'Daphne Byrne': Behind DC's New Horror Comic

Daphne Byrne Cover 1-  Piotr Jab?o?ski-DC - Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Piotr Jab?o?ski/DC
The Gilded Age-era comic book comes from 'The Good Fight' writer Laura Marks and artist Kelley Jones.

DC’s newly announced Hill House Comics pop-up imprint may be a return to the company’s horror comics history, but it’s breaking new ground at the same time — especially when it comes to the creators responsible for each of the five series that will make up the line.

Daphne Byrne sees comic book veteran Kelley Jones (Sandman, Batman) team up with comic book newcomer and The Good Fight screenwriter Laura Marks to tell a supernatural story centering around one girl’s reaction to the death of her father in 19th-century New York. Heat Vision spoke to both creators about the influences and origins of the upcoming series.

Laura, I think of you as a playwright — I know you do television as well. So how did you end up with DC?

Laura Marks: First of all, I'm glad you think of me as a playwright. That's nice to hear — it was certainly my first love, and still is. For the past couple of years I've been doing a lot of TV work, and I worked on one of the versions of Locke & Key when it was being adapted for the screen — I did not work on the version that is coming out on Netflix, which I'm hugely excited to see; I worked on one of the earlier iterations of it. And, through that, I got to know Joe Hill, and I also became acquainted with the incredible series. I don't know if you've ever read Locke & Key, it's just spellbinding.

Joe was such a delight — so easy and fun to work with — and so the combination of meeting him and getting to know his comic work, it turned into this "Wow, I really want to try my hand at this medium" thing. It became a bucket list thing.

I've worked on a few shows that were horror — not everything I've done has been horror, I've worked on The Good Fight, which I guess you could argue is maybe the horror of Trump's America (Laughs) — but I feel like, when you can do high-concept horror but also make it feel grounded and character-driven, that to me is the really fun stuff. And Joe's work showed me that comics are a perfect medium for doing that. So the pump was already primed, so to speak, and then I got an email from Joe some months after our collaboration, saying, "Hey, I'm curating a new imprint for DC, would you like to write a comic for it?" And I was like, "Hell, yes." It was really a no-brainer. And then they said, "You won't believe who the artist is. We got Kelley Jones." So it's just a deeply exciting thing.

So where did Daphne Byrne comic from? You talked about your love of character-driven horror…

Marks: For a long time I've wanted to do something with the Gilded Age of New York, that world of Henry James and Edith Wharton. But in TV, that kind of thing is so expensive to pull off well that I've always felt hesitant about pitching something in that world. The great thing about comics is that nothing costs any more to draw than anything else. It feels like the perfect medium in which to take that chance.

I love period stuff in general. I love Victorian ghost stories, M.R. James, and I love Charlotte Bronte and her wonderful batshit plots. I love reading about the Victorian spiritual movement — of course, that started more in the mid 19th century, but it was going strong for several decades there. So I think all of these things have been just turning around in my mind for a while now.

Also, setting [the story] in this period would give us a great chance to explore gender roles, because it was a time when — even more so than today, in a way — rage is something that a nice young woman was not supposed to express. And you know, as the mother of two young girls, and as someone who is seeing a time now in the world where female rage feels more potent and present than ever before, perhaps, it felt like a really fun thing to explore through a period lens.

You mentioned Joe Hill’s Locke & Key earlier, and one of the things that I thought of when seeing the pitch for Daphne Byrne was that it shares a focus on family with Locke & Key. You mentioned wanting to write a character-driven horror story, but both also focus on the family.

Marks: That's really interesting to me. I think that we're seeing films now that are doing that also, like A Quiet Place, Hereditary, [and] Us. Those are all great family horror stories.

Kelley, what is it about Daphne Byrne that brought you to the project? When I think of your work, I think of this very atmospheric art that, although it's not always horror, always has a wonderful tension on the page. You do horror unlike anyone else who's working these days.

Kelley Jones: Actually, there's a lot more range of things you can be asked to do, things that are interesting to do, or not [in horror]. When you're working in horror, and as we’re talking about, in character-driven horror, the bottom line is that you gotta scare the hell out of people. But, to get there, you have to make them care about something. And to find subject matter where you care about the people and you care about who these people are or what happens to them, or even if you want to see them get a good comeuppance or whatever. That's where the real fun of this lies.

Horror is something that, sometimes, you have to work a whole issue to get to that one panel, and it takes a lot of effort to do that, but that's where the real memorable stuff to draw comes from. And if you can get that kind of a story, if you can get that kind of opportunity, you have the chance to create something really good. And that's hard to do.

Laura, what's it like to write for this medium, and write toward that sort of thing that Kelley's talking about?

Marks: It's really exciting. I mean, as someone who is also interested in directing, the idea of being able to kind of storyboard what you're writing is very intriguing to me. I mean, playwrights tend to be kind of control freaks, because we get final cut over the words, and comics give you another dimension of control, which is you know you get to mold the experience of the reader, with the suspense of holding on a single panel or timing the moment when you turn a page. Having that extra dimension to work in is really exciting to me. Honestly, I just feel very lucky to have a chance to explore this medium with such incredible collaborators right out of the gate.

Kelley, when I think of your work I think of things like your Deadman series, your Batman work, your Sandman work — you can tackle multiple eras, as well as multiple genres. Is the chance to work in this era of New York history something that was appealing to you?

Jones: Yeah! First off, I've always felt that [the ability to illustrate a period piece is] something that will add to the look of the book that's interesting. You have to think of, you know, everything was lit very differently, the world was paced very differently. So it will give me a lot of extra stuff [to work with]. And that's what you look for. Something different, that is relatable but totally different. New York at that period is pretty glorious. It something that makes it interesting from the start. If Laura is approaching it as a director, I look at it as cinematography, and it's a very baroque period. There's just a lot of clutter in their day, and that's wonderful to work with.

You're both using filmic terms to describe the way you're seeing the book. Is this a shared language in the way both of you are approaching the series?

Jones: Well, for me, I started as much more of a film fan, as a kid, and as a student and all that. Comics were something I did for fun. I found that, when I was learning how to do comics, I studied film more than I did comic books. So I always found that characters need to be doing something. There needs to be a lot of stuff going on that's interesting. A lot of things for someone to watch — not that you see that not being done in superhero books, but they have different tropes and they have different stereotypes.

Where I lived, there wasn't a lot of comic books or anything, but there were a lot of movies. I just liked to draw, and there was no one teaching it, so the closest thing was film courses. When they would break down, say, The Magnificent Ambersons or something, I could understand that probably better than most because I was already [thinking about] choosing the right shot, getting the lighting right, having characters be in the right positions. All those kinds of things that they were teaching applied perfectly to comics. And now comic books have kind of transitioned into TV and film and stuff like that. It kind of makes sense; they are very close cousins, both mediums.

Laura, do you find having someone who is so versed in this language helps you with the work?

Marks: Oh, absolutely. I'm so grateful for the chance to work with an artist who knows this medium so well. It's funny that you mention that we both end up using cinematic terms; I mean, that's just in my language for the past few years, working on TV shows. I guess that's just my way in [to comics] as well. But, yeah; I absolutely adore Kelley's work.

Jones: The rule always for me is, let writers write. Whatever they want to write, write it. I'm an idea guy, so I'll figure out how to get the intent of what she wants to see on paper the best I can.

It feels like you're both on the same page. It's like if there's a very clear collaborative spirit, and it feels like you're both working toward the same aim, if that makes sense, which is really exciting to hear.

Marks: Well, I love collaborating. That's another thing that TV and the theater are all about, and that I've grown to really love. So that's definitely a big selling point for comics.

Jones: Comics work best as collaboration. A third thing comes out. Something I would never have imagined, and vice versa for Laura, that thing will come out, and there's something very organic about it. I can't tell you how many times that happened to me, where I've gone into something and so many really good surprises come out of it — especially in this genre. I can tell you already that there are going to be so many juicy moments in Daphne Byrne that neither of us even know are there yet! (Laughs)

Marks: I completely co-sign that.

DC’s Hill House Comics line launches Oct. 30 with Joe Hill and Leomacs’ Basketful of Heads series. Marks and Jones’ Daphne Byrne will debut as the line continues to roll out in subsequent months.