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DF Interview: Ryan O’Sullivan rolls out the non-sequel sequel to ‘Fearscape’ in ‘A Dark Interlude’
By Byron Brewer
A Dark Interlude is a stand-alone sequel to 2018’s sellout meta-fictional dark fantasy comic series, Fearscape. The only problem is…the narrator Henry Henry is in denial about it being a sequel, and the entire plot of the book is that endless sequels are keeping humanity stagnant and unable to grow.
In A Dark Interlude, we follow Henry Henry, The Muse, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and a bevy of supernatural beings as they try to help humanity escape this “sequel crisis” before it destroys not only our world, but the supernatural world beyond it too.
From Vault Comics comes A Dark Interlude by writer Ryan O'Sullivan and artist Andrea Mutti. DF wanted to know more about this non-sequel sequel. So we bypassed the enthusiastic Henry Henry and went directly to scribe Ryan O’Sullivan.
Dynamic Forces: Ryan, you’re back for more in your upcoming sequel/not a sequel to Fearscape – A Dark Interlude. But first, were you kinda stunned at the reader/critical reaction to Fearscape. I know the folks at Vault were! How did that feel?
Ryan O’Sullivan: When a new comic is released, publishers usually send it to other comic writers and comic critics before it appears on the shelves. Because of this, I had a feeling the initial reaction to Fearscape was going to be positive, as those are the two groups it mocks the most. (And who wouldn't want to be in on the joke? If anyone said they disliked it, I could just say they "didn't understand it" and claim a moral victory. Win/win!)
I was surprised when this positive buzz translated over into the readership too. Five sellouts/reprints is an absurd number for an indie book. It reassured me that there is an appetite out there in the direct comics market for comics which challenge the reader. Current "Best Practice" is to make comics as clear and obvious as possible – go for the heart instead of the mind. It was reassuring that there is a large group of readers, still, who enjoy having to use their minds.
I have a few opinions on this topic. Comics already reveals so much to the reader in the art. It doesn't need to over-explain in the writing as much as most creators believe it does. I'm interested in "Iceberg Theory": the idea that the story shown to the reader is only the tip of the iceberg, and that the reader must work everything out for themselves. It's an approach used by novelists like Carver and Hemingway, or cartoonists like Inio Asano and Jeff Lemire. What I'm interested in exploring is the idea that comics isn't just one iceberg, it's two – words and pictures. (With the two often not playing well together.)
And it's from this synthesis (or lack of synthesis) that the "language/grammar of comics" can be best appreciated.
DF: Did this coming comic exist on the backburner of the Ryan roster when you were putting together Fearscape, or is A Dark Interlude something new for you?
Ryan O’Sullivan: Entirely new. Part of the joke of A Dark Interlude being a sequel about how bad sequels are, is that it was made entirely because Fearscape sold well. This has allowed me to embrace the autofictive elements in the construction of the story, to blur the lines between what is real and what is not; To force the reader into reflecting and forming their own judgments. The word "meta-fiction" gets thrown about a lot when describing my work, but I think that word is a bit overused. I prefer to think of it as "brushing up against kayfabe". Kayfabe is a term in wrestling that refers to both the audience and the performers knowing that the matches have a predetermined outcome, and that the "story" around them is entirely fictitious. If a wrestler "breaks" kayfabe, then they are acknowledging that what is going on is pretend: and in doing so are winking at the audience. In recent years, wrestlers have started blurring the lines – they'll stay "in character", but now and again refer to something behind the scenes, outside of the story. When done badly, breaking kayfabe undermines the story, but when done well, breaking kayfabe forces the audience to question whether what they are seeing is a story or not. And in doing so, wrestlers are able to trick people who know wrestling is fake to wonder if it's real.
The same thing can happen in fiction. You know you're reading something fake made by a writer. The writer knows they're making something fake. Both sides are aware of the other. And when you sit down to read, you have to willfully suspend your disbelief. But if an author has "brushed up against kayfabe", if they have hinted that there may be truth hidden within this work of fiction, you'll suddenly find yourself engaging with the story as if it is real. The entire work becomes supercharged, meaningful, and real. And, by extension, so do the characters.
DF: Tell readers about the storyline of this new comic.
Ryan O’Sullivan: A Dark Interlude is set in the same dark fantasy (think Sandman) world as Fearscape, with the same cast of characters as Fearscape, and takes place 18 months after the events of Fearscape. On the surface I see why some people think it's a sequel. I respect their opinion, even if it's not an opinion I personally share.
As for the plot itself? That is best experienced by reading the comic. I'm not a fan of writing "hooky" premises to pitch things in elevators. The comic exists because I wanted to tell the story a certain way: abridging it here would go against that, and could not possibly do justice to it. I know it's common practice in comics for creators to have cross-pitches at the ready, but I'm trying to push back against that. One thing we discovered when promoting Fearscape was that high-concept "pitchy" ideas didn't reflect the book – it's built around the tone of the unreliable narrator, Henry Henry. So for Issue #1 we had this pitch that went "There's a magical world beyond our world where all the things we fear exist as living creatures. Once per generation The Muse travels to our world, finds out greatest storyteller, and brings them to the Fearscape, so that they might do battle with these fears on our behalf. All has been well for centuries, until The Muse accidentally picks Henry Henry, the world's greatest plagiarist."
And yeah, it explains the book, and the unexpected hook at the end goes some way to indicate the alternative/subversive conceit of the story; But none of it communicates the tone of the book. So when it came to promoting the trade paperback collection, the back cover blurb was just Henry Henry, the narrator, ranting about how back cover blurbs were a waste of ink. It said nothing about the story of the book (and why should it? that sort of thing is for the inside of the book, not the outside) but it did communicate tone. This allowed prospective readers, in the ten seconds it takes them to read the blurb, to tell whether their humor aligns with mine, and whether spending time with me is going to be enjoyable for them.
To anyone curious about A Dark Interlude, the best thing they can do is read the preview pages available online. That will give you a better idea of the feel, story, tone and art than I can in an interview.
Oh, and you don't need to have read Fearscape to enjoy A Dark Interlude. (It will add to the experience, though! Just like each Fast and the Furious film adds another layer to the deep mythos of the film franchise.)
DF: For the uninitiated out there, tell us who Henry Henry is as a character, and where do we find him as A Dark Interlude begins?
Ryan O’Sullivan: A Dark Interlude begins with our narrator, Henry Henry, locked up in a mental health hospital in the real world. Comics' most unreliable narrator is trying to reform himself, but the supernatural creatures from the Fearscape have other ideas.
DF: What other characters might we need to watch out for? Can you introduce readers to a new character or two? Any familiar faces here from Fearscape?
Ryan O’Sullivan: The Hero of a Thousand Faces, Jill Proctor, The Muse, and Francesco Petrarch all return. But they are all different to how they once were. If you are curious to know how, the first issue will show you.
DF: Is it difficult to present an engrossing tale about the pitfalls of our current culture, including never-ending sequels, in a sequel comic? (laughs)
Ryan O’Sullivan: What other medium could I tell it in? The idea for A Dark Interlude started as a joke – a sequel about how bad sequels are. But it soon took on a life of its own. And here we are.
Honestly, now that A Dark Interlude is all figured out (still being written, but the road map is finalized) I've started having ideas for another book – a remake of the original Fearscape, with the exact same shots in each panel… but with an entirely different looking cast. A mockery of "remake" culture. Henry Henry becomes Henrietta Henrietta. Etc. You might laugh, but the reason I'm mentioning it in this interview answer is to stop myself from doing it. Thanks to you, Byron, the idea will be out in the world. So I can't possibly do it.
And for the record I don't actively dislike sequels. There have been many great follow-up works throughout history in all sorts of mediums. What I actively dislike is the self-fetishization that a lot of modern sequels fall victim to. That the creative idea in the first novel/comic/film becomes Part of The Lore in the second and starts having the world built around it. That's not a story. That's a wikipedia entry.
DF: Talk about the charmed works of Andrea Mutti and Vladimir Popov (same art team as Fearscape).
Ryan O’Sullivan: They've both been creating comics longer than I have, and being able to count on that experience to deliver the incredible work they do – that is what gives me the freedom to push myself when writing. I know they can deliver anything I ask for – that allows me to be ambitious. They're also incredibly tolerant. I'm a demanding writer, and not always easy to work with. They put up with it because they care for the work. And I love them for it.
I think we're starting to gel well as a team too. Andrea does not send me as many angry emails in Italian as he used to.
DF: Ryan, what other projects do you have going that you can tell readers about?
Ryan O’Sullivan: Everything else is either NDA'd up, a spoiler, or yet to be greenlit. I have started putting a novel together. I don't think I've told anyone that. There you go – an exclusive!
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Ryan O’Sullivan for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. A Dark Interlude #1 from Vault Comics is slated to hit stores this Wednesday, Nov. 18th!
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