‘Dwellings’ Creator Jay Stephens Discusses The “Extra Pain” Of His Dark Harvey Comics Riff

Dwellings Jay Stephens Interview

Years ago, Jay Stephens released the first iteration of Dwellings, his dark riff on classic Harvey Comics like Caspar, Richie Rich, and more. Set in the haunted town of Elwich, the book mixes gruesome horror with dark comedy for something that both deconstructs and pays tribute to the source material. And now, the series is coming to hardcover from Oni Press.

“The vibe of the hardcover collection follows through on the original premise,” Stephens told Comic Book Club over email. “If these cute, creepy stories were long forgotten comics from the past, rediscovered in antique shop longboxes, this is the ‘retrospective’ collection put together for a modern, discerning, comics reading public.”

Read on for much more on Dwellings, Stephens’ love for the characters, and whether he’d ever want to do a pure Caspar story without the stabbing.

Comic Book Club: Dwellings has been through several different formats now, including this collected edition. Do you have a preference? Is there an ideal way of reading Dwellings?

Jay Stephens: I feel like each iteration of Dwellings has its own special charm. The original small press, single-story issues were meant to invoke a mysterious flea-market find… disturbing relics from the past come back to haunt us. The mass market Oni issues continued the darkly nostalgic vibe with an homage to the ‘Giant Size Harvey Comics’ like Casper’s Ghostland that were a direct inspiration for the look and feels of Dwellings. The vibe of the hardcover collection follows through on the original premise… if these cute, creepy stories were long forgotten comics from the past, rediscovered in antique shop longboxes, this is the ‘retrospective’ collection put together for a modern, discerning, comics reading public.

There have been a lot of nostalgia plays lately in the comics arena, but Harvey Comics hasn’t quite made the comeback others have. Why do you think that is? And what drew you to them?

It’s most certainly a rights issue. Ownership of those classic characters is in dispute. Otherwise, I’m convinced that Casper, Wendy, Hot Stuff, Little Dot, Richie Rich, and the rest would be welcomed by a new readership… those character designs are timeless and hypnotically irresistible! I remember being obsessed with Casper as a kid. So cute I absolutely adored him. And when human beings screamed and ran from the little Friendly Ghost in the cartoon shorts, it broke your heart even more because he was so sweet and kawaii. Dwellings takes that extra pain one step further.

It’s exceedingly easy to rely on cheap laughs when you’re mixing “cute” and “horror” — which you don’t do here. Where was the line for you? And how do you make sure you’re not just leaning into a joke?

Some of my favourite comics of all time look simple, clean, and ‘cartoony’, but are played straight for a more adult readership. Floyd Gottfredson’s Micky Mouse, Frank King’s Gasoline Alley, Herge’s Tintin, Kazuo Umezu’s Cat-Eyed Boy… all foundational works featuring elements of adventure, drama, and horror over comedy. The enduring appeal of these works were the will-o-the-wisps that led me to Dwellings. What I’m doing is by no means new. Merely forgotten… waiting to be resurrected.

Where do you start with horror? There’s a ton of gore in this book, but the stories work because you’re delving into psychological fear for the characters themselves.

For me, horror only works if the audience is invested in the stakes. Why would I be frightened for a character I don’t know and don’t like? I’m drawn to the more ‘art house’ psychological corner of the genre for this reason, and I believe the more time you spend building character and backstory, even in the humble format of a Dwellings story, the bigger the shocks are when they hit. I’m turned off by the dull predictability of the Slasher sub-genre… so un-scary and boring.

Can you talk about your artistic process? Because I almost got a sense of the old, four-color comics layered over something else, something darker in the look of the pages.

I’ve been making comics so long that I remember the days I used to hand-cut my CMYK separations on carefully registered Rubylith overlays on the original art. Dwellings is a digitally coloured return to limited four-colour, Ben Day dot comics, informed by my physical experience with that process. Everything about Dwellings is intentionally shrouded in nostalgia. I think nostalgia is terrifying! A ghost from the past incessantly whispering for you to come back and join them there forever. The ‘Rosebud’ of Citizen Kane. The Siren Song from Homer’s Odyssey.

Would you ever want to go back to the pure Harvey Comics, without the extra layers? Meaning someone says “Hey, reboot Caspar for me!” Is that anything you’re interested in?

I will try my best to resist the succubus of pure fandom, preferring the warped lens of Postmodern Art to recontextualize and remix the things from the past I’m drawn to. But it would be hard to turn down a Casper reboot, I have to admit! My version would certainly be different, though…

Given the positive response, is there more you want to do with Dwellings? Or do you feel you said what you had to say?

After a little time away from the horrors of Elwich, I am currently planning a new slate of Dwellings tales. These things take time to get right, so there will be a bit of a wait, but it’s not over yet. Get out while you still can!

Dwellings hits stores everywhere on May 7, 2024 from Oni Press.

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