Growing up, I didn't see much Haitian representation in comic books. It's been a huge pleasure for me meeting other Haitian creatives in the comic book industry and also using aspects of our culture to garner fresh and exciting stories. With only a few days left for his Kickstarter campaign, today I chat with Newton Lilavois, who talks about his book and the inspiration behind it!
Lilavois is the creator of the Crescent City Monsters webcomic. He lives in New York City with his wife and two daughters. By night he's a super comic book creator, by day he's a mild mannered programmer.
GREG ANDERSON-ELYSEE: Tell us about Crescent City Monsters.
NEWTON LILAVOIS:Crescent City Monsters is a supernatural noir action comic. Chapter One starts in 1963 New Orleans with our protagonist, Jonas, on his way to his first paying gig. Unknown to Jonas, that night there is an outside force out to get him. After his performance, he's attacked by dangerous New Orleans creatures. He discovers there's a bounty on his head and the monsters are out to collect. Fortunately, Jonas is also a sorcerer who is well versed in Creole Magic and he battles for his life against the Crescent City monsters.
ANDERSON-ELYSEE: How long have you been working on this story and what inspired it?
LILAVOIS: I've been working on the story since April 2016. Originally I was inspired by the Walking Dead comic book series. I wanted to create my own zombie story but with a twist. As a Haitian-American, I also wanted to incorporate Haitian Vodou lore into the story. Interestingly as I developed the story, it started to evolve into something beyond a zombie story. It turned into an amazing story about magic.
ANDERSON-ELYSEE: The book seems to draw from a lot of Black culture, from the spirituality of hoodoo and Vodou, to the music and slang of the characters. Can you tell us a bit about that and was there a lot of research taken into account while crafting this?
LILAVOIS: Sure. First, New Orleans has such a variety and mix of unique cultures - black, Cajun, creole, and french cultures. That's one of the reasons I chose to have the story in New Orleans. There's so much to play with story wise. But I wanted to focus on the black culture in a supernatural setting because it's not something you see a lot and it's worth exploring. What I see happening is that people are seeing a genre from a new perspective and it's fresh and new to them. They become excited about it.
I did a lot of research online to get many of the little details right. In fact: many people told me they looked up the Grunch to see if I made them up or if they're a real New Orleans legend. The Grunch is a New Orleans legend I stumbled on while doing online research. Also, the club Jonas performed at, Club Desire, was a real club in New Orleans in 1963. The artist of Crescent City Monsters, Gian Carlo Bernal, found some references for the interior of the club and used that in a couple of panels.
Besides online research, I also visited New Orleans to do research. I absorbed as much as I could of the culture when I was down there. I think it helped in getting a feel for things. I plan on taking more trips to New Orleans. There's so much more to research.
ANDERSON-ELYSEE: I'd be down to come with you! You also draw a bit from European mythology, yeah? That has something to do with Creole magic, as you mentioned before?
LILAVOIS: Jonas and his family practices what I called Creole Magic. It's a blend of the Native American, African, and European supernatural world. An element of the the New Orleans creole culture is the mixture of cultures and peoples. I wanted to expand the idea of the mixture of Creole culture into magic also. It's going to be fun to mix all these cultures to create a story and characters people haven't seen before.
ANDERSON-ELYSEE: Who are the other characters in the book and what roles do they play for Jonas?
LILAVOIS: Jonas's family and friends are introduced in the first part of the story. I wanted to show all the important people in his life so you get a sense of who Jonas is. So you'll see Jonas with his mother and little brother in a home setting. You'll also be briefly introduced to the supernatural family protectors - Hibu and Munin. And in the middle of the story, I show the friendship he has with his band mates, Tree and Sticks, and his lovely girl friend, Charlotte.
ANDERSON-ELYSEE: I understand originally you planned to have this story take place in Haiti? What were the initial plans and what led to that change?
LILAVOIS: Since the starting point was a zombie story that has roots in Haitian Vodou lore, it seemed to make sense to have the story set in Haiti. Yet, as I was going through the plot in my head, the feel of the story was going in a different direction than I imagined. New Orleans was an interesting alternative. There's a historical connection with the whites and blacks who left Saint-Domingue during the Haitian Revolution and migrated to New Orleans. Also, New Orleans has a reputation for supernatural folklore. So I switched to New Orleans. I do plan on producing a comic series based in Haiti, but that's another story.
ANDERSON-ELYSEE: Well while we're on this topic, will we see any Loas (Vodou deities)?
LILAVOIS: Readers will definitely be seeing a couple of Loas. There will be Baron Samedi and Papa Legba. There may be more as I develop the story.
ANDERSON-ELYSEE: Black spirituality tends to have a negative portrayal in mainstream culture and beliefs. How do you address that?
LILAVOIS: That's a huge question. It's something I think about a lot. I remember a few years ago Reverend Pat Robertson, the host of the 700 Club, said Haiti won its independence because it made a pact with the devil. He was probably referring the the Vodou ceremony that sparked the revolution. Misguided thoughts like that have been around for a long time. The best way to rectify that is to control the narrative when you get the chance. I try to give the characters who are associated with black spirituality greater dimension than what you see in mass media. I also don't portray black spirituality as always being primitive or evil. Sometimes it's tricky because I'm writing a story to entertain so I may take some artistic liberties. But I try to watch myself so I represent people the right way.
ANDERSON-ELYSEE: You briefly mentioned your artist, Gian Carlo Bernal, earlier. Tell me about him and how did you two connect to make this story?
LILAVOIS: Gian Carlo Bernal is a fantastic artist who lives in the Philippines. I first saw Gian's work in a comic book Kickstarter project I backed named the Last Days of Kevin. Then one day, while looking for artists on DeviantArt, I landed on his page. I recognized his work from the Kickstarter project. I really liked his style and reached out to him to do a couple of commissions. I was blown away by what he had sent me. It was a wrap. I knew he had to be the artist for Crescent City Monsters.
ANDERSON-ELYSEE: Nice. One thing that stands out with the art was making it Black and White instead of colored. What was the decision for that?
LILAVOIS: It's a horror/supernatural story, so black and white seemed like a natural decision. To be honest, when I asked Gian to add some gray scale to the inks, I had no idea how amazing it was going to come out. Gian went above and beyond my expectation. When he sent me the first page of the comic book I knew we were about to produce something special.
ANDERSON-ELYSEE: You definitely have something special here. We're starting to wrap up. But where are you planning to take the audience with this book? What are some story ideas, character, and plans you don't mind sharing with us?
LILAVOIS: I don't want to give too much away so I'll give a broad overview of what's coming next. I'm going to take the audience deeper into the monsters of Crescent City, who they are and why they want Jonas dead. You'll learn a bit more about the mysterious force that put the bounty on Jonas. I'll definitely be introducing more monsters. You'll see what happens to Jonas and how he deals with his new reality. The story will become very character driven in the next few chapters.
ANDERSON-ELYSEE: And why do you feel this story is important today to tell?
LILAVOIS: First, I think it's a great story. You don't have to be a fan of the horror or supernatural genre to enjoy the story. Second, I'm attempting to create something different in the genre of horror with black characters being in the forefront. I hope I can do the same thing in comics with Crescent City Monsters that Jordan Peele did in cinema with Get Out.
ANDERSON-ELYSEE: How can readers find and get a hand on this book?
LILAVOIS: You can read the webcomic at DreamFuryComics.com. Also, I'm currently running a Kickstarter to fund printing of Chapter One of Crescent City Monsters. The Kickstarter campaign can be found at THIS LINK.