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Interview: August 23, 2018

This August, animation director and comic book artist and writer Hamish Steele released his second book, DEADENDIA. The first book in a series, DEADENDIA follows best friends Barney and Norma, who are employees at a strange theme park (which doubles as a portal to hell) as they struggle to battle demonic forces and get by in their personal lives. In celebration of the release, we had the opportunity to ask Steele about his inspiration for the plot, his wonderfully diverse characters and his artistic influences. Read our interview to learn more about how close DEADENDIA is to its author, and what we can expect from future installments. Your book, DEADENDIA, combines horror, comedy and LBGTQIA love in a way that feels natural, fresh and completely unexpected from a graphic novel set in a theme park. Where did DEADENDIA start conceptually? How long and far has it come from the first ideas you had?

Hamish Steele: Barney and Norma were originally characters from a couple of other comic projects I'd worked on for some time which were very different, and a version of Pugsley existed in an animated short I made for art school. 

I then decided to pitch a short to Cartoon Hangover (Bee and Puppycat, Bravest Warriors) who were looking for submissions. They said they were looking for characters first, setting and story second. So I pitched them Barney, Norma and Pugsley and used a haunted house as a setting because I've always loved spooky shows and its an easy location to explain. They loved it and you can watch the "Dead End" short on Youtube. A lot of elements from the book are there, but there's also a really different tone in places.

Cartoon Hangover and I worked for the good part of a year to pitch the short to several channels to become a full animated series. I made a show bible, wrote episodes and season arcs and while we got far with a few places, it didn't end up happening. But with all this extra Dead End content written, I decided to turn it into a book and voila --- DEADENDIA was born!

As a book, the journeys that our characters go on became way more important and as a result, the book is a fair bit more serious then the short. I was also more free to discuss gender and sexuality issues, something important in my own life, then I probably would have been as a tv series.

TRC: For this book you’ve “worn many hats.” You’ve written, laid out, designed all the characters, drawn and colored the whole thing. What comes first for you? What part of the process do you enjoy the most?

HS: Honestly, my favorite part is just coming up with the ideas and trying to write the story. In the future, I'd like to write comics and collaborate with artists as I think I have stories to tell that I'm definitely not confident enough to draw. 

However, when I imagine the story, I really do still picture it as an animated series. So transferring those ideas into a comic can be hard. Especially with the horror genre, as so much of horror relies on sound and pacing, something you don't always have control over in comics. 

TRC: Now let’s talk characters. Your protagonist, Barney, has recently been kicked out of his home and is dealing with issues of identity, love and finding a place in the world. But he’s also hilarious, loyal and deeply devoted to his dog, Pugsley. Can you introduce our readers to Barney? Did you base him on anyone you know in real life?

HS: Barney has existed long before I gave him that backstory and he's very shamelessly an ideal version of myself. He's who I aspire to be, someone who can push through anything and fight for whats right, rather than wallow in self pity (even though he does do that briefly in this book, he makes it through!)

And carrying on from him being who I aspire to, he's inspired by lots of my friends who I admire. I wish I always remembered to have his confidence and loyalty. 

Barney was also created at a time when I was gaining weight and feeling quite self conscious about it. I love Barney for being fat and not sorry about it. He wears a wrestling singlet for most of the finale and other outfits I possibly wouldn't have the confidence to wear but by drawing him not caring, it genuinely makes me feel a lot better about myself. 

TRC: Barney has what is implied as a strained relationship with his parents over his sexual identity and orientation. Although we never see them once throughout the book, they sort of hang over Barney’s development. Was this ominous aura surrounding Barney’s parents intentional? What do you hope readers will take away from Barney’s relationship with his family?

HS: I think there's a trend in stories with queer representation for them to act as PSA's to allies on how to act and behave. What that means is: as viewers we prefer to see characters come out to characters who unconditionally love them, because that's the version of the world we want to believe is true all the time.

And it's not. And while stories where trans people face no issue are very vital to normalising it, it shouldn't be at the cost of erasing stories about some experiences that are still unfortunately so common. I debated how to handle Barney's relationship with his parents a lot and employed trans sensitivity readers to discuss it too. There's valid reasons to go the other way. I'd love to read the version of DEADENDIA where Barney has a great relationship with his parents. 

But a huge theme of DEADENDIA as a whole (in this book and going forward) is "found family." Written above the door of Dead End is a sign that says "Come All Ye Lost Souls, the Living and the Dead." This is meant as a reference to how the book is about how lost souls cling together. 

Often queer people who were closeted in school realize years later that their entire friend group were some flavor of queer. We often naturally seek out those like us without knowing. And all the characters in DEADENDIA have an aspect of them that makes them Othered. As we go forward with the series, the plotline about Angels and Demons and what makes someone one and not the other, will link directly to this theme too. 

TRC: Barney’s best friend, Norma, is a bit less open about herself. Between the two, she is definitely more “Type A” and likes to have everything just so. She is also struggling with anxiety, an overbearing sister and, of course, a confusing social life. With Barney and Norma being so different, what makes their friendship work so well? Do you have a friendship like theirs in your life?

HS: Barney and Norma in some ways reflect the two sides of myself. While Barney is me at my most confident, the version of me that is out and proud, Norma is me at my most anxious and conflicted. Barney overshares his issues and keeps his emotions very much skin deep, whereas Norma tends to wrestle this things privately until they boil over. 

They are quite different people but as I said, I think they cling together because they're both outcasts. A lot of my friendgroups over the years have been diverse in terms of race, sexuality, gender...but our linking theme has often been not fitting in. 

TRC: Of course, we can’t even begin to discuss the characters of DEADENDIA without mentioning the amazing representation and inclusivity you’ve brought to your book. Was this an important part of the book from the start? How did you go about writing characters that were different from yourself?

HS: I genuinely didn't think about it too much. When doing stories about a real world and fictional world interacting, it's good to make the real world as authentic as possible. I just wanted to represent me and my friends and it didn't occur to me not to do that.

However, as I move forward with the story, its especially important to recognize the responsibility of writing characters from groups who don't get many stories about them, and groups you are not a part of. As mentioned before, I employed sensitivity readers. These are people from marginalized groups who get to read your story and bring up any inaccuracies, cliches or bad tropes. And you often get back conflicting reactions, so trying to navigate those can be tricky but its definitely worth it and you can really tell when books or films haven't bothered. 

TRC: Even for readers who are new to graphic novels, the art style of DEADENDIA is immediately inviting with its bright colors, fun setting, and laugh-out-loud humor. Can you tell us a bit about your style influences?

HS: The style mostly developed from it starting life as an animation, so the art style is fairly easy to draw and not too detailed. The colors however were inspired by a lot of psychedelic 70s horror. I didn't want the spooky aspects of the book to be all dark and gloomy, so I looked at movies like Phantom of the Paradise, Hausu and Suspiria (which is also where the name DeadEndia came from).

TRC: With all of the horror themes throughout the book, it seems that you’re well-versed in horror tropes and themes? What are some of your favorite works of horror in books, film or television?

HS: The examples above are a good starting point. I like my horror unnerving rather than jumpy, surreal rather than gruesome. If your horror isn't gory you can actually get away with a lot in a book aimed at younger audiences. I think about "The Simpsons" Treehouse of Horror specials a lot! I watched them as a kid but any given episode could feature decapitation, people turning inside out, people burning alive! 

I think Junji Ito is the master of horror in comics though. His work is disturbing on levels you never knew existed. I'm hoping to do a couple of chapters in the future that lean more into his brand of horror. 

TRC: Speaking of horror, you do a fantastic job juxtaposing horror and comedy, making the horror even scarier and the comedy even funnier. Your characters also discuss balances between light and dark in their quests to save the world. How do you achieve this balance in your own work? Do you think one requires the other?

HS: Another horror influence is Sam Raimi, where his Evil Dead and Drag Me To Hell work exist on a thin line between horror and comedy. It also ties into the setting of an amusement park --- you scream at a rollercoaster because its both scary and fun. If you see a horror movie at a packed theatre, people tend to laugh with relief after they scream. 

A good scare is a bit like a good joke...there's often a twist or surprise, a revelation that things weren't as they seemed. Maybe this is why both horror and comedy aren't as highly regarded as drama, because with drama you're supposed to have a complex series of emotions, where as with horror and comedy, your emotion is raw, simple, immediate. A laugh and a scream are both uncontrollable reactions, and I think they make the body feel the same way.

So I'm not sure how I do this but I've never seen them as separate. My favorite scares are the twistedly funny and my favorite jokes are the dark variety.

TRC: Word has it you’ve been making playlists based on the DEADENDIA characters as you work on the sequel. How do you choose your songs? Is music a big part of your process as a creator, too?

HS: I think because I'm an animation director by day, my least favorite aspect of making comics is how silent they are. When I imagine the scenes in DEADENDIA, they're all scored. So making a playlist was a no-brainer. I do it for a lot of my characters or books. I've got playlists made for books I haven't even begun writing yet. 

Choosing songs, I usually just look through the work of my famous artists for songs with titles or lyrics that really relate to the characters story or personality. For example, Barney's playlist begins with "Run Boy Run" and ends with a song featuring "We wall call this place our home" in the chorus. 

TRC: What’s next for Hamish Steele? Are we getting more DEADENDIA soon --- and can you give us any hints about what’s to come?

HS: Well, I'm deep in the writing and designing stage of the sequel - DEADENDIA: The Broken Halo. I consider Book 1 a Barney/Pugsley book, but Book 2 is very much a Norma/Courtney book.  I also think a theme of Book 2 is about repairing friendship. Plus, we'll finally go and explore some of the other Planes!