The latest issue of 2000AD (Prog 2268) includes a smashing black and white “Terror Tales”, written and drawn by PJ Holden, whose many credits also include drawing “Judge Dredd” and more for the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic.
Matt Badham asked him how the story came about as part of a wider interview – and has kindly shared PJ’s answer with downthetubes…
SPOILER ALERT – Don’t read this interview before you’ve read “Roots” in 2000AD!
“Ok, so this is a long and winding story,” says PJ Holden of his new “Terror Tales” story, “Roots“, which features in 2000AD Prog 2268, on sale now. “The first part really started several years ago when I was working with John Freeman on Strip Magazine (the ill-fated comic that sadly only ran to a few issues). It seemed dogged by bad luck and as I was chatting to Gordon Rennie about it, I flippantly suggested that the entire thing might have been printed using the ink of Cthulhu. [That would explain a lot – Ed].
“We laughed at that, but as often happens when I’m chatting to Gordon, it sort of riffed into this idea of bottle of Cthulhu ink being this great catalyst for horror stories; who knows how old it is, or where it’s been. Stories could be set in the past or the present (or even the future) each story self contained, each person with the ink would find their lives twisted by it in some ironic way.
I did, of course, absolutely nothing with the idea.
“Several years later,” he continues, “my youngest son, Thomas, got really into writing and drawing comics (seriously, at this point, age 13, he’s written and drawn at least 300 – 500 pages of stories! You can read some of it at Pauljholden.com/th-comics).
“Sometimes, I’ll tell Thomas an idea I’ve had for a story, and he’ll listen and go ‘Yeah, that’s cool’. He’d also introduced me to Junji Ito, which really rewired in my head, as to what a short story can do. I was so used to Alan Moore ‘Future Shocks’, where it’s an emotional or clever or funny, but Ito’s shorts leave you a sense of horror and dread.
“So I started playing with short story ideas inspired by that and trying to see what kind of stories I could tell in a few pages. I think I came up with about half a dozen, with ‘Roots’ being the one closest to being finished.
I told Thomas the plot (because, like all parents there’s nothing better than getting the approval of your teenage son), he liked it and then like an ice cold blade to the heart said ‘Yes, Dad, but are you going to do it?’ Ulp. Challenge accepted. I sat and wrote a script that night and fired it off to 2000AD editor Matt Smith with a synopsis.
“Matt liked the core idea, but felt I could play up the (very much underdeveloped) relationship between mother and son and so, sticking with the core synopsis I pretty much rewrote the entire thing. I threw it over to writer Matt Garvey as a reader, to see if he had any suggestions. (It was a little while ago, so I can’t recall exactly what they were but I greedily grabbed everything he said) and sent that in, and Matt Smith bought it.
“Honestly, I’m as shocked as anyone.
“I’ve been very lucky as an artist,” PJ notes. “Every writer I’ve worked with has been amazing, and if I suggest something they’re usually up for taking those seeds and doing something brilliant with them, but I also liked the idea that if I had some down time – or wanted a quick change of genre from whatever it was I was doing at that moment – I could pitch a short story idea and then draw it. So the plan was always to pitch me as the artist for it.”
And what makes a good horror story and how did PJ’s thinking on that inform his tale?
“I am in no way an authority on this, so I’ll speak purely from my perspective,” he muses. “For me it’s something that leaves you feeling profoundly uneasy – a vague sense of ‘this is not something that should happen’. Everyone gets what they want, but it leaves you thinking it would be better if they hadn’t got it. The mother who wants nothing more than to look after her son, she gets that but not in anyway you’d want. The son who wants to numb his emotions – but not like that. Or, in my one-page horror story ‘One Small Step‘, it’s the astronaut horrified to think he’s going to spend his time alone on the moon, but there’s something with him.
“I taught a class on creating comics in Dublin that I really enjoyed,” PJ continues, “and I focused the entire thing around ‘Future Shocks’ – from idea to story to script to drawing. I had felt a bit like a fraud on the scripting, never having really written one, but I think I understand the rules well enough to describe them.
“Essentially, you have four pages to tell a story, and while the twist is important, it’s also important to bring a twist of some kind to every page. And that really informed how I approached the ‘Terror Tale’. It wasn’t enough to have a twist ending, and anyway, I don’t really think you need a twist ending for a horror tale, but if you can add a twist and existential dread? Well, that feels like the best way to do it.
“Page One of ‘Roots’ is a good example of that, I needed to establish the family, the location and the relationships, and I saw it in my head as voiceover (I’ve largely tried avoiding captions except where absolutely neccessary) and I think the twist there, the mum talking about these idyllic family photos, then we reveal the son lying arms filled with needle jags, dads stuff all around – that I think works well enough on it’s own as a short horror story.
“There are elements a little clunkier than I’d like,” PJ acknowledges. “I’m not in anyway gonna say this is a perfect bit of writing, I think I fumbled some of the execution, but generally, very happy with that first page, and the story as a whole.”
You drew as well as wrote the strip. Was it full script or Marvel Method?
“I wanted to submit it to Matt as a proper written submission, rather than ‘Hey, I’ve been drawing for 20 years, give me four pages and I’ll send you finished horror story’. I have a massive advantage over any unknown writers in that I can email Matt directly, but I don’t want to abuse that position, so I sent a short synopsis, and then a full script. The synopsis included about six other ideas for shorts springing out of the ink idea. I wanted to suggest there’s more if this works.
Here’s the original synopsis:
A drug addict prodigal son returns home – but only to steal what he can. His mother’s pride and joy, after her son, has always been her green house. After her son left the plants died until she stumbled across a mysterious black bottle, molded with an octopus design and containing a deep dark, almost alive, ink. She’s been feeding the plants, a drop a day on this substance. When the son attempts to deal with his mother, in the green house the plants attack him. And become part of him. He’s home and he will never, ever leave again.
“The original script had the son plan a burglary with two bozos, then break in and the bozos run off, then he confronts the mum. Matt suggested we, instead, start with the son still at home and build up the mum and son relationship. Checking my emails, it turns out I’d thought of the opening page to basically take care of that problem, while walking around Sainsbury’s – which, and I’ll have to check with my accountant, may mean I can put all that days shopping on my taxes.
“Once Matt okay’d it, I checked if he wanted me to draw it (20 years in 2000AD, and I still have enough imposter syndrome to stop me assuming Matt might want me to draw it). It was fun to draw. As I said earlier, I think I messed up some of the story telling, which is a bit frustrating as I don’t know if that was my fault or the writer’s fault. Certainly I drew it in superfast time, always a sign that I’m enjoying myself.
“I have an idea for a sequel, much more of a period piece,” PJ teases, “and something that would be equally great fun to draw. I just have to find time to write it!”
• Check out “Terror Tales – Roots”, written and drawn by PJ Holden, in the latest issue of 2000AD, on sale now – available in comic shops, all good newsagents and direct from the 2000AD web shop here
PJ Holden is a Belfast based comic artist who’s best known for his work on 2000AD and Judge Dredd. He’s been working professionally for over 20 years and in that time has drawn everything. He’s been super busy this past year and you can see his most recent work is for DC Horror, helping John McCrea beat some deadlines in Soul Plumber (a six-issue limited series).
He can be next seen drawing The Lion and the Eagle, a four-issue prestige format series, written by Garth Ennis from Aftershock Comics, first issue due 16th February.
In May, PJ’s work can be found in the pages of Time Before Time issue 12, written by Rory McConville and Declan Shalvey. (More about Time Before Time here on the Image Comics web site)