Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief Barbra Dillon was joined by three talents in the comic book and entertainment industries – Megan Hutchison (Rockstars, Will o’ the Wisp), Susan Lee (Wraith of Love, Shadow of the Knight), and Laura Lee Bahr (Angel Meat, Haunt) – for a fifty-minute panel at Long Beach Comic Expo 2017 titled “Women on the Dark Side.”
To get the panel started, Dillon asked the panelists if they could describe their entry into dark material. Hutchison explained that her parents relocated from South Africa to South Orange County, California, when she was at a young age. Since there wasn’t much to do, she soon gravitated to horror as an outlet for boredom. She developed her art style, which she described as dark whimsy/horror, adding that the two styles complemented each other well. The classically trained artist Lee had been raised in Canada, where Stephen King was a reading staple in her household, specifically mentioning his novel, The Shining. She said she had been writing dark for many years, and it was Frank Miller’s stark artistic style that drew her in. Bahr explained that she doesn’t think in terms of dark, but rather described life as a “sucker punch of a world” leading her to dig deep for the gems of her creative output.
“Dark” is a vague term, which can be defined in a myriad of ways and to different degrees. How did each panelist define dark? Lee defined dark by the end result – there is a lightness at the end of the darkness. She also mentioned wanting to understand why women engaged in dark material is not easy to accept. Hutchison stated that she is drawn to the macabre; there is beauty in the pain, but also an opportunity to laugh at oneself. Bahr philosophized that darkness creates a dichotomy of expectation and hunted. The physical manifestations of the struggle can assuredly be horrific, and she felt there was an emotional complexity of horror directed by women.
As Hutchison mentioned early on, her style crosses between and blends whimsy, dark fantasy, and dark elements:;darkness can cross genres and result in fascinating, engaging output. For example, Hutchison mentioned Guillermo del Toro’s gothic horror, Crimson Peak (2015), which she stated allows for a depth of expression and engagement. Lee concurred, especially if the blending is done to reach a deeper range of responses – that’s when good horror hits you. Bahr agreed with the other ladies and added, “Monsters are easier to deal with than with people.”
Inspiration comes from a variety of sources, so Dillon asked each panelist theirs. Lee had great teachers, and she got exceptional grades for her writing; however, she related that she had a particular assignment in which she had to write four pages describing what happened before the story they read. She procrastinated and wrote a rushed paper, which typically would have still gotten her high marks. The teacher could tell she rushed, and he gave her a ‘D’. He explained it was a good paper, but he asked her to think about how much better it could have been if she had taken the time allotted for the assignment. It was a lesson she has carried with her. Hutchison easily stated that “Fragile” from Nine Inch Nails was her inspiration. Having listened to African and classical music, her found she was easily able to dream up stories from listening to the industrial rock bank. Bahr said she read a lot of books growing up, but it was Kurt Vonnegut’s books which conveyed the sadness of being human that resonated with her – she did not feel alone. She shared that she got the opportunity to hear him speak, so she wrote a piece expressing how he had profoundly influenced her life. She took it with her to the talk, in hopes of giving it to him; however, during the presentation, he tasked each audience member to write a poem – to pour everything into it – then tear it up. Instead of giving him her piece, she tore it up. She realized she was doing it to be doing art. Huchison agreed that art is cathartic; it is a process by which to heal. Lee concurred that she will pour every ounce of the emotional experience into her art.
Taking a step back, Dillon asked what was each woman’s first project that led to her current path. Interestingly, each panelist had experience in film/stage that was a catalyst in their lives. For Hutchison, she was making films up to 2005, but was not feeling they provided her the output of creative expression she was seeking. Her illustrations in the teen dark fantasy graphic novel, Will o’ the Wisp, kickstarted her career into comics. Lee stated it was “Lloyd’s Prayer” that did it for her. She said she saw every beat unfold on stage and that it was everything she meant it to do. Bahr wrote and starred in Jesus Freak (2003) and toured with it to film festivals such as the Los Angeles Film Festival. Walking the red carpet was both a surreal and an eye-opening experience. As a result, she turned to writing her first book which brought with it a revealing connection with herself that she hadn’t felt before. Lee said Bahr’s experience reminded her how important it is to encourage young women that it is okay to engage in and create dark material, because it can allow people a window in. Hutchison said that was so true because, for her, she was afraid to show and/or reveal herself, in part because she was raised in a conservative environment. She revealed it was a long journey before she felt it was okay to share.
Hutchison’s point about journey easily led to Dillon’s follow-up question about what the creative process looked like and where it started. Hutchison stated it depends on the project. Working with Joe Harris on Rockstars, they share ideas, whether it be characters and/or images. She added that her inspiration comes from everywhere, but the crucial key is to be open to receive it. Lee said she’ll go to her local coffee shop and listen to the conversations taking place around her, which often provide the kernel of an idea; images inspire her, as well. She also said that “NaNoWriMo” (the annual National Novel Writing Month each November) worked for her, resulting in her novel, Shadow of the Knight. Bahr stated that she works well with deadlines and that she finds ideas through blending genres that leads to many of her short stories.
With a few remaining minutes, Dillon asked each panelist their thoughts and experiences with inclusion in the industry. Hutchison said the old-school comic creators are inclusive and, as a result, she feels a sense of community. Lee agreed. She said that she has participated in many Drink and Draw events, which reflected inclusion. She related that she actually gets push back from other women; she is a mover and shaker and she isn’t going to be reserved and wait for the opportunities to find her. Bahr expressed displeasure at “tokenism” such as the women in horror month. While she realizes we live in a culture of competition, it should not be that way. To her, every single one of us are on the same journey, so be inclusive.
Panel photograph courtesy of Michele Brittany.