Interview: Erman and Sterle on Relationships and Horror in LONG LOST

Long Lost is a beautiful horror/journey home story created by husband and wife team Matthew Erman and Lisa Sterle. Inspired by a weekend stay in a cabin in the woods the tale is more about family than it is horror. Don’t be fooled, though, the horror element adds spooky and thrilling vibe to the story. Matthew and Lisa took some time to talk with me about the experience that led to this book as well as some of the deeper underlying themes.

Chris Campbell: Tell us about your weekend experience that led to the creation of Long Lost.

Matthew Erman: Yeah! So Lisa and I are uhh, an item? We’re married. We are two peas in a pod. I think that’s the term. Anyway, we really dig being outside and cabins and camping and all that. Cut to 2013, we’re both kind of figuring out what we want to do with the rest of our lives, we’re in a cabin in Hocking Hills, Ohio and we’re really creeped out by the woods surrounding the cabin. Like, straight up, very spooky. So, we start spitballin’ about what kind of cool thing we can do with a really simple premise. We love horror movies and are usually pretty frustrated by one thing or another in regards how things play out so we really wanted to put our money where our mouth is and make something we’d really love. I think like a lot of things, the weekend experience was the catalyst for the concept of doing something like this, and then it took four years of brainstorming and ideation to really get into what we were actually doing.

CC: Long Lost is a fascinating blend of mystery, family drama, horror and body horror. What made you decide to blend those particular unlikely elements together?

ME: That’s a rad question. I think a few things as for why the story evolved into these mish-mash of genres. First, I just really love those things and I think a lot of the things I love have managed to combine and smush together disparate genres. A lot of things that inspired me tend to be bigger than any single genre, which I think Long Lost is trying to do. I hope its succeeding in being more than just a horror comic which is to say there is absolutely nothing wrong with being just a horror comic. I don’t want people to think things have to “transcend” genre to be more because I think that is uppity and kind of snooty. Things are what they need to be, and for me to tell the best version of the story of Frances and Piper, the story has to do deal with those things like family drama and body horror and the unknown. If the story needed be different it would be, I think.

CC: Piper and Frances are experiencing some pretty crazy things and yet they have some very normal conversations. Who did you use as a model for their conversations. Why was it important to give them very real dialogue?

ME: Man, that’s another doozy. I’m really drawn to naturalistic dialogue. I find that the way people speak and the way they say the things that say is one of the best tools a writer has to characterize their characters. Long Lost doesn’t have much monologuing and that’s because Piper and Frances are so conversationally unique, and there is so much opportunity for them to interact that a monologue gets in the way of who they are and how they present themselves to each other. As a model for dialogue I think about my relationship with my brother. I think everyone is a little fucked up in someway, maybe it’s small or maybe it’s big but your siblings are some of the few people that understand where your scars from, figuratively and literally. My brother and I both know each other’s pasts and what we’ve been through and while it isn’t anything close to what these characters went through it stills serves as a jumping-off-point for how two people that understand each other deeply talk to each other. If my brother and I saw the creature in the beginning of the second issue, I think we’d operate pretty similarly, because despite how weird things get you always have that familiar relationship to fall back on, it’s a comfort blanket.

CC: The girls seem to be on a journey to return home and even though they are arriving it still seems so far away. What message are you conveying to readers about returning to one’s home or the past?

ME: Home means so many things to everyone. I grew up in a suburb in a municipality outside a sad, little city. My mom’s family all lived in Kentucky and we’d visit three or four times a year when I was growing up, and I lived there for a while after high school after I decided that college wasn’t the path for me. I was searching for a home, or a place that felt better to me than where I grew up and while I didn’t find it in Kentucky I did have a better sense of what my home meant to me. Home to me is a place that regardless of how you feel about it, it leaves it’s fingerprints on you. That it imparts the essence onto your being. I’ll always be a suburban kid from the midwest, and that’s because this place shaped me much like how Hazel Patch shaped Piper & Frances and continues to do so. I hope the readers think about how their home shapes them, and what the environments of their developmental years pushed them to be the person they are, for better or worse. I think that’s Piper and Frances’s struggle, understanding what this place did to them and the story is about how they cope with those discoveries.

CC: There is a very heavy organic and growing theme to this series. Why did you choose this look for the horror parts?

ME: I can be really smart and say that the organics and the growing stuff is about some bigger theme, but I really just like aesthetic and tried to make it work in the story. Naughty Dog’s THE LAST OF US, was pretty popular around the time when I was crafting Long Lost and while there aren’t zombies in our story I really loved the idea of an invasive organic and the aesthetic imprinted on the Lepers you see in Issue #3. I’m happy to say that I think later on in the story it becomes something other and I tried to make it our own and not feel like a direct lift from something else. The inspiration is there for sure, but it ends up being very different.

CC: Long Lost has a very quiet and slow pace feel to it, and that is really good. Why did you decide to take it slow telling the story?

ME: I think that’s just because of how I write. For better or worse. As a writer I’m more interested in the really small moments, the sighs or the way a face looks after a biting line of dialogue. How someone hangs their head after something happens or a hug between two sisters after something stressful. These moments are really important to me not only as a creator but as a reader. They characterize and I think allow the reader to get a full expression of empathy. Like, you really get to know how these two sisters feel about, well, a lot of things. Even in the first three issues, because feeling things and experiencing things is how I get to know them too as a creator. I learned so much about Piper and Frances as I wrote this story and that’s because I didn’t do a lot of pre-characterization. I didn’t decide for them who they were going to be, but in the act of writing them let them make those decisions. I know that probably sounds super pretentious but I think that’s best way I can find my characters, by letting them live naturally and at their own pace. For Piper and Frances I found out who they were when they spoke to each other, and in those quiet moments where they looked inside themselves and I felt the reader would probably get to know them best as well in these moments.

CC: What can readers expect over the next few issues?

Lisa Sterle: Issues #4, #5, and #6 deepen the mystery of what is happening in Hazel Patch, with issue #5 being the biggest and strangest issue of the bunch. I think it really is the crown on Part One. Then Part Two  (Issues #6 – #12) is an entirely different beast. I predict Long Lost will be the strangest comic of 2018.

CC: Tell us about your background as an artist. Which artist influence your work?

LS: I’ve got a weird hodgepodge of influences from different times in my life. I used to do a lot of oil painting portraits and loved strange, atmospheric painters like Kent Williams, Francis Bacon and Goya’s Black Paintings. I like to think there’s still that influence in my work now, in the way I paint backgrounds and abstract the unknown, creepy things. Comic artists have obviously been my main source of inspiration lately, Becky Cloonan’s work always amazes me, particularly in her absolute perfect use of blacks. Naoko Takeuchi’s manga was the reason I started drawing as a kid, and oddly enough her Negaverse environments have been sort of an influence on some of the creepier parts of Long Lost. Also, Jillian Tamaki, her figures are so natural and fluid, that’s an element of character art that I’m striving to improve.

CC: Why did you choose to publish Long Lost as a black and white comic?

LS: Long Lost is in monochrome technically! Highly de-saturated color, but the warmness and coolness of the color changes throughout the series. It was a way to immediately establish a tone, of something dark, strange, and immediately places you in the horror genre(hopefully). A lot of my favorite horror comics are Japanese, so doing monochromatic just felt right. It also didn’t hurt that it helped simplify the coloring process!

CC: What do you use as references for the horror parts of the book?

LS: Guillermo Del Toro’s work, the Dark Souls/Bloodborne games, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Junji Ito, to name a few. This was my first official foray into designing creepy creatures/monsters, so it was definitely a challenge but also super fun to collect inspiration because I’ve always loved horror.

CC: How do you produce the artwork for Long Lost? Traditional or digital?

LS: I work almost entirely digitally. I think the only aspect that I do traditionally is character design. Honestly one of my favorite things to do is wrap myself in blankets on the couch and just sketch a million faces/characters.

CC: Why do your characters in Long Lost all have pupils only? Is there reason for this or just the style you chose?

LS: Huh, I’ve never thought about it to be honest. I guess it’s just a style I’ve leaned toward, maybe because a lot of my influences tend to be indie comics and that style is more common there?

CC: The girls (and Pockets) have a very cute look to them compared to everyone and everything else around them. Why did you chose this look for them?

LS: I guess they stick out as looking more “cute” because they’re the youngest characters you see in the series so far. And there’s definitely some manga influence going on there too.

Long Lost #4 is available now, from Scout Comics.

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