18 February 2010

Dread Awakenings

by guest columnist Mike Elrod.  Follow him on Twitter.

When I first read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen I would spend an hour a night going over each and every panel. One issue and a piece of Hollis Mason’s Under the Hood was all I would allow myself to read before sleeping. I knew from the start, and not just from what others had told me about it, that there was something different about this book. I found out exactly what made it so different around night three that has affected me ever since.

I began to have nightmares.

There’s no rule that says one genre or another is the only way in which to immerse one’s self in the fiction a writer has bestowed upon us. However, this was my seminal experience with such a thing. For anyone who’s read Watchmen I have little doubt that you would disagree with anything I’m about to say concerning it. For those of you who haven’t I hope that I can relate not only the experience of reading such a work but also what it’s done to inspire my writing as well.

I would wake up in the middle of the night, not from a dream that involved being chased by some creature or another or that I was falling off a cliff, or any other typical nightmare I had had before. No, this was something quite different. I would wake up and immediately begin to rise out of my bed because I felt the overpowering weight of something I couldn’t quite explain. There was a sense of dread that pervaded my world in those dark early morning awakenings. 

Once in particular I had woken up with the thought that something had happened to my roommate. The cold wooden floor shocked my senses as my bare feet touched it and caused me to come out of the stupor I was in. At that moment I realized that nothing had happened to my friend and that going to knock on his door was ridiculous at such an hour. It hit me so blatantly at that moment however that I hadn’t dreamt that something had actually happened. Instead, I had a sense of dread that followed me throughout whatever my dream was that night. It was an inescapable dread about life. Though I was angry that the book had managed to wake me up when I desperately needed the sleep I couldn’t stop wondering how it did this to me. In fact, as I sat there on my bed furrowing my brow I almost swore the book off completely but it was too late.

I was hooked.

Nothing had ever caused me to do this before. This new sensation that chased me more relentlessly than any childhood monster was something I had to explore. So, for two weeks, I took the story slower and slower so as to soak in every last bit that I could. By the end of those two weeks I found myself dreading not only the actual ending of the book but the inevitability that I would no longer have it to read. That first experience of reading Watchmen is something that even I as a new reader of graphic novels knew was special and I knew that I would miss it when it was done.

In writing a graphic novel I’ve often thought of how amazing it would be to eventually produce a story that could affect readers in the same way Watchmen affected me. To be able to induce nightmares not of the monstrous kind but of the kind that is simply a part of the dread we all feel in our existences is a tall order that only the most masterful craftsmen can fill. While I’m the first to admit that I’m no Alan Moore or Dave Gibbons, there is an understanding that I have with my co-creator Mike Carpenter. We’re going to create a book that is an attempt at this level of storytelling.

I know what you’re thinking; how can these two assume they’re as good as Moore and Gibbons? Well, we don’t. However, there’s no reason to aim if you’re not going to aim high, and the truth is that what made Watchmen so haunting for me wasn’t that there was a big vagina monster at the end of the book. It was the fact that Moore and Gibbons took my fears of life and all its uncertainty and created a story that honestly portrayed them. It’s not for the fame or the bragging rights that we aspire to this level. Rather, it’s for the reason that we would rather tell as honest of a story as they did.

And we want to use zombies to do it.

There is much to fear not only in these uncertainties but in the decisions we make to deal with them as well. I’ve found that good writers, both those I’ve only read and those I’ve talked to, understand this. It’s the language of heroics that is found in the pages of a comic or graphic novel and this language has no definitive answer for all situations. Rather, the language of heroics expresses where we must act and accept the responsibility for those actions, which is the true monster at the end of the book.

Mike Elrod earned his degree in theology from Mercer University with a minor in Gender Studies. He was raised by three women in the foothills of Georgia who taught him how to throw a baseball, fix a car, and play checkers. Mike has been known to teach elementary school from time to time and now works as the research instructor for a college nestled in the mountains of North Georgia. He is currently writing a graphic novel that takes place in Atlanta called DEADTOWN with amazing artwork by Mike Carpenter. 

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