Most kids would be apprehensive about moving to upstate New York, but Victoria Thompson is at home with the weird, the different — and isn’t even afraid to make friends with creatures of the night. What sets apart the heroine of Matthew Dow Smith’s (Doctor Who, Witchblade) new Kickstarter novel, NIGHT FOLK, is that she’s all about the spooky and unusual.
Which suits Smith’s work just fine. Known for his moody, almost geometric artwork, Smith is shifting gears with this dark fantasy prose project, adding a comic book flair to each chapter with striking illustrations. Who are the Night Folk, and how does the spooky-savvy Victoria deal with them? With just seven days to go on Smith’s Kickstarter project, we caught up with the writer to tell us more about his work.
Newsarama: Matt, just to start off with, can you tell us a little bit about the premise of NIGHT FOLK, as well as touching upon the tone of your novel a bit?
Matthew Dow Smith: NIGHT FOLK is the story of Victoria, a young girl who’s always felt like an outsider. She doesn’t have many friends her own age, but she’s more than happy to spend all her time in her room, reading or drawing monsters in her notebooks. She’s always been drawn to the dark and unusual – scary stories, old Horror movies, that sort of thing – and one night, while she’s drawing the spooky tree next door, she sees something in one of the branches. When she sneaks out to investigate, she finds herself drawn into the world of the Night Folk, a race of strange creatures who inspired all our myths of monsters and ghouls.
It’s a fantasy story with a magical kingdom, strange monsters, and a lost little girl, but it’s all filtered through my sensibilities, so there are lots of shadows, mysterious strangers, and random glowing stuff, all the things I love to write about and draw.
I’ve always been drawn to characters who walk into a strange or scary situation and instead of being terrified like most people would be, they look around and say, ‘cool’. And that’s Victoria’s reaction to the Night Folk. She’s not scared of them, she thinks they’re cool and interesting.
She’s a smart kid, more comfortable in her own skin than other kids, and it gives her a different perspective on the world around her. I like characters who see the world a little differently, and Victoria definitely sees things differently.
Nrama: Can you tell us anything about some of the “unusual friends” she makes among the Night Folk? Were there any characters in particular that you really enjoyed working on?
Smith: The Night Folk are funny sorts of monsters. They look a little scary, but when you get to know them, they’re really not all that bad. Most of them are incredibly kind and help Victoria, but one or two of them are downright evil, even if they hide it behind a polite smile, like Mr, Balloon.
I had a lot of fun playing with the idea of creatures who inspired the myths of vampires and werewolves but don’t quite live up to the hype. There’s a character who clearly inspired the whole idea of vampires, but instead of being a suave, Transylvanian prince, he’s a skinny guy in an ill-fitting suit who’s scared at the sight of blood.
Smith: Mr. Balloon is actually a recurring villain of mine, very much in the Man in Black mode. He turned up in some of my earliest stories for Caliber back at the start of my career, and while we’ve already seen him a few times (in the Walk Through October comic book and a short story in the first incarnation of Negative Burn), we don’t know much about him. He’s evil in a thoroughly polite sort of way, which makes him even creepier in my mind. You’ll find out a bit more about him in the NIGHT FOLK, but he has a lot of layers. All of them very nasty.
Nrama: I can imagine there’s a bit of a learning curve, moving from sequential art to prose. What do you find to be the big differences in formats, and what made Night Folk a story to tell in this particular medium?
Smith: It’s funny, but the process of learning how to write prose was easier than figuring out what I wanted to write. Like Victoria, I’ve been an avid reader since I was a little kid, burning through a couple books every week. It was really just a matter of sitting down and paying attention to the mechanics of all the prose I’d been reading and applying it. I’ve worked in a lot of mediums already – video games, television, comic books – and I’ve always been fascinated with the storytelling mechanics of each. My brain seems to wired in a way that helps me see the strings that hold stories together, which takes some of the fun out of watching TV and movies, let me you. You’re always analyzing story structure and spotting the flaws.
And when I first started playing with the idea that become NIGHT FOLK, it was going to be a graphic novel for kids, but the more I worked with it, the more I realized it wanted to be a prose novel. As much as I love comics, there are certain storytelling limitations. We always say that in comic books, you have an unlimited budget – you can fill the panel with anything you want – but I sometimes think we sacrifice some of the emotional nuances. It’s hard to convey subtle, layered emotions in four colors. Not impossible, of course. Neil Gaiman pulls it off brilliantly, as does Alan Moore, but I’m not that good, and for all the monsters, there’s a lot of subtle emotional layers to NIGHT FOLK. You need to know what’s going on in Victoria’s head for the story to work, and if I did that in a comic, you’d have page after page of Victoria standing around with thought balloons when you really need to show something happening in order for the audience to be engaged and entertained.
But there are also a lot of visuals in the story I still wanted to show, so in the end, I decided to let it be a prose novel with illustrations. It’s the best of both worlds for me, and hopefully people who are more familiar with my work as a comic book artist than my work as a writer might pick up NIGHT FOLK for the illustrations.
Smith: I’ve always said my drawing style was defined by my limitations as an inker. I’m not the flashiest inker, so I’ve developed a way of penciling that relies on clean, simple lines that I know I can’t screw up too badly in the inking stage. At least, most of the time. And my writing is the same way. I’m terrified of misusing punctuation, so I write in a clear, simple style that avoids semi-colons as much as possible (though I bravely stuck a semi-colon in the first sentence of NIGHT FOLK, just to prove I could do it).
But mostly, I try to write in a way that avoids all the things that distract you from the story. My favorite writers all write in very direct, active, engaging styles, and that’s really influenced the way I write. I like to keep it simple, draw people into the story, and try to hold their attention for as long as possible.
Nrama: Now, this is an interesting project in the fact that you do have some artwork inside. How frequent will your art be in this book, and what do you feel adding these images brings to NIGHT FOLK as a whole?
Smith: There’s a big illustration at the start of every chapter, and smaller illustrations scattered throughout the book. They serve a couple of functions, but mainly they help set the whole tone of the novel right up front. For me, writing is about reducing things down to the bare necessities to keep the audience from getting bogged down in unimportant details, but you can convey so much information to the audience in a single drawing, even if they’re not aware of it on a conscious level.
And one of the things that can grind even a good novel to a halt is a lengthy description of a character or a place, and with so many unusual looking characters and locations in this book, I really want the reader to be able to visualize things without boring them to death with all the necessary description. So instead of three paragraphs describing what one character is wearing, I can just show you, while adding to the tone of the book.
Smith: Well, for one thing, you can read the first two chapters for free on the NIGHT FOLK Kickstarter page, and see some of the illustrations. And if that doesn’t make up your mind about giving it a try, I’m not sure anything will.
But I will say, I’ve put everything I love into this project, and if, like me, you grew up as a fan of Ray Bradbury, Peter Straub, Neil Gaiman, and anything spooky or weird, you’re going to find something to like in this book. I hope.
For more information on NIGHT FOLK, check out Smith’s page on Kickstarter. The deadline for all project donations is by Monday, May 2.