Looking Inside THE CLOSET
James Tynion IV opens the door to the genesis of THE CLOSET, his latest comic book project on Substack with Art by Gavin Fullerton
When I was a kid, I used to have a recurring nightmare that didn’t seem like a nightmare.
It started after the first time I watched the movie, E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL.
I don’t think any scene, in any movie, has ever scared me more than I was scared when I was four years old and heard the noise that ET makes when Elliott first encounters him in the cornfield for the first time. To this day, that inhuman sound makes my skin crawl. The effects of this were pretty immediate… I started having recurring nightmares that E.T. lived in my closet. Other kids, it was the flying monkeys from The Wizard of OZ. For me? It was E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL.
The one that lingered with me the longest happened the week before my family was set to move from New York City to Milwaukee, WI. I was four years old. I remember seeing my enemy, that dread potato monster, shuffling out of the closet. I remember shutting my eyes tight, hearing its awful huffing and shuffling as it moved across the room. I slept on the top of a bunk bed then, and I remember hearing the ladder creak as it heaved its way up the ladder.
And then the strangest part is that I FELT it step on my chest. It was STANDING on me. I could hardly breathe. To this day, this is the only dream I can ever remember having that kind of physical sensation during, and it made it all feel real. I knew that it was standing over me, trying to see if I was awake. I had shut my eyes tight and was crying and waiting for it to disappear… But then suddenly, the weight lifted from my chest. I slowly peeked through my fingers, and it was gone. I sat up in my bed to check the room, but I couldn’t see it… And then I turned and there was this portal on the wall. This swirling strangeness… And I saw it walking further into the distance. It turned back at me and smiled. And I understood at that moment, in some deep way, that the nightmare was going to follow me to Milwaukee.
When I moved to Milwaukee… The dreams continued. For a while it was peaceful, and then I remember one dream where I had one of the popular kids over to the apartment my parents had moved into. I had just gotten the big 90s X-MEN SENTINEL figure that you could fit action figures inside of. I ran upstairs to try and get… But then when I ran up the stairs, I saw THE CREATURE staring back at me… I turned to run, and I fell down the stairs, smashing my head into the ground. I tried to call out to my mom and my friend in the kitchen, desperate for them to hear me. But no sound came out of my mouth. I understood then that the creature was silencing me, making sure that nobody could hear my pain.
In grade school, I used to talk to one of my childhood friends about the dream. We were both really into UFOs, and I decided that this was an alien that was communicating with me. We would look for signs that the alien was leaving for me in my day-to-day life, and read stories of UFO encounters. I remember there was an Amoco gas station, with the torch symbol behind the logo, and we decided that this was a sign from my alien, announcing his name to us. “I Am Oco.”
When I got into middle school and high school and started the sleepover circuit with my circle of friends, I was one of the kids who were too chicken to ever pick dare during truth or dare. I always picked Truth. And somehow the subject always shifted to the nightmares I was telling. Looking back, telling the stories of these nightmares was my first foray into telling horror stories. I was a scaredy-cat then, too afraid to watch any horror movies or read even Goosebumps. But I loved the feeling of telling these stories to my friends. The feeling of getting BETTER at the act of telling the stories. Knowing how to create and hold tension, and scare my friends. To make them worried that ET would show up in THEIR closet that night.
I actually dramatize this in the opening pages of the first issue of SOMETHING IS KILLING THE CHILDREN, with a direct reference to my ET Dreams (and yes, I also had recurring nightmares about a Cyclops). I’m pretty sure there are other passing references to these dreams across all of my books, but this is the most direct.
When I was working on RAZORBLADES: THE HORROR MAGAZINE, I tried my hand at adapting the original nightmare directly. I brought in my amazing partner in crime from THE DEPARTMENT OF TRUTH, Martin Simmonds, and the incredible letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, and created a short story called “One More Night.” Here, I’ll let you read it below.
I’m proud of the short, but I was still left with this feeling like there was a bigger story to tell that was just out of my reach. I was just adapting the story directly, from my own perspective. A four-year-old’s fears are primal, which are powerful for a moment, but I didn’t know what the larger story was. I knew I didn’t want to just make a bland story with a literal monster that just needs to be killed. My best horror cuts me in an uncomfortable way, and I needed to approach this through metaphor and dig into a deeper vein.
The month before launching my Substack, after making the decision to leave Batman and Superhero comics behind, Chris Conroy at DC Black Label reached out to me about launching a new Sandman series. It was another few months before I knew for sure that the series was going to happen, but it had me thinking about my nightmares and the long road that my own nightmares as a child had paved to my life today as an author of Horror Comics. And something clicked. I saw a way to reinterpret my original dream and hit a deeper nerve in myself. And it seemed worth doing, to dig into the base of my own nightmares and mine them for horror while I was gearing up to tell an even bigger story about nightmares in the Sandman Universe. It felt like the perfect creative exercise.
I extrapolated. I created a character, Thom, and I gave him some of my worst traits, the things I liked least about myself. In particular, I gave him an inability to see the pain of the people around him as he centers himself. I wanted a story about a son who is experiencing a huge primal fear and a father who can’t overcome his own insecurities to help him.
I was a big fan of Gavin Fullerton’s short horror comics, especially his comic SLIME TUNNEL, available right now for download on Gumroad, and the comic PARADISE that he runs on Instagram. He had been on my short-list for future Razorblades collaborations, but on a whim, I reached out to him to see if he’d be interested in making a comic book with me. Thankfully, he was on board, and we got to work! We brought on Chris O’Halloran on colors, Tom Napolitano on Letters, and Dylan Todd on Design. And a few months later, here we are with our 30-page debut issue. It debuted yesterday and is available for all paid subscribers to this newsletter.
I’m calling this a Horror Novella in three acts. That’s to differentiate it from my more long-form series. I think of each 15 issue chunk of SOMETHING IS KILLING THE CHILDREN as a “novel”, and think the same of every 12 issue chunk of THE NICE HOUSE ON THE LAKE. This isn’t as sprawling. It’s not quite a one-shot short story, it’s something more robust than that. Novella feels like the perfect word. I don’t want you to expect this to escalate into a big monster fight, or to uncover the secret lore of monsters inside of closets. This is an emotional horror story about human characters, that plays its cards close to its vest.
At the end of the day, what I wanted to do here is what I did when I was I kid, sitting around in a circle during a game of truth or dare, I want to tell you a story to make you afraid. I want to get under your skin. And I want you to enjoy it.
I asked Gavin to share a few thoughts and words about working on the project, too! Here he is:
I find comfort in horror. The comfort of knowing that other people are just as scared and confused and irrational as I am. The Closet explores or fears as both children and adults. When James first pitched me the idea, what I really connected with was the sense of alienation both Thom and Jamie were experiencing. From Jamie's perspective he’s dealing with things he simply can't comprehend. What's happening in his life is extremely frightening, the kind of fear that is unique to a child. Unable to understand what's happening, only the raw instinct to know that it’s bad and that he’s powerless to do anything about it. He’s alone, no one will believe him or understand what he’s going through.
Our fears as children tend to take on a supernatural dimension. The possibility of ghosts and goblins feels much more likely. Our fears as adults tend to come from the very natural. Jamie’s father Thom feels just as trapped as Jamie but for entirely different reasons. Despite being an adult he feels just as powerless and alone as his son. Stuck in a black hole of despair that light can’t even escape. Both Father and son are living in their own nightmares. Flailing and striking out but to no avail. Running but getting nowhere.
I think the sad reality is that we tend to manifest our own monsters. That thing that's standing at the end of the dark hall at night while you go to the bathroom isn't really there (probably). Our brains are creating it. And our brains can conjure some pretty terrifying stuff.
All this is to say what attracted me to the project. And other than the story itself was the opportunity to collaborate with James, who's been writing the kinds of comics I’ve wanted to draw for quite a while now. James has an amazing ability to bring characters to life, it’s almost eerie. They’re not simply 2 dimensional maniquies spitting out dialogue. They feel like real people made of flesh and bone. He takes the specificity of experience and makes it universal, and when you read his work it feels as though he is talking directly to you.
I’ve wanted to work with Chris O’Halloran for years and not just because he’s also Irish. His acidic palette hits you in the face and you're immediately tripping into a different world. He elevates my art to something much more compelling. Working with him is literally a dream come true. Chris is obviously very in demand so we weren’t sure it would work out but I’m so glad he agreed to do the book.
James brought Tom on board and I’m very grateful he did. Tom's care and attention to detail really shine. Above all he understands the flow of the page. He just knows where to put the balloons which is a rarer skill than you might think.
What can I say about editor Greg Lockard other than he’s simply one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. Endlessly encouraging and enthusiastic. He keeps this ghost ship steered in the right direction.
The set up of our story I'm sure will be familiar to many horror fans. A little boy is afraid of the monster in his closet. But also many horror fans will know that these familiar tropes are there to guide the audience into something much much deeper. Maybe it will compel you to look into your own closet and force you to confront what you find there. Or maybe you’ll just have fun reading a spooky story. I hope you enjoy it in any case!
I’m including download links beneath the paywall below, so if you’re a paid subscriber, you can go ahead and download the comic and check it out now. If you’d like to read it all here on Substack without having to download anything, you can do that by clicking the button below.
BUT if everything above intrigues you, you should sign up for a paid subscription to my newsletter! The next chapter of THE CLOSET will drop in March. More to come as we get closer to the launch date.
We’ll also be announcing our plans to bring this horror series to print in the next couple of months. So, please stay tuned! Tomorrow will see the release of the first ONION DROP!
James Tynion IV