Scary Sweet: An Interview with Dillon Gilbertson, Writer of SWEET HEART
When I was just a wee baby yeti, only 7 months into reviewing comics, Dillon Gilbertson reached out to see if I wanted to check out SWEET HEART. I loved it! It was this fresh take on horror – which is difficult to do! – but it also worked so well as a metaphor for living with diabetes.
A year-and-a-half later, the series has been picked up by Action Lab, and I personally couldn't be more excited to find out what happens next in this dark and enthralling series.
Comic Book Yeti contributor Jarred Luján grabbed some time to talk with Gilbertson about horror, the creative process and getting your Kickstarted comic picked up by a publisher.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Dillon! So great to have you here – thanks for stopping in to answer some of our questions. Would you mind introducing yourself to everyone? Who are you? What do you do? What did you contribute to this project?
DILLON GILBERTSON: Hey! Thank you so much for having me. I always love talking with you, so I'm honestly really happy to be here.
I'm Dillon Gilbertson and I'm a comic book writer. I am the writer and creator of this project SWEET HEART, with Francesco, Marco, and Saida, who made this book as good as it is. I've also written stories for a number of anthologies, including Local Haunts Anthology and What Fresh Hell is This?, and recently self-published a beautiful sci-fi one-shot with Anastasia Longoria called Anew.
"The horrors in this book overlap with so many other ailments, whether physical, mental, or social...How they demand your attention, never giving you a moment's peace, and how the people you love struggle knowing that they can only help so much, if at all."
CBY: I’ve seen elsewhere that Sweet Heart is a story based on your own experience with diabetes, especially your struggles and your fears. Could you give us a little backstory on how that all came together? How did you think to manifest these very real issues into a comic book narrative?
DG: Yeah, the thought was actually kind of intrusive. I'd been awake for almost 30 hours after an overnight shift and was driving back from an early appointment with my endocrinologist, where we talked about the usual things like how I'm managing my diabetes and some routine tests to check for complications. On the drive home, my mind started to wander (to be honest, I should not have been driving that tired), and I imagined Type-1 diabetes as this monster that was just never going to leave me alone and how confused I was when I was diagnosed at age 6.
I remembered my entire family was so upset and I had a hard time understanding why. But my mom really fought it with me. She did everything she could to teach me how to control it and took things into her own hands when I couldn't, but she could only do so much, you know? And the thought of her fighting this monster, so angry and so distraught, that there was really no way to defeat it, it almost made me cry while I was driving. So I got home, scribbled it all down on a notepad, and then fell asleep. When I woke up, I immediately started writing and that actually became a very specific scene in Issue 1.
As I continued outlining the story, it became something more than a story about diabetes. The horrors in this book overlap with so many other ailments, whether physical, mental, or social. So the book itself, while inspired by diabetes, is really a story about personal maladies. The things that never stop going, whether a bump in the night or day. How they demand your attention, never giving you a moment's peace, and how the people you love struggle knowing that they can only help so much, if at all.
"A good horror comic shows you exactly what to be afraid of, but still guides readers into scaring themselves."
CBY: I don’t really write a lot of horror in my own comics, so I’m curious what you feel makes a good horror comic in general? What do you think are comic-specific things that provide scares versus media like movies or novels?
DG: That's a big question—haha. But I think one part is the visuals, obviously. Comics are, after all, a visual medium. A good horror comic shows you exactly what to be afraid of, but still guides readers into scaring themselves. Movies have the advantage of pacing; they can flash a horrific image for less than a second to create this "WTF did I just see?" moment that you don't have time to grapple with because the movie keeps going. Novels leave the pacing up to the reader, but still have a way of turning your imagination against you. They describe the events in detail, yet you're still the one manifesting a lot of the details that hold it together.
A horror comic, I think, can benefit from being neither of those things—or both? Pacing is up to the reader, aside from using the page-turn for jump scares. In addition, the art can obscure what you see in shadows, but that image still needs to hold up to an extended view. It's up to the art to show things that are frightening because of what you can/can't see aside from what you don't have time to grapple with like a movie. Because the images don't move, the reader is forced to fill in the blanks between panels. What happens from panel to panel needs to leave just enough for the reader to fill in, which is partially aided by writing in captions and word balloons. If the writing is strong enough, it can turn the imagination against you, even in an innocuous panel.
CBY: Dillon, I hear you’re a sleep researcher. How can you reconcile this when you’re about to make so many of us so terrified, we lose sleep?
DG: Well, that's just simple job security. (laughing) I specialize in maladies that disrupt sleep. So, if I did my job as a writer, maybe we'll get a surge in participants for our studies? I write horror for science!
"Take your time. At every step of the process, take your time. You don't have deadlines for a book you're making on your own."
CBY: (laughing) I love that!
So, Sweet Heart is one of those really cool stories where you started with a team (Francesco Iaquinta on Pencils and Inks, Marco Pagnotta doing Colors, and Saida Temofonte doing Letters) through Kickstarter and wound up landing a distribution deal. How did that process work? What was the transition like?
DG: When we all started on the first issue, there were obviously no publishers. I didn't know if it was ever gonna make it past issue #1. So I talked to everyone like, "Hey, we don't have deadlines on this. Let's just make the best comic we can. Don't rush anything and let’s just give everyone a heads up if life gets in the way. Let's just see how this all goes." And that's exactly what we did. We took our time and made an amazing first issue that people loved! I began selling it at small shows and had people come back asking when the second issue was coming out. So I went back to the team like, "So...can we do four more?" And we excitedly started the next issue, which is when Kickstarter came in. In the meantime, I was pitching to publishers, and we were lucky enough to land a spot with Action Lab.
That transition was a little overwhelming, but not in the sense you might think. I just wasn't used to doing interviews and writing press releases and the like, so that was a steep learning curve. But the "Let's take our time to make a great book" mentality stuck the whole way through. They let us set our own deadlines, so I asked the team when they thought we could finish the project, and then set it for 6 months after that date. I didn't want anything to rush this project and I wanted to plan for production delays. Action Lab was totally cool with it and that allowed us to tell an incredible story the way we wanted to tell it.
CBY: What advice do you offer other indie creators who would like to replicate the success you’ve had with Sweet Heart?
DG: Take your time. At every step of the process, take your time. You don't have deadlines for a book you're making on your own. Let everyone on the team do their best work, yourself included, even if that means accepting criticism and taking the time to get better and fix things. Time is on your side. Take advantage of that.
CBY: Do you have any other projects that you’re working on currently? Are you planning on sticking with the horror genre?
DG: Yeah, I've got a couple things in the air right now, not all horror. One is an adventure/drama that I can't say too much about, other than it'll be sort of a road trip along the Pacific Crest Trail where society hasn't quite collapsed, but things are looking grim and the actions some people are taking to prevent it are rather unsavory. I'm also chipping away a sci-fi/fantasy novel that beta-readers keep saying is like Douglas Adams meets Neil Gaiman's Sandman, but that's still some years away, I think. There are also a few stories I'm in the early stages outlining, plus a Dracula short story. I think I'll always have at least one horror iron in the fire.
CBY: Dillon, thanks again for stopping by and talking Sweet Heart with us. When is Sweet Heart hitting shelves, where will folks be able to find it, and where can they find you online or at conventions?
DG: Sweet Heart # 1 will be available on March 4th! You can find it at your local comic shop, but pre-ordering is vital! Ask the folks who work there to order it for you. It will also be available online at Comixology.
As for conventions, this year I'll be tabling at Rose City Comic Con in September, but I'll also be doing press and interviews at Emerald City Comic Con in March, WonderCon in April, then San Diego and New York in July and October (and maybe a few more). Come by and say hi!