I recently had the opportunity to interview the SINK creative team about blue vans, urban legends, and whether or not they were in fact, the criminal masterminds behind the recent spate of clown-inspired crimes. Join the brutal, manic night ride that is SINK here.
1. John, the clowns in the blue van are partly inspired by an urban legend from your childhood. I believe that it got so bad that the local police had to be called in to assuage children’s fears.
Can you tell us more about these schoolyard tales and the accompanying hysteria?
JOHN: I can tell you about the blue-van/ clown hysteria speaking from personal experience! Not of being snatched by clowns myself, of course, but by growing up and hearing the story being passed around. Basically, in the 1990s, in and around Glasgow, back when I was a little kid, this urban legend took a real hold of the public imagination. The story was that a blue transit van (or sometimes a white van, depending on who you asked) filled with clowns was driving around the area, looking for children. And any lone kids they found, the clowns would drag the kids into the van, where — depending on what variation of the story you heard — they’d be killed, or eaten, or scarred up and turned into clowns themselves. Some embellishments of the story had the clowns pegged as escaped patients from the nearby Carstairs psychiatric facility. It spread like wildfire, and soon it seemed everybody knew someone who’d been chased by a blue van or whose friend or neighbour or cousin had vanished.
Now, you have to realise, much of Glasgow back then was working class communities, and there was a lot of workmen driving about in vans, many of which happened to be blue. And I’m sure this contributed to the panic of kids convinced they were seeing clowns everywhere. Things soon got so bad that it was featured in local news, and I can recall the police coming to our school to assure us that no clowns were out to get us.
2. In SINK, Glasgow is almost a character in itself. I was reminded of a series of noir anthologies (DC Noir, Dublin Noir, Bronx Noir) by Akashic Books. Each book featured short noir stories set in a different city.
Do you have any plans to continue SINK in other locations or do you feel that the Glasgow setting is an integral part of the ambiance?
JOHN: Oh, SINK is absolutely a Glasgow story. Like I say, I grew up in Glasgow, so this is a series that’s very close to home for me. With another setting it could just become another pulp noir, but I feel it’s that nailing down of location to something familiar and personal to me, and a corner of the world you don’t see too often in stories (certainly not comic books), that hopefully gives it an added layer of authenticity. So, while each issue is standalone, the one thing they all have in common is that shared location of Sinkhill, Glasgow. In issue #3 there’s a brief prologue sequence set in Edinburgh, and even that is played like it’s a trip to the other side of the world!
3. The stories in SINK are short, self-contained, and brutal. I haven’t quite encountered something like them in comics. The nearest I can think of would be Batman: Black And White.
What are the some of the risks and the pleasures of working in this format as opposed to the traditional comic book format?
JOHN: I love the oneshot format. My frame of reference for it in the case of SINK came more from TV than from comics. Television, British television in particular, has done some great stuff with one-and-done stories in recent years. BLACK MIRROR, INSIDE No. 9 and ACCUSED are all shows with a season that has a unified sense of tone, but each episode stands on its own as a full story. It follows in the rich tradition of American shows like THE TWILIGHT ZONE and THE OUTER LIMITS.
I also really admire when comics attempt it. The JONAH HEX series DC Comics put out about a decade back was done in this style, where each issue was a standalone tale, and there are some other noteworthy examples. I think that, in this age of decompression and serialisation, where if readers miss issue #1 of a book they feel they can’t jump onboard, I love the idea of every issue being a full and rewarding experience in itself. Creatively, it’s also an invigorating challenge to set up the stakes of a story, introduce characters people will care about and conflicts to drive them, and resolve it all in the space of a single issue. It really encourages you to cut out all the flab and make every page count.
But the oneshot is a format that’s not as popular as I’d like it to be, despite some brave attempts by other creators, because it doesn’t seem to sell. Retailers like ongoings that can draw readers in for the long haul, and one-and-dones don’t always have the same appeal to them when it comes to deciding on order numbers. Hopefully I can do a little to change that mindset.
4. SINK is quite a departure from And Then Emily Was Gone yet both have horror elements. In addition to this, SINK has the gritty feel of a crime comic. If you were to peg SINK as a genre, which genre would you choose or do you see it as an amalgamation of many?
JOHN: If I were to classify SINK in a particular genre, it would be crime. But the concept is flexible enough that it should let me explore a wide range of genres within that. I can do funny stories, sad stories, scary stories. I’d say the first issue, “Blue Van Country,” is the one that falls most neatly into the horror category people best know me for. So I’ll admit, I’m a bit worried about how people respond with the second issue onward, where we move away a bit from those familiar trappings!
5. Part of the marketing campaign involved building a community via emails and regular updates. What inspired this approach?
JOHN: As I touched on above, the direct market isn’t always friendly to the oneshot format, and I didn’t want to risk it getting lost in the shuffle by diving straight into comic shops. See, when you’re dealing with the direct market, a book will have a life cycle. You will put your first issue in Previews 3 months before its release, and promote it for retailers to order it, then as the release approaches you’ll start promoting it to readers. Then, let’s say it’s a 4-part monthly miniseries, it has a single issue release cycle of 4 months. Then after that maybe you solicit and release a trade. And you’re done. So, the active life cycle of a comic you’ve spent all this time working on is less than a year.
We wanted to think of ideas to extend that “life cycle,” as well as build on the base support of SINK and get it more widely established. By launching a newsletter and an offbeat marketing campaign a good year before our direct market release, that’s a solid year of SINK being discussed and promoted and shared around before we get into that normal direct market part of the life cycle. Paired with that, making the comic free to anyone who signs up at sink.comixtribe.com is cutting out all the obstacles between creator and reader that usually exist. We’re making it as easy as possible for as many people to get onboard this series, or “get in the van,” as possible. And the hope is this will pay off dividends down the line once we finally get the book into comic shops.
6. The first story in SINK deals with the clowns from the blue van. Their chant of “one of us” is a nice nod the the 1932 movie Freaks.
Was this one of your inspirations for this story?
John: I have seen FREAKS and love it. But to be honest, that wasn’t really what I had in mind when having the clowns chant “One of us!” The clowns are monsters, and I never really thought of the freaks in that film as monsters, they’re the victims of the very human monsters in the story. No, if anything I think I had “JOIN US!” from EVIL DEAD 2 in my mind.
7. What motivates the clowns in the blue van? Do they have a motivation or are they simply reenacting what happened to them at the hands of other clowns?
JOHN: One of my favourite quotes about horror comes from film director Ben Wheatley. When asked what his number 1 tip was for great horror, he simply replied, “Explain nothing.” And so I don’t think I’ll explain what the clowns want, or why they do what they do, at least not yet. Something like that is more frightening to me when it’s unfathomable.
8. The protagonists in SINK vary in age and gender but most of them are united by their capacity for shocking violence. Is this a comment on human nature — the fact that each of us is capable of such violence — or do you feel that the characters’ actions are solely due to circumstances?
JOHN: I think it’s a bit of both. I think that our nature can lead us to doing pretty terrible stuff given the right set of circumstances. In SINK #1, what I think sets it apart from just a simple demonisation of people living in working class inner city communities is when Mr. Dig confronts our suburban protagonist, Allan, and suggests that the only thing that sets him apart from the thugs chasing him is his privileged upbringing, and that in fact he’s not any “better” than they are. But I don’t think circumstance can entirely be blamed, either. There are people in terrible situations who still choose to do the good thing, in the world and in these stories, so it is also a case of human nature bringing out the worst in some people.
9. The artwork seems to successfully summon up the dark corners of Glasgow. Alex, can you tell us about how you managed to evoke the city so well? How did you go about researching it?
ALEX: Being someone from the US, I didn’t want to screw up Glasgow for everyone who lives there, so my wife and I took a trip there in July. The night we arrived I read my wife the script in our hotel room, got to the last page and told her that’s where we’ll be heading tomorrow! She wasn’t exactly thrilled. So getting to know the city first hand w/ John and then exploring it independently w/ my wife, having drinks w/ John’s friends there, and of course taking a ton of photos, I hope I got somewhat of a feel for the place.
10. Looking closely at the artwork, I see that it has a stippling not unlike that found in older print comics. This is so unusual in the days of digital artwork that it must be deliberate. What was behind this creative choice?
ALEX: I always loved that look in comics. I first started experimenting w/ that look early in my career, the idea itself, to add the stippling, came from the work of Ashley Wood especially the series Zombies vs Robots vs Amazons. It’s an extension of always experimenting and trying new approaches however small; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
11. Can you please take us through the process of creating a finished page from script to the final product?
ALEX: Oh, oh I suppose. It’ll start w/ a big sketch book I have where I’ll do an extremely rough run of the pages. Once I like the way they look, I’ll often take some photos of myself posing as the characters to get a better feel for them. (Inside note, Allan’s jacket is the same as mine.) Then I’ll take everything and draw it up in Adobe Flash, which I’ve often been told I’m one of the few who works w/ Flash. I use it because I used to do animation and got used to the program. Also it saves on ink/ paper, not to mention how easy it is to fix up a mistake. But it’s still all hand drawn in there, for the record. I’ll then throw the black and white page into photoshop where I’ll add some real elements like ink splatter to give it all a bit of grittiness — which you’ll notice really gets turned up once in Sinkhill, and especially w/ the clowns — along with the stippling look. Then color it all up (lots and lots of multiplied layers) and then send it off to John and Colin! There’s a little more to it then that, but that’s basically how it works!
12. Finally, what can we expect next from the blue van? And be honest, is the SINK creative team the secret criminal organization behind the recent clown crime spree?
SINK Creative Team: If we were, we wouldn’t exactly tell you, now would we? 😉