Dirk Manning breathes new life into horrorWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
His stories usually feature a twist or shocking revelation of some kind, so let’s get one out of the way right off the bat — Dirk Manning is actually a pretty normal guy.
From reading Manning’s work — he’s the writer of horror comics like “Nightmare World” and “The Tales of Mr. Rhee” — one might expect an eccentric, macabre weirdo to be behind their construction. But as the real Manning sat down for an interview with Toledo Free Press Star, he looked not unlike the sort of individual who might have just stepped off the golf course, or perhaps dropped by after a casual business meeting.
Manning readily acknowledges the disconnect between perception and reality.
“Even my friends are like, ‘Why do you like horror’?” he said. “And I always tell them, not only is horror a genre that you can do anything in, in a creative sense, but also is a genre that you can really use to talk about the human condition.”
“What I like about horror — and what I tried to do with ‘Nightmare World’ — is to show all the different things that you can do under the umbrella of horror. You can speak to the human condition, or you can tell a really funny story, or a scary story, or an emotional story. You can do anything with horror.”
Few works speak more strongly of horror’s versatility than “Nightmare World.” Manning’s comic opus is a spellbinding anthology of chilling stories in a wide variety of genres — 52 in all, and every one of them only eight pages in length.
With its arresting writing and visuals, coupled with a mythology that deftly combines the universes of H.P. Lovecraft and John Milton, “Nightmare” has found widespread acclaim and an ever-growing fanbase. Though the series was originally published online, three volumes of “Nightmare” have been published in graphic novel form by Image Comics, the most recent coming out this past October.
Manning said his writing owes much not only to Lovecraft and Milton’s work, but also to classic episodic horror like “The Twilight Zone” or “Tales from the Crypt.”
“Good horror asks that question — ‘what would you do if ..?’ What would you do if you and a significant other were stranded on a small lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with no conceivable chance of escape? How far would you go to save your family? ‘Nightmare World’ is 52 different examples of that,” Manning said.
“I tell people all the time, when we have this discussion about horror — I’m not scared of vampires crashing in through the windows right now and attacking me. I’m not scared of werewolves. That doesn’t frighten me. There are so many other things about the human condition, about the world, that frighten me. And you can explore those through horror. Horror takes common fears, or common concerns or anxieties, and amplifies them. I think that’s what good horror does.”
“Nightmare World’s” origins stretch back almost a decade, when Manning, a former journalist, decided to take a stab not only at writing in a medium he loved, but at resurrecting a genre of storytelling he felt had fallen into disrepair.
“When I started ‘Nightmare World,’ bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, I was making the jump from journalism into my passion of writing. With the comic book medium, it’s words and pictures. And like the late, great Harry Carr said, you can do anything with words and pictures. So that was the attraction for using the comic book medium for telling the stories,” Manning said.
“I also wanted to bring some street cred back to short stories — and if I have a big ego for that, so be it, but I think I’ve done it. Showing how much you can do — when people read ‘Nightmare,’ they’re like, ‘Wow, you do so much in eight pages, but it’s not like, super-dense, either.’”
In its first life as an online comic series, “Nightmare World” was released only two pages at a time, once a week. At the end of the month, readers would have the full eight-page story. And in keeping with his inspirations, Manning’s work featured a wide range of themes and settings.
“First and foremost, I wanted people to read it as almost an anthology,” he said. “Every story is a different genre — there’s a western story, there’s a zombie story, there’s a Cthulhu story, there’s a Sherlock Holmes story, for God’s sake. I covered every genre imaginable of horror.”
But no matter what or where his characters find themselves, there’s more to their situation than meets the eye. “There’s always that revelation of something monstrous, something that isn’t what it seems, which really is the aspect of Lovecraft horror that I love,” Manning explained. “The whole idea of, there’s this world out there that 99 percent of people aren’t aware of, and they’re not aware of, in the case of Lovecraft mythos, how we’re just these tiny little peons in this giant cosmos that doesn’t care about us.
“In all the ‘Nightmare World’ stories, someone finds out that the world is not quite what they thought it was. That’s one of the underlying currents.”
Indeed, even “Nightmare World” isn’t quite what it appears. As the stories progress, one begins to notice that they are united not just in tone and structure — it gradually becomes apparent that every piece takes place in one universe, and that they work together to tell an even larger narrative. It’s a structure Manning said he had planned from the outset, though he wasn’t sure if he’d get the chance to demonstrate it properly.
“I was never sure how far I’d be able to take it. And when we got about 25 stories in … and I had this network of artists that liked working with me, I was like, OK, we can make a run for this. And that’s when — the artists didn’t even know what I was really doing,” Manning said. “And then we really started trolling through to the endgame, about showing how things connect so much.”
Each story is
aided by amazing images provided by myriad gifted artists, whose drawings run the gamut from classically refined comic art to stick figures.
Manning said that one of the biggest challenges of the series was finding the perfect artist for every tale.
“I wanted every story to have a different artist, or at least have a team of artists — it ended up being, during the course of the original series, I think like 24 different artists I worked with,” Manning said. “I wanted to really show off the strength of this style of storytelling, and that meant finding the right artist for every story to convey it.
“I would sometimes sit on a script, or sit on a story for a year or more, before an artist was ready, and then I would write it for them.”
The end result is a masterwork of horror, one which highlights the versatility Manning finds in the genre. “I didn’t want there to be a weak ‘Nightmare World’ story. There’s 52 of them — and even in the print collections, which print 39, everyone likes different stories more than others.
“And it’s so cool that one person’s favorite story is another person’s lesser-favorite story,” he said. “But everyone who reads them agrees there’s no throwaways.”
Manning will appear for a book signing at Rupp’s Comics in Fremont on Dec. 3.
Manning’s “The Tales of Mr. Rhee” and the original “Nightmare World” comics can be read online at the web site www.shadowlineonline.com.