Whether it's in a comic, a movie or just the written word, a good heist is a delicate thing. It needs to have personal stakes. It needs to make us worry about the people involved. The heist cannot be a matter of get rich or die trying -- there needs to be something bigger at risk.
The first few pages of Dark Spaces: Wildfire give us an immediate glimpse into the gruesome stakes of the comic's eventual heist. The rest of the issue slowly pulls you into the lives of the people involved. Page by page, panel by panel, it pulls you into the lives of the women involved until you understand exactly why they're willing to risk everything for such a dangerous score.
Writer Scott Snyder is perhaps best known for his lengthy and acclaimed run on DC's Batman, but he's also the architect of darker, more mature stories like American Vampire and The Wake. In all of those comics, Snyder excels at creating foreboding atmospheres. Dark Spaces: Wildfire is no exception. Every word feels finely tuned to steadily dial up the tension, all the way up to the final page where we see how quickly the situation -- like the fires in the backdrop -- has spun out of control.
Artist Hayden Sherman does an excellent job of conveying the mood of each moment. Scenes in the present are framed by increasingly violent and asymmetrical panels. Glimpses into the women's pasts are framed in tight, rigid panels that feel claustrophobic and, in the case of one particularly awe-inspiring spread, outright suffocating. That visual structure pairs perfectly with Snyder's narrative structure and colorist Ronda Pattison's intense color work.
Dark Spaces: Wildfire is the start of IDW Publishing's Originals initiative, and the first issue releases Wednesday, July 20. CNET has six preview pages, including four pages of never-before seen previews. Ahead of the release, I had a chance to talk with Snyder about the book, his co-creators and where he thinks the comics industry is heading. Here's what he had to say.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for space and clarity.
What drew you to this story, and why did you want to tell it now?
Snyder: I was listening to a story on NPR about women in the California penal system who are part of a forest fire prevention service and go out and fight fires in the California hills -- how those fires have become not just seasonal, but almost year-round threats and how much worse that whole danger has become in the last 10 years. And how a lot of these women are there most of the year and they make about $2 a day making sure these fires don't cross certain lines and burn down homes along these mountainsides.
And it felt oddly topical. Not just because it's happening now, but it felt like an encapsulation of so much about this moment right now. It has kind of that teetering-on-the-edge-of-something-apocalyptic sensibility about it. So it caught my imagination … the idea of writing a story about these people who are essentially just protecting land that belongs to very wealthy people, making $2 a day [while] incarcerated. And there's a demographic that doesn't have a lot of hope of coming anywhere near the thing they're protecting, and they're often not given the kind of second chance that they should be -- especially after doing something as heroic and noble as what they're doing on the line. So all of it came together and felt weirdly resonant to me on a bunch of levels, and felt almost reflective of the moment itself in a broader way.
It's a lot of fun as a book. For me, it feels really appropriate for this moment because I think there's a lot of allure to the idea that of, as things become scarier and more volatile and more desperate, trying to grab what you can or trying to stick to the codes that used to work in the past about being the kind of person you can be proud of -- all of that. So, to me it speaks to a lot of things happening right now, both in a literal way and a figurative way.
What has the experience been like working with artist Hayden Sherman and colorist Ronda Pattison, and what elements did they bring to the story?
Snyder: After working at DC for 11 years on licensed characters, my goal this year starting [creative studio] Best Jacket Press was to try and follow the tenets of the comic writing 101 class I teach through Substack: You have to write the story that you'd like to pick up and read today -- it doesn't matter what it is. And secondarily, you have to be the most exciting writer to yourself at all times. Take risks, make sure that you're passionate about what you're writing and don't do things that you're doing just to be safe or to shave off any edges that you think are dangerous.
For me, working with somebody like Hayden, who's brilliant, who's an up-and-coming force in comics, with a wildly different style than anybody I've worked with -- it was extremely exciting on that front. I haven't done a book like this. I haven't done grounded noir. I haven't done a heist book before. It felt good to work with somebody whose style was really outside the cozy Venn diagram that I'm used to working inside. So I got on the phone and Zoomed with Hayden to say, this is your book as much as mine. I want us to be full co-creators. I want you to figure out who you want to color. How do you like to work? Do you like a full script, or do you like Marvel style [a loose narrative outline that gets filled in with dialogue later]? And we settled on a methodology that worked really well for us. We went back and forth and did a lot of designs first. So it's a true collaboration.
Hayden started filling in a lot too: What if we have somebody on the line who's about to get out and has a lot to lose? And what if we have somebody on the line who's been there a long time and is kind of institutionalized by their skepticism about their ability to get out and have any chance? So everything was really organically a collective construction, and that's why I think it works as well as it does. If you're ever going to work in comics, the best advice I can give is you've got to give your collaborators room to make you look better and to shine and … elevate the story in a way that you then become inspired by and respond to with your own best stuff.
They're great -- I can't say enough good things about Hayden. And Ronda's coloring is just out of control. I mean, Hayden brought Ronda in and said I want to work in a way that reminds people of pop art and Barry Windsor-Smith and an almost aggressive style that feels like it's about everything burning, pops of color, desperation, surprise on the page, nothing comfortable, everything kind of unsettling. I couldn't have asked for anything better -- it just looks great.
The paneling in this comic feels very evocative, reflecting the mood of the story on each page. How much of that was in the script, and how much of that is artistic choices Hayden is making?
Snyder: I really leave a lot of it up to Hayden. The way I approach a book is to ask what the comfort level of my co-creator is when it comes to that sort of direction. So when I started talking to Hayden, they really wanted a certain elasticity on the page and a good amount of creative liberty. And I love giving that over.
So I'll say, "Page one needs to be the house we discussed. It's an incredibly beautiful, opulent house, there's fire creeping up on it, and by the end of the page it's in flames." But I try to give Hayden the feeling of each page very clearly. "We're looking at something pristine, beautiful that you'd never think would be touched by fire. And by the end of the page it's engulfed, and it should look really unsettling, like the fire is some unstoppable beast." And then I'll say, "The basic dialogue for this page will be Ma narrating and saying, "California forestry services say there are four stages of a wildfire," and she'll go through those four stages, and at the end of that dialogue, she'll say, "But there's a fifth stage nobody talks about, and that's a stage I call the trap. And that's when, before a fire even starts, when everything's all in place with all the danger that could come from a spark being lit." And I do that ... so there's a lot of room for Hayden.
I enjoy seeing the art that comes back from Hayden and being like, wow, it's better than I thought, different than I thought. Let me adjust to that in the dialogue. And I do, and it makes that exciting when you get stuff in. I love that process. My favorite stage in comics is when you get the art back and you now have the opportunity to change what you wrote to springboard off the storytelling that was done visually so it'll be even better than when you first wrote it. A lot of the time, [with] Hayden's storytelling and a lot of the collaborators I have now on other books, I realize half the stuff I wrote I don't need to say anymore. So what do I say now, do I just leave it silent? Or is it something where I can actually layer something else on top of it. Maybe they're talking about something that metaphorically speaks to what's happening here but I don't need to be literal because what's happening literally is explained through the action.
It keeps you on your toes, I feel it keeps me young as a writer to work that way with people, especially with people I haven't worked with before. So it's been a real joy. I love the book and I couldn't be prouder of it.
I'm really excited to see the next four issues and where the rest of this story is going.
Snyder: Thanks -- it just keeps getting more intense and darker. ... Hayden takes more and more risks to communicate the desperation of the story. And it pays off beautifully. I love what they're doing on it.
You mentioned Substack earlier, the newsletter site that recently became an outlet for comics creators. Do you think that the comics industry is going more toward that subscription-based model?
Snyder: I believe that the way to create the biggest tent of readership is to allow people to browse, allow people to fall in love with the medium at low cost, and then provide really special, experiential and collectible artifacts out of the books that make them want to go to the store for community, for a special token they can come back with. That's what we're trying on another front with Comixology, doing digital-first and then you can read all eight books for the price of one for a subscription to Comixology unlimited, or if you have Amazon Prime you can read all them for free. And then we're releasing them in print six months later with different content -- with the script included, with designs included, there are two or three books bound together for some of them. Whatever feels right for each book, we try to do. We're really experimenting. I believe the future of comics is incredibly strong -- there's never been more interest in comics.
But my big thought is that there are more ways of making comics and more ways of taking control of your career -- because of the money and the different avenues that have presented themselves and the demand for IP -- than ever before. So as a comic creator, there's all these different ways of making your comic, getting your comic out there, but there's also less stability than ever before, and there's more volatility. … It's a scary time, because I think, like everything in the gig economy, there's more volatility. There's less of a solid floor where you can buy into something that's like, "This is a three-year job, and I know it and I know what my salary's going to be." But on the flip side of that for anyone interested, there's also way more opportunities to suddenly make a nice amount of money making your own comic when there wasn't that opportunity before.
If you told me five years ago, even two years ago, there's going to be a newsletter service whereby you can be making a comic or teaching a class through it... that didn't exist, and that's just one way of making a comic out of hundreds that wasn't there just a couple of years ago. So it's thrilling. It's like a thrill ride, where it's scary, and you don't know if it's going to drop, but it's fun. So I like this moment for all of its terrifying aspects.
Which brings us back to Dark Spaces: Wildfire, and the idea of facing opportunity and risk at the same time and having to decide what to do with that moment.
Snyder: For some people, rightly so, it's a terrifying moment, and it's a desperate moment because there's no safety. And the things that were promised before aren't there anymore in a lot of ways. And for other people who have means, sometimes it can be incredible. And [in the comics industry] even for people who are coming up and taking risks, who don't have a cushion, I've seen some people seize the reins and make a comic in an unconventional way and it skyrockets and they do amazing in ways none of us could a year or two ago. So it's just a wild time. It's just a new frontier in comics, and I hope the book reflects that feeling a little bit.