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Southern Gothic: The Purloined Letters #4
Can you believe it’s time for the FOURTH installment of The Purloined Letters, the reader correspondence feature of Southern Gothic? Hang on to your seats, gentle readers because we’re about to take you on a topical roller coaster through issues as diverse as FBI history, digital coloring, and the dinner party of your dreams/nightmares!
Since our last letters feature, The New Futurists became a 2023 Substack Featured Publication, we printed a Southern Gothic ashcan, and we’ve welcomed many new readers to the fold. The Southern Gothic team is immensely grateful to you for spending a little time with us here and helping us grow on Substack and beyond. And we love hearing from you! So let’s get straight to your questions.
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Hi Ben. What’s a no-prize? Can I have it? I think your favorite page [in Chapter 15] is Flem Snopes in the water tower. I was holding my breath the entire time I read it.
Morgan, Chicago, IL
Ben: Morgan, you’re a winner, baby! In case you missed it, I offered our first New Futurists “no-prize” to the first person to write in identifying the page in Chapter 15 that is my overall favorite so far. And because a couple of folks thought I was being clever with the “no-prize” bit, let me first say that I didn’t invent that phrase! It was likely coined by none other than Stan Lee in the Fantastic Four letters pages of the 1960s.
But yes, the water tower page is one of my faves Ezequiel has illustrated in Southern Gothic to date. I love when he breaks an image like the establishing shot at the top of the page into three panels. The panel breaks introduce a flow of time that would otherwise feel static if it was just a single wide shot.
And I couldn’t agree more about the sense of claustrophobia Ezequiel created with Flem jumping to get the ring at the end of the ladder cord. The sense of perspective– with the ring sometimes seeming within reach and sometimes seeming far beyond Flem’s grasp– that’s some wicked visual storytelling.
In her longer message, Morgan also correctly identified the Faulkner short story “Centaur in Brass” as one of the inspirations for this scene. The other major influence is Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend. For you literary nerds, I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I think The Little Friend is my favorite Donna Tartt novel! Hit me with your hot takes! I certainly think The Little Friend belongs in conversations about what we mean when we talk about “Southern gothic” so I wanted to include a nod to Tartt somewhere in this story.
And Morgan, I’m turning that no-prize into a yes-prize! I’m sending you a year’s paid subscription to The New Futurists for your correct guess.
Thank you for your dedication to your craft and your readers. Your work is a true treasure, and I am grateful to be a part of the community you’re building on Substack. I'm excited to see what the future holds for Southern Gothic. I tend to get most of the literary references but I had never heard of Lydia Maria Child. What made you choose her as a character?
Alice, Greensboro, NC
Ben: Thank you for being a member of the New Futurists community, Alice! We really appreciate your kind words.
Now as for Lydia Maria Child…what an excellent question! Why DID I write her into Southern Gothic?
In graduate school, I was in a writing group with a handful of other folks researching American literature. I met with five other people every couple of weeks to read and offer feedback on one another’s research. I’m a big fan of peer feedback groups for creative writing and an even bigger proponent of the practice in the academic context. I honestly learned more about pre-20th-century American literature from reading my colleagues’ research than in any class– and this was the context where I first read Lydia Maria Child.
Here’s what I learned that stuck with me: Lydia Maria Child was a total badass! In addition to writing a blockbuster domestic guide for women, she also wrote "The New-England Boy's Song about Thanksgiving Day," better known as the popular American nursery rhyme "Over the River and Through the Woods." That poem/song was honestly one of those texts I expected to be attributed to “traditional” or “folk song,” you know? She wrote it!
In addition to creating enduring popular culture, I would consider her a philosophical futurist– particularly in political science and social justice. She was an abolitionist, women’s rights advocate, American Indian rights activist, and opponent of American imperialism. As early as 1833, in her book An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, she argued for the immediate emancipation of enslaved people without compensation for their enslavers. Absolutely radical thinking for a White woman at the time.
So when considering the cast for the 1862 scene, I had always had Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass in mind. You may notice that our characters tend to find themselves working in teams of three? Well, I toyed with a few ideas but landed on Lydia Maria Child because I really admire her. And the writers fictionalized in this story are (for the most part) my heroes for one reason or another.
Wow, that got really nerdy really fast. TL;DR: 1.) If you’re a writer, get thee to a writing group. 2.) Lydia Maria Child was a 19th-century dynamo and you probably won’t regret giving her a read if you’re not familiar with her work!
I hope this letter finds you well. Your writing has been a source of inspiration and enlightenment for me, and I wanted to convey my gratitude. I got my BFA in painting but never spent much time working digitally. Do you have any advice for artists interested in learning to do color for comics?
Michael, Boston, MA
Ben: As I’ve noted in the past, I’m happy to recognize that color work is not the strongest ability in my skill set! Haha! So, I’m passing the microphone to our resident color aficionados– and I’m just as interested in hearing their advice as you are, Michael!
Rafael: The advice I would give is to be consistent. In this career you will face frustration and failures all the time. Stay mentally resilient and consistent. Don’t work from motivation, work from dedication, that would be my advice.
Ezequiel: My advice when coloring comics would be: think of color as part of the narration, color must be a way to help the reader understand what’s happening, to show what the characters are feeling, to take them to different places in space or time… color should bring something else to the page that black and white can’t show by itself.
Ben: Wow, well said. I really agree with Ezequiel about the importance of color to narrative in comics. Here’s one piece of advice from a very mediocre colorist: find some comics with color work that you admire and “take the car apart and put it back together.” That is: figure out how the artist created the effects you admire and try to recreate them. Also, find some line work by an artist you really admire and color it in your own style. Finally, I may have mentioned this here before, but I went to a panel at San Diego Comic Con featuring the folks who wrote Hi-Fi Color for Comics and I’ve found their book and resources helpful in fumbling through digital coloring. Best of luck to you, Michael!
I’ve been reading your story from the start as something of an FBI buff. In the beginning I thought your story seemed like it might go somewhere. But I now see that you're just out to smear J. Edgar Hoover. While his tenure is often criticized for its excesses, it's essential to recognize that during his leadership, the FBI was instrumental in modernizing law enforcement and establishing essential investigative techniques. Hoover's dedication to fighting organized crime, espionage, and domestic threats during a tumultuous period in American history cannot be denied. Additionally, he was a strong advocate for maintaining the independence and integrity of the FBI, resisting political pressure to compromise its mission. While there are legitimate criticisms of his actions, such as the COINTELPRO program, it's important to consider the context of the times and the challenges he faced. Recognizing Hoover's contributions to national security and law enforcement while acknowledging the need for oversight and accountability is a more balanced perspective. Characterizing Hoover as some kind of super villain is disrespectful to his legacy.
David, Alexandria, VA
Ben: Thank you for your message, David. I appreciate your thoughtful response to Southern Gothic.
I think we would likely disagree on our overall assessments of J. Edgar Hoover as a public servant, one of the chief law enforcement officers in America, and as a person.
I assure you, Southern Gothic wasn’t conceived or written as a smear campaign against J. Edgar Hoover. He just happens to provide a very era-appropriate foil in this satire about the wild, uncontrollable power of stories and storytellers.
For all of our readers who may not be knee-deep in FBI history: in writing the character Hoover in SG, I read Beverly Gage’s Pulitzer-Prize winning biography G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century and J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets by Curt Gentry. Gage’s book is exceptional in that she draws on a trove of previously untapped archival materials to create a nuanced portrait of Hoover and the forces that made him, without pulling punches when it comes to some of the indefensible aspects of his world view (e.g. racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia) and abuses of power (e.g. propaganda, unwarranted surveillance, harassment, blackmail, etc.). Jack Goldsmith’s review of G-Man in The Atlantic is a good quick read if you’re not down for giant TOMES on the subject.
Again, I appreciate your engagement with our story and your argument that Hoover shouldn’t be considered a super villain. I don’t mean to disrespect Hoover, nor do I mean to respect him. I’m not a fan. But in Southern Gothic, I mainly wanted to use the STORY of Hoover that has resonated in popular culture as a device to satirize the destructive power that comes with “controlling the narrative”— an act of storytelling that’s only become more prevalent and insidious since Hoover’s era. Thank you again for your message, David.
I’m writing to express my appreciation and admiration for your work. I look forward to each new chapter of Southern Gothic. These are some of my favorite authors and you imagine them in such exciting ways. [...]You describe Southern Gothic as a horror comic, but sometimes the story seems tongue-in-cheek or satirical. Do you consider your comic camp?
Paul, Charlotte, NC
Ben: Thanks for your kind words and your question, Paul!
Every breath I take is high camp.
And I honestly think more about genre than most men think about the Roman Empire. Wait, SIDEBAR: DO men really think about the Roman Empire or is this just a huge prank the patriarchy is trying to pull? Do our international readers know about this social media trend? I have so many questions. As a white cisgender American gay man, I can honestly say that I NEVER think about the Roman Empire. DIVAS are the only topics that cross my brain as often as the Roman Empire seems to preoccupy these dudes on TikTok! I refuse to believe this nonsense.
Anyway: genre. To me genre is a highly fluid, unstable construct. My favorite texts move across genres in fun and strange ways. Southern Gothic is a horror comic. But it’s also a satire. Aren’t most horror stories satire? Is Southern Gothic camp? Emily Dickinson went Kill Bill on some goons from the future controlled by J. Edgar Hoover. Honey, if that ain’t camp, revoke my gay card.
I love catching up with this kooky comic every month! Ben, are you going to tell the story behind the Emily Dickinson scene?
Heather, Durham, NC
Ben: Thank you, Heather! When you sent this message, I was honestly like “what story about the Emily Dickinson scene?” Haha. My brain is…a real doozy these days. But now I remember. In our last letters feature, Jess from Macon, Georgia asked for advice about creative block. Ezequiel gave some truly brilliant advice (per usual) and I said that after chapter 14 was published, I’d tell an anecdote about pushing through the creative block I had while writing that piece. All I can say is: be careful what you ask for, Heather!
Hi Southern Gothic! Big fan of your cast and the way your team has brought them to life. It's clear that your team's passion and dedication shine through in every aspect of the comic. You said that the end of volume one is fast approaching. Does that mean there will be a volume 2?
Ashley, Apex, NC
Ben: Thank you very much, Ashley! We appreciate you and your kind words!
Yes, the end of volume one of Southern Gothic IS fast approaching! I promised from the beginning that this story has a beginning, middle, and end. But does anything ever really end? All I can say right now is: stay tuned!
It was a delight to see Randall Kenan make an appearance. I’m assuming we’ll see more of him? Did you know Randall during your time at UNC?
Charles, Atlanta, GA
Ben: Thanks for your message, Charles! Yes, I did have the absolute pleasure of knowing Randall Kenan. I’m currently writing a short essay on Randall and his work that I’ll share on Substack before the end of the year. Suffice it to say, I very much admired Randall as a human person and as a writer. I hope that he would get a good chortle about the fictional version of him in Southern Gothic. And yes, you’ll be seeing a lot more of our intrepid hero in the final chapters!
After meeting you at HeroesCon and buying a copy of your ashcan, I started reading your Substack. My question is for Ezequiel: I was wondering how you bring all of the settings in your comic to life. The different locations are very vivid and you depict a wide range of times and places. How do you decide how to light a scene? Do you think more about the environment, the mood, the time of day, or what?
Anne, Charlotte, NC
Ezequiel: I think the most important thing when coloring is to take the characters to the different locations (or time periods) and help the reader not get lost on the way. Apart from that, I’d like the colors to be consistent all the way, for example in Southern Gothic there’s always some kind of purple gradient that unifies the overall tone of the series, apart from the green when evil comes to the story!
If you could have dinner with three members of your cast, who would you choose?
Emily, Decatur, GA
Ezequiel: I think having dinner with Poe, Lovecraft, and Hoover would definitely be something to remember! Hahaha!
Ben: Haha! That trio is a diabolical pick! So good!
Emily, I love how you think. Thank you for asking the difficult questions. I’ve been mulling over this topic around my house for DAYS and my final answer: Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, and Randall Kenan. Williams was my first literary hero. Baldwin is one of my all-time faves. And I would definitely want Randall there! (Almost made the cut: Zora Neale Hurston [I bet she’d charm/shock everyone with her stories] and Truman Capote [instigator of Real Housewives-level drama]).
We would LOVE to hear your answers to the dinner party question! Sound off in the comments or send us a message with your guest list.
Thanks once again to all of our readers and to everyone who wrote in! You can always respond to this email, send us a DM on social media, or write us directly at email@example.com. Please remember to include “Southern Gothic” in the subject and if you’re okay with your letter being published indicate “OKAY TO PRINT.”
We look forward to seeing you back here next month for Southern Gothic Chapter 16: Go Set a Watchman!