When it comes to horror comics, it is difficult to find one that combines subtle terror and the requisite splatter. So if you are in the market for that type of rarity, writer John Lees, artist Ryan Lee, letterer Shawn Lee, and colorist Doug Garbark have crafted a horror story that is able to satisfy those craving an eerie slow burn style story along with visceral horror scenes in IDW’s Mountainhead.
Lees and Lee were able to take some time out to discuss how they crafted Mountainhead, offering an inside look at how they created a story that will appeal to horror fans of every stripe in this exclusive interview.
Where did the idea for Mountainhead originate?
John Lees: The inception of Mountainhead came back in 2016 at C2E2. I was always a fan of Ryan’s and wanted to work with him on a project. His art is so distinct and powerful. We spoke about it and turned out that he was keen to work with me too, so we started working on some ideas. I had the general idea for the story, but it was missing a hook at the start.
The framing device became the father and son living off of the grid, with the son in need of rescue. I originally had the story idea, but it died on the vine, but it worked when inserted into our story.
Ryan Lee: I live in a ski resort town and like the winter more than the summer, so I immediately got it visually. John does great emotional beats, so I understood what he wanted in terms of location and characters.
The Abraham/Noah story at the start is a tragic one. Why was this toxic relationship so important to establish early on in the story?
Lees: It was kind of born out of a true life story concerning a grifter and a young boy who he kidnapped. The young child helped him commit crimes. It brings up the question: what is family and are people born into these roles or are they raised in them?
In terms of artwork, how did you approach Mountainhead?
Lee: I draw how I draw, but when John talked to me about the original pitch, he really wanted me to lean into my style. It is gritty and loose in parts, with an emphasis on the cartoony work, and it also had to be more violent and as gross as possible.
I focused a lot on the expressions on people’s faces and tried to make them exaggerated in terms of emoting.
Lees: I love Ryan’s style and I couldn’t ask for a better artist for this story. The faces are like those in a Kurosawa film, where no two faces/expressions are the same. Each character in Mountainhead is so distinct due to this.
In Mountainhead you slowly reveal the supernatural elements of the story before eventually building to a crescendo. Did the slower, effective pacing make it difficult to pitch to publishers?
Lees: Yes, that was the hardest part when it came to pitching Mountainhead. The real supernatural elements don’t hit fully until issue #3. We pitched it as an Invasion of the Body Snatchers style set-up, but a lot of people wanted the monsters much, much earlier in the story.
IDW was a godsend. We sat down with Bobby Curnow and shared an outline of the whole story and he was very intrigued by it and didn’t mind the quiet scenes or the fact that it takes some time to reveal the monster. Many other companies would have passed on the project because of the pacing on Mountainhead.
Lee: We pitched Mountainhead to a lot of people, but we weren’t willing to compromise on the content. It’s a story about relationships, and the emotional beats are needed to tell the story properly. In the earlier issues, there is this feeling of creeping dread that builds and becomes surreal at points. Are these things really happening? Is it mental illness? Or is something more sinister at work?
What can you tell us about the other people who contributed to the project?
Lees: The letter Shawn Lee did a ton of extra material for the graphic novel and really designed it. He did a great job with the trade dress, color scheme, menus; it really looks stunning based on his designs.
Lee: He also created a lot of original art for it such as a ski pass for the resort in the story. They were great.
The colorist Doug Garbark was a consummate professional and a pleasure to work with. His work on Mountainhead is amazing and adds depth to the pages, things you never notice, but make a huge difference in a comic.
Lees: Doug was also the only person on the team not named Lee or Lees, so we made him an honorary Lee(s). He was a perfect partner on the project and he is a genius creator himself.
Lees: I can’t talk about too much at the moment, but there will be more Sink coming soon, as well as a few other things.
Lee: I have an oversized Rick and Morty one shot from Oni Press called Rick and Morty Presents Death Stalker #1 (out on January 27). It is written by Stephanie Phillips and she was great to work with. The story is hilarious and insanely violent. I even had to do a revision on one panel!
The Mountainhead graphic novel is currently available at finer comic book shops and bookstores everywhere.