Opening A Grimoire Unleashes ‘Bedtime Games’: Nick Keller On Dark Fantasy And Horror

by Hannah Means Shannon

Bedtime Games is a tightly-plotted four issue dark fantasy/horror series currently being published by Dark Horse, written by Nick Keller, illustrated by Conor Nolan, colored by Kelly Fitzpatrick, and lettered by John J. Hill. You may recognize Keller’s work in horror from Death Head, a gripping and highly original series also published by Dark Horse, and Nolan from his Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Giants. Fitzpatrick has worked for nearly every publisher doing stand-out work, including the recently wrapped Shade the Changing Girl at DC/Young Animal. Hill’s work is widespread as well, as both a designer and a letterer, including the Image series Nailbiter and God Country.
Together they create a series that’s disarmingly beautiful in its fantasy elements, belying its deeper horror roots. Some of the elements you’ll recognize as “classic” to horror stories, including a small group of high-school aged friends facing the end of an era, struggling with elements in their personal lives, and accidentally unleashing something that could spell disaster for them, or their community more widely. The supernatural elements in the story only add to the interpersonal drama, though rather than couching this narrative in softer terms.
Issue #3 of Bedtime Games arrives this Wednesday, August 22nd, in comic shops, so it’s very much the time to catch up on the series while the tension is still ramping up. Nick Keller joins us today on site to talk about Bedtime Games.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I enjoyed reading Death Head when it came out, and appreciated how edgy and actually scary it was. When I heard this book, Bedtime Games, announced, I was definitely hoping for more of the same.
Nick Keller: Yes, this book is even edgier.
HMS: Could you tell us a little bit about the title?
NK: The title was difficult to come up with. But the title of the comic is the title of the grimoire in the comic. It’s a play on “Bedtime Stories”, but I didn’t want to call it that.
HMS: It’s a creepy title! And the cover of the first issue is really menacing too.
NK: Yes, it’s super creepy. And our artist, Conor Nolan, did a great job on that cover. We hadn’t worked together previously, but we did the first six pages of the comic, uncolored, together. We didn’t know where it might end up, but we pitched it to Dark Horse, through our colorist, Kelly Fitzpatrick, referred us.
HMS: She’s fantastic! I’m happy to see her on a horror book. She does all kinds of things in interesting ways, but I don’t feel I’ve seen her really delve into horror as much yet. Her work on Shade has been electrifying and psychedelic, but this should be quite different.
NK: Yes, our approach to the story, and especially Conor’s approach, is that it can look quite whimsical and young. It has a lot of texture to it, more than other comics even, to create a fairytale, printed page look, which Kelly really nailed.

HMS: Well, how does that fairytale aspect work with the high school setting, since that’s not necessarily something you might pair together? Why did you choose a high school setting?
NK: I mainly chose a high school setting because I think that people in that age group are malleable. I also wanted to tell a story about a school with fantasy elements. There are very few fairytale elements in the first issue, since I really wanted to pin down these characters and their own struggles. I wanted to make sure everyone to had a backstory of some kind, without beating the reader over the head with that. It’s also easier for me to write teenage banter.
HMS: Does the geography and physical setting of the high school play a role in the story?
NK: It kind of does in later issues, yes. They go into the school, and the river that appears in the first issue plays into the plot, too. All of the story takes place in a small amount of time in a small area.
HMS: That often makes for good horror, limiting things.
NK: Yes, that creates claustrophobia. There are several different locations we revisit multiple times within four issues.

HMS: Working with four issues must mean you really have to construct the story tightly, building suspense. Kind of like clockwork!
NK: That’s the hardest thing to do. It took me several drafts to get the characters where they need to be, since you only get one chance to set them up. I didn’t want them to be cardboard cut-outs where you have the jock, and the slut, etc.
HMS: Horror is very guilty of that.
NK: Yes, exactly. I wanted to inform these characters so that they’d be multi-dimensional people who weren’t just there for the killer to lop their heads off. But suspense, for me, is absolutely key. Our attention is being pulled in every direction for audiences, whether it’s Youtube or Netflix.

HMS: Oh, yes, you have to keep those eyes on the page!
NK: The reader needs to be interested in every single page, and especially with comics, with page turns and reveals, the creators have to be very invested in that. My goal is making sure the reader is caring about interesting characters in insane situations. Every scene.
HMS: So, this is a very character-driven story for you?
NK: Absolutely.
HMS: Is there a specific idea behind the journey that they are on, as characters? Are there goals you have in mind for them?
NK: I think so. It such a short series, that I really want to just put them through this pressure cooker of crazy stuff. A lot of them have dealt with tragedy, I’m not sure why. There’s been some in my own life, so that might have played into it. I wanted to mold that into a four issue story. I would say “acceptance” has a lot to do with their journey. But I combine that with suspense.
One character’s mother has been murdered and she has to accept this alcoholic aunt. Another one’s brother has cancer. And another one is struggling as an artist. These are elements I wanted to play into the story.
HMS: So, to some extent, these are the real and documentable scary things about life?
NK: Exactly. I wanted the real life horror stuff to be scarier than the bad guy who is revealed at the end. And I know that it’s been done before, but I wanted to do it.

HMS: With horror, like any other type of story, it doesn’t really matter if it’s been done, since no one can tell a story in exactly the same way.
NK: Yes, and I was really drawn to it. Real life horror.
HMS: You are including the supernatural in this story, though? I am kind of assuming so, since you’ve been there before.
NK: [Laughs] Yes, I’ve been there before. There’s some stuff in issue #2 that’s very fantasy-based, and it’s hard to strike that balance. But in comics it’s actually easier to do that than in other mediums.
HMS: That’s a good point, especially if you’re working with a great artist who can pull off those transitions between the normal and the supernatural elements.
NK: The hard part is: how do you have characters react to seeing something crazy? You want them to react like normal people, but how would a person actually react? Maybe someone is completely deadpan. Maybe someone cries, or laughs. Everyone reacts differently.
HMS: Where do you think you derive your horror traditions from for this series? Are you more influenced by European traditions, modern filmmaking, for instance?
NK: I think I take my influences from a lot of sources. Of course, I’ve read a lot of Stephen King and his son Joe Hill. I just pull from all the things I’ve read and try to come up with my own take on things.
HMS: Something that’s cool about this book is that it’s not immediately apparent where you’re getting your traditions from, actually. It feels like a modern creation.
You mention that you think comics can do things that are helpful with horror that maybe other media can’t. Do you think there are challenges posed by using the comics medium to tell horror stories as well?
NK: The hardest part is that you only have 22 pages, so what is absolutely critical? I think if I continue writing, I will do more long-form work, because it actually is difficult to distill a story down to that amount of space. I think trying to build a world in comics is actually pretty difficult, too. Some comics deliver exposition up front, with tons of captions.
It is really difficult to find a balance between unfolding a mystery and smacking the reader over the head with it.

HMS: It seems like a ton of captions can really destroy a horror story. Not only are you covering the art, which destroys the mood, but whatever voice is being used has to be scary, too.
NK: I agree. My rule of thumb is that less words on the page is a good thing. And I over-write, too, so I’m giving myself that advice.
HMS: How do you know when a script is done, or a story is done?
NK: Luckily, with comics, you can continue to tweak the dialog until the last minute. I’ve gotten into the bad habit of doing that. I know I’m going to change the dialog once I see the art, usually hacking some off. But as for knowing when the script is done, that’ll just feel right. I’m not sure how to describe it.
HMS: That’ll contain the big movements of the story, for instance, even if you change dialog later?
NK: Yes. I write it almost in a casual tone, like a letter, to Conor. There are jokes and things. I want him to be happy reading it, and not bored.
HMS: What is it about Conor’s style or aesthetic that makes him great for this book?
NK: He can draw fantastical elements so well. But then I looked at his character work, that conveyed a lot of emotion, and that was super important to me, too. He struck a really great balance with that, and drawing humans so well is the hardest part, I think.
HMS: That is often the hardest part, no matter how much fantasy is in a story. All comic artists have to be so regimented to get to where they are in their ability to render human body language and emotion.
NK: The expressions are probably the toughest, and Conor is amazing at that. His other works are fantasy, too, but not dark fantasy like this one.

HMS: How do you want readers to feel when they reach the end of this story?
NK: I just wrote the end of the story. It’s emotional. Even for a four issue series, I’d like there to be some kind of emotional arc, and we’ll see if I’ve succeeded in that.
HMS: Do you think it will read any differently as a collection than in single issues?

NK: That should be coming out next February. And I think people probably will read it differently in collection, burning through it in a sitting or two. I hope people will love it and give it to their friends.
HMS: I think horror fans do give books to their friends. I get stuff in the mail, and it’s like “Surprise!”. So, then I have to think of things to send to the sender and so on.
NK: I think people do that, and they definitely give recommendations, too.
Thanks to Nick Keller for dishing about horror with me! It was a blast!
Bedtime Games #3 hits shops this Wednesday, August 22nd! Don’t miss out on a great series with plenty of highly original suspense!

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