"Oh yeah, that's graphic," laughs Carnifex vocalist Scott Ian Lewis of the pages from his forthcoming debut graphic novel, Death Dreamer, that he's sharing exclusively with Revolver.
As gruesome and in-your-face as these three pages are, however, Lewis is quick to add their explicitness is not just for the sake of being bold. "Even though it is graphic, I don't consider it necessarily a horror story," says the 33-year-old death-metal singer. "It is a story that has a horrific moment as the jumping off point for a suspenseful story. I think it was important to make that scene powerful because that is going to carry that moment and have impact when you looked at that page and had that 'oh shit' moment."
Death Dreamer is a mystery inspired by Lewis and illustrator Christian DeBari's shared love of Nineties thrillers. The 54-page story is centered around Troy Graves, an ex-con and skilled embalmer at Sunset Hills Mortuary. But something isn't right — bodies seem to mysteriously disappear from the prep room, and around town, someone's collecting heads. Following the death of a city councilman, Graves finds himself caught in the middle a much darker secret.
Prior to San Diego Comic Con, where Lewis will be signing copies of the graphic novel, the singer spoke with Revolver about the origins of the project, the challenge of making sure the characters remained realistic and how his experience working at a mortuary after high school inspired the story.
YOU COMPLETED THIS WHOLE PROJECT, FROM SCRIPT TO BOOK, IN ABOUT EIGHT MONTHS. THAT SEEMS LIKE AN AMAZINGLY SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME.
SCOTT IAN LEWIS Well, I can tell you why. I'd been working on the pilot, tinkering with it for a number of months while I was on tour — we did the Slow Death record. So I had a break from doing writing outside of the band. When I first tried to find artists, I was really striking out. Just everybody, either they didn't have an availability in their schedule [or] they didn't want to say it, but they didn't want to take a chance on an unpublished writer, which I was. So I got a lot of no's. I connected with Christian on Twitter and I sent him the script. He read it and actually really liked the story. But he was just like, "Man, I have no time. I am completely booked right now." And so, unfortunately, his first answer was "no." And then two weeks later I get a text message from him and he goes, "Hey, I had a project get delayed. I have a two month window. So either you say 'yes' today, or I take another job." And I said, "Yes, today."
THAT'S NOT THE ONLY UNBELIEVABLE PART. DEATH DREAMER WAS CROWDFUNDED BY AN INDIEGOGO CAMPAIGN AND YOU RAISED OVER $30,000 WITHIN TWO WEEKS.
You know, honestly, I was really nervous. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know if there's a fan base for our music that translated over to reading, you know what I mean? We did do the crowdfund, but I had been funding all the work up to when we started funding, just out of my own pocket.
LET'S TAKE A STEP BACK. WHEN DID YOUR ENJOYMENT OF COMICS BEGIN?
It wasn't limited to comics. From an early age, I really wanted to get my hands on anything that was artistically created. So as much as I enjoyed comics, physical CDs and tapes were a big part of my life early on. I read every word of the lyric book. And the same went for comics and movies. I would turn it over and read who worked on this thing and try to find out everything I can know about it. And the band sort of took off when I was in my early twenties, that's where all my creative effort went for so many years. And now that our schedule is slowing down just a little bit, I'm in a position to be able to kind of do these other independent projects. So it's kind of this amalgam of influences and just this wanting to be able to put out something that I loved growing up.
HAVE YOU EVER APPROACHED ONE OF YOUR SONGS LIKE YOU WERE WRITING A COMIC?
No, I haven't. I guess the main reason is that for the graphic novel, that story has a narrative arc. There's a beginning, a middle and an end. There's conflict. There's resolution. Some people do write songs like that, lyrically. I don't personally. My lyrics are much more on the periphery of poetry.
I READ YOU WORKED IN A MORTUARY AFTER HIGH SCHOOL. WHAT EXACTLY DID YOU DO?
A friend of mine had been doing removals, which at the time, he was subcontracted by a mortuary. They call them "runners." So basically what they do is if there is a death at a hospice care facility or a hospital or inside someone's home, and the doctor is there to rule an actual death, they don't go to a morgue or to the coroner. They go to a mortuary because they're going to be embalmed, cremated, you name it. So I was that person that went and picked people up and took them to the mortuary. So that was how I started and this was 2000. We had a pager and we got 40 bucks a pick up. And you're on call and when you get the page, there you go. I did that for about six months and then the company that I was working for, they got purchased by this mortuary conglomerate, basically. And from there, they transferred myself and my friend to another location and they already had runners, so we moved into the position of funeral directors and then I was a funeral director there for two years. Then the final six months I was going to make the move towards apprentice embalmer and ended up leaving for another job.
HAVING READ DEATH DREAMER, I CAN SEE HOW YOUR EXPERIENCE INFLUENCED SOME PARTS OF IT. BUT I HAD NEVER HEARD THAT YOU WERE A FUNERAL DIRECTOR BEFORE.
Yeah, you know, usually when I do interviews, people are asking about the records. [Laughs]
THE MAIN CHARACTER TROY IS A RUNNER AND AN EMBALMER. ARE THERE ANY SHADES OF YOU IN TROY OR VICE VERSA?
Yeah, there is. But you know, he's still very much a fictional character. I hide parts of me in every character so no one character is a reflection of me, even opposing views. If you notice the dichotomy in the perspective on death between Troy and Bishop — I've had both of those feelings. That's why I really love writing both those guys so much and being able to have them go back and forth. So there's parts of me in there, but obviously he's a very fictional character. I didn't go to jail. I don't have a very deranged mother.
IN A WAY IT'S ALMOST LIKE YOU GET TO HAVE A CONVERSATION WITH YOURSELF.
It's like looking at the ocean and just sort of thinking. Except for me, it's looking at the page and just sort of letting these two characters [talk], who I know their personalities very well.
WHEN YOU WENT TO WRITE THIS, WERE THERE ELEMENTS YOU KNEW THAT YOU WANTED TO HAVE IN IT AND ANY CLICHÉS YOU WANTED TO AVOID THAT OTHER COMIC WRITERS DO?
Yeah, of course. For me, in some ways, it's a bit of an homage to the stories that really influenced me for the past 15 years. So I guess it is derivative in a sense, but it's derivative by design. It's because I love those stories and, frankly, not a lot of those stories are getting made these days. I know True Detective came out and it was amazing and just recently Sharp Objects. True crime is kind of having a resurgence right now. I want to write a story that I like — which is mysteries, murder thrillers, suspense. And as far as avoiding clichés, yeah, there's definitely moments where you run into tropes because they exist for a reason. I also wanted to be careful with Dr. Sams' relationship. I didn't want that to be fetishized or sexualized in any way. I wanted them to be real people, with a real relationship, living in a real world and dealing with some very difficult stuff and the challenges of that. I wanted to depict these characters as very real people and not a gimmick of, "Oh, two women in a relationship" to be edgy. It's a reality.
IT WAS DEFINITELY NOT SEXUALIZED. IT FELT VERY HUMANISTIC. AND THAT REAL LIFE ASPECT IS WHAT STICKS OUT — NO SUPERHEROES HERE.
That's what I tried to do with the characters in the book. No, they are not real people, but those people could all exist. I don't think there's any characteristic that any of those people have that doesn't make them like an actual human that could be walking around right now.
SO THIS IS VOLUME ONE. HOW MANY VOLUMES DO YOU FORESEE?
I would love to run a series for eight volumes. The reality is I have to have a publisher to finish the series. As much as the book raised and as quickly as it was raised, you know, it costs that much to make. It took a lot of time, because literally myself and my editor, we did everything. We liaised all the artists and the printer, the marketing, the packaging, getting the merchandise done, building perks, all that stuff. It was just the two of us doing it and it's quite intensive. We mentioned all those publishers [Marvel, DC, Dark Horse] — they have teams of professionals who do this every day. I'm just a guy in a band that was just wanting to put something fun out.
ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT LINES IN THE NOVEL IS, "DEATH IS HUMANITY'S ONLY PERFECT MOMENT." DO YOU BELIEVE THAT?
I think that's possible. I think you could look at the world right now and everything that's happened across the last 10,000 years and really sort of shake your head. There was a line in there, where Dr. Sams says, "We're one missed meal away from eating each other." Yeah, well, we're well-dressed animals, one missed meal away from eating each other. And it's not far off from the truth. So yeah, I think maybe there is the idea that when we're still, when we're silent, when we're not being destructive, that that is our only perfect moment.
... THAT'S DEEP.
[Laughs] Well, hey, Troy is a deep guy. I'm not a deep guy.