Interview by Max Delgado
Back in 1973 a small-time television announcer for WDCA in Washington D.C. pulled on a pair of white gloves, threw on a black cape, and drew a widow's peak onto his forehead. His name was Dick Dyszel and under the stage name of Count Gore De Vol he’d go on to host a Creature Features for the next fifteen years, pairing classic horror movies with his own quirky brand of humor. For Dyszel, this shift towards horror brought the emergence of a new fan base that he hadn’t necessarily expected in the closing act of his career. But what no one expected -- and certainly none of the fans growing up within reception range of WDCA -- was that the final notes of Dyszel’s long career would do more than just serve as a campy homage to spooky movies. It would actually go on to shape the trajectory of one particular fan’s life.
That fan was Steve Niles. And he was just a kid when Count Gore De Vol got him to love horror.
Niles didn’t start out wanting to be a writer. Maybe it’s because he fell in love with celluloid before books, but Niles began his creative life wanting to make movies just like the ones Count Gore De Vol showcased on his program. And so before ever picking up a pen, Niles picked a camera and got to work. “I would make Super 8 movies and try creating my own special effects,” Niles says. “And for the longest time I thought I wanted to do monster make-up but then I wound up realizing writers get to do it all, in our heads.”
Since this pivot towards writing there’s been a pretty simple equation at work for most geeks and it goes something like this: if you love comics, and you love horror, then there’s a pretty damn good chance you love Steve Niles. He has, after all, been one of the most prolific and consistently gifted peddlers of horror in the comics industry since he first delivered one of the truest adaptations of Matheson's I Am Legend that you’ll ever read. And while I loved his adaptation of Legend, like most fans, it wasn’t until 30 Days of Night that I really began to seek Niles out -- digging for his old works and anxiously awaiting new ones. Whether it be with Criminal Macabre, or his zombie-infested Remains, he hasn’t disappointed.
One of the most enduring legacies of Dyszel’s Creature Feature is that it created a community of fans who could rally around their shared love of horror; they could tune in regularly and get a dose of the canon. That one of those fans would grow up to make significant contributions to the genre seems fitting then. “To me it’s about community and giving back,” Niles says. “If one thing I did sticks, I’ll die a happy monster kid.”
Just recently, Niles chatted with LBP about his career, and memories associated with his comic book collection.
LBP: You’ve famously credited Richard Matheson’s I am Legend as the first book that got you to read. Later, you went on to honor Matheson’s work by adapting it into a graphic novel. Tell us about when you first encountered this book.
I’d be hard-pressed to come up with an actual date, but I was one of those kids who only read books when I was forced to. I read comics and magazines but I’d yet to find a book that caught my attention. I was a pretty quiet kid and I think my parents worried. Then one day I read I am Legend and the world changed for me. I met a kid at the bus stop who was a big reader and we both loved horror and sci-fi so we started reading the same books at the same time and it turned into our own personal book club.
Do you still remember the first horror film you ever saw? How did you make the leap from someone who loved the horror genre to someone who wanted to craft horror stories of his own?
I don’t have a clue what the first horror film I saw was but I’ll let you in on a secret, when I was little I was TERRIFIED of horror movies. I’d watch them and then be up all night. It got so bad I was forbidden to watch them. Then one day the fear turned to love and it’s been that way ever since. I think I made the leap to wanting to create the second I found out people got paid to make monster movies and comics.
Your initial foray into comics was pretty bold: you began your own self-publishing company, Arcane Comix. How did you decide to make this move?
When I started Arcane Comix I was heavily involved in the DC Hardcore scene back in the ‘80s. We put on our own shows, booked our own tours and put out our own records. So when I decided I wanted to do comics I never thought twice about doing it any other way. Anybody who knows me knows I think corporations are on top of my list of things that do great harm, so I try to avoid them as much as possible. But I’m also a realist and I know you can’t escape them fully. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Comics and fandom have become very corporate and it scares me that people don’t acknowledge the harm these entities do. Like today, I read an article about Disney financing programs to show kids that fracking is ok. Fracking is not ok and I don’t want to have my money going to things like that, but now Disney owns Marvel, Star Wars and Indiana Jones so when we work for them or buy their products we are giving money to things like that. Personally, I would like to avoid that. I just can’t buy another statue that was made by some kid under slave conditions. Pretty dark picture, I know but I think about this stuff. I just wish other people did too. I’m not stupid. I know it’s impossible to get some things, like electronics that are cruelty free, but that doesn’t mean we should all just roll over and become corporate shills. So, with that in mind I like to work for indie companies and buy from them just like I shop local and try to support companies I like. It’s better for the world. What was the question?
I’d love to know what comics you read while growing up, specifically any titles that you felt passionate about. How do you think these titles impacted you as a storyteller?
I was a pretty straightforward Marvel kid when I was very young. I loved Spiderman, FF and the Hulk. This is around 1970-75. I remember especially loving the Hulk because he reminded me of Frankenstein’s Monster and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, King Kong. He was the classic misunderstood monster combined with Jekyll and Hyde. I just ate it up. Spiderman too because in the '60s and '70s Spider-Man was very relatable to a loner kid. Hard to say how they impacted me but I carried those stories with me. I was caught up. I remember waiting at the local Drug Fair for the magazine guy to unbundle the issue where Spider-Man finally sees the Gwen clone (for the first time) and almost losing my mind when I read that issue. Great stuff.
In a recent blog post entitled Fuck Yeah Sobriety you wrote thoughtfully and eloquently on the variety of ways people react to your sobriety, and how some of these reactions reveal inherent assumptions or misunderstandings people have about what the addict is experiencing or hoping to accomplish via abstinence. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to tell us a bit more about your journey to recovery and how (if at all) it’s impacted your writing?
Not sure exactly what to say. It was a long journey and the fight goes on to this day. I started smoking pot when I was 15. I drank. I ate pills from the medicine cabinet. It was the ‘70s. That’s what we did. I never did coke. Always hated that drug. What happened was as I got older it just got harder and harder. I needed more to get high and then I’d feel like crap the next day. But here’s the thing, it wasn’t any street drug that put me over the edge. It was a root canal that did me in. They gave me a giant bottle of Vicodin and that was all she wrote. I won’t say what I got up to everyday but it was bad, and expensive, and it was killing me. One night a friend was worried about a cough I had. They dragged me to the doctor and I do mean dragged. I had pneumonia and had no clue. Pills keep you going and you don’t feel annoying things like pain as much. Basically if my friend hadn’t taken me I would be dead. It’s just that simple. I was in a phase where I didn’t really see anybody so I would have just died alone. That woke me up. I did it the hard way, too, so I’d remember. I locked myself in a room and sweat it out. It was Hell but I’ll never forget it and I never want to feel it again. Since then I have cleaned my body out completely. I even stopped taking pharmaceuticals for a time to completely detox. I value my sobriety now so much and I love my life and the people in my life. I spent a lot of time not being present. I’m really enjoying everything in a new way now and I love my work more than ever. It’s hard to get sober but it’s worth it.
One last question regarding Fuck Yeah Sobriety: During that post you also wrote, more briefly, about your initial idea that getting sober would undermine your creativity. I’d love to hear you expound a bit more on this idea.
I think the cliché of the tortured artist is a very romantic one but not really based in fact. Sure, some great art comes out of pain but the idea that only good art comes from pain is bullshit. But writers and artists are a superstitious lot and when I sobered up I thought I’d lose some of my edge. I was so wrong. It was the opposite if anything. It’s painful to even think about everything I lost to addiction. I didn’t gain shit until I saw the world through clear eyes.
They had a big impact on me because those were the comics that had the worlds of Marvel colliding. I loved that they all lived in the same world and seeing these characters interact was huge for me.
Bernie Wrightson. Period.
I brought this one to church and my mother yelled at me. I always think of this cover when I think of horror comics. The sheer dread in the image tells a whole story