Undone by Fur or The Other Side of the Yeti Cave – An Interview with LONNIE NADLER and ZAC THOMPSON
Things get cozy in the Yeti Cave as Jimmy Gaspero makes room for both Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson to discuss all things Undone by Blood or The Other Side of Eden volume 2.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Lonnie and Zac, thank you very much for joining me here in the Yeti Cave. I am very excited to talk to both of you as I’m a fan of the comics you’ve co-written, like The Dregs and Her Infernal Descent, but also your solo writing endeavors such as Black Stars Above and I Breathed A Body. The most recent comic you’ve written together is Undone By Blood or The Other Side of Eden. The collection for volume 2 is on sale starting December 15, 2021. I want to get into that, but before we do, how did the two of you meet and how did your writing partnership come together?
LONNIE NADLER: I threw some toads’ eyes and newt’s foot into a cauldron, gave it a little stir, and out popped Zac, rearing and ready to write.
The more boring truth is that we met on a bus trip from Seattle to Vancouver and it just so happened we were both returning from Emerald City Comic Con. We got to chatting on the bus, and it turned out we were both attending the same film school, and also shared a love for comics. We had both been dabbling in making comics on our own, but thought why not try to make the whole process a little less depressing by doing it together. At least if we failed, we’d fail together. I think after about a year or so of regular “writing nights,” which mostly consisted of consuming lots of beer and talking about David Cronenberg, we somehow came out the other side with pitches for both The Dregs and Come Into Me. We tried to keep riding that train as far as it would take us, and here we are.
ZAC THOMPSON: All of what Lonnie has said is true. To go a little further, our writing partnership is/was successful because once we had those pitches, we held each other accountable to keep writing even when things didn’t necessarily have a home. We would meet in coffee shops at 5:30 after a long day of work, writing until 9pm or later, sometimes five days a week. Or we’d scarf down slices of pizza at a tiny hole-in-the-wall pizza joint while talking story. Even though we had no idea what we were doing, we always took each other seriously and made the time to put in the work.
CBY: Undone By Blood is (at least) the 4th series you’ve written together. How do you approach co-writing? Do you both have a similar writing process? How do you settle disagreements about story direction or dialogue?
LN: At this point, we’re pretty much on auto-pilot when we write together. The process developed pretty naturally over the course of the last several years. For about three of which, we were writing side-by-side every day, and so the process kind of created itself as opposed to us sitting down and saying, “This is how we are going to approach co-writing.” I think the only reason it works for us is because we do have similar tastes and overlapping interests when it comes to storytelling. If we didn’t, this would be impossible. Even though we’ve grown individually as people since we started this journey, we still find ourselves consuming the same media without even telling one another. Just the other day we were chatting and realized we had both been listening to the same obscure electronic musician from the '70s, and it’s someone we never discussed before. Our brains are just united to a point where there is a serendipitous link between them. It’s kind of scary but I’m also grateful for it.
"Zac and I love stories that are rich with imagery and motifs, the kind of books that you can read over and over again and find something new each time. So we also use this parallel story to hide plenty of details, which hopefully augments all those themes I just mentioned." — Lonnie Nadler
ZT: Yeah, like Lonnie said. It’s a pretty easy process now. We’ve always been democratic about storytelling and just try to communicate as transparently as possible. We’re not afraid to tell each other we don't like something but we’re also not afraid to throw something out if the other person has a better idea. It’s all a collaborative experience with the goal of telling the best story in the best way possible. I think because we treated it like a real-ass day job for years, we’ve gotten really good at maintaining that natural working relationship and communication. I think clear and honest communication is key. So for us, it’s mostly just a long conversation that gets transposed onto the page. Sometimes, it's just one of us going off about a page layout that would be cool while the other one is taking obsessive notes of the rant that we’ll clean up later. Other times we’ll break down visuals and talk about the dialogue that needs to happen. We’ll divide and conquer in a Google Doc. So let’s say Lonnie’s writing the panel description while I’m writing the dialogue. Then we’ll both tweak and suggest edits on each other’s work. It wouldn’t work for everyone but it works well for us!
CBY: Undone By Blood is a Western/crime mash-up. Both volumes tell parallel stories, but each volume is independent of itself. The common denominator is that, in each volume, one of the stories is about Sol Eaton, a character from pulp novels written by Elmer Lockwood. In volume 1, the main story follows Ethel Grady Lane on her mission of vengeance and now volume 2 follows Silvano Luna Del Rio as he attempts to rob the tallest building in Buttar, Texas. What does the parallel story structure allow you to do that a more straightforward narrative doesn’t?
LN: Thanks for the concise summary...it’s better than the ones we give our publisher.
This dual narrative structure allows us to make a direct comment on the myth of the Western genre, and to show readers first-hand how fiction influences the “real world,” for better or worse. Silvano and Ethel are both reading books about Sol Eaton, and their actions are impacted by his. Unfortunately for them, things don’t usually work out for them the same way they do for a legendary cowboy.
Furthermore, it allows us to make more subtle commentary about the ways things change and the ways things stay the same throughout history. Zac and I love stories that are rich with imagery and motifs, the kind of books that you can read over and over again and find something new each time. So we also use this parallel story to hide plenty of details, which hopefully augments all those themes I just mentioned.
ZT: The western genre is this age-old storied piece of mythology at this point. It’s a genre that has long been in conversation with itself. So it only felt natural to create this friction between the myth and reality. The shifting time period and POV also help us break down how different points of history dealt with the confrontation of this myth. Solomon is the embodiment of this ever-present hero that emboldens some of the worst lies Americans tell themselves. So it felt like this really interesting opportunity to tell a story about stories and how they affect those who seek moral absolutes in fiction.
"I really think the issue is: looking for moral absolutes in any piece of fiction is inherently problematic. Fiction is meant to be emotional. Storytelling is layered and complex — every story means different things to different people. To me, fiction is all about asking hard questions rather than providing clear answers." — Zac Thompson
CBY: It works incredibly well. The trades for both volumes include these gorgeous prose sections that are from the Sol Eaton novels that our main protagonists are reading. I felt that those sections gave the main storyline a more immersive quality because I was reading the same thing Silvano was reading. How did you approach what ground you wanted to cover in those sections? Did it all come down to what you were trying to say thematically or were there other considerations?
LN: I’m glad somebody is reading them! Yeah, that’s exactly right. Mostly it was about expanding upon the themes we were trying to convey in the series as a whole and in the individual issues after which those chapters appear. The tough part, however, is that we have to carefully balance what we want to say as human beings with what this fictional old-timer author, Elmer Lockwood, would actually write. There are times in those chapters when I feel like I’m writing something I would personally never write because it’s a little off-color (to say the least), but that’s also the point. Like you said, it’s all about showing what Silvano and Ethel are reading, and we wanted to demonstrate how those old pulp novels are loaded with rich prose and fun action, but also outdated ideals and outright lies. It’s not about judging the past, but about looking at it through a contemporary lens to ask questions about how the world was, or at least how it was depicted to be, back then.
ZT: Yeah, I’m so pleased you brought this up! We typically have a long chat about the portions of Sol’s story to show in the pages of the comic and how to approach the prose sections. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk because you want these things to both enhance the themes of what you’re reading/what the POV character is reading and be completely superfluous because we assume most people won’t read them. Maybe that’s cynical to say but I really think we do this stuff to invite readers who want to take another step deeper into the world. The point is to be inviting rather than punishing. I’d be lying too if it wasn’t just a place for us to write really indulgent McCarthy-esque prose in a way that you can’t really publish anywhere else right now.
CBY: Silvano has a line of dialogue when Bud picks up the Sol Eaton novel, “If you’re looking for answers, or hope, that book’s got neither.” I thought that single line said so much, not only about Silvano in that moment but Undone By Blood as a series. Am I reading too much into this or is some part of this the two of you being critical of those that look for answers or hope in their fiction?
LN: I’m quite fond of that moment between those characters too, and it was one that we had in our minds from the very start of the series. I don’t think you’re reading too much into it. That’s the beauty of fiction: every reader will take away something different from the same book. We bring ourselves into the stories we read and so imbue them with the meaning we see in the world. Personally, I have a very peculiar relationship with fiction because I both love to consume it and I love to create it. Whether or not there are truly answers or hope in fiction, I’m not sure. I want to believe there is, but some things I see in the world make me think otherwise some days. I suspect Zac might be the more optimistic one here…
ZT: Yeah, as Lonnie said you absolutely read that correctly. I think that’s the question that ultimately drives the whole of Undone By Blood: the idea of being able to find “answers” in fiction.
Weirdly enough, I started writing in my teens because of the naïve belief that writing about something could potentially change the world. The truth is well…not that. It’s obviously much more complex. There will always be power in storytelling, especially when giving voice to the voiceless. But I’ve found hope and healing in fiction. There are novels and films that mean everything to me, that have really changed my views on the world. But would I prescribe these pieces of fiction to anyone else? Probably not. No one needs me ranting about Andrej Zulawalski’s Possession or PTA’s Punch Drunk Love.
"I think the thing that unites all our work is that Zac and I are trying to parse through the notion that we are all existing and participating in different realities simultaneously, and sometimes it’s tough to tell them apart." — Lonnie Nadler
ZT: I really think the issue is: looking for moral absolutes in any piece of fiction is inherently problematic. Fiction is meant to be emotional. Storytelling is layered and complex – every story means different things to different people. To me, fiction is all about asking hard questions rather than providing clear answers. I’d just say, let yourself be moved by something. Examine why it made you feel [the] way it did and be truthful with yourself. Step outside of the idea that fiction should “better society” or its readers. Fiction is designed to expand a person’s consciousness and we need stories that occupy amoral universes where there is nothing to be learned. Things that dare to “poison” our precious culture are useful, I think.
CBY: Although both volumes are self-contained stories, I did notice at least one nod to volume 1 with a reference to Sweetheart, Arizona. I’m always fascinated by fictional place names and I believe both Sweetheart, Arizona and Buttar, Texas are fictional. Is there any thematic significance to these names?
LN: Yes, but I’ll never tell…
ZT: I legit don’t remember so you’ll have to take Lonnie at his most mysterious here.
CBY: The creative team on Undone By Blood is incredible. Sami Kivela is the artist with Jason Wordie as the colorist and lettering by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. I think both of you, for your various and sundry projects, have had some wonderful collaborators, but, seriously, which elder gods have you been praying to for this team to come together? Between the two of you are things tightly scripted for Kivela? Have there been any surprises in terms of page composition or panel layouts from him?
LN: Zac and I are very careful about who we collaborate with and Undone By Blood is the dream team we put together after years of grinding in the industry, seeing and working with other artists, colorists, and letterers. It gets to a point where you just know what team would work best for a book and, lucky for us, our first three choices were all available and eager to join us.
It all comes down to our desire to work with people who can match the passion and work ethic that we have. If everyone is on the same page creatively, the book becomes more than the sum of its parts. As for scripts, Zac and I are fairly obsessed with formalism and pushing the medium. We try to work out page layouts in the script as much as possible. We’ll even draw little diagrams and such for Sami to communicate what we’re going for. About 70% of the time he will take our layout suggestion and change it. Sometimes he makes little tweaks to focus in on a moment he feels is important, and sometimes he’ll change the page entirely. But what works about the relationship for us is that we understand the decisions Sami is making. It’s never random or haphazard. He puts as much care and intention into his layouts as we put into the script, and for that, the book is better.
ZT: Further to what Lonnie said, sometimes we form a team for a book, months before anyone can ever start the damn thing. We were dying to work with Sami for years, ever since his and Ryan K Lindsay’s Beautiful Canvas at Black Mask. Sami is one of the most ambitious artists we’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. He’s always thinking about how best to convey an idea on the page in his own style. Sami’s panel-to-panel storytelling is remarkable. There’s always moments where we think we’ve thrown something crazy into a script and Sami comes back with a layout that totally rethinks what we had in mind but conveys the same meaning and tone. I often think about the single-page spread for The Other Side of Eden #2 of the staircase. Both a stunning splash and a collection of small intimate moments. He never ceases to amaze.
"I think the thing that unites all our work is that Zac and I are trying to parse through the notion that we are all existing and participating in different realities simultaneously, and sometimes it’s tough to tell them apart. Whether it’s the fiction we consume, the private lives we live, or the personas we present to the digital world, there’s always more than one space that we’re existing in, and that seems to be a very modern dilemma." — Lonnie Nadler
CBY: Yes, that page is great! Did you have to research or read a lot of pulp novels so that the content felt authentic or is there enough connective tissue between pulp novels and comic books? Since volume 2 is set in 1934 in Texas, I would think you had to put in some serious hours researching Texas during the Great Depression. Was that the case?
LN: Luckily, we had already read a lot of pulp novels before this. I think it would be tough to go into a genre knowing nothing about it and then trying to play catch up, you know? It would also feel disingenuous to be like, “Hey, we are doing a deconstructionist take on Westerns...but we haven’t read any!” I have an affinity for classic crime fiction as well as for writers like Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour. So the pulp aspect of it, thankfully, comes out quite naturally for us. When I’m writing my prose chapters, I’ll often dig out a book by L’Amour or whatever and read a few pages just to get the cadence and sentence structure in my head, but I’m never constantly referencing any specific text or else it wouldn’t feel like I was writing. We do, however, do a whole load of historical research to make sure we are representing the time periods authentically. “Serious hours” is a fitting description.
ZT: Yeah, it’s a grind but it’s a different type of writing that can be more mechanical and interesting as you’re outlining. When you’re writing in a period setting you’ve got to do all this research that effectively walls your story into a confined space. Maybe it seems obvious, but suddenly you become this detective to discover a place at a specific time. There’s no substitute for immersing yourself in the world of your characters. Sometimes it’s just little things like reading back Hoover’s presidential address from the era. Other times you get to something like having to show a border crossing in 1934. So it’s us pulling out a map, looking for the nearest border crossing relative to where “Buttar” is in our world (which we pinpointed on a map to figure out climate/plan an accurate dust storm in issue #2), the border crossing you find didn’t exist in 1934. Once you find the right one, calculate the distance, get a photo reference and make sure it's all accurate. Congratulations you’ve outlined a page!
Maybe that seems insane, but we’ve never been accused of taking comics lightly. Haha.
CBY: How did Undone By Blood land at Aftershock, and what makes them, as a publisher, the right fit for a comic like this?
LN: We are lucky to have signed a three-book deal with Aftershock a few years ago, and Undone by Blood was the first one they approved as part of this deal. Thankfully, everyone at Aftershock saw the potential in a meta Neo-Western, because this would have been a very hard sell anywhere else. Aftershock simply trusts us, and that is the most valuable thing in the world when you’re making independent comics.
ZT: Aftershock really believes in us. They have for a while and it’s so rare to have a publisher back your independent ideas with such enthusiasm. They’re always eager to push the envelope of what’s possible in the medium. They’ve also got an incredible editorial team with Christina Harrington and Mike Marts. They’re always down to build ambitious stories that boldly push genre boundaries.
CBY: Is it too soon to ask if there will be a volume 3?
LN: Zac, Sami, and I have plenty of ideas for how we’d continue the series, but as of right now, there are no plans. I want to be completely honest and say that it’s mostly because volume 2 didn’t sell well enough, which is a shame. So, if you’re reading this and you want more Undone by Blood, you have to let the publisher know. You have to support the book. You have to sing its praises. You have to tell your friends. I hate to sound like a beggar on the street with a tin cup, but it’s the truth. And this isn’t just for Undone By Blood, it goes for any book you love.
The only way publishers know it’s safe to make more of something is if readers support it.
ZT: Indie books like this live and die on word of mouth. We’re so incredibly grateful to have made a second volume at all. But it really is a numbers thing. Books rarely get second tries to find their audience and sadly, we just didn’t have enough people show up. But! We’ve talked to Sami about working together on something new. This isn’t the end of team UBB… that’s for sure.
CBY: Without spoiling anything, do either of you have any favorite moments from either volume?
LN: Honestly, I am very fond of the endings of each volume. I think as far as endings go, this book represents what Zac and I are all about as creators. I also really love the moment in volume 1 where Ethel is talking to the shirtless motel manager about the 4th of July as he’s drinking hot milk from a swirly straw.
ZT: Principal Boyd Chowdermin from the first arc. He’s only in 2 scenes across 5 issues but he remains my favorite character.
CBY: The series was picked up by Norman Reedus’ bigbaldhead productions to be developed for a TV series at AMC last September. I read that you both are co-executive producers for the series. Have there been any developments with that that you can talk about? If so, what has your involvement been thus far?
LN: Nothing we can talk about but we are still very much involved and things are moving along, slowly but surely.
ZT: Progress has been made! Things are happening!
"I think a good newsletter is honest and inviting. I know this term gets thrown around a lot right now but if it’s functioning well, I think it can foster a community. I want to create a space for people who like my work to talk to me and talk to each other. In an ideal world, people could collaboratively build stories and share ideas." — Zac Thompson
CBY: Looking back on the work that you’ve written together: The Dregs, Come Into Me, Her Infernal Descent, and Undone By Blood, is there a throughline? Other than you two, is there something that ties all of these together?
LN: I was thinking about this the other day, actually. I think the thing that unites all our work is that Zac and I are trying to parse through the notion that we are all existing and participating in different realities simultaneously, and sometimes it’s tough to tell them apart. Whether it’s the fiction we consume, the private lives we live, or the personas we present to the digital world, there’s always more than one space that we’re existing in, and that seems to be a very modern dilemma. It was not intentional, but we seem to be captivated by this divide between all our various mental and physical spaces and what that says about humanity.
ZT: Yeah, I think it’s duality and identity. It’s a strange undercurrent you can find across all four books and both volumes of UBB. Seems like a fitting throughline for co-writers, if you ask me. Like Lonnie said, I don’t think it was intentional. The stories we’ve written together usually grow from conversations Lonnie and I have returned to over the years we’ve been friends. Sometimes they’re philosophical, sometimes they’re genre-based, sometimes it's entirely personal. But it always seems to dovetail in this nice divide. Like looking at something from two lenses at the same time. Which is funny because thinking of this…the book we’re currently writing together fits into this same mold…fuck!
CBY: If you were the curator for a comics museum, which 3 books do you want to make absolutely sure are included?
LN: From Hell, Maus, and Little Nemo in Slumberland. I’m sure my answer would change though if you asked me this same question tomorrow.
ZT: Uhhh, this is hard. I’m going with David Mazzucchelli’s adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass, Charles Burns’ Black Hole, and Shaun Tan’s The Arrival.
CBY: Two interviews in a row where Black Hole is mentioned. What other projects are you currently working on that CBY readers should check out?
LN: So many things, but not much I can talk about just yet. Zac and I have a short story in Razorblades Magazine #5 which came out on Halloween. It’s drawn by the amazing Ian MacEwan. I have a short comic I’m working on with Troy Nixey that will be part of something very cool early next year. And Zac and I are working on our next book at Aftershock together, which will reunite us with Piotr Kowalski who drew Come Into Me.
ZT: Yeah! Make sure to check out Razorblades #5. I’m currently writing Ka-Zar: Lord of the Savage Land at Marvel. It’s eye-popping eco-horror drawn by German Garcia and colored gorgeously by Mat Lopes. Issue #4 comes out Dec 15th.
Starting in January, I’m writing Superior Four at Marvel. It’s a demented take on the Fantastic Four that features 4 Doc Ocks journeying through the multiverse. That’s drawn by Davide Tinto and coloured by Matt Milla. Other than that, I’m hard at work on a few new things that will get announced in the early new year.
CBY: You both have fantastic newsletters that I have been reading for quite some time. They both, in different ways, cover what you’re working on, what’s going on in your life, the things you’re reading or watching, and great stuff about the writing process. What makes a good newsletter and what are you trying to accomplish? Where do you draw the line on how open you want to be with your readers?
LN: I’m still trying to figure that out, to be honest. It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be and every time I think I’m doing an alright job, I’ll read James Tynion or Ryan Lindsay’s newsletters and realize I’ve got so much to learn. I think what I’m trying to accomplish is just an open and honest line to my readers, the ones who want a slightly deeper connection than what they’ll get on social media. And if I can teach people something about navigating the wild world of the comic book industry, then I’m happy.
ZT: I’m not sure this answer works for everyone, but it works for me. I think a good newsletter is honest and inviting. I know this term gets thrown around a lot right now but if it’s functioning well, I think it can foster a community. I want to create a space for people who like my work to talk to me and talk to each other. In an ideal world, people could collaboratively build stories and share ideas. Obviously, it's nowhere near there now. But I think James Tynion IV is definitely what "good" looks like. I think it just boils down to being generous. You only have to be as forthcoming as you’d like but people feel excited when you let them peek behind the curtain. Craft is often the most unique part of a writer’s skill set. I think it can be really helpful to read how you (or someone else) looks at writing with the understanding that, y’know, one person may find this reinvents the wheel for how they approach their craft and another might think it’s utter horseshit. Both are right. The idea is just to foster a space that’s open and inviting while trying to demystify the process of being a comic creator as much as possible.
CBY: Thank you both so much for your time. I really appreciate it. I encourage everyone to pick up Undone by Blood volume 2 and I'm looking forward to whatever comes next. You can follow Lonnie Nadler on Twitter @LonnieNadler and subscribe to his newsletter HERE. You can follow Zac Thompson on Twitter @ZacBeThompson and subscribe to his newsletter HERE.