James Ninness Opens The Vault to Sci-Fi Horror
When the moon-bound crew of Gaia stumbles across an enormous alien vessel, more technologically advanced than their own, priorities change. The mystery deepens when the crew discovers the name of the vessel along the hull… written in English: Vault.
That’s the concept behing The Vault, the first storry in Storm King Productions’ new science anthology series John Carpenter’s Tales of Science Fiction.
Written by James Ninness, the first issue has a solid mix of the sci-fi space classics taking its queues from sci-fi classics and more building an atmosphere and experience that’s tense and just downright creep.
Graphic Policy: Reading the first issue the building of tension as the issue progresses really stands out. As the writer, how much of that build was a focus of yours? Was it something that just naturally happened or was it a conscious thing?
James Ninness: Yeah, that was planned. Glad to know it worked!
I spent months doing research and plotting out the story beats for Vault before I even approached Sandy (King Carpenter) with the idea. There was time to not only develop the themes, characters, and twists, but the gradual escalation of things throughout – and it (hopefully) only gets more tense as the situation gets more desperate for the characters.
Though it’s certainly a crossover of the horror and science fiction genres, there’s a solid dose of mystery in there as well: What is this ship? Where did it come from? What the hell is all that stuff inside of it? Letting the answers to those questions reveal themselves slowly and naturally helps to serve that tension from the horror/science fiction perspective. Thankfully, Andres and Sergio knew exactly how to approach the art to emphasize that gradual pacing.
GP: So, your idea came before the anthology from Storm King? Or was the anthology floated around and you submitted it to that?
JN: Yup. I had the idea for Vault about a year before I pitched it to Sandy. Most of the preliminary writing – outlines and research – was done before we spoke. When I was ready to start writing, I mentioned a bit of the plot to Sandy and she let me know about their anthology series, John Carpenter’s Tales of Science Fiction, something she and John had been developing for about the same amount of time. She liked Vault and asked me to send her more information. After that it was a matter of putting together the team and wrapping up the script.
GP: Usually with these types of stories you see if either lean heavily sci-fi or heavy horror. Yours feels more towards horror with a sci-fi setting. How do you see this type of story yourself when it comes to those genres?
JN: Most of my favorite science fiction works are set in a world crafted by the science fiction but driven by more natural means. Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is a great example of this: each short story is set in a well-developed realm of science fiction, but the characters and stories are driven by good, old-fashioned human conflict and emotion — love, hate, frustration, curiosity, pride, etc. Black Mirror does this as well.
With Vault a lot of effort was put into the setting and primary gimmick: the ship was developed as both location and story device. The characters, however, are driven by more standard means: the need to understand, loss of control, and camaraderie with one another. And that’s where the horror comes in… In my opinion, the best horror creates fear in a proximity to real life; could the reader experience the tragedies and abuses experienced by the characters? That’s not to say that people will find a spaceship floating in space, but the need to understand and loss of control I mentioned earlier could certainly cause people to act in real life the way the characters behave in this book. To me, that’s terrifying.
GP: It kind of sounds like you wanted a horror story with conflict at its center that just so happened to have a sci-fi setting. Is there any particular reason that type of setting might benefit that sort of story?
JN: That’s exactly what I wanted to do. I think science fiction, as an overall genre, has more freedom than some other genres. The “rules” that apply to science fiction are broader than most. The suspension of disbelief that comes with science fiction, if put together well, is an easy pill to swallow. “How come this space ship can fly through space? Because according to Newton’s third law of motion every action produces an equal and opposite reaction, thus propulsion is possible without air.” Yay! Sometimes, when poorly handled, it’s a detriment to the story. “How come this space ship can fly through space? Because science.” Boo.
So, with Vault, I knew the theme of my story, the repetition of mistakes, but I needed a way to convey that without losing the audience. Horror is useful way to keep people engaged, while the science fiction setting, ironically, keeps the narrative grounded.
GP: Beyond these three issues, how much of this world have you sketched out? Might we see more stories set in it?
JN: Nope. This is it. I like self-contained stories. John and Sandy allowed me as many issues as I wanted to tell Vault and the story demanded three — no more, no less.
GP: There’s lots of stories that are similar to this and each feels special in their own way. How conscious are you of what’s come before and how much of a focus is there to make your story unique.
JN: Well, there is some very direct nodding to three specific movies that I’m hoping people will pick up on: Alien, Event Horizon, and Sunshine. I love these movies and was heavily influenced by each of them. Rather than hope nobody would notice, I leaned into those references. Thankfully though, Vault is self-sustaining.
There are a ton of stories about being trapped with a monster, plenty of returning ghost ship tales, and more than a handful of “flying to close to the sun” cautionary narratives. I’ve read, heard, and seen many of them, but the trick here was to put this story together in a way that could be its own. I’m confident nobody has ever read a story like this before. I’ve had lots of people who have picked up issue one hit me up on social media with theories on where they think the story is going… Most are wrong. Many think it’s about a monster on a ship, while a few think that the ship itself is alive… All I’ll say is that I think issue two is going to throw readers a pretty big curveball. Hopefully they dig it.
If you’ve read any of my previous work you know I like to focus on repetition and the mistakes we, as humans, seem to make over and over again. I hit that nail a little too directly on the head with Samara, but the theme is ever-present in a lot of the stuff I do. Vault is no different.
GP: What is it about that theme of repetition and mistakes humans make over and over that you’re drawn to it so much?
JN: It’s everywhere I look, man.
I think our current political situation is a mess and it’s one brought on by personal fears. I don’t know how we, as a people, haven’t learned what shitty motivators personal fears are. Bigotry, racism, sexism, religious intolerance, ignoring the needy – these are all things we should be able to deal with by now. These are not problems we should have. A glance at history can teach us all enough to dismantle and avoid these problems in the future. And yet, here we are. I’m not saying it should be easy, but we should, at the least, not be moving backwards.
On a less grand scale, social media has become a place of pitchforks and torches. It has the potential to be marvelous. We can connect with old friends and family, share news, keep an informed populace. But, instead, some use it to spread hatred (see above point) and crucify anyone for making a mistake. There’s a gross lack of forgiveness in the world. Don’t get me wrong, people should be called out for their bullshit, but the fervor with which some are quick to admonish and cast out anyone who does something wrong is terrifying. I’m a world class screw up. I’ve made a long list of mistakes. It’s only a matter of time before some of them are unearthed and nobody gives me the time of day, no matter what kind of person I am now.
Mistakes happen. We should learn from them and grow together. Sometimes we do. Often times we don’t. That lack of learning? That has the potential to be our downfall.
Wait… I think I went off the rails there.
What was the question?
GP: Having three issues to work with, how’d you approach the story as opposed to some of your past work which was told over a longer number of pages?
JN: It was kind of the opposite, actually. After the research, character development, and world building, I started mapping out the story beats. I probably could have told Vault in four issues, but it only needed three. One of the criticisms I got when I first started (and rightfully so) was that I can tend to bloat my narratives a bit, so these days I err on the side of caution and try to tighten things up as much as possible.
GP: Which is strange since the comic industry seems to have shifted to a more decompressed style of storytelling. How has your process shifted to do the opposite?
JN: I graduated from Cal State University Long Beach with an English: Creative Writing degree. Most of my efforts were spent on short stories. I love them. There is a particular set of skills required for any type of writing: novels, short stories, poetry, screenplays, etc. Writers of each tend to understand that the toolbox required for any given style is unique. Some writers possess the tools to write them all, others only one or two. The short story has always been the one I gravitate toward the most.
Whenever I start a new book I try to throw everything on the board first. I have a yellow pad I use to put every idea possible on the page. Then I whittle. Everything that isn’t imperative gets cut. That’s the short story education in action: chop everything that doesn’t need to be there, no matter how awesome it is. I actually have a file on my phone full of cool concepts that didn’t fit into other stories.
It’s less about me trying to keep a story short, and more about me trying to keep things necessary. I don’t like it when stories wander. I like twists and turns as much as the next guy, but it should make sense and feel relevant in the context of the story. At least, that’s what I tend to enjoy the most.
GP: Every story of this nature relies on its visuals and Andres Esparza’s style adds to the story in so many ways. How’d he come on board the project and how closely did you two work when it came to the visuals?
JN: Andres Esparza is a goddam genius. I met Andres through a mutual friend, Axur Eneas. Axur and I worked on the second Tales for a Halloween Night together. After Sandy and I spent several months hunting for artists and scouring portfolios, I told Axur what I was looking for and he introduced me to Andres. Andres did a few sample pages for Sandy and I and that was it – we knew.
Andres brought Sergio Martinez (colors) with him, and Sandy brought Janice Chiang (letters) to the party. I’ve been blessed. These folks are crazy talented and I’ve learned a lot working with each of them.
Early on Andres and I spent a few weeks crafting the tone. I knew what I was looking for and he brought his own ideas to the table. What we ended up with is somewhere in-between the two. It wasn’t hard to get to and it didn’t take a lot of work. Andres and I have been on the same page since the beginning, we just had to figure out what that page looked like.
GP: Working the John and Sandy Carpenter and Storm King is really cool, they’re beyond icons. How’d you get involved with the publisher?
JN: I was friends with Sandy for about a year before we worked together. She had read a book I did, in Sanity, AZ, and we were introduced through a mutual friend at Long Beach Comic Con. Most of that year was just spent getting dinners at shows or talking occasionally on the phone. Truth be told, I feel like Sandy likes hanging out with my wife more than me, but who can blame her for that?
A couple months before the first Tales for a Halloween Night was to be released, Sandy called me and asked if I’d like to be a part of it. I jumped at the chance. I called my pals Brett Simmons and Ben Glibert, and we knocked out “Some Grub” in just over a month. Thankfully, after the book came out, our story got decent reviews so we were invited back.
It’s been a dream come true to work with both Sandy and John. They’re lovely. Truly great people who I’m lucky to call friends.
GP: Was there any intimidation at all about that? Being involved with two icons has to come with some pressure.
JN: Oh, hell yeah.
Sandy and I were at a show in Las Vegas a few weeks back and we did a panel together. On that panel, she said that the way she approves materials has a lot to do with John’s reaction to the pitches they receive. If he shrugs and says, “That’s fine” then the pitch gets rejected. If his response is more like, “Wow, that’s fucked up,” then the pitch gets a shot.
I think that sounds funny, but it should seem obvious. John and Sandy have been in this game a while. When I got the chance to pitch to them I knew my pitch needed to (a) not be a Carpenter re-hash of anything they’d already done, and (b) fit the fun, violent, often-squeamish brand that they have built. The pressure to impress two people I’ve looked up to for a long while is nerve-wracking enough, but to write something that they believe is good enough to attach their name to is, well, daunting.
Thankfully, I’ve been working as a freelancer for many years and I’ve had clients from all walks of life. At the end of the day those clients don’t care about anything other than the work getting done, so I try to approach writing comics the same way I approach the freelance stuff I do. I identify what the client is looking for and do my best to fill that need.
Can it be intimidating? Totally. Does that ultimately matter? Not really.
GP: One of the things about sci-fi that I enjoy is the sci aspect of it all. When it comes to the science of things, did you do any research?
JN: Oh my god, yes. Those space suits our astronauts wear are based on experimental designs for increased range of motion from a couple years ago. The ships (both Gaia and Vault) are based on prototype mock ups from NASA for deep space travel. And a lot of the tech, including the laser bridge in issue #1 and the seekers (drones) are all taken from conversations I had with some engineering friends of mine.
I knew from the beginning that I needed some hard science for the world to be believable. From a storytelling standpoint, Vault begins just around the corner from our own time, as though it could be a world we live in five or ten years from now. By the end it’s bat-shit crazy. I had to ground that early on to get people to come with us on the journey — make them comfortable and then make them squirm.
GP: Do you see that grounding as shifting it from the fantastical to a bit more realistic in a way? An easier way for readers to get drawn into it?
JN: Totally. Every single fantastic thing that happens, whether in fiction or real life, requires a juxtaposition against something “normal” for it to feel fantastic. Nobody can feel awe if they’re always awed – at that point it becomes normal. Keeping the setting, characters, and situation as grounded as possible allows the wild stuff to feel thrilling.
Turning things up to eleven can help keep people’s attention, but it doesn’t always keep their interest.
GP: Lots of science fiction works really well as allegories or exploring deeper themes. As a writer do you think about that at all when creating your stories?
JN: All the time.
I actually started writing as a kid in therapy. For me, writing has always been about grappling with concepts and realities I don’t understand. I find answers to a question only to find myself face to face with much bigger, scarier questions. That could be what attracts me to horror and science fiction so much… They serve as particularly wonderful mediums with which to end stories with more questions than answers. I like that. I don’t like stories that wrap things up as though life is simple. Life is far from simple, but that’s okay. We’re all struggling. Struggling isn’t bad. We should all be a little more honest about that.
GP: Any thoughts as to why science fiction works so well as allegories?
JN: Science fiction, when logically constructed, is a great way to make what should be an obvious point. Invasion of the Body Snatchers wonderfully highlighted the logical flaws in McCarthyism. Dawn of the Dead’s criticism of consumerism actually made people think about their behavior. District 9 is chock-full of references to handling refugees and race relations.
Science fiction starts every member of the audience at the same point. A situation is presented that unites the majority of the audience. That unity is bolstered by the events they experience. By the end, most of the readers and viewers will agree (or disagree, if that’s the desire of the creatives) with a protagonist’s actions and story’s resolution.
The real magic happens after all that. Any given audience member reflects on what they’ve just experienced and begins to see how it parallels the situations in their own life. Unlike other genres, science fiction can do this without being too on-the-nose. Is Godzilla really about the dangers of nuclear war, pollution, and nationalism? Or is it just about a giant lizard? You’ll enjoy it, either way, but if you start thinking about it too much it might change your perspectives a bit.
GP: Finally, what else can folks check out from you this year?
JN: Well, Vault will go until the end of September, and then, around October, I’ll have another story in John Carpenter’s Tales for a Halloween Night Vol. 3. I’ve got a few other pitches I’m working on, which I hope to talk more about soon…
I’ve got a couple more shows as well. If anyone is going to Long Beach Comic Con or New York Comic Con, I’ll be at both. Come say hi!
GP: Thanks so much for chatting!