Home Sweet(?) Home: Talking ‘The Neighbors’ With Jude Ellison S. Doyle And Letizia Cadonici
by Rachel Bellwoar
Maybe there really are neighbors out there who are always ready to share cups of sugar, and don’t talk to snakes in mushroom circles outside, but the Gowdie family wouldn’t know about those and they’re not the kind that frequent writer Jude Ellison S. Doyle and artist Letizia Cadonici‘s new series, The Neighbors, from Boom! Studios. With colors by Alessandro Santoro and letters by Becca Carey, Jude and Letizia explain why moving to Cunnanock might not have been the best idea in the following interview:
Rachel Bellwoar: Which would you say was the starting point for this series: an interest in changelings, or the idea to turn next-door neighbors into a source of horror?
Jude Ellison S. Doyle: I think it’s really both/and. Changeling stories are about trust. The Thing is a great changeling story. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a changeling story. What makes people who they are, and how well do you really know them? If they were being controlled, if they had changed, would you be able to spot the difference? For me, small towns are not safe places. They’re places where you’re intensely dependent on the approval of your community — in large cities, you can just find a friend group and stick to it, but in a small town, there’s nowhere to hide. Everyone knows everyone, and if you burn one relationship, that’s going to follow you the entire time you live there. So this idyllic small town, Cunnanock, where everything is so Stars-Hollow-perfect and pretty and friendly, felt like a really great place to put a monster that feeds on trust. When you meet someone new in Cunnanock, you never know whether they’re going to be Wilford Brimley in the Quaker Oats commercial or Wilfred Brimley in The Thing, and you kind of have to plan for both.
RB: Having worked on other horror comics, like Maw and Children of the Black Sun, what do you think keeps drawing you back to genre stories?
JESD: Horror is a great vehicle for character-driven stories. Every genre is, if it’s well-written, but because horror is about extreme emotions like guilt and grief and fear and rage, you can go to very intense, deep places with your characters, and the heightened, “genre” elements of the storytelling — the monsters, the kills — are going to support you, and make that experience more visceral. With Maw, there was no way to get across the level of anger the protagonist was feeling without it being a horror story. It was a violent emotion that needed a violent release. With The Neighbors, I was trying to express something about identity and vulnerability. Being who you really are is dangerous. It lets people see your weak points. It lets them hurt you, because your emotions are right up against the surface. That’s definitely been true in my own life — I started my gender transition back in 2020, and for the first year, I was basically an awkward 11-year-old boy. I didn’t know how to dress myself or how to walk or how to pitch my voice. I was constantly worried that everyone was staring at me. Going through the world with your real self exposed is terrifying, but if you lose your real self, that’s a living death. To me, horror is the natural way to tell that story. It lets me illustrate paranoia in a way that is beautiful and visual and lets you crawl into the experience.
Letizia Cadonici: What I love about horror is that you can find it everywhere, in every situation. So it doesn’t matter what you’re drawing, what is the subject or the scenario, horror is just there. That’s what brought me back to things like Children of the Black Sun, the shots, the close ups, and all of that give the eerie mood for the scene. In the first issue the horror is still quite subliminal, so it’s all about details, and probably is the phase I love the most.
RB: Of Janet and Oliver’s new neighbors, what made you decide to introduce Agnes Early first?
JESD: What I like about Agnes is that everyone else in Cunnanock seems very committed to order. If you’ll notice, that town is sparkling clean. It runs like clockwork. People have sort of agreed that they don’t need more than two menu items at the one restaurant in town. Agnes is the only person whose life doesn’t look like a magazine, the one person who lives in very obvious disorder, and I think the rot and grossness and weirdness of her home is your first hint that not everything here is good.
RB: Stomping into frame, with her dinosaur head and tutu, Isobel’s personality immediately shines through. How did you come up with that outfit?
JESD: I got a parenting tip, early on, that if you always let your kid pick out their own outfits, they’ll feel more in control of their own body and presentation, and it’ll be easier for them to talk to you about things like gender later in life. Which is admirable, but the real reason to do it is that you get to see what a toddler thinks a good outfit looks like. My kid wore a skeleton costume to her class photo. There’s another photo of her where she’s wearing a life vest, a tutu, goggles, and a Buffalo Bills jersey. It’s February, and she’s on dry land, but she was just feeling nautical for some reason. I thought Isobel would probably also pick her own outfits, because she seems like a very powerful little person. The dinosaur head is real — you can get it on Amazon — but it’s also an expression of my commitment to Jurassic Park references. Isobel broke out of her yard and went wandering out into the neighborhood, and I felt like she needed to be presented as a little T-Rex, snapping fences, breaking containment, stomping through the landscape.
RB: It might seem like cute babble at first, but some of Isobel’s dialogue is quite concerning. Do you think, because she’s a child, that some readers might not pick-up on what she’s saying?
JESD: One of my favorite things about kids is how much they love gross stuff. They don’t have a sense that certain topics are off-limits. Even when it’s a bunch of adorable little girls in pink unicorn outfits, they’ll just very matter-of-factly say something like “I’m going to rip your skin off and melt your eyeballs out of your head.” I heard that one at a birthday party, and it wasn’t even a very intense conversation. Isobel has that fearless energy. The stuff that we think should scare her or gross her out just strikes her as delightful. The problem is that children are only fearless when they’re well-protected. When kids start to realize that the world is actually full of people who want to hurt them, that sense of invulnerability goes away, and it’s profoundly sad to watch. I want Isobel to remain fearless her whole life, but I don’t know if the circumstances will allow for it.
RB: Isobel’s sister, Casey, isn’t adjusting well to the move. Is there anything you can tell us about the stained-glass window that’s so prominent in Casey’s new bedroom?
LC: The stained glass windows are a recurrent element of the series, and they have a role in setting the mood and tone of the house and of what is going to happen. Jude gave me very specific references of every room and every window. For Casey’s room we have this big Cinderella scene, that Alessandro colored with amazing warm and fire-like tones that give a suggestive atmosphere.
JESD: Letizia is right, the stained glass windows are going to come up throughout the series. I want the reader to always have that little reminder of the stories they know from childhood. Casey’s window is Cinderella and her wicked stepmother. Step-parents are archetypally evil figures, which isn’t very fair to the actual people in that role, and I definitely think Casey sees her own family through that lens. She’s convinced that Oliver is a wicked stepfather, that he’s bewitched her mother and wrecked her family. How true that is, we’ll have to see. Stepsisters are traditionally wicked, too, and Casey’s not really thinking about that.
RB: Oliver is already feeling paranoid, due his concerns about how the neighborhood will react if they learn that he’s trans. How will this affect how other people respond when he tries to tell them about the strange goings-on he’s been noticing?
JESD: I’m glad you called that out! That’s one of the really important things in the story: Who you are determines what you’re afraid of. Marginalized people often learn to scan the environment for threats, and that fear can look like an overreaction if you don’t see its full context. Like: I once had a boyfriend who didn’t understand why I wouldn’t take the subway alone at night. We got into an argument about it. But the reason was that, in my first year in the city, I’d known a woman who was sexually assaulted on an empty subway platform and nearly killed by her attacker. I had learned to treat empty subway platforms as dangerous places, and he hadn’t, because someone with his body type had less to fear in that situation. One of the first trans women I knew talked about always having the number of a car service when she went out, because she didn’t want to walk alone at night, because drunk guys coming out of a bar might see her pass by and get violent. Black Americans and White Americans have very different protocols for how they engage with police — Black Americans tend to have a whole set of very realistic fears in that scenario that White Americans don’t. I think Oliver is someone who, for his whole life, has had to prepare for the worst. He’s had to be afraid, in order to survive, and that informs who he’s become.
The Neighbors #1 is on sale now from Boom! Studios.