You might never look at fall foliage the same way again. In fact, you may be shaking like a leaf after reading bestselling author Daniel Kraus’s The Autumnal, the latest release from Nightfall, the dedicated horror imprint from Vault Comics. The book is Kraus’s first foray into the comics genre, after partnering with director Guillermo del Toro on the film and novel versions of The Shape of Water and having his novel Trollhunters turned into a Netflix series.
Kraus teamed with artist Chris Shehan for the eight-issue suspense-filled saga of a Chicago mom and her daughter who escape a difficult life in the city, only to find supernatural danger in their new home of Comfort Notch, N.H.
Kraus and Shehan chatted with PW about created The Autumnal and working with the teams at Vault and Nightfall.
Daniel, you’ve created an interesting niche for yourself by collaborating on novels with filmmakers George Romero (The Living Dead) and Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water and Trollhunters). How did that become a specialty and how would you describe those creative partnerships?
Daniel Kraus: I’m as surprised as anyone! I am the quintessential hermit and part of the reason I write books is that I like to work alone. But as one strange collaboration has led to the next, I’ve really come to value the process. It forces me to work in different ways and that’s one of the most important things to keeping my writing vital: forcing myself to work in weird new ways. Otherwise, everything gets stale.
How does your relationship with Chris Shehan compare?
Oh, Chris is the best. He’s got a strong viewpoint and stands up his choices but is also graceful and inventive with changes. It’s one thing working with legends, but it’s even better working with someone who feels like they’ve got legend potential.
What surprised you most about creating a graphic novel? What were some of the unexpected challenges?
Really early on, my editor, Adrian, woke me up to the temporal and locational possibilities of comics, how swiftly you can shift back and forth and not lose the thread. That’s a tool you can’t really use in novels without a lot of descriptive baggage. The main challenge was getting into that Tetris mindset, where certain chunks of story need to be slotted onto page spreads in a physical way.
What sparked the idea for The Autumnal?
A conversation about leaves, honestly! I was talking about how leaves look like footprints. What if someone used them to travel, like stones across a stream? That notion sat for a few years. I was contemplating a novel in the vein of Anne River Siddons’s The House Next Door but couldn’t crack it. For some reason, the concept didn’t come alive until I started thinking about it as a comic.
How did your relationship with Vault Comics come about and why is Vault and their Nightfall imprint such a good match for The Autumnal?
I believe Michael Moreci, another Vault writer, introduced us. Vault was interested in the stuff I was already doing and I know I was very interested in the smart horror Vault had started to put out with Nightfall. I wanted in on it.
You’ve talked about the influence of “folk horror” on your work—how would you describe that genre, and what are some examples of works that made you a fan?
Folk horror tends to mean “rural horror,” but not in the sense of “hillbilly horror,” you know? It tends to involve old lands and old rituals that seem foreign and frightening to outsiders—sometimes for good reason. The novel Harvest Home and the films The Wicker Man and Children of the Corn were my intros into the genre as a kid. I grew up in a small Midwestern town and they still creep me out. Anything might be happening in a small town and you’d never know—you’re zooming past on the interstate at 70 mph.
What are some of the themes you wanted to explore in The Autumnal and how did you approach them?
Individuality versus mob mentality is a classic folk-horror theme but one that feels especially current right now. The Autumnal cycles through four generations of women who refuse, in various ways, to do what the rest of their community tells them. The end result of all that is anger—which also feels appropriate to right now.
What did you set out to achieve with this story? What would you like readers to take away?
First and foremost, I wanted to make a slow creeper of a horror story that slides up an exponential curve, so you don’t even realize when it gets terrifying. What I want readers to take away, I think, is what I often want them to take away: the sense that, even though the world can be a terrible place, there’s no reason not to go down fighting.
Chris, how did you develop the look of the book?
Chris Shehan: I spent hours virtually driving through small New England towns via Google Street view. Turning down alleyways, going through neighborhoods. I’m not from there and I’ve never been there and I want people who grew up in those towns or who have driven past them to really feel it. I also did a lot of study drawings of trees, because the trees and leaves are essentially a main character and I wanted every shot filled with leaves and trees to have some weight.
What was it like working with a first-time comic writer?
Daniel has mastered descriptive writing and setting a scene. He’s a big fan of film (like me) and an outstanding writer, so his transition to comics felt very natural. This time, no one is reading his beautifully worded descriptions of the scenes and characters except for me, but he made my job easy bringing all of it to life.
How does your work in The Autumnal compare to other projects you've done?
I would say it’s the best comic I’ve ever made (so far), but I’d hope every project I do is better than the last. It’s definitely the biggest project I’ve ever done.
Is it true you got into the biz via a visit to Comic-Con?
Going to my first comic con solidified my desire to make comics, but it definitely wasn’t how I broke into comics. I took my first portfolio to San Diego Comic-Con (the big one) hoping to get work and while I didn’t get any, I learned more there than I ever did teaching myself at home. It helped me focus with exactly what I needed to work on to eventually start doing actual paid comic work. So I’d say going to conventions is very important, but I feel it’s rare (though very possible) that you’ll walk away with a job!
What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
If you want to make comics, make comics. Put them online, print them and sell them at conventions, make them for yourself to practice, etc. They say dress for the job you want, not the job you have, apply that to what you want to do. If you want to make comics, don’t wait until you’re hired, just make comics. It’s the best and fastest way to grow and improve. Second best advice would be to ask people you look up to in that field, or any adjacent fields, for feedback on work and advice. Most professionals will gladly help when they can (if they’re not too busy), so being respectful of their time is important.
To what extent does your environment play a role in your process?
Normally I would say “not much,” but this question is kind of funny because throughout The Autumnal, I went on daily walks to collect leaves and photograph trees. I liked having that inspiration and reference around me. I must have scanned about 50 real leaves to my computer to use as reference, or to take the texture off of them to put on cover art, and you’ll even see a few real leaves make their way into the pages.
Normally, my environment doesn’t play a part though. I can do my work anywhere and I get lost in my imagination regardless of what I’m drawing.
How would you describe your style as an artist?
I’m never quite sure. People kindly use the term “gritty,” but I feel like “messy” is a little more truthful.
What are some of your influences or favorite genres?
I don’t have a favorite genre, I’m a lover of good stories regardless of genre. I do take a lot of influence from film though, specifically film where the cinematography and visual storytelling are done masterfully. My two favorite films are Alien and Pride and Prejudice, and they couldn’t be more different, but I’d say both are beautifully and masterfully shot and they influence my work greatly.
Is there anything we didn't ask you that you'd like to add?
I’d like to thank my partner, Karla, for not only supporting me, but for playing the character Kat in The Autumnal. They let me film them acting out scenes so I could nail down exactly what I was going for, so they’re an unsung hero on this project and I’ll forever be grateful for the help, love, and support.
Chris and Daniel, how would you describe your collaboration process?
Daniel Kraus: I imagine when a comic writer is writing at the same time the artist is artist-ing, the writer kind of reacts to what the artist is doing. In this case, though, I wrote all the issues up-front, so it was more like I got to sit back and just be wowed by everything that Chris was turning in. That part was like a vacation!
Chris Shehan: Comics typically work as an assembly line with the writer writing a script, not too different from a script for film. The artist and colorist (Jason Wordie) will bring all of that to life visually, with the letterer (Jim Campbell) finishing it off with all of the word balloons. The entire team felt like a dream team to me. We all fed off of each other’s creativity to make a final product that none of us could have done alone. Between giving each other feedback and receiving great feedback from master editor Adrian Wassel and art/design direction from Nathan Golden and Tim Daniel, we created something very special in the end.
What excites you most about The Autumnal specifically and the Nightfall imprint and Vault Comics in general?
Daniel Kraus: Whether you call it “elevated horror” or “literary horror” or whatever, that’s my manna. I’ve spent my career writing stuff that skates the border of the grotesque and the gorgeous, and that feels like the playground Nightfall has built itself. Working with Vault on The Autumnal has been the best publishing experience of my career and I’m not even been paid to say that.
Chris Shehan: I feel like comics are often seen as a super hero genre, and comics are a medium filled with great genres. Vault Comics has become known for elevating other genres in comics, especially horror, fantasy, and sci-fi. Being able to tell this beautiful and horrifying story in the comics medium with Vault is something very special and important to me. If I could make comics with Vault in their Nightfall line or any other line forever, I would. They’re reminding story lovers everywhere that comics are one of the greatest storytelling mediums out there.
What are the images or scenes you’re most excited for readers to experience?
Daniel Kraus: One thing I was interested in with this project was the ideas of myths, legends, and songs telling stories that get refined over time with the telling. There are several points in The Autumnal where information you believe to be factual is quite revised. On the one hand, it’s a kind of a trick, but on the other, that’s how information actually works. There’s always a tale and always a teller.
Chris Shehan: As much as I want to say “the scary moments,” I think the moments in between are most special. The relationships with the characters, the emotions, and my favorite “character” of all, the town of Comfort Notch.