether King’s descent into his own personal hell of self-confessed addiction to alcohol and drugs coincided with writing It. His short story Stand by Me was influenced by what happened to him when he was a kid—he apparently witnessed one of his friends being killed by a train on the railway tracks close to home. He returned to his family in shock and with no conscious memory of the incident. But my goodness, where did the evil personified and perpetrated by the monster manifesting itself as Pennywise the Clown come from? Whatever one makes of it, these examples seem to be the embodiment of (1) Personal Experience.]

I now handle reading excessively dark and violent material in three ways. I either stop watching or reading, or, skip the scene in question, or, consume the whole but in short slow bursts so that my senses do not become over saturated. My most recent experience of skipping scenes came from the first book in a fantasy trilogy where the royal children of a harem (including babies and toddlers) are despatched by the most gruesome means, and a lengthy and detailed description of castration when an innocent boy on the threshold of adolescence is turned into a eunuch. I just couldn’t handle it. I got the gist of what was to happen and then just turned the pages to the next section or chapter. I’m not detracting from the literary worthiness of the story which in fact was a terrific read, and neither am I judging the author (in fact the opposite, I have great respect for her ability to be clearheaded enough to research and write these scenes and am curious about her process) but as a reader it was just too distressing for me to go any further than I did. Avoidance – in this regard– was my defence mechanism of choice.

All I’m saying is, as a comics creator be true to the story and the character but also don’t forget to be true to yourself in the process, be aware of your branding in the commercial publishing world and be aware of the niche market you’re writing for.

(4) Acting Training

While I was growing up I desperately wanted to act in the primary school “musicale” (as it was known), but was always cast in a narrator role. In high school we didn’t have a drama department so I didn’t get any opportunities there either. By the time I made it to university I was positively jumping out of my skin to fulfil this dream and so I deliberately enrolled in a theatre strand in my Professional Writing Degree, as well as joining a musical-theatre group. However, when it came to actually performing solo, I found that I became incredibly self-conscious. I realised that to act I would need to strip back all my protective layers and confront everything that lay within—the good, the bad, the ugly and the feelings at the base of the matter. To deal with the fear I enrolled myself in a one year, part-time acting course at the Q-Theatre in Sydney, which was run by the famous and now deceased Australian director Richard Brooks. In the first class he told us that no matter what we thought of ourselves, that under the right circumstances and with the right stimuli, we are all capable of great evil.

The acting course itself gave me brilliant insights later on into writing characters and plotting actions through the panels on pages. It helped me understand how to access darkness via several mechanisms. You can find your way into character by utilising the classical English theatre tradition—that is, from the physical (external) into the psychological (internal). For example, if you make small adjustments to your body such as turning in one foot so that you limp, or drooping your head, or pitching your voice differently, you will feel differently inside yourself. Similarly, if you use costuming or makeup accoutrements you can access different facets of your personality that are in sympathy with this outerwear. Stanislavski’s naturalistic system was an extension of this—he believed you could explore character and action both from the “outside in” as well as from the “inside out”. And then you have American Method acting, which at its most simplistic is when an actor focuses primarily on the psychological (thoughts and emotions and the drawing up of their own sense and emotional memories), which in turn affects their physical portrayal of the character.

Comics are a visual medium and character acting is crucial for reader identification. Understanding facial expression, body language, the tempo and energy of each character, and how they might talk, can actually help you act out scenes between characters before committing them to paper or digital format. Understanding stagecraft such as the importance of hierarchy and levels, as well as lighting, can help you with character placement in panels and choosing colour palettes and make specific choices about how to render the dark characters and scenes as opposed to your lighter moments.

(5) Understand the Conventions of Your Genre

Understanding the various conventions of different genres can help creators make decisions about the who, what, where, why and how of introducing darkness into story. Similarly, your target market will define that too. For example, you wouldn’t introduce a violent chainsaw massacre scene into a children’s comic book series about a magic unicorn, aimed at eight to twelve year olds.

Each genre whether it’s romance, thriller, science fiction or fantasy or others has its own set of conventions. In mystery stories, for example, the reader / audience finds out information at the same time as the characters do. In suspense, however, in order to elevate the tension, the audience is given more information than the character (for example, the ticking bomb under the table) before the characters discover it for themselves.

Furthermore, in thrillers (which encompass detective, action / adventure, horror, suspense / thriller and film noir in the movies) you tell your stories from the protagonist’s (victim’s) point of view and you feature a larger than life antagonist (whether it be man, beast, monster or some supernatural entity) who / which needs to be more powerful than the hero. The challenge for the latter (in the grand tradition of Survivor) is to outwit, outplay and outlast the villain in order to stay alive.

Understand the rules of your main genre and then you can bring in aspects of your minor genres into the mix. The over-riding rule is not to cheat your reader / audience.

(6) Research

No matter what genre you work in, you can cut through the clichés and add authenticity and plausibility to your stories and characters by researching. For example, in Elf~Fin, Jozef Szekeres and I needed to do research into a particular kind of social group and sub-culture. We watched lots of documentaries and television talk shows, read books and articles, and consulted lots of online material. This knowledge gave us some understanding of how the group dynamics might work in our world, helped us formulate the villains in particular, and helped us get down into the nitty-gritty detail of how evil might interact with good.

Don’t make assumptions about what you know—check the small stuff. Readers are pretty cluey and have a great eye for detail and gaffes. In fantasy you have a little leeway because your world will be built around magic but if you’re writing about an evil doctor living on a space station you need to make sure your medical procedures and your knowledge of gravity are pretty spot on. The strongest argument in favour of research is that it may give you a fresh way to look at your material so that you can reinvent what has come before and give your story a new angle or flavour. Stephenie Meyer’s vampires from Twilight are a prime example. The traditional vampire who shrinks at the sight of a crucifix or holy water just doesn’t make the grade any more. So if you’re going to write about vampires, research the mythology and then give it your own twist.

(7) Understand Your Subconscious Mind

Think of your memory as a deposit, storage and elimination (retrieval) system similar to the digestive system. Think of your subconscious creative mind as a master chef—drop your raw ingredients into a cooking pot, let the ingredients simmer and stew, and then voila, serve up the finished dish which has been transformed into something new with all its unique fusion of flavours and textures.

You actually need to feed your subconscious mind with lots of raw ingredients. This comes in the form of reading, your adventures and experiences, reading, testing your personal boundaries, watching movies and television, and did I say reading lots and lots of books, comics, newspapers, magazine articles, whatever. All these things are your raw ingredients.

You also need to distinguish between the functions of the conscious (logical, rational, mental) mind and the subconscious (feeling, creative, irrational) mind. Many writers and artists complain about creative blocks but that’s nothing more than over-thinking and consciously trying too hard. For the best ideas to spill forth from the subconscious you need to relax and let yourself enter alpha brain wave activity activated through self-hypnosis or meditation. To my way of thinking, the alpha state is nothing more than the realm between being fully awake and being asleep where the gateway between the conscious and the subconscious minds is more readily open. You experience a hypnotic state naturally in the morning when you’re waking up and at night when you’re slipping into sleep and when you’re daydreaming, which is why it’s good to have a notepad and pen or a recorder near your bed.

Making friends and trusting your subconscious mind can help you with creative problem solving, giving old ideas new perspectives, giving you pieces of dialogue, accessing powerful images that you can hang your story on—you merely input the data you need by asking your mind to help you out and then by leaving it alone to complete its task. Also, the subconscious mind does not work in a linear fashion so be prepared for information to burst forth that might be relevant for a future scene two issues from now, and then be prepared to capture that idea quickly.

Not long ago a Sydney artist expressed an interest in creating a horror short story with me. I was intrigued but had no real understanding of the conventions of the genre and felt very uneasy because it was completely out of my comfort zone. I asked the artist for a list of images that she’d eventually like to incorporate into a story and she gave me about six of them. I had absolutely no inkling of where to start my story but shortly after, I had a powerful dream, which gave me some random images and unconnected sequences, which upon awakening gave me an amazing staring point for the story. Within a few hours I had the entire story in my head, as well as the title—The House of the Smiling Dead. It didn’t take long to capture it and to script it and I also ended up incorporating one of the images the artist had given me on her list into an appropriate spot. The artist moved interstate soon after so alas, I only ended up getting one page of completed artwork but it has since been picked up by Melbourne artist Richard Butler who is on the way to completing it. Ultimately, I surprised myself and was really proud of the finished script. What I took away was a realisation that if tested, I could dredge up some dark material from within myself to channel into stories even when I had no idea where it came from.

The subconscious mind will give you pivotal information while you are dreaming and when your conscious mind is relaxed and you’re on a kind of automatic pilot. This may happen in the shower, while you’re doing laps or walking on the treadmill at the gym, when you’re dozing and all kinds of places. What you can actually do is ask your mind to come up with information you need—program it with questions so it can spit out an answer. This can take a few minutes or upward of a few days because there is an internal processing that happens inside the recesses of your mind. You just need to trust.

The other key is to express appreciation in the form of a “thinking” thank you towards your deep inner self. In so doing you’re rallying several parts of your mind to complete the job at hand and solidify a kind of creative partnership to make the act of creation natural and easy.

There are lots of CDs and self-hypnosis courses you can do to help you learn to achieve this. Start off with the professional hypnotherapy or meditation associations in your country to ensure you access accredited practitioners and programs.

These seven keys can help you to unlock and access the darkness of your imagination and your soul with the express intent to recreate it into characters and story. In the final analysis, I believe that arbitrary acts of violence for violence sake, which do not enhance or advance the story, are meaningless (comedies being the exception as they’re often filled with for-laugh scenes only). Violence and darkness should, in principle, have a context and relate to characters’ motivations and serve the story or explore an idea the creator is fascinated with or driven to write about or draw, otherwise they’re pointless.

Ultimately, no matter how much darkness you channel into your stories it’s important for you to fall in love with your own characters—both hero and villain alike. There comes a time in that act of creation and characterisation where you find your momentum and you consciously stop driving the action because the characters become so real that they take on a life-force and energy of their own—they take over the dialogue and take their (and your) story to its natural conclusion, along twists and turns and pathways into dark corners and deep crevice that you wouldn’t have anticipated from the outset. As a creator, that’s a good place to be.

Julie Ditrich

© Julie Ditrich, 2009

This article was first published on Colleen Doran’s A Distant Soil Blog on 16 May 2009.

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