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Artist Mike Huddleston Talks THE STRAIN: THE NIGHT ETERNAL

Hot on the heels of The Strain getting renewed for a second season on FX, Dark Horse’s phenomenal The Strain comic book series is entering into its third act with The Night Eternal. For those of you who are watching the show and don’t want to know anything about where the books are going, I suggest you hop off now because we’re venturing into slightly spoilery territory. Are you still with me? Good.

Taking place two years after the Master’s nefarious plan succeeded and plunged the world into never-ending darkness, The Night Eternal paints a bleak picture. Not only has humanity been essentially enslaved by vampires, living in a police state where they are harvested for blood, but vampires are able to stalk the streets freely. It’s up to Dr. Ephraim Goodweather and his ragtag resistance group to try and prevent the extinction of the human race, and hopefully find a way to stop the Master. If you’re tired of vampire stories, this is definitely a system shock in a good way. Although its based on a series of novels by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, del Toro maintains a very hands-on approach to the comic book, so it has his sensibilities infused into its DNA.

To celebrate today’s release of The Strain: The Night Eternal #1, I caught up with artist Mike Huddleston, who creates truly terrifying hellscapes that populate the pages of the comic book. His artwork is so vivid and visceral that much of it was used, essentially, as storyboards for the television series, and greatly informed its visual tone. In a wide-ranging conversation, I spoke with Huddleston about what to expect from the 11-issue series, his own personal distaste for horror, what it’s like to see his work brought to life on the small screen, and much more.

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Nerdist: The Night Eternal is out now. Where does it fit into The Strain lore, and what can readers expect?

Mike Huddleston: Well, we’re a couple of years in the future, and the big apocalypse that our heroes are trying to stop, they didn’t stop. So we’re seeing them live in this world that’s completely been taken over by vampires. So it’s pretty dark where we’re starting with our characters. They’ve been through a lot, and they’ve changed quite a bit.

That’s one things that I laughed [at] when I saw the show start again, and it took me back several years, and it’s like, “Aww, that’s almost kind of cute!” When it was just like an airplane that maybe has a vampire in it. That’s like that’s such a small, cute little story, because where we are now is worldwide, and there’s some really horrible things – the ramifications of what happened are pretty terrible.

So going back and seeing the beginnings of it, it’s such a tiny, tiny start to where it goes. Anyway, back to Night Eternal – one of the things that I was excited about doing with this, is you really get a huge back story. The beginning of The Night Eternal is almost a prequel to everything we’ve seen, because we’re thousands and thousands of years in seeing the origin of where this whole infection starts, and how it unfolds,

So you’re getting kind of a split thing. You’re getting a huge back story, and then you’re getting a big jump in time, to where most viewers are probably aware of.

N: It was funny watching the pilot, because you do almost forget that it starts with an airplane. What I last read, humans were being harvested for blood by their horrifying vampiric overlords.

MH: Yes, it goes south really fast, really quickly. You’re like, “Oh god!” I mean, it was cool to see the pilot, and I was like, oh yeah! I forgot it was this most tiny little thing of maybe something is going badly? Now it’s like a planet-wide invasion. It’s horrible.

N: You mentioned that we get a lot of back story in here. Why did you want to focus so much on the past in this arc?

MH: First of all, knowing where the focus is going – that’s not so much my determination, since Guillermo [del Toro] and David [Lapham] are telling the story. So that’s just where the novel is taking us. So it wasn’t so much my decision, but it was something I was really excited to do. It’s been tough on the art side, because we’re going through Roman era, we’re going through Native Americans, we’re going through pre-historic periods. I’m designing Biblical characters, so on the art side, it’s pretty heaving lit, because it’s like you need to completely design and fashion an architecture from this period for two pages, and then jump to another period, then another period, then another period.

But it’s exciting. It’s cool, and I didn’t expect that some of the characters that we know now, we would be kind of catching up with all the way back then, like Carter, to a thousand years ago – so, like, it was making me see that this little story that started with an airplane, the scope already behind it is so huge, that that was excited.

One of the things for me, why it’s so exciting for me, is that I didn’t read the novels, so I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I don’t know how the story ends. I’m just reading it first as I’m getting it to draw them. So each time it’s like, holy shit! We’re going back to this era, we’re going back to that era. I’m like, wow! Was this character really around for this? So for me, it’s like I’m reading it as I’m drawing it.

N: Nice. That has to be a fun experience, because it’s one thing when you already know what’s going to happen, but you get that joy of discovery too before figuring out how to render it.

MH: Yeah, each script I’m opening up, I’m like, OK, what am I doing? Is it a Russian submarine, or am I in space, or is it some sort of ancient period? I really have no clue until I see it, and that’s a lot of fun.

N: Do they give you any sort of warning, like, “Hey, man – you’re going to have to do a lot of research for this issue, because we’re going back in time”?

MH:  Nope, nope. Not at all. It’s just, “Here you go! Here’s what it’s going to be.”

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N: Nice. Well, how closely do you work with David and Guillermo on each issue?

MH: Um – I don’t really work that closely with David. We’ve passed some notes back and forth, but he’s so far ahead in his process that I think he’s, like, six months ahead of where I am, so I kind of get his scripts as they are. Dark Horse is pretty practical, letting me, if I need to make small changes, or if I need to combine panels or split things up, they’re comfortable letting me tell the story I think in the best way to tell it.

Guillermo, I’ve really been surprised how close the relationship has been from the very beginning. I worked with him directly designing everything for the book. All the vampires, the Master, the coffin top – everything, it was him working as my art director. I was his one-man design team for everything, and it’s been really cool to see how much of that has gone into the show. And I’ve heard from people working on the show, and they tell me how much of a direct influence the stuff we did for the book went in.

But Guillermo, for a guy who is so busy, I was really surprised – I’m still surprised – just a couple of weeks ago, for Night Eternal, we did some new character design, and it was back and forth, some were sketches, he’d even draw on my sketches and sending ideas back, of “Try this,” and “Try that.” And still, to this day, he approved all the pencils, all the ink, he approved the covers. It’s his baby, and I never imagined he would have the time or the interest to be that involved, but yeah – he’s been completely guiding the comic, as well as the show.

N: That’s really cool. Working with Guillermo on something like that so closely must be quite the experience. But generally speaking, do you like that kind of collaborative relationship, or do you prefer less oversight?

MH: Oh, you know, it’s – there’s time when I’ve done projects in the past that were mine – like right before I did The Strain, I did a project called Butcher Baker, that was just mine. It was much more experimental, and I loved that experiment for what it was. You know, when I first started on The Strain, I knew I was coming into a collaborative experience with someone who was really huge, and I think I got really, really conservative at the beginning, because I didn’t know how much room I had to play. But one of the things that’s been awesome, and has been unexpected for me is that over the course of the last 500 pages, I started pushing, and pushing a lot, in different areas, and every time I would make something personal, or make something strange in the way that I wanted to do it, Guillermo loved it, and Dark Horse said “Yes, just keep going.”

So now, it’s a collaborative book, I know it’s a TV show, I know it’s Guillermo’s baby, but they cut me so free on the art now that I feel like it’s my personal book. So now I’m just doing whatever I want. Whenever there are design things or characters that need to be specific, that’s something Guillermo comes in and says, “Here’s what we need.” But once that’s done, they’ve truly cut me loose to do whatever I want to do, and it’s really – I never thought it would feel so personal. And that’s been really cool.

N: Nice. Yeah, I feel like that’s important, no matter what you’re doing – to feel a sense of creative ownership over the work you’re putting out, even if it’s for someone else, or even someone who has such a direct hand in it. I’m glad you’ve been able to reach that place.

MH:  And I could say that The Night Eternal, and the stuff that’s getting ready to come out is some of my proudest work that I’ve done yet in my career. And it’s strange, because it is someone else’s project, but it feels really, really personal to me. I’m really proud of it.

N: So what was it like seeing your work adapted for TV? Because a lot of these panels – case in point, when they find the little girl in the airplane and the pilot, the panels in the comic read like a storyboard, essentially.

MH: You know, it’s probably a stranger experience for me than anyone on earth to watch that show. I had some real déjà vu at moments, because it was like “Wow!” It feels so similar, like I’ve already watched this. It’s really cool, and the thing that’s been the best for me, they just did some of the events in San Diego with FX, and I got to meet some of the people like creature people – people doing the creatures on the show, and some FX people.

They just told me directly, they said “Your stuff is even better than the book – it’s a huge influence for us. This is the starting point for a lot of the stuff we make for the show.” And that was awesome! When I heard that, it just completely made my day. It’s exciting to think that the stuff that we’ve done on this is having such a big influence. And that’s cool.

One of the other details that surprised me, early, early on – we were already designing the vampires and these things for the book when the third novel was still being written. And they told me that some of the details that I designed for the vampires, like the way certain things work, ended up working its way into the third novel. So there’s been this cross pollenization from all three different versions of the story, and that’s been awesome.

N: That’s really cool. I really like to see – as much as I hate a buzzword like ‘trans-media’ – it’s nice to see when these different forms of the same property can influence one another in cool and creative ways.

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MH:  Yeah, and I think it’s a unique thing, since Guillermo is really the guy who is shepherding all three versions of this through, and I don’t think that happens very often. But I’ve been able to tell people, when they’re saying that they’re big fans of the show, “Well, if you’re fans of the show, we’re just doing the show, but we’re a couple of seasons ahead.”

If you want to jump ahead on what’s happening, you can, and I can confidently say that, because we are telling the exact same story that was in the novel, and that’s what we’re adapting for the book, and it’s the same guy doing it.

N: One of the things that I really enjoy about the comic books, in particular, is that your artwork has such a powerful visual aesthetic. It’s a very striking look for the book, so I was just wondering – you mentioned that you worked with Guillermo on a lot of the creature design, but where do you derive inspiration from when you’re rendering a lot of these horrific scenes?

MH: Oh, wow. You know, as far as the way I’m handling the scenes, because I’m not that big of a horror fan, personally. I’m way too big of a coward to watch horror movies.

They actually scare me, so I don’t watch them. Generally, my approach in this book, and it’s such, it’s almost a buzzword or a little catch phrase, and it’s stupid, but it was useful for myself when I started. I was like, OK, this is going to be a movie on paper, and that’s kind of what I’ve told myself all the way through. So I think the things are scary or they’re horrific, because I’m trying to just depict them as realistically as possible. So I think it’s almost the normalcy that makes it scary. I’m don’t know if that makes sense.

N: No, I understand.

MH: It’s trying to not do it over-the-top, but if there’s a guy in a room with you and you’re chained up, and he’s a vampire, you don’t really have to do much more than just sell that as realistically as possible.

N: How do you reconcile your feelings for horror movies and stuff like that with the books you’re drawing?

MH:  You know, I don’t know. That’s a question that I ask myself a lot, because my imagination is my worst enemy when it comes to watching a horror movie. Because it’s like once that movie turns off, then I have to turn around and I’m facing my apartment – those things are here. I think maybe the thing that makes me so susceptible to horror is what makes me so good at depicting it. It’s like the imagination part is easy, and there’s moments when I’m reading the script, and I’m like, “Oh god! This is going to be horrible.” Or turning the next page, I’ll be like, “Are we really going to do this? Oh god!”

I think the thing that makes horrible terrible for me to watch is what makes me good at depicting it. I mean, that’s a very weird answer. I’ve never really thought about that before.

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N: No, I think I understand what you’re saying there. I have similar feelings toward horror, so I can appreciate what you’re saying.

MH: OK. Especially, sometimes, I know Guillermo produced that movie Mama, and I’ve never watched it. I’m like, it’s about a ghost in a house! I live in a house. I don’t want to know about scary things in a house! If it’s Alien on a spaceship, or far away – fine. If you’re going to tell me a scary story about things in an apartment, I live in an apartment. I can’t watch that story. I’m not going to sleep for weeks. So I can’t do that.

N: Yeah. “It could happen to you!” That’s the last thing you want to hear!

MH: It could, it could!

N: I just have one last question for you – is there any scene or moment that you’re really waiting to see up on the screen?

MH: Well, I’ll tell you just in general – I don’t have a specific scene, but you’ve read ahead in the books. Just in general, the story gets so epic and large, that I’m really excited to see how they even get it onto the screen. Once we’re having nuclear power plants go up, and whole cities are being overrun, and this level of carnage – I’m like, how are they even going to get this onto a TV screen? And so that’s, in general, what I’m looking forward to. Just seeing the scope of this, because from where I think they still are in the show, they’ve got four or five, maybe six people that they’re hunting down. It hasn’t really spilled out yet to being out of control, and that’s what I’m waiting to see – how they get that on the TV screen.

N: Awesome.

MH: That’s going to be exciting to me.

N: Yeah, it is going to be really cool to see, especially once it expands in scope, how that comes across.

MH: Yeah, I’m stoked.

N: Yeah! Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today, Mike. I really appreciate it!

MH: Thanks a lot, man.

We also have a bit of exclusive artwork for you too! Behold the cover for The Strain: The Night Eternal #5 by E.M. Gist in all of its double crossbow-wielding glory.

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Are you digging The Strain comics? What do you hope to see from The Night Eternal? Let us know in the comments below.

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