Budget Cuts & Portals to Hell: An Interview with John and Ben Matsuya
We recently corresponded with John and Ben Matsuya, the creative powerhouse duo behind the horror-comedy Midnight Massacre, to discuss their horror influences, their creative process, and advice they had for aspiring creators.
COMIC BOOK YETI: John. Ben. Thank you for taking time out of your day to answer some questions.
Your synopsis for Midnight Massacre specifically referenced the horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead. Were there any other horror influences for this story?
JOHN AND BEN MATSUYA: Edgar Wright’s "Cornetto Trilogy" is a masterclass in comedic gags and pacing, while still developing a fun story with clear themes and ideas in an absurd atmosphere. He also takes full advantage of the form of cinema and what it can do –and we’re trying to do the same with the pages and panels.
As far as influences go, there’s a lot of goodies for fans of H.P. Lovecraft, Slasher Films (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street), satanic lore, cults, and good old physical, Halloween mazes. You’ll see nods to these characters and tropes that we try to put our own spin on. Midnight Massacre doesn’t have any dinosaurs, but the theme-park-gone-amok makes Jurassic Park a spiritual ancestor.
"We enjoy the architecture of a story. It’s kind of like a heist..."
CBY: What was the creative process like between you two? Did you use any creative shorthands like the Marvel Method with your collaboration?
JM: Ben and I have always written stories together; he would take my scripts and draw them into comics. We spent many days after school drawing pages and coloring them to distribute to friends so, needless to say, we have a three-decade-long shorthand. We’ve essentially been doing this since childhood, so not much has changed other than the art is better and we drink tea and coffee instead of juice.
Midnight Massacre started as a screenplay, but being realistic about the budget for an unknown Intellectual Property, we turned it into a storyboard for a comic. That’s one of the greatest things about comics once you pay your art team, the budget is all in the pen.
We write everything out first in outlines and drafts. The craft of storytelling is of the utmost importance to us. Everything is carefully plotted and – if you want to use a movie analogy – very little is improvised. It’s basically the opposite of the Marvel Method. We have to know our ending and themes so we can set up scenes and pay them off in organic ways. We enjoy the architecture of a story. It’s kind of like a heist: plotting everything so the timing works just so, but still getting away with leaving the audience how you did it.
I tend to take the first swing at the early drafts, which Ben edits. Then he storyboards and I provide some input. One way to describe it is that I’m the Producer/Writer and Ben is the Director/Writer/Artist. Since Ben is doing the bulk of the work, I want to consider things he wants to draw and make pages as visual as possible.
CBY: Midnight Massacre had a wicked sense of humor to it with plenty of witty lines and over-the-top moments. Comedy can be a tricky genre to work in though, do you have any tips for new creators looking to make better comedic stories?
JM: Comedy is one of the most difficult things to get across on the page. We’re pretty ruthless about cutting jokes between drafts, and you have to be brutally honest when something doesn’t work. If there’s a joke that still makes you laugh after reading the script one hundred times, then that’s a pretty good indicator it’s a keeper.
Two practical tips: Try not to lean too hard on any topical humor or pop culture references, because they age very poorly. Referencing something else may seem clever at the time, but it usually ends up being more of a cheap crutch. Inventing callbacks and in-jokes within your own universe gives the joke much more staying power and that’s what becomes referenced in real life.
Secondly, we can’t stress enough that comics are a visual medium. Use the panels and art to your advantage. Someone should just look at a panel and find an expression, punchline, or gag funny. They should “see” the humor.
CBY: This one's for Ben, specifically. Midnight Massacre has so much energy to its pages, hitting that sweet spot of looking great and conveying a clear story. Which artists would you say had the most influence on your style?
BM: Thank you so much! My art style seems to evolve every few years. When I was drawing Midnight Massacre, my biggest influences were Ben Caldwell and Sean Galloway for the expressive, energetic lines. I related to a lot of outsider art like Bill Plympton for his DIY ethos. I tried to harness a raw, rebel attitude while drawing it. I know you probably meant illustrators but I’m just as influenced by music while I’m drawing! I was listening to a lot of punk and surf/rockabilly type stuff as well as dark synthwave like Perturbator while drawing Midnight Massacre. I think it comes through.
CBY: Are there any other genres you'd like to tackle together?
JM: We are huge fans of genre and we like to create stories that take some time to click together: Mysteries, Thrillers, Dramas, Suspense. However, our common denominator tends to be comedy. We like to find the absurdity and humor of any situation. Hence, us lampooning our own day-jobs while we were trying to find creative outlets within a sausage-making existence. Sometimes it comes off as gallows or self-deprecating, but it helps take the piss out of things that are too serious.
BM: We’d love to do a big sprawling fantasy like Game of Thrones one day.
CBY: I read in another interview how Midnight Massacre was inspired from your time working at a dead-end corporate position and a job at a theme park, respectively. A situation I can relate to and no doubt many of the Yeti's readers. What would you say to the next Ben and Johns of the world, wanting to make the leap into comics, but haven't yet?
BM: Find a message that speaks to you and one you believe deserves to be out in the world. Build a story around that. I know most people will tell you not to “preach” to the audience, but I feel the exact opposite way! I want to hear your point of view. I want to see how you view the world. And most importantly, just start!
JM: It’s a really exciting time for comic book writers and storytellers because you can connect with so many artists and fellow collaborators online. For writers: Think visually. How can you turn a conversation between two people more expressive so readers fall in love with the art and an artist wants to draw it? Even if you can’t find an artist to commit to a whole book, think about character designs and maybe the first five pages. That way you can start learning how to communicate with an artist and get feedback for your ideas. For artists: draw something you love and share it with the people you admire. You never know who may reply back!
CBY: When can we pick up the collected version?
JBM: The Midnight Massacre Trade Paperback is in shops this Summer!
CBY: Where can readers find you on social media?
JBM: You can visit our official site at matsuyacreative.com. You can also follow us on Twitter at @matsuyacreative and Ben’s instagram is @ben_matsuya.
Midnight Massacre hits comic stores on June 23rd and is available for pre-order today!