Stephen Graham Jones is one of the most exciting authors working today. His powerful horror novels The Only Good Indians and My Heart is a Chainsaw put him on the map, but the bestselling author has hundreds of stories to his name. While he’s taught comics and even made a few, this month he’s branching out with his first ongoing comic book, Earthdivers. Alongside his collaborators artist Davide Gianfelice, colorist Joana Lafuente, and letterer Steve Wands, the first issue makes a massive impact. The concept is simple: a group of Native activists have to go back in time and kill Columbus to stop the founding of America and save the world. It’s the kind of fantastical genre-bending storytelling that’s made Jones such a massive success. And it translates just as well to the comics page as it does to the prose one.
In the lead up to the first issue’s release, we chatted to the author about his love for comics, the decades-long inspiration for the story, and, of course, killing Columbus.
Nerdist: What was the origin of Earthdivers?
Stephen Graham Jones: I would like to point to a specific trigger or something, but to tell you the truth, sitting through American history classes all through elementary and junior high, we always get kind of indoctrinated into the Christopher Columbus myth that makes America happy. America wants to believe in that. And sitting in the back of the class as the only native kid, I always felt like shouldn’t this be another way? Why don’t we tell the other stories? I think all of that just kind of just kind of balled up into this. What if I could go back and do this? I don’t think I’m the only Native American that thinks that. I think it’s a pretty common thought, I just happen to be the one writing a comic book about it.
It can often be tough to make the transition from writing prose to writing comics in certain spaces. But Earthdivers feels like the work of a seasoned comic book author. What were the challenges you came up against writing for this totally different medium?
Jones: I’ve been living and breathing comics since I was 12 years old! So I’ve been in the medium for forever and ever. And I’ve been teaching comic books for a few years, so I really like to go granular on every panel, every page, every nuance, which is wonderful.
The big difference in scripting a comic book and in writing a novel or a story is with a novel I just kind of have an idea and go. With a comic book I have 22 pages per issue. Outlining is not what I do, but I have to do it for comic books. I have to figure out where’s this going to end? What’s gonna happen on each page? How do I space the page turns? Is this little story beat worth a two page spread? In comics we’re thinking in panels, interiors, pages, and issues; that’s not what you think about in prose! That’s the trickiest part for me.
Wonderfully, I’m working with Davide Gianfelice, who’s really such a whiz with layouts. If I have a layout idea I’ll give it to him, but most of my scripts are “panel 1, panel 2, panel 3.” He figures out how it all should work in relation to each other. It’s really nice to work with someone like that.
Yeah, Davide’s art is so vibrant and immersive. What was it like to get those pages back and see your story brought to life in this totally new way?
Jones: The first thing there was to see were the character sketches, before he even got into drawing the art for issue one. He gave Tad a hairstyle I’d never considered and that quickly became a big part of the story. The way he drew Yellow Kid’s braid keyed me into something about Yellow Kid. So his character designs changed the story radically.
My favorite part of the process is probably when I’ve scripted something and he’s drawn it in such a way and made the art expressive enough that I can now erase my words. Right? Yeah. Comics shouldn’t be too talky, we can’t all be Alan Moore. They need to read a little fast.
You mentioned that you’re an avid comic book reader. What are some of the comics which inspired you to become a storyteller?
Jones: I think the one that influenced me the most is the first one I ever found, which was Secret Wars #4 from 1984. I reread Secret Wars every year when I teach comics. That’s the first title that we start with. It proves that you can tell a good story even in a crossover event that was purely to sell action figures. You can still tell a good story. That’s where the black Spider-Man suit comes from. Also, you know, Watchmen. And The Maxx is probably my all-time favorite series. Also, Daytripper by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá, I love it!
What’s really cool for me is I remember in 1984 finding my very first comic book on the spinner rack at the gas station. It just feels wonderful to me that maybe now a fourth grader might stumble onto my comic book. That might be the gateway that opens up a whole world. It’s just wonderful to possibly be a part of.
Earthdivers #1 is out now.