“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
Along with the resurgence of horror comics in recent years has come an influx of new creative voices in the genre. Take John Lees, for example: a creator who was drawn to the dark side from an early age and who has blended his myriad early influences into a vision all his own.
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Writer
Your home base: Glasgow, Scotland
Facebook: A Sink Tale
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: To start off with the big picture, why comics? What attracts you to working in this artform specifically?
John Lees: I love comics! I’ve always loved comics from a young age, and always wanted to be a writer from a young age, too. And yet, for a long time, I never put those two together and thought of writing comics as what I wanted my career to be. Once I did make that connection, though, it just felt like it was meant to be. There’s much to love about the artform. But one thing I particularly enjoy, funnily enough, are the restrictions. I like that you’re having to work within the bounds of a certain amount of pages per issue, a certain amount of panels per page. And so, it makes the writing of each script a puzzle. How do I convey what I want in the real estate that I have available to me? It drives you to cut flab, to hone right in on what about plot or character is most important. And also, though of course it has a history stretching back decades or even centuries, depending on your perspective, comics still feels somewhat new as a storytelling medium, in terms of how long people have been really tapping into their dramatic and emotional potential. And so, it still feels like there’s potential to break new ground in this medium, to do things that haven’t been done before, or offer a perspective that’s fresh.
KS: Please tell readers where you grew up and what your childhood media diet was. What were the things you consumed that got you excited?
JL: I grew up in Rutherglen, a little borough just outside of Glasgow, Scotland. I was consuming a lot of comics, and a lot of comics-adjacent media, like superhero movies and animated shows. But, even from a very young age, I had a major love for horror. I remember The Monster Squad being a major formative film for me, a gateway into horror, and by the time I was like five years old, I was gleefully enjoying the likes of Child’s Play 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, and Maniac Cop, among many more, as rentals from the local video shop. That love for horror stayed with me, and got a major boost with the arrival of Scream in the late ‘90s; that took my obsession to the next level where, as I entered into adolescence, I was actively seeking out the canon classics. And even on the book side of things, Goosebumps was one of my earliest big reading loves. As I moved into high school and started reading more “grown-up” novels, my entry point into that was serial killer fiction. I remember being 11 years old, in my first year of secondary school, lugging around a Hannibal hardcover in my schoolbag. I think it was inevitable that I’d end up writing horror myself.
KS: Aside from reading, what kinds of things were you producing? Were you an active creative writer from an early age, or did writing come along later?
JL: Oh, I was writing from a very young age! Probably the earliest “writing” I was doing were the elaborate storylines I’d play out with my action figures. I couldn’t just bash them together, oh no! I’d plan out a whole narrative, a succession of foes Batman had to face, then I’d act that story out! And before I even knew what fan-fiction was, I had little notebooks that I’d fill with scribbled stories about my favorite superheroes and movie monsters. I recall, in Primary 5, at age eight, I started this whole trend which took my whole class by storm. I’d take three sheets of paper, fold them in half, and create a little 10-page book. I’d then write a story inside them, a few lines of writing on each page, accompanied by a picture. I wrote a bunch of them, recurring, connected tales of me and a few of my friends doing battle with various monsters, from Dracula, to werewolves, and eventually Satan himself. My teacher —equal parts baffled and impressed — put these books in the class library for other kids to read. And that started them writing stories of their own. Eventually, the class library had a whole supplementary shelf devoted exclusively to class creations! And I kept on pumping them out, wanting to be at the head of the pack. And yeah, going forward, all through school, creative writing was always the task I relished more than any other.
KS: Before we go fully into your career, was there any particular comic story that really had an impact on you as a younger reader? Something that really spoke to you and your sensibilities at whatever age that was.
JL: There are a whole lot of comic stories that have had an impact on me, but two I would like to highlight are The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, and Uzumaki, by Junji Ito.
KS: Two very different picks there. Tell us about when those landed in your life.
JL: The Killing Joke was a comic I’d heard about and had wanted to read since the ‘90s, but it was 2005, when I was 18 years old, when I first read it. And it blew me away. This might sound daft to say, as I’d been reading and enjoying comics for the decade that preceded that point, but this was perhaps my first experience of reading a comic and really appreciating the writing specifically as storytelling craft. And of course, Brian Bolland’s work on that is masterful, too, I’m not downplaying that. But, I mean, I was looking at the dialogue and thinking of the plotting, and really imagining what it would be like to write a comic like this. It would be another few years before I began to pursue writing comics myself, but I do think this played a role in sowing those seeds in my head.
Uzumaki, I read several years later, around 2010. By this point, I was in my 20s, and had already begun writing my own comics. But this book hit me like a lightning bolt. Here was a horror comic that was truly frightening, like nothing else I’d experienced at that point. It immediately became an obsession of mine, that I wanted to make other readers feel the way about a comic I wrote the way that I’d felt reading Uzumaki. I think I’m still chasing that summit, never quite achieving it, but still hopeful!
KS: Can you recall where the idea of writing comics professionally first developed for you? Did you have a plan on how to go about pursuing that?
JL: As I said, I had long wanted to write, and had long loved comics, but didn’t immediately put the two together. That eventually happened for me after university. While [there], I had nursed the ambitions of being a screenwriter, but without any real insight on how to get a foothold in that world. In my final year, I’d written a script for a short film, and had started work on getting it made, but that ended up soon falling apart, with me losing the actor, then the location. So, in late 2008, I was at a bit of a loose end. And then a friend of mine, who was an artist, asked me to write a comic for them to draw. And it was then, reading up on how to write comics, that I fell in love with the medium not just as a reader, but as a writer. My friend and I didn’t end up working together on a comic, but I well and truly had the bug.
KS: These days there are scripts of every format posted online, but how about back then?
JL: I had an app on my old computer at the time, one that I used for formatting screenplays. It was called ScriptSmart or something like that. And there were a few different types of script that you were able to format within it, and one of those was comic script. That was where I got the first inkling of how a comic script would be laid out. Even though I now just format scripts myself in a Word document, I still manually apply many of the formatting elements I picked up from that initial template.
KS: How did your comic, The Standard, fit in here?
JL: The Standard #1 was the first comic script I ever wrote. It ended up not really being a fit for what my friend wanted to do, so I sat on it for a little bit.
Art by Alex Cormack
KS: Because many of our readers are aspiring pro creators, I’m especially interested in which steps that you as a creator could control as opposed to being at the mercy of larger forces.
JL: [G]oing into early 2009, I stumbled on this website called Project Fanboy, where a column was running called the Proving Grounds. In it, editor Steven Forbes would review submitted comics scripts, and give feedback, sharing his annotations on an [excerpt] of the opening pages. Now, these reviews were often scathingly critical, but I was still keen to submit my script, thinking maybe I’d learn something. So, after reading Steven Forbes’ other column — Bolts & Nuts, a guide to comics writing, which taught me a lot, and has many lessons I still apply to this day — I submitted The Standard #1 to the Proving Grounds. And when it came for my turn on the chopping block, to my pleasant surprise, Steve actually liked the script! And he even said at the end of his review that this was the first script where he kept on reading right through to the end, after finishing the excerpt he was reviewing for the column, because he wanted to see what happened next. Afterwards, Steve reached out to me privately, and said he believed The Standard was good enough to get made, and he would be willing to help me do it, if I was interested. So, I hired Steven Forbes as my editor, and he guided me through the process of putting my first comic together. He helped me plot the series, edited and refined my scripts, and led me through the process of bringing onboard an artist and a creative team. Once I was drawing near the end of writing the series, and we had artwork in for the first issue, Steve presented me with an option: either we could take to pitching this comic around to publishers, and if I wanted to do that he’d be there to help me, or I could bring it to a new publisher that was just getting off the ground, headed by his friend, Tyler James. I went for the latter option, and that new publisher ended up being ComixTribe, who I still work with to this day.
KS: What did you learn about the art and/or business of comics in the time between that and your next project?
JL: I am immensely thankful for the experience of working on The Standard. If I’d known then what I know now, I’m sure I would never have made a 6-issue miniseries my first comics project, which ended up taking me nearly six years to complete, from initial development to publication of the final issue. But I’m also glad that I didn’t know that then, as I learned so much in the making of that comic, in seeing it through to the end. I believe that, over the course of making The Standard, I learned how to make a comic, and how to tell a story in comics form. And I’m still happy with the end result, where I can look back at that now and think, “That’s pretty good.” But, in terms of the direct market, it wasn’t a success, and it never really made a dent anywhere in terms of building buzz or getting my name out there, apart from maybe very locally here in the Scottish comics scene.
KS: From there, your website describes And Then Emily Was Gone as your first “breakout” comic. How did that come about?
JL: I’d finished writing The Standard in early 2011, and there followed a couple of years of floundering, trying to get a foothold on what the next project would be. I wrote a few scripts, even got some art in for some pitches, but none of it went anywhere. One of those abortive plans had involved pairing up with Scottish artist Iain Laurie for a planned revival of old DC Thomson supervillain the Black Sapper, at the behest of a publisher. But when that project fell apart, Iain and I got to talking about our frustrations trying to court publishers and get work picked up, and how we should try just making our own thing, something that would cater to our own interests rather than chasing mass appeal. We shot ideas back and forth, and threw various influences — Twin Peaks and the work of David Lynch, Hammer Horror, The Wicker Man, Utopia, John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List — into the melting pot. And the creation that emerged was And Then Emily Was Gone.
KS: Did you know Iain before that?
JL: I first knew Iain through a familiarity with his work. Back in 2011, The Standard was nominated for a SICBA Award at Glasgow Comic Con, and one of the other nominees was Roachwell, by Iain and a writer called Craig Collins. And Iain’s art style immediately grabbed me, so visceral and unnerving, to the point where I was soon actively seeking out his other work. By the time I finally met him at a comics event in Edinburgh, I was an established fan. But I then found out that he’d learned of me through The Standard being an award nominee at the same time I’d learned about him, and he’d become interested in my work, too. We got on with each other right away, and were very soon talking about the possibility of working together.
KS: What was the process like of getting that one out into the world?
JL: When I’d written that first issue script for And Then Emily Was Gone, I immediately had the feeling that this was something special, that we were really tapping into something here. And that feeling only heightened once I saw Iain’s art come in. I was a huge fan of Iain’s work on the likes of Roachwell and Horror Mountain, and much of my writing was essentially just me throwing stuff out that I wanted to see Iain draw. We had originally thought of this as just a book for us to take around Scottish conventions, but then other creators with bigger names, like Nick Pitarra and Riley Rossmo, saw our work on that first issue, and they said that they could see this as appealing to a bigger audience, that we should be pitching it. And so, we started querying publishers, really taking some big swings, but alas, still getting no traction. But Tyler at ComixTribe took a shot on us, and offered to publish the comic, even though it was something very different than anything they’d done before. And thankfully, that bet on us ended up paying off, for them and us. And Then Emily Was Gone ended up being ComixTribe’s biggest hit yet, at that point in time. And for us, it got us noticed, put us on the radar of editors and other creators, not to mention really expanding my audience of readers and making more people pay attention to my work going forward. And it’s a book that’s still being talked about and discovered by new audiences to this day, almost a decade after its original release.
KS: Since we talked about lessons learned the first time around, what about this time around?
JL: So, in terms of the lessons I learned from the experience of And Then Emily Was Gone, the obvious one was that horror was where I’d found my niche, and that I would do well to continue building my audience within that genre. But also, I learned to have more belief in myself, and in writing the kind of idiosyncratic stuff that appeals to me. I feel like chasing a big audience or trying to come up with a pitch that will be popular with a wide demographic is a good way to drive yourself mad. But if you write the kind of thing that you’d want to read, the comic that you wished existed on shelves and if it doesn’t then you’ll just have to make it yourself, then not only will you be happier and more invested during the process of creation, but the audience you do find will be one in tune with your sensibilities.
KS: These days, would you more closely call yourself a word count writer, page count, or time at the keyboard?
JL: My routine tends to be based around page count. Each week, I write up a daily to-do list, and on a writing week, each day will feature a writing progress milestone. For example, on Monday, one item on the list will be “plan script,” then on Tuesday, it’ll be “start script,” —I always give starting a script its own day without any specific benchmark, as just getting started on something new is always the hardest part— then on Wednesday, “get ¼ through script,” Thursday, “get ⅓ through script,” Friday, “get ½ through script.” Then, I tackle the second half the following week. It doesn’t always work out, sometimes things can take longer if it’s a challenging script, but my ideal goal is that two-week turnaround on a draft.
KS: When you sit down to plan out a new comic, what are your first steps? How far in advance do you outline?
JL: I’m a rigorous outliner. Normally, before I’ve written so much as a page of script, I’ve written the outline for the whole series, including a chapter breakdown. Then, ahead of scripting each issue, I will do a scene breakdown, which is a bullet-pointed list laying out all the scenes that will be in that issue, paired with an estimate of how many pages I expect them to take up. Then, I’ll do a page breakdown, where I’ll write a numbered list of 1-20, 1-22, 1-24, however many pages are in the story, and in that, in one line, I’ll summarize what happens on each page of the story. This helps me to make sure that, on every page, something of substance —be it a plot or character moment — is happening. And only once I have that most thorough of blueprints, do I proceed with the actual scripting. I believe it makes the process of writing that much easier, when it’s not just the void of the blank page, when you have a clear roadmap for the writing journey ahead of me.
KS: Switching to a hypothetical, what’s a skill, unrelated to comics or writing, that you’d love to be proficient in? This could be something you don’t have an aptitude for, or used to be good at but fell out of the habit, or never seriously pursued learning.
JL: You know what? I’d love to be a great dancer. I have zero rhythm, but I think it would just be a great skill to have to just be naturally gifted and be able to bust a move, should the situation call for it.
KS: To spread some love as we reach the end, who’s a comics writer whose voice really aligns with your sensibilities as a reader? Looking at it from a writer’s perspective, what’s the “special sauce” that they bring to the work?
JL: It’s hard to just single out a single writer, but when I look at comics writers whose work I consistently enjoy — Grant Morrison, Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, Ram V, Chris Condon, Chip Zdarsky, and plenty others. I think the “special sauce” that makes their best stories resonate is the feeling that they matter, that they mean something to them. Whether it be an original story or working on a licensed character, they bring into it that kernel of themselves, make it an expression of something personal. One cheesy phrase I’ve thrown around since the beginning of my career is, “I want every comic I write to have the potential to be somebody’s favorite comic.” And that absolutely doesn’t mean I’m succeeding in making the greatest comics ever. But what it does mean is really caring about the stories you’re telling, and that’s something I often get with the writers whose work resonates with me most.
KS: Finally, let readers know what you have coming out the rest of ’23. There will be a new book on the shelves right around when readers can see this interview.
JL: The next thing I have coming up is The Nasty from Vault Comics, featuring art from Adam Cahoon and George Kambadais, colors from Kurt Michael Russell, and letters by Jim Campbell [out April 5]. It’s a coming-of-age horror comedy set in 1990s Scotland, against the backdrop of the video nasties moral panic. I’m really excited about this comic, which I think could be my biggest project yet, as well as perhaps my most personal.
I also have The Last Ride of Pillar & Pryde, a road-trip mystery thriller with artist Joe Mulvey, colorist Doug Garbark, and letterer Shawn Lee, but given the current status of publisher AfterShock, I can’t say when that will be released for sure. We also have more Sink coming up, with the long-awaited Volume 3 launching this year.