People, Trains, and Sheer Panic! – An Interview with NEIL KLEID & ANDREA MUTTI
Comic Book Yeti contributor Ty Whitton chats with Neil Kleid and Andrea Mutti regarding a thrilling new comic book called The Panic. This story pits a group of strangers together to rely on each other to get through one of the most traumatic and apocalyptic events in their lives!
COMIC BOOK YETI: Neil and Andrea, it’s really exciting to be able to interview you about The Panic! Thank you for your time! In reading the first issue, I certainly felt panic while reading the book. How did both of you approach conveying that feeling in your writing and art, so that readers would be able to feel that while enjoying the story?
NEIL KLEID: Thanks for reading! I’ll let Andrea speak to the art, but the impetus behind the series was really to focus on the aftermath of an unknown, inciting incident—in our case, the PATH train crash—and explore the decisions a group of survivors (strangers, mostly) would make in order to get to safety.
From the jump, I wanted to ensure that neither the character — [nor] the reader — really understood what happened. I kept thinking about New Yorkers trapped in stalled subways after 9/11, who really didn’t know why the trains had stopped…or why they were eventually evacuated. They only knew afterwards, when they made it to the surface, and went through an entirely different emotional process of acceptance once armed with facts.
In this case, with The Panic, both characters and readers won’t know what happens until the end of the road — if they know then, which I’m not saying they do — and that fear of the unknown…of what’s waiting around the next bend...of the emotional and mental sense of the person standing next to them in the darkness…that’s the element of panic I was hoping to achieve. I also used stilted dialogue, page turns and character conflict to create a heightened atmosphere of suspicion, anxiety and fear, that hopefully translated to the reader.
Thankfully, when partnered with a brilliant co-author like Andrea, whose visuals help cement those feelings of unsettling dread through space, color and tone, it makes my job a lot easier.
ANDREA MUTTI: Thanks for your attention! So, I tried to be as realistic as possible, trying to use a lot of black and working on the frames and "emotional" colors – something that was claustrophobic but clear to the readers at the same time.
NK: "That, to me, was the crux of this story—would strangers with different political, cultural, sexual and racial points of view be able to put aside all the divisive bullshit happening in our country, our world, to come together and survive?"
CBY: When it comes to creating panic, horror, or gruesome art, I’d consider Andrea one of the top artists for the job. How did the communication work out between you two when creating such detailed art within tragic events in the story? Neil, did Andrea have freedom in the script or did you have more specific requests for him in regard to creating art that really meshes with the writing?
NK: The great thing about comic books is that the creation of a page, a story, is a true partnership between writer and illustrator. I told Andrea from the get-go that my panel descriptions were guidelines, and that he was free to adjust and recommend ways to tell the story that would make it the tale it needed to be. Sometimes he would say “Neil, you can’t have six people in a crowded tin can as seen from above on panel one of a six-panel page,” and I would say, “Andrea, you are right. I’m a fool. I go cry now.”
For me, it was about the authentic characters, the staccato of dialogue, the panic and fear that drives people to do what they need to do. If Andrea had a better way to present that and keep the story true and moving forward, he had carte blanche to adjust as he saw fit. There may have been one or two things I really put my foot down on in order to ensure the narrative made sense. But when you have a brilliant, practiced co-author like Andrea a text or email away, you learn to trust the brilliance, step back and watch the amazing pages roll in.
We really did work together, though. I use the term “co-author” when I work with a partner because it’s not all about my script and my ideas or direction; we are both bringing ideas to the table here, and at the end of the day, it's about making the comic, the story, the best it can possibly be. That takes multiple authors in comics — both who have a sense of ownership in the process and page. Andrea owns The Panic just as much as I do, and is invested in making its narrative a success.
AM: I must admit that it was easy. We wanted the same thing. The only times we confronted each other was on the staging of the characters. Sometimes the panels were too dense, too many people, and we risked suffocating the narrative. The rest was really nice and smooth! Neil is an excellent travel companion!
CBY: The Panic did a phenomenal job of making the events feel very real, with sociopolitical references within the art, such as the virus for example. Did you both work together in making sure those references stood out within the story?
AM: We have worked with honesty in the sense that recent, delicate and tragic issues were addressed, but we have always used this language without controversy. It was an important "pretext" to charge an already critical situation with tension, also for the social aspect. I think we did a very clean job, without falling into rhetoric or propaganda. I think it's the best way to deal with serious matters, without our pretending to have answers, just the desire to question ourselves, and the characters did the rest. We have not speculated on these aspects.
NK: Again, we both had a hand in crafting this story. I started writing the story that would become The Panic in 2002, after 9/11, and it has evolved and changed with every passing year. You can imagine that its original state did not involve masks and social distancing, references to COVID, and the like. By the time we got the greenlight from Comixology, the pandemic was well underway and so we — Andrea, me, our editors — saw the value in exploring how to incorporate those trappings into our very contemporary tale in a way that still remained authentic, but also might heighten the panic and fear everyone around the world was already feeling, thanks to the virus.
In terms of the characters and dialogue, we always set out to craft an ensemble that was definitively “New York.” And, as the political atmosphere in America changed and got more divisive since the first iteration of our story, it made sense to ensure the cast reflected a diverse, authentic group of strangers, some of whom would have very different political and cultural opinions and beliefs. As Andrea and I began to work together, some elements changed — a character’s ethnicity, another’s sexuality — and every decision made, we made together alongside our brilliant editor, Mariah McCourt.
NK: "The great thing about comic books is that the creation of a page, a story, is a true partnership between writer and illustrator."
CBY: To build off of that, did either of you utilize any current events as a reference for the art or writing? Were the main characters inspired by anyone specific?
AM: One of the characters, the Italian one, is my younger brother! haha! The rest is fabulous!
NK: In terms of current events, as we said, we really wanted to strike that note of fear everyone was feeling during the pandemic and mainlined some of it for the start of the book.
When I wrote the script, none of the characters were really inspired by or based on anyone in particular; they were a cast of archetypical New Yorkers (and a few out-of-towners) with varied beliefs and opinions. That, to me, was the crux of this story: would strangers with different political, cultural, sexual and racial points of view be able to put aside all the divisive bullshit happening in our country, our world, to come together and survive?
Look, I’m a 47-year-old, middle-class white Jew living in the suburbs. Not everyone is going to have the same worldview as me, or the same experiences. But in a random subway car, or a plane, you’re going to take a slice of humanity and come up with at least ten or twenty unique individuals, with their specific thoughts, fears, beliefs and opinions. Hell, even if those ten or twenty were all the same race, religion or gender, or belong to the same political party…as Coach Beard said on Ted Lasso, "All people are different people."
It was less important for me, as the writer, to have our ensemble remind you of a certain actor or person I know, and more important that they reflect one of those differing, jewel-like archetypes or opinions that might put them at odds with someone else.
CBY: When reading the story, it was clear that you have quite the chemistry in creating The Panic. What part(s) of the project did you enjoy working on the most?
AM: Hard to say. I think ANNIE's story is touching, but also the relationship between Rocco and Manda and Rhianna is really extraordinary. The relationships between the characters are crazy, constantly evolving!
NK: So, I was lucky enough that I got to letter Andrea’s pages, too (as I do many of my stories). What I love about that is that, as a writer, I get to take a second pass at the page and edit myself — the dialogue, captions, pacing — in order to make the words marry Andrea’s beautiful, haunting art in a harmonious way…which is really what this medium is all about.
Plus, every time I letter a comic I learn something new about the process. So for me, it was fun to not only tell the tale, but have an actual hand in the construction of the final page. I just hope Andrea isn’t too mad about the final results!
CBY: What made you excited about this project in comparison to your prior creations?
AM: The “normality.” We have no superheroes, no superpowers, no super-cop or monsters, but real people in the normal world. What is scarier?
NK: Working with Andrea, of course, has been a dream, as has been working with the amazing folks over at Comixology. I’ve long wanted to put out a project with them, and I’m thrilled that The Panic — a comic I’ve been trying to make for a long, long time — was (hopefully) the first of many.
Honestly, though, while this project isn’t what I might call a “horror” comic (it’s more like a thriller, I suppose), that’s a type of story I’ve never really told before. Most of my previous work have been family dramas, crime stories or superhero/fantasy stories. I did write a few short Tales From The Crypt comics for Papercutz, and a short for Creepy, but they were slightly more tongue-in-cheek and not what I’d call "harrowing" by any means.
I don’t know that The Panic is scary, per se, but it is anxiety-inducing…thrilling, as it were. And that’s new for me. I’d like to do some more, if they’ll let me!
CBY: Just out of curiosity, did you work together to make me sing a portion of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” while Annie was introduced?
NK: Shh shhh. Let’s not mention what is definitely not rights infringement. But, uh. Are you okay?
ANDREA: NO SPOILERS! ;-)
CBY: Who or what were your biggest influences in creating The Panic?
AM: Believe it or not, ALIEN, DAYLIGHT, of course, [the] 9/11 [tragedy].
NK: I wanted to tell a story about New York and New Yorkers…and when you think about New York thrillers set on a train, you definitely are influenced by The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. When people also ask me what it’s about, I sometimes glibly say “It’s The Walking Dead, but without the zombies,” an exploration of humanity put to the test. That’s been part of the DNA of this story since the very beginning, as have my own personal experience and observations of New Yorkers thrown into calamity after 9/11, during the 2003 blackout, even just on an average day on the subway. It’s been influenced by the divisiveness wounding America over the last few election cycles…probably back before that even, when you think about Ferguson, the Occupy movement, Charlottesville…man, hundreds of little flashpoints and school shootings and hate crimes. But also hundreds of people reaching out to one another or after a tragic event or during a trying time. As the pandemic crippled and killed, and as politics, race, gender and religion continue to divide us. There are good people out there; those who understand that we are humans first, and humanity needs to help one another, even when faced with those who don’t.
That’s what influenced me, really, more than any other book, movie, comic or show.
CBY: Did you approach this story differently than other projects you’ve worked on, knowing that it’s a Comixology Original?
AM: Yeah, I always have the same approach: enthusiasm, excitement. My focus was for sure to create a REAL world…with real lights and shadows.
NK: I mean, one of the biggest things we kept in mind was how the comic would be read using Comixology’s Guided View; no double page spreads, being careful of losing text at the margins or across panels. Andrea may have better insight as regards [to] the artistic process (color modes, etc.) but for the most part, I wrote The Panic as I would any other comic book. Just without any spreads.
CBY: What comic books, movies, and/or TV shows are you currently enjoying and why?
AM: Good Lord! Too many, too many I have to say! I watch many different things…I really love the high-vibe situations in the TV shows.
NK: Whoof. I’m watching way too much television right now because it’s all just brilliantly written. Severance, Ted Lasso (YOU KNOW WHY. Amazing!), Only Murders in the Building, Hacks, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Barry, The Bear…and I’m gearing up to devour The Sandman, which is based off one of my favorite comic book series.
The last good movie I saw may have been The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, which was glorious…or the Top Gun sequel, which I liked more than I thought I would have (I just watched the original for the first time this year. I know.) Before that…Doctor Strange 2?
I just finished reading Mark Seal’s Take the Gun, Leave the Cannoli, which is about the making of The Godfather; I read it because I just watched The Offer on Paramount+ which was pretty good. I also really liked City on Fire by Don Winslow and Secret Identity by Alex Segura — both brilliant crime novels.
Comic books? I’ve been going through an X-Men renaissance, lately; I started with Giant-Size X-Men #1 and have worked my way through the eighties, up through the Morrison era and I’m now catching up on Hickman’s reign. I’m also digging Saga, Castle Waiting (I want volume 3!), The Nice House on the Lake, Crossover and Michel Rabagliati’s Paul series of graphic novels.
CBY: What is one book that you catch yourself reading or referencing time and time again?
AM: Once again, what a list! Dark Knight Returns, Year One, Cosmic Odyssey, The Man Without Fear, Sin City….
NK: I don’t know that I can narrow it down to one. Locke and Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, as well as The Dark Tower cycle by Stephen King (father and son!) are both stories I read once a year. But more than those, I’m constantly referencing Jeff Smith’s Bone for world-building, lighting and design…and Will Eisner’s Dropsie Avenue for characters and storytelling. They are both masterpieces.
CBY: Please tell us about any other projects you have upcoming or going on currently, that readers can check out.
AM: Just finished BUNNY MASK vol. 2, PARASOMNIA vol. 2 and British Paranormal Society. Right now, I am on THE BLIZZARD (Image), StormKing Production (cannot say the title), Legacy of Violence with Mad Cave and…something more. But I can’t say anything yet!
NK: Aside from The Panic (the collection of which is out in November from Dark Horse Comics), you can still buy Savor, my YA food-centric adventure graphic novel with John Broglia and Frank Reynoso from Dark Horse Comics, relisted in Diamond Previews for September (AUG220529). This September also sees the release of two music-themed projects of mine from Z2 Comics: Screaming for Vengeance, a sci-fi graphic novel based on the album by Judas Priest, co-authored with Rantz Hoseley, Chris Mitten, Dee Cuniffe and Troy Peteri; and Little Earthquakes, an anthology of comics inspired by the work of Tori Amos in which I have a short story, “Crucify,” with Andy Macdonald. I’m working on two fun, amazing projects for 2023 and 2024…but I better keep schtum on those for now!
CBY: Where can readers find you and/or your work online?
AM: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook…
NK: I’m on Twitter and Instagram at @neilkleid. You can, of course, buy issues of The Panic via the Comixology app, and you can check out a selection of my other work at my Bookshop link, and help support independent bookstores.
CBY: Thank you so much Neil and Andrea for hanging out with The Comic Book Yeti! This is a great project! I wish you and the project the best of luck going forward. I cannot wait to see how this book is received!