Scott Snyder talks about the conception and themes behind his Eisner Award-winning science fiction/horror book "The Wake," and dishes on his favorite sci-fi movies and monsters.
Q1: Structurally speaking, "The Wake" is very different and innovative. You’ve got the two story parts that blend multiple genres, starting out very claustrophobic, and then getting very expansive. At one point it’s terrifying but it’s also inspiring. What kind of planning went into a series like this and how did you balance creating this universe?
Scott Snyder: That’s a good question. For us, the tenet of the series when we signed on to do it was really to be unafraid to explore territory that you’re not supposed to. We wanted that to be the theme of the story itself and also the structural compass for the story, both for the art and for the narrative. So [artist] Sean [Murphy] and I made a deal to just challenge each other with elements that shouldn’t really work in a story, but we would try and make work through the elasticity of this storytelling.
The structure of it was always set, it was always going to be about the discovery of the first creature in the first half and then the second half would be the discovery of the bigger secret behind the whole series. This kind of circular logic to it, where the discovery of the first creature not only leads to the world that you get in the second [half], but is also kind of the beginning of the hints of all of these bigger kinds of creation myths about us. So, we had a structure when we began where we knew the basic beats of the story, we knew how it was going to end and those things can be seeded in, but along the way we made this deal that we’d sort of challenge each other to do the nuttiest stuff we could.
So I knew, for example, that Leeward was going to have a pet, and I thought it would be a fish, but Sean wanted it to be a dolphin. So we made it a dolphin, and then I said, ‘Well, what if it has like a sonic jacket that repels the creatures?’ and he’s like, ‘Okay, well, what if it has that, but then at the end we actually get it up on an avalanche on a mountain and ride it down to escape the creatures.’ So I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do that!’
It was constantly about trying to push the story both in art and narrative as far as we could get it to go, because that was sort of what the story was about. It’s about trying to get past the terrifying boundaries of your own life, whether what you find on the other side of those boundaries is scary or inspiring or meaningful in whatever way it’s going to be meaningful. It’s the fact that the urge to explore or the desire to go past the limits that are familiar to you is, according to the story, the most important engine of human ingenuity. It’s what makes us us. It’s the thing that’s most inspiring about us and can also inspire the worst in us when we shy away from that impulse because of fear.
The bottom line really is that the series for us is about a sense of going past the limits that you’re familiar with even if what you find on the other side is terrifying, because ultimately that’s how the greatest sorts of discoveries are made and by retreating from that urge, it’s where it engenders kind of the worst impulses in us.
Q2: Talking about the mers [the antagonist creatures in THE WAKE], you’ve created this new undersea monster and the characters believe it to be what the mermaid myths are based on. What kind of research went into the mythology of these new creatures?
SS: A lot, actually! Sean and I both did some. I got a bunch of books on discount from Amazon about sea legends. You’d be amazed how many very, very cheap books are out there on all sorts of sea myths. So, it was a lot of fun doing the research about all kinds of creatures from the kraken to the much less well known ones. What it really boiled down to is that there were really interesting similarities between them. Certain numbers that repeated, certain things that repeated about calls and songs, stuff like that that draw you in. And so the creature really became something that we wanted to make almost very primal and simple in its design, so that it could have possibly inspired all of these other things. Its physiology is such that it can create these dreams and nightmares in us in a way that you could see it being responsible for all different kinds of myths as well. So it was a lot of fun.
Sean actually sent a page of designs I remember. He sent twenty-four heads alone for the creature. Some were very humanoid and some were very fish-like, and the one that he landed on I really loved the most. But there were some really wacky ones: some had gills all over, other ones that had hair, they were really all varieties and it was a lot of fun to see.
Q3: The mers are very complex creatures. In the beginning you see them one way (no spoilers!), and then in the second act there’s a lot more added to that. Can you talk a little about the ambiguity with the mers and their motives for attacking?
SS: One of the things I hope was clear is that they want us to remember our nature, and not just our origin. They respect, I think, the mariner spirit and part of the idea of exploration; for them, they see it as trying to remember who we are. But there are characters in the story who are trying to push forward like Leeward and find evidence of this call, or at least what they think is this call—it’s this spirit of exploration. And so the reason that they sink the world at the end of the first half is really because we’re about to try and bury or kill this thing at the bottom of the ocean, this ship, that’s one of the keys to understanding how exploratory we can be and how resistant to our own programming we can be in that way if we try. So they want us to be daring in that way, and brave, and they become monstrous when they see us being fearful, and they become the thing we’re afraid of that way. It’s part of the idea behind them.
Q4: "The Wake" calls to mind a lot of classic horror and sci-fi movies like Jaws meets The Abyss and things like that. Were there any stories or movies that inspired you?
SS: Yeah, sure! We wanted it to be something that felt almost like a celebration of every sort of sea-related genre folktale, anything that we could put together from the deep sea monster to, again, creation myths to undersea claustrophobic horror that you see sometimes in books and movies. So, the particular ones are, yeah, I mean The Thing was a big one for us even though that’s not water-related; but The Abyss, Leviathan, and for the second half it was less based on particular movies and books than this notion of genres and tropes and certain kinds of folktales about creatures and things like that. So we tried to really make it a mix of things that it could pull from familiar modes of storytelling that you associate with the ocean and water without making it ape those things too clearly.
A lot of the time people joke with me and are like, ‘The second half is like your version of Waterworld!’ And you know, I love Waterworld, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t really meant to echo that movie so much as this notion of an apocalypse where everything you know and are familiar with is now unfamiliar because it’s deep under the water in that way and to have the world become, again, unknown.
One of the things that was an inspiration for the series, as silly as it sounds: my dad had one of those old globes in his office that imagines the world from back in the 1400s. It actually has sea monsters and stuff like that, it has the old world and the borders of the continents are very amorphous and poorly drawn. But this idea that how terrifying and wondrous it must have been, too, when the world was so unexplored and the oceans were this passage to all of these lands that were undiscovered.
THE WAKE tries to take all of those things and roll them together in some ways and take a world that feels completely known in the first half where there’s almost nothing left to be discovered, and then you discover this key and that thing turns the world into this incredibly unfamiliar place where everything is sort of territory that you now are completely bewildered by or unfamiliar with. And it’s in that world that you find the thing, the hidden kind of truth about who we are.
Q5: Who is your favorite movie monster?
SS: My favorite movie monster? Oh, wow. Well, my favorite monster of all time is Frankenstein, that was my favorite book forever. It’s still my favorite book, but that was the first novel that I would really cite as my absolute favorite book. But my favorite movie, I’d have to say is the Creature from the Black Lagoon for this, because I’d feel silly if I didn’t.
So, Creature was a huge one, but my favorite horror movie ever is still Night of the Living Dead, that was always my favorite. When I was a kid, I used to rent all of these movies that were really inappropriate-- slasher movies and all that. I had seen everything, and then I saw Night of the Living Dead, which I was really disappointed by the fact that it was black and white, and I was like, ‘This isn’t going to be scary at all’ and then it was the only movie that legitimately gave me nightmares over and over, and for years afterwards. I remember just being like, ‘What’s so scary about that old black and white movie?’ But ultimately what’s scary in that is the slow march of death and the fact that the monsters can’t be reasoned with. It’s really not just the monsters that are scary, but the kind of things they reveal about human nature and they put pressure on the characters to act in ways that are terrifying. So for me, I’m a big fan of all classic monsters, and I feel like I could talk about this for an hour, but I would say that’s probably my favorite movie but my favorite movie monster is, as much as I would like to say the Creature from the Black Lagoon and I love him, is probably Frankenstein.