Interview: Dirk Manning of Nightmare World

The web comics success story tells Crave about his Nightmare World anthology series of short horror stories, concluding this fall with Demon Days.

Andy Hunsakerby Andy Hunsaker

Nightmare World Volume Three: Demon Days

The story of Dirk Manning's rise to prominence seems like a blueprint for anyone else trying to break into writing comics.  Back in 2002, he began publishing his horror short-story anthology series Nightmare World online, so he could show off his writing chops and the work of the contributing artists.  Soon after that, more artists came to him asking to illustrate new chapters in the mythos, and it eventually grew into something so popular that Image Comics' Shadowline imprint collected his stories into graphic novel form.  There have been two published volumes of Nightmare World so far, each one a collection of 13 stand-alone short tales inspired by popular song titles, but taken together weave a tale he describes as "The Cthulu Mythos meets Paradise Lost."

Nightmare World Volume Three: Demon Days is due out this October, as seen in the current edition of Previews as the "Image Spotlight" selection on page 189.  Also, Discount Comic Book Service is not only selling the first two volumes at 40% off the cover price, but they're also offering a Demon Days pre-order special this month where you can get it for 50% off.  With that deal, you also get an exclusive CD featuring a remix of the industrial band Cockfight Club's tune "H.P. Lovecraft," for which Manning wrote and performed an intro and outro skit to add another story to the Nightmare World continuity.

We got a chance to talk with the loquacious Mr. Manning about what's in store for us, and we got plenty of great detail about the entire series, as well as his current spin-off series entitled Tales of Mr. Rhee, all of which is very obviously a huge labor of love for him.

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Q. What was the one big thing from your youth that hooked you into the horror genre?

Dirk Manning:  It was unquestionably a cross between the Godzilla movies that were on the “Creature Feature” TV show right after school and watching reruns of The Twilight Zone with my great grandma.  The Godzilla films showed me that monsters could be scary and fun (oftentimes at the same time!), while The Twilight Zone showed me what a genuinely unsettling, creepy and chilling story you could tell with just one or two people in one room.

Q. NIGHTMARE WORLD will probably always be classified as horror, even if it is more akin to “The Twilight Zone” than anything slashery.  Although there have been some horror parodies peppered throughout, and there's certainly a “Tales From The Crypt” vibe present, you've got the “Movin’ On” story in NIGHTMARE WORLD Volume 3: “Demon Days” that lodges complaints about how horror stories and movies are classified.  Considering this, how would you classify NIGHTMARE WORLD if you worked at a library and had to figure out where to put it?

DM:  Oh, make no mistake about it… Nightmare World is a “horror” book through and through. It just happens to be GOOD horror that doesn’t feed into the base trappings of “torture-porn” or “blood-and-boobies.”

For as long as I can remember I’ve had to defend my love of GOOD horror – be it in prose, print, film or comics. Anyone who’s already a fan of horror knows that there’s GOOD horror… and then there’s the type of over-the-top crap that all too many people associate with horror.

Like I said a moment ago: I’m not into “torture porn,” pointless “slashery” (that’s a great term, by the way) or that stupid “blood and boobies” stuff that we all watched a bit of as teenagers. As an adult, I’m into GOOD horror that is genuinely unsettling, thrilling and scary… and as stuff like The Twilight Zone proved all those years ago, you don’t necessarily need to include violence or monsters to create that type of atmosphere.

It’s like the two characters in “Movin’ On” discuss in their truck drive: Putting monsters in a story does NOT make it “horror.” It makes it FANTASY. Similarly, putting violence in a story doesn’t make it horror – it makes it ACTION or REVENGE FANTASY (at best).  Horror – GOOD horror – is the stuff that stays with you for a long time. A good horror story is one you’ll think back on often and say to your friends “Oh, remember that one story/movie/scene when…” and then you’ll all shiver a bit.  Maybe it involves monsters and/or violence… but maybe not, you know?  Horror – GOOD horror – speaks to the nature of the human condition and experience in extreme situations, and because of that it will resonate with you for years – if not a lifetime.

Considering this, I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt (as can the millions of people who’ve read NIGHTMARE WORLD over the years both online and in print) that NIGHTMARE WORLD is indeed horror – GOOD horror – and should be filed in that section alongside the work of guys like Stephen King, Joe Hill, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe and the like for sure.

 

Nightmare World Vol 3: In The Meantime
 


Q. The quick in-and-out nature of these twisted tales in NIGHTMARE WORLD really lends themselves to hooking in readers for the long haul in a way one long story might not.  Was it your goal from the get-go to dabble in all the various genres, or was that something that happened as different artists approached you to get involved with the project?

DM:  You may have noticed from my last answer that I’m a bit passionate in my love of horror… [laughs] Well, one of the things I’ve always loved about the horror genre is that you can tell so many types of stories within it. Heck, it’s like I said at the very beginning of the interview: You can categorize Godzilla: King of the Monsters (that’s the first film in the franchise, of course) and The Twilight Zone both under horror despite the fact that those two properties are almost polar opposites of one another, you know?

When I started writing Nightmare World and collaborating with my first set of artists, my mission was two-fold: First, I wanted to show what the artists (who were all studio-mates of mine from Golden Goat Studios) and I were capable of in regards to creating comics… but secondly, and of equal importance, was that I wanted to show at least a portion of the various sub-genres you can explore under the umbrella of horror.

Little did I know that what I originally envisioned to be a six-story collection with six different artists would grow into a full-realized series of 52 different stories with about 35 artists from around the world, and that I would be able to explore EVERY sub-genre of horror… but, hey, that’s the glory of the Internet for you. [laughs]

 

Nightmare World Vol. 3:


Q. In bringing the varying story threads together into a tighter focus for NIGHTMARE WORLD Volume 3: “Demon Days,” did you feel you risked losing that short-story sensibility?  What steps did you take to keep it modular while still serving the greater narrative?

DM:  Good question! First and foremost, my main goal with Nightmare World Volume 3 was to maintain the integrity of the stand-alone short story format we used in the first two collections, and throughout the whole series when we originally published it as online in a serialized fashion for several years.

When people read Nightmare World Volume 1: Thirteen Tales of Terror, there’s no real way of knowing that all of the various stories are part of one giant story until you read the bonus prose story at the back of the collection… and even then it’s still pretty vague at best.  With Nightmare World Volume 2: Leave the Light On we started to show some connections not only between the stories in that collection, but also hearkening back to some of the plot elements and characters from Volume 1. However, each of the thirteen stories in Volume 2 also stand-alone on their own two feet, and it’s an added bonus in the form of an “Easter Egg” that, hey, the crazy-haired guy who’s trying to summon Cthulhu in “Disasterpiece” from Nightmare World Vol. 2 is in fact Brian Carter, who has a run-in with a very sultry (and ultimately disgusting) Cthulhu Priestess from “You Oughta Know” in Nightmare World Vol. 1.

 

Nightmare World Vol. 2: Strays

 

Heck, very astute readers of Nightmare World Vol. 2 will even notice that the first and last stories in that volume actually tie together pretty closely… but, again, it’s secondary to the stories themselves, and so much so that many people fail to realize that the Chupacabra story “Strays” that opens the book and the tragic superhero love story story “Without You I’m Nothing” actually do tie together. I mean, who would think it given the vastly different genres, you know? But again, that’s part of the fun with Nightmare World. [laughs]

Well, with Nightmare World Vol. 3: Demon Days, we really wanted to start spelling things out for those people who started to make the connections – as well as those who didn’t – while, again, still telling thirteen well-written, well-executed and beautifully illustrated eight-page genre-hopping horror stories that can (and do) all stand on their own an separate short stories while also weaving into this bigger tapestry we’ve been creating with the series.

 

Nightmare World 3: Preys Be The Lured

 

That’s why we start Nightmare World Vol. 3 with “Frozen,” a barbarian story that reveals the origin of the Cthulhu priestess from Vol. 1, but also stands on its own two feet as a chilling (no pun intended) horror story. We had Anthony Peruzzo go back and re-illustrate the original version of this story for the print collection from how it appears online, and man, it’s a punch in the gut. It’s a frightening, frightening story… but one that also sets the tone for Nightmare World Vol. 3 by showing just how much we’re pulling back the curtain in regards to showing the “big picture” to people who want to see it.

My goal has ALWAYS been to tell great stand-alone stories first, but I also wanted to show what an ambitious project this was and how it’s the only anthology-style title of its size in existence that reads as a genuine anthology and one large epic story all at the same time.

 

Nightmare World Vol. 3: Frozen
 

Q.As you mentioned a minute ago, the original NIGHTMARE WORLD saga is comprised of 52 short stories, of which, with the release of NIGHTMARE WORLD Vol. 3 this October, 39 will have been compiled into these three print collections from Image Comics/Shadowline.  How hard was it to cull the full 52 down to 39, and what was the decision process like?

DM:  You know, it was a tough only in the sense that everyone has different favorites and, honestly, there’s not one “clunker” in the bunch. With the first collection, we went out of our way to select 13 different stories that really (seemingly) stood completely apart from one another if for no other reason that we weren’t sure what kind of support the book would get from readers when we took it to print, especially since the series had been published online in its entirety for free through Shadowline already, you know?

Considering this, in order to entice and reward readers who would support the book in print, we went back and remastered a lot of the art just for the print collection and then offered some other cool bonuses like the gorgeous wrap-around cover by Kristen Perry and the exclusive prose story that will never be available online – and people really dug it and got behind what we were doing. As I was hoping, all the people who enjoyed the series online also really wanted nice print editions of these stories that they could read and enjoy, and they voted with their dollars by pre-ordering the book to the point where we exceeded the numbers we needed to go to print by quite a wide margin.


The following Halloween, when it came time to release Nightmare World Vol. 2, we sat down and selected stories that started to show the bigger picture a little bit more. While Nightmare World can and should be read as an anthology-style series first and foremost, there is that “other side of the pancake” in which this is also one GIANT story as well, and with Vol. 2 we wanted to really start to acknowledge that a little more.

Now, for this October with Nightmare World Vol 3… honestly, I was torn regarding how much I should “reveal” of the “big story” in this volume, but I ultimately decided, “Hey, if this was a play it would be the third act,” and I thus decided to take the gloves off and, to mix my metaphors, really pull back the curtain all the way.

As a result, in Vol. 3 you’ll see a lot of how much involvement Lucifer (and several other equally devilish characters) had in the events of the first two books… but again, it’s all though  a series of completely stand-alone short stories.

Anyone can order or pick-up Nightmare World Vol. 3 – or 1 or 2 – with no prior knowledge of the other two collections and still enjoy the Hell out of ’em (no pun intended) since the collections initially read as sets of short stories… but with this Vol. 3 you’ll also be hard-pressed to not see the “bigger story” we’re telling at the same time.

 

Nightmare World Volume 3: Paranoid

 

Q. When NIGHTMARE WORLD Vol 3 comes out you’ll have 3/4ths of the series in print… but are the full 52 still available online anywhere?
 

DM:  Oh yeah! There are no secrets here! [laughs]  Really nice online versions of every story are available at the webcomics section of ShadowlineOnline.com for anyone to go check out, read and enjoy at anytime. I keep the stories up there because, point blank, I’m not afraid to let people read part of the series – or if they wish, even the whole series – online for free before deciding to support it in print.

I mean, hey, I have no misconceptions about who I am and my place in the industry, you know? A lot of people know me from my “Write or Wrong” column at Newsarama and, sure, they may recognize my hat and scarf online persona/image… but I’m certainly not a household name… yet.  What I DO know, though, is that just about every person who has ever taken the time to read even the first few Nightmare World stories online has become hooked – including a lot of people who otherwise don’t consider themselves fans of “horror” or “horror comics.”

I keep Nightmare World online for free because I believe in the work and I know that people who are willing to go give it a read online will find that it’s a good enough series that they would do well in supporting it in print – and get then be happy to get remastered art and some of the other “print-only” exclusives that come with doing so.

Heck, I’m doing the same thing now with my new online horror series Tales of Mr. Rhee, which updates a new page of story every Tuesday and Thursday at ShadowlineOnline.com, but that’s another discussion all together for another time. [laughs]
 



Q. Can you pick a favorite story in the NIGHTMARE WORLD series?  In the interest of not pitting the artists against each other, we'll say a favorite story you've written, regardless of the illustrations.

DM:  Hey, the artists all had friendly competitions with each other throughout the multi-year creation of the series, so there’s no harm in pitting them against each other at all! [laughs] Heck, it’s part of the reason every story in the series is drawn so well: No one wanted to be the weak link! [laughs]

Out of the 52 stories… gosh… there are a lot I really like… so how about I pick one from each volume?

From Volume 1: Thirteen Tales of Terror, my favorite story I wrote is “Violet,” which is beautifully illustrated by Renae de Liz, who’s now making national headlines as the mastermind behind the Womanthology project that just raised almost $110,000 on Kickstarter, becoming one of the most funded projects ever at the site. “Violet” was the first story she ever had published and she just NAILED the emotion of that story, which is a very romantic, very personal, and ultimately very haunting love story. My slasher parody “Knee Deep in the Dead” is also a fan-favorite from this collection as well as a personal favorite as well, so I have to give that one some props, too. Sorry. [laughs]

Nightmare World Vol 1. -

 

From Nightmare World Volume 2: Leave the Light On my favorite story I wrote is definitely the Sherlock Holmes tale “While you Sleep, I Destroy Your World.” That whole collection is really, really strong (as they all are), but that particular story, I think, represents one of my finest moments as a writer. Moriarty’s dialogue is just… well… people will just have to read it either online or, preferably, in print. [laughs]  Again, the art is great on this one too, and we had Anthony Lee recolor the story for the print collection and he just knocked it out of the park. If I was a dirty cheater I’d also cite the tragic superhero story “Without You I’m Nothing” from this book… but I’m not a cheater so I won’t do that. [laughs]


Nightmare World Vol. 2 -

 

From Nightmare World Volume 3: Demon Days, I’m going to say that it has to be the stick-figure-based wolfman story “Hungry Like the Wolf.” The dialogue in the story is also told only in picture (someone recently compared it to the language from the videogame series “The Sims”) and it’s one of those stories that everyone who’s seen this collection raves about. It was a very fun story to write and artist/horror-blogger Stacie Ponder helped me make this a real stand-out story for all the right reasons. As I’ve been saying all along, Nightmare World is all about quality and diversity, and this story offers that in spades. “Preys Be the Lured” is another personal favorite from this collection. It’s a story about Lucifer visiting the Vatican City the day after the Rapture and Josh Ross just illustrated the Hell out of it (again, no pun intended). There’s a five-panel page in this story in which we see glimpses of what happened during the Armageddon and Rapture that’s one of the most iconic pages in the whole series.

 

Nightmare World Volume 3: Hungry Like The Wolf

 

Gosh… I mentioned two stories per volume, didn’t I? And I didn’t even mention such equally qualified contenders such as the Western story “Ring of Fire,” the heavy-metal music satire “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)”, my Bigfoot vs. Nessie story “Paranoid”… or… OK, OK… I’ll stop. [laughs]


What did you expect, though? It’s hard to choose a favorite among all my babies! [laughs]
 


Q. How'd you cycle through your music collection to pick the titles for each chapter?  Did you start with the titles and build a story around it, or bust out a funky happening and hunt for an appropriate song to match it?  And, to push this even farther, do the stories echo the mood of the actual songs, or is it strictly title-only?

DM:  So you noticed that the title every Nightmare World story is inspired by a song, huh? [laughs]  I was a music journalist for several years as I geared-up for my true passion of writing stories that would be told in the comics medium, and that extreme love of music – all types of music – is something that I still carry with me to this day

Honestly, it’s rare that a song inspired a story, though. Usually I would start to develop a story in my mind and then, while looking through my CD collection (I still don’t own an iPod – I know, I know, I’m such a Luddite…) that I would stumble across a song title that worked well with a story I was developing in my mind.

Every once in a while this “synchronicity” would indeed guide the direction of a certain story idea quite a bit, though. For example, the “death poem” at the end of the Ninja vs. Samurai story “Bitter Wine” from Vol. 1 was inspired by the song title “Bitter Wine” by L7. I knew the direction the story was going to go in beforehand – right down to the ending and the need for me to write a traditional Japanese death poem – but when my eyes fell upon that song title the poem just came to me:  “This wine, the last thing I will ever taste, is so bitter.”

Anyone who knows anything about the culture of Samurai knows about those poems and how important they were, and I wasn’t sure if I would be up to writing a good one… but when my eyes fell across that song title the poem just took shape in my head in a flash and “Bitter Wine” became the title for that story.

So that’s the deal behind the song titles. That, and, again, there’s that “Easter Egg” quality to it where hopefully people who like the stories (or at least the titles) will try to hunt down the song titles that they were inspired by. Honestly, a few of them are *very* obscure… but that’s part of the fun too, and all of the song titles are from bands or performers that I really like.

Yes, even Alanis Morissette. [laughs]

 

Nightmare World: For Those About To Rock
 


Q. How'd you get Gary Reed of DEADWORLD to do the foreword to NIGHTMARE WORLD Volume 3: “Demon Days”?
 

DM:  You know, he asked me that same question after he wrote it! [laughs]  I grew-up only an hour or so from Detroit, and because of this as soon as I was old enough to drive I would always attend the comic shows in the Detroit area, and it was there that I first discovered his long-running zombie comic Deadworld.  It is a really, really good survival horror comic and I always respected Gary’s ability to weave tales of terror that revolved equally around the monstrous actions of the zombies as well as the “normal” people. It’s something that always stuck with me and made me really respect what Gary did with Deadworld.

Well, fast forward about two decades to last year when I attended the debut Detroit Fanfare comic convention as a guest promoting Nightmare World. Over the course of the weekend I got to talk to Gary quite a bit (something I never did as a teenage fan – because I was shy like that) and we stayed in touch a bit ever since. When it came time to start putting stuff together for Nightmare World Vol. 3 and started thinking about who could write the introduction for it (Arvid Nelson of Rex Mundi fame did the introduction for Volume 1 and I did the introduction to Volume 2), I, nervously, shot Gary an e-mail asking him if he’d be willing to do it… and much to my eternal gratitude he agreed to do so, even managing to say one or two nice things about me and my work in the process. [laughs]


Q. Will there be a NIGHTMARE WORLD Vol. 4 next Halloween, or is your current spin-off series TALES OF MR. RHEE fulfilling that purpose?

DM:  I’m not going to lie to you, man… I’m torn in regards to doing that fourth and final Nightmare World collection. The “completist” part of me wants to have all 52 stories in print, of course… but then the “realistic” side of me kicks-in and says “Dirk, think about how much time it takes to put these collections together…” [laughs]  Make no mistake, it’s not like we just pull the pages offline and slap ’em into a book when we make these collections, you know? We go through and remaster almost EVERYTHING from top to bottom… and it takes a lot of time and energy on behalf of myself and all of the artists involved.

Heck, we had both “Movin’ On” and “Frozen” COMPLETELY REDRAWN for this volume, and that aside, I don’t think there’s hardly a page in the book that hasn’t been tweaked (at least) for print. It’s a long, laborious process, and considering the fact that Nightmare World Vol 3 really does tell the majority of the “big story,” combined with the fact that those last 13 stories are available online for free at ShadowlineOnline.com for people who want to read them… I dunno. I guess if Nightmare World Vol 3 does really well we’d be silly not to print the last collection, but we’ll see what happens.

I’ve often joked that for the 13th anniversary of Nightmare World’s debut online (which would be in 2015) that I’d like to release The Nightmare World Bible: a giant hardcover collecting all 52 stories as well as a ton of sketches and stuff… but we’ll see what happens. Like I said, putting out each collection is a very laborious process considering the number of people involved.

That, and like you said, Tales of Mr. Rhee is currently updating twice a week at ShadowlineOnline.com as well, and that’s a really fun (and horrifying) series that serves as a companion to Nightmare World… so… again… we’ll see. I’m not committing to anything at this point… but given the fact that Shadowline has released a collection from me every October for the last three years, well, it would be a shame to break that tradition, wouldn’t it?  Whether October 2012 sees the realease of Nightmare World Vol 4, a Tales of Mr. Rhee collection or something else entirely remains to be seen. I’m just trying to make it to THIS October right now. [laughs]
 


Q. Speaking of Mr. Rhee, can you tell us more about that?  How long do you plan on doing it?  Are there no plans to collect that in print yet?

DM:  Tales of Mr. Rhee is a Nightmare World spin-off series that follows the adventures of a paranormal trouble-shooter known only as “Mr. Rhee.” (Get it?) The tagline for the series is “If you have to call Mr. Rhee, it’s already too late for a happy ending.”

Much as we did with Nightmare World, Tales of Mr. Rhee is told in eight-page chapters, but of course this time the stories are MUCH more linear and all follow the exploits of one very cryptic – and very complex – character as he navigates through a post-Armageddon/Rapture world trying to clean-up the messes still left behind. There are 13 (of course) eight-page stories in what we’re calling the first “volume” of Tales of Mr. Rhee, and they’re all being illustrated by Josh Ross, who illustrated five of the 39 collected Nightmare World stories.


Are there plans to do a Tales of Mr. Rhee collection down the road as well? Well, it’s certainly no coincidence that there are going to be 13 eight-pages stories in “Volume One” of Tales of Mr. Rhee… but that’s all I’m going to say about that for right now. [laughs]

 

Tales of Mr. Rhee

 

Q: Aside from Nightmare World, the Write or Wrong column and Tales of Mr. Rhee, what else do you have on your plate?

DM:  I also continue to write the all-ages fantasy comic Farseeker with Len O’Grady for ACT-I-VATE.com.

I’ll be appearing at the Detroit Fanfare convention at the end of September, doing a mini signing-tour throughout the Midwest in October, then appearing at Mid-Ohio Con in November. After that I’ll turn back to focusing on Tales of Mr. Rhee until the Spring, at which time I’ll then be joining Jim Valentino with Shadowline Comics for most – if not all – of their convention appearances.

In other words, it’s a good time to be a horror fan, and I certainly hope that everyone who’s read this takes the time to check out and support Nightmare World and Tales of Mr. Rhee both online and then in print!