We’re very excited at Haunted MTL to reach out to the horror community and spotlight creative and talented folks where we find them. We love to add to our interview series when we can, and Haunted MTL is fortunate to have a fantastic interview this week with writer John Lees, the mind behind one of our favorite comics, Sink – one of the more beloved series reviewed by our very own comic obsessed David Davis.
John Lees talks to us about the origins of Sink, his influences on the comic, and even provides valuable insight to anyone wanting to create comics themselves.
Sink Writer John Lees Interview
Haunted MTL: How did Sink first come to mind? Was this a concept that was developing for a while, or did it hit you suddenly?
John Lees: I think it’s a combination of both. The general idea of Sink is something I had in my head as wanting to do long before I did it. Scalped is one of my all-time favourite comics, and I had this idea of wanting to do my own take on a heavily location-driven crime saga, but mine would be set in Glasgow, and have more of a horror twist. I wasn’t sure if it would be something I’d eventually do with Iain Laurie, after we’d worked on And Then Emily Was Gone together, or what exact form it would take, so it was kinda in the back-burner in my brain for a couple of years. But once I made the decision I wanted to do it, it fell into place really quickly. Mr. Dig, Florence Kilcolm, Si McKirdie, the Dickheads, Busman Boab, the blue van clowns… Sinkhill took shape so quickly and so clearly in the way that happens with the stories you know are going to be special.
HMTL: How soon had you figured out Mr. Dig’s identity and story arc through the first two volumes? In a lot of ways, his story ends up feeling central to many of the themes expressed over the course of the first two volumes. Was this something intended from the start or discovered on the way?
JL: Oh, I knew Mr. Dig’s identity from the moment I first wrote him. If you look back to his first appearance in Sink #1, Mr. Dig says, “Fuck off back to where you came from” to Allan. When I wrote that, it was with the thought that he’d have the same line thrown at him by some racist asshole at a later point in the series, which we see happen in Sink #8. And having studied teaching English to speakers of other languages in the past, I’d previously done language profiles on how Kurdish speakers adapt to speaking English and some common recurring mistakes, hence why Mr. Dig drops definite and indefinite articles like “a” or “the” in his speech, something else which was part of his dialogue from the very beginning. As far as more overarching themes, the idea of Sink being a world where the protagonists are largely the kind of people who don’t get to be heroes in these types of stories is something that came together partly by design and partly by happy accident.
HMTL: How did you get Alex Cormack involved with the project? Was it something along the lines of, “hey, man, want to draw this hyper-violent crime book?”
JL: I’d already worked with Alex before. We’d done a short together, then had worked together at greater length on Oxymoron: The Loveliest Nightmare for ComixTribe. I was (and still am) continually in awe of his art, and on top of that, he’s just such a lovely guy, we immediately got on. And so, after we finished with Oxymoron, we’d been talking about how we should try working on something else together, something of our own rather than playing in someone else’s sandbox. And we’d thrown around a couple of ideas, but nothing was really clicking. And I had this Sink idea in my back pocket, but like I said, I’m thinking maybe this is an Iain book, maybe it’s just a bunch of loosely connected one-shots we release at Scottish conventions (which is where the anthology format idea originated, I believe). But then something clicked where I thought, hang on, why couldn’t this be an ALEX book? And that instantly changed the dynamics at play, I started imagining it less as pure psychological horror (though there are certainly still elements of that in there!) than as this genre-mashup with pulp crime and bombastic action elements, and really pushing the gore-drenched aesthetic of Oxymoron to new levels. And thankfully, when I then said to Alex, “Hey, man, want to draw this hyper-violent crime book?”, he was instantly down for the idea!
HMTL: How has the reception to Sink been in Glasgow among locals? What elements do they recognize in Sinkhill?
JL: Whenever I’ve had Sink on sale at Scottish shows, the reception has been really positive. In my experience, Scottish comic readers have been really supportive of Scottish indie creators, all the more so when the stories themselves are Scottish. And so, readers have enjoyed all the Glasgow elements. That was a balance I was hoping to pull off while writing Sink. I wanted it to be somewhat universal, where readers from anywhere could enjoy it, but if you’re someone who’s from Glasgow, who recognizes some of the landmarks or local in-jokes, then you’ll have another level of appreciation for the comic.
HMTL: Do you feel Sink is a good introduction to your body of work, or would you steer readers to a different book, like And Then Emily Was Gone?
JL: I think any of my comics is a good introduction to my body of work, as I want people to spend money on all of them! And the cool thing is, I’ve had readers say Mountainhead was their first introduction to me, that Hotell was their first introduction, that The Crimson Cage was their first introduction, and then my older stuff is there waiting for them to discover. But Sink is a comic that’s particularly close to my heart. It’s a twisted love letter to my home city of Glasgow, and because of the broad range of tones, it manages to capture a wide variety of things I enjoy writing: horror, comedy, stories with heart and emotion, even some almost superhero-type stuff.
HMTL: The horror and crime angle of Sink is quite interesting. What drives you to write about horrific crimes?
JL: Ha! That question makes me sound disturbed! I’ve always been a fan of horror, as a reader and as a viewer, which I guess translates into also enjoying writing it. But I’d also say that I enjoy the challenge of getting into the mindsets of characters in the most extreme of situations. I think it might have been David Lynch, or maybe someone writing about David Lynch, that used the phrase “the twilight zone between crime and horror” when talking about Blue Velvet. The idea of this phrase is that, what might from one perspective be a crime procedural could be a horror from another perspective, if you’re grounded and right in there with the person experiencing that crime. I think it’s down to the empathy, and how much you want the readers to feel for the characters these horrific crimes are happening to.
HMTL: One element of Sink is that you really establish a consistent sense of place. A horrible place, but well developed. As a writer how do you establish a setting in such detail?
JL: Sinkhill is a fictional district within Glasgow, but Glasgow itself is a real city. And I think it helps, in my head, being able to know the actual city so well, and for me to be able to picture a particular road junction, and imagine, “Okay, if you take a left here, that takes you into Sinkhill.” It makes the place feel almost real. And it probably helps that there are shadows of various real place that form the genetic make-up of Sinkhill. I mean, it’s a running joke between me and Alex that, for being a place that ultimately is likely not much bigger than a few blocks, there are so many varied landmarks to be found here. What the heck would a map of Sinkhill look like?! But the more stories we tell in this world, the more lived-in this location becomes, and the more we’re able to pluck familiar locales from past stories and recycle them for new ones, just adding to that feel that this is all taking place in the same setting and these tales are all connected.
HMTL: When putting together the setting and the stories, do you have a system in place for keeping everything mapped out? A story bible? A wiki?
JL: I’ll plan out issues, and I’ll broadly map out plans for each volume. But in terms of big picture mythology, I don’t have anything so sophisticated as an official story bible. Maybe I should! I largely keep it all in my head, and I do sometimes worry about forgetting a plot point from an earlier issue, or re-using a character name!
HMTL: When it comes to inspiration for certain stories you mention a few, but I am curious how that works. For example, do you have a rough idea in mind, which reminds you of a movie and you watch it to help shape your approach? Or is it something where you watch or read something and think ‘how can this become a Sink story?’
JL: It varies. I think there are two types of Sink Tale. There are lore tales, where I’m putting in the work to add to the tapestry and build on the larger overarching mystery connecting the main players of the series. Then there are the standalone tales, the little one-shot vignettes of life in Sinkhill. With the lore tales, maybe I’m approaching with the mindset of “I need this character to get from point A to point B to enter the next phase of their arc, how can I get them there?” And with the standalone tales, often it can be me building on fragments – a character, say, or a scenario – which in itself might not have been able to sustain a full series, but when inserted into the world of Sink, becomes more fully realised. Like, with Sink #10, I’d had the idea of a twisted romantic comedy about a couple doing BDSM who end up in a mad home invasion scenario, but that’s not a series, it’s a sketch. Putting Kieran and Louise into Sinkhill, though, and you can then feed it into the wider mythology, and it becomes more substantial, and now that’s probably my favourite issue of the series so far.
HMTL: Kieran and Louise’s story was absolutely hilarious and an interesting way to end the second volume, especially given the catharsis and culmination of the end of the two-parter “Graphite Green.” Was the placement of “Bedbug” afterward purposeful?
JL: The placement was absolutely intentional. My thinking was, “Graphite Green” was our biggest Sink story yet, this epic two-part saga that was action-packed and climactic in its own right, while also setting up some major big picture stuff for down the line. And so, I figured it would be nice to then wrap up the volume with a little palette cleanser, something more light and fun, at least by Sink standards. I also liked the idea of each volume having a “happy ending,” comparatively speaking, of course. And underneath all the violence and butt toys, I think the story of Kieran and Louise is quite sweet and wholesome, and hopefully, if we’ve done our jobs, you’re invested in them on a human level and are happy to see them not just survive, but for their relationship to blossom.
HMTL: Can you tell us a little bit about ComixTribe? Did you help establish the publisher or were you brought in to work with them with Emily?
JL: I didn’t establish the publisher. It’s run by the great Tyler James. But I have been around with them since the beginning. My first ever comic, a superhero story called The Standard, was edited by my original comics mentor, Steven Forbes. He was working with Tyler on the formation of ComixTribe back at the time, this would be going back to 2011, and had suggested to me that we bring The Standard into the ComixTribe fold to be part of the fledgling publisher’s launch line-up. And I’ve worked with them ever since. They published And Then Emily Was Gone, and now they’re publishing Sink.
HMTL: With Dig #1 on the way, it is clear that you have more stories to tell about Sinkhill and its residents. Is there anything lined up after Dig? Another volume of Sink?
JL: Oh, we definitely want to do more. Over the last couple of years, I actually wrote out the entirety of both Volumes 3 and 4! The original plan had been for Alex and I to take a year off of Sink after the release of Volume 2 in 2019, do The Crimson Cage in 2020, then come back for Sink Volume 3 in 2021. But then the pandemic happened, and The Crimson Cage got pushed back to launching in December 2021, making it mostly a 2022 book. And that in turn impacted on Sink, meaning that Dig was pushed back to early 2022 and Sink Volume 3 to mid-2022. But with the global paper shortage and other factors, Dig ended up being moved back to mid 2022, and Volume 3 is now looking like late 2022, or maybe early 2023. But we definitely still have more stories that we want to tell, and we will get them to you as soon as we’re able!
HMTL: For people who want to create their own comics, what three suggestions do you have to help them get started or move forward in their careers?
JL: Suggestion 1: finish something. I think one of the biggest early pitfalls you see a lot of writers going through is that they become serial first issue writers, where they’ll write something, then get stuck or bored, so they start a new idea. I’m not able to do it so often now, but in the past, I would frequently have the entirety of a comic series written before a publisher had picked it up or before art had even begun. Because, especially early on, I think finishing is a VITAL skill. The beginning of a story is exciting and full of possibility, sure. But it’s getting through that middle, muddling through the process of figuring how all the component parts of your narrative click into place, where you really start building your plotting muscles. And writing THE END at the bottom of your final script will give you such a boost, such a feeling of achievement and a confirmation that you CAN tell a story in full. On a related note, so I guess this would be suggestion 1A, hold off on redrafting a script until you’ve finished your first draft. It’s so easy to get yourself stuck in a rut by not being happy with a scene you’ve written, and going back to tinker with it, and the script never gets done. Write out the script first, even if your brain is telling you that you’re writing garbage, just to get it down on the page, have something concrete to work with. Then, one you have a full script, you can get to going back and refining it and making it better.
Suggestion 2: find a peer review group. Something that has helped me immeasurably over the years is being a founding member, and later the leader, of the Glasgow League of Writers, a writer’s circle for comics where we meet monthly and review each other’s comic scripts. Over the years, I’ve been a part of that group, and a couple of other peer review groups. Writing is a lonely pursuit, often done in a vacuum, and we can get too close to our own stuff, not being able to see stuff that’s wrong. If you can gather a community of like-minded creative people you trust – be it online or in person – to share your work with, not only will you improve as a writer (both in terms of the advice you get from them, and in the advice you give in turn making you think more critically), but you’ll also gain a community. And even if getting to the point of actually getting your comic made is some way away, knowing you’re writing for an audience can give you that added drive and motivation to create.
Suggestion 3: don’t be afraid of failure. Making comics can be a frustrating, demoralising process, full of setbacks. I have spent YEARS getting rejections, and still get some rejections now. And the rejections are actually an improvement to the years before that where my queries to editors were just outright ignored. I’ve seen so many promising creators get told “No” for one pitch, and it just breaks their spirit, and they lose all confidence in making comics. And that makes me sad. Just because your comic can’t find a publisher doesn’t mean that it sucks. It might just mean that it’s not to the tastes of one particular editor, the time isn’t right, the market isn’t right, or maybe just that you’re not selling your idea the right way yet. That doesn’t mean your story isn’t worth telling, or that you don’t have other stories worth telling. Don’t be discouraged. Making comics is a marathon, not a sprint. And the good news is, there are more ways than ever to get your stories out there, with or without a publisher.
Want to learn more about John Lees?
If you want to keep up with what John Lees is working on you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram, and check out more of his work at his official website. You can also purchase comics directly from him via his online shop.
We also wish to extend a very special thank you to John Lees for taking the time to chat with us. Haunted MTL absolutely loves to interview creators in the horror space, so if you are a horror fan who does horror-centric crafting, please contact us via Twitter and share your work. We’re always looking to spotlight the craftiest members of the horror scene.
Want more of the world of Sink? (Sponsored)
Do you want to continue exploring the world of Sink? Why not pick up the Kindle edition of Mr. Dig using our sponsored link? Support John Lees and Haunted MTL with one purchase.
Creepy Comics Collages by Jennifer Weigel, Part 5
Well, you won’t get rid of me that easily… Ha ha, I lied about coming to the end and the afterlife in the Creepy Comics Collages segment, it was just an opportunity for rebirth. Besides, it’s World Collage Day! So having come into another comic book to rework, here we go again…
Creepy Comics Story 9: The Voice (of God or Reason or perhaps an homage to my ex)
“Come to me my children, the voice of God awaits!… Don’t let them escape!” Please beam me up out of this weird comic collage alternate reality. “God I am your hand! Lift me… to your place. I commend my spirit!” I want to go back to dreaming about starfish.
The computer programmer behind the scenes turns to face us and smiles. “Guardians! This is a place of God!… Come to the true voice of God!” “I am everything.” “Come to the voice!” And the horrific AI generated creatures abide by his every coded word.
Just like last night in the — signs posted for Nightmare, No Exit. The deer spirit faun screams in surprise, “Eeek!” “No! I defy you!” She returns to the form of a little girl with arms outspread to the open sky. “Y’know, a day like today makes all the stuff that happened last night seem just like a bad dream!” The dream seems so real…
Somewhere in the city, the computer programmer sits up at night in pensive monologue, “You try to make a difference… But it doesn’t really matter.”
Creepy Comics Story 10: The City (Metropolis becomes self-aware)
This segment is brought to you by Dead Artists and Talking Dinosaurs. No really, wait for it…
Woooooo Uhhhh Wooooooo Uhhhh… Wump! Uff! Wump! Uff! “She belongs to The City!” The Glenn Fry 1985 hit single looms ominously overhead as Metropolis becomes self-aware. “The City… will live!… The City… will breathe!” The City gasps for air, “Got to… breathe!… Got to… Breathe!“
Her breath is the wind… Her eyes are windows. Her heart pumps fluid through buried plumbing… “I’m The City!” Her mind is The City!
And we have a celebrity appearance by Rich Koz “Son of Svengoolie” WFLD 1973: “I take a nap for 10,000 years and look what happens… some-body builds a city!” Kerwyn chimes in, “Geez! Somebody’s been busy!” And we cut out to a scene of Svengoolie standing alongside his coffin.
Well, that’s all folks. Or is it? For now, any way… until I get more comic books… Duh duh DUHHHH…
Creepy Comics Collages by Jennifer Weigel, Part 4
Wow, I can’t believe you’ve stayed the course through four whole strange story posts of these creepy comics collages. But this is the final frontier, the last segment, the standing ovation as it were. So here goes…
Creepy Comics Story 7: The Grave (shallow enough for ya?)
“It should take longer, it seems to all of them. Such holy flesh should not give before a blade so easily.” “His brow is growing so cold.” “Yes it would be. He’s dying.”
“My god… I’m not dead.” Put the shovel down. “Life is a no-win situation. Besides… You’re already dead!”
“I’m not dead. I’m not dead!… Oh, Oh my god… I can’t move… What’s happened to me?” Buried alive. Or maybe not.
“Dead?” Perhaps I am actually dead. I was expecting something… I dunno… different.
“I’m not hungry, I’m dead. I’m not sure what I’m doing here, in fact.” At least I’m not a zombie. That seems a small consolation right now though. “My organs are shutting down. It is a relief.”
“Three days have already passed.” We’re just sitting here, rotting. Like Norman Bates’ Mother. At least someone was kind enough to supply a rocking chair. “Oh, one last thing before I go… You’re doing my fucking head in.”
Creepy Comics Story 8: Adrift Afterlife (why you save the best gold coins for the ferryman)
How’d we get here? “I do not stand alone. I am sat in a boat.” “.. to be millions of miles away from any care in the world.” Was that the Ferryman? “Only liberty I know.”
“He does not remember arriving here, or if he has been here before. It is not the island he grew up on, though it feels so very familiar… He has been waiting for the night tides to come in, for they will bring starfish. He has always liked watching them cling to the beach before the current pulls them back into fathoms.”
“And the ocean brings him starfish… Perhaps his father had nothing to do with this place at all.” The ferryman stands on the far shore. It makes no difference now.
“Beneath the ocean, razor-sharp coral grows and plunges towards the surface, sent by a green place that would not like to burn.” “The sand is soft between his toes and he is not ashamed of anything.” The ghosts are here, contentedly it seems.
Thank you for joining us for these creepy comics collage art stories. But here’s where we have to leave it off. Trust me, it’s best that way. Besides I’m out of creepy comics to collage with.
Creepy Comics Collages by Jennifer Weigel, Part 3
We’re ba-ack… Are you ready for the next creepy comics collages graphic story overload? After the last time and the intermission I wasn’t sure I’d see you again, but here we are, together again. You’d almost think we put something in the water – wink.
Now where were we? Oh yeah, the world was going to hell… or was it?
Creepy Comics Story 5: Alien Invasion (A Fist Full of Physics!!!)
“Elsewhere… months… earlier…” “It begins as a flicker pin-point of light getting closer ever closer until it takes form.” The sky is falling, damn you Chicken Little.
“…unconfirmed rumors of extraterrestrials have surfaced this evening following reported sightings in upstate New York earlier today.” There’s the news for you. Always blowing things up to increase viewership ratings.
“Then I would suggest a test immediately.” ‘K Doc, we get it; maybe there’s cause for concern. Guessing these aren’t friendlies based on intel, or that the government pissed them off. “Where’s William Shatner when you really need him?”
“Next morning… City Hall…” “A Fist Full of Physics” Blamm-o! “As if that’s some kind of homage.” It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I was feeling fine but now I’m not so sure. “All of this is on your head.” You can thank the world governments with their shoot first, ask questions later policies for that.
“The act was deplorable. It’s ramifications were permanent.” Doc looks unamused. “And the doctor drones on in his cold monotone… ‘Then we all die.’”
Creepy Comics Story 6: Werewolves (Londoners, eat your hearts out)
“Fables Werewolves… no one can hear you howl.” So now we’re elbow-deep in lycanthropy? This story just keeps getting weirder and weirder…
“… I feel so… disoriented… is this vertigo?” No, you wouldn’t be so lucky. Once bitten, twice shy. It’s The Change. Prepare yourself for the transformation.
“What now?” Enough with the damned interruptions already, can’t you see I’m at work?!
“Shall we start a war?”
“No! No! Leave me alone! Leave me alone! No!“
“I know one thing.” “Never will you suffer the indignity of this animal’s touch again.” The wolf seems somewhat offended by that statement. No really. And probably rightly so.
“Maybe it’s just an excuse, a fucking cop-out for when we inevitably fuck-up our lives and hurt people… We’re not cursed, we’re rotten, or mad or…”
“I don’t deserve this!” he howls. Stop blaming the werewolves for your own human indecencies. Teacups get broken and the London werewolves get angry.
Thank you for going all in with us over this series, there’s… one… more… final… huzzah… In the meantime, check out more of Jennifer Weigel’s work here on Haunted MTL or on her writing, fine art, and conceptual projects websites.