-by Erica Heflin
This week I had the opportunity to speak with the creative team behind “The Cabinet”. Christian Sager and Kelly Williams’s story is a fascinating historical fiction tale that presents a wide cast of rich characters and delves into the heart of horror.
The Cabinet is currently available through Kelly’s Etsy shop at:
GH: How did the two of you come to work together on The Cabinet?
CS: We met when we both contributed to the AlphaBeasts project. It involved several artists drawing fantastic creatures every week from A to Z. Kelly’s art impressed me so much that we started having friendly conversations on social media and it turned out we have a lot in common. When he posted an illustration he’d done of a grizzled man hiking through a blizzard, I knew he was the right guy for the story I was putting together. Now that we’ve been working together for awhile, I can’t imagine a time when we won’t have a project on deck to collaborate on.
KW: I had been talking to a friend about doing a story together for awhile but it really wasn’t going anywhere. I would occasionally do concept drawings to kind of try to reignite the spark but, life and time prevented much progress.
When I posted the drawing Christian is referring to I had a email from him, like, the next morning. It turned out we both had ideas for a similar story. Well, not the same but, with the same influences. It came at a good time for me because I wasn’t feeling particularly great about the comics I had been working on. you know, self doubt and all the usual junk. Christian definitely got me excited again.
GH: What about this particular story compelled you both to tell it?
CS: Originally I was interested in the 19th century echoes of America’s modern political problems. Urbanization, industrialization and immigration were struggles. Robert H. Wiebe’s book “The Search for Order” was a good resource. It looks at how Americans made sense of all the chaos involved in changing and defining what their nation was.
The story of the HMS Resolute has always fascinated me as well. So when I started researching it and the Franklin expedition I knew I wanted to incorporate arctic horror into this story.
KW: I’m such a dork for horror. Part of my excitement was getting to draw a horror comic, which I had been wanting to do forever. It was a smart story and the angle of real events makes it feel so much more interesting and familiar.
GH: Can you explain to me the color palette selection and how it reflects on the story?
CS: I’ll leave the details to Kelly, but our plan was to depict the arctic scenes with blue wash, including all the flashbacks. The remaining scenes that take place near or on the mainland are in a red wash.
KW: If I remember correctly we initially planned to do blue for present day and red for flashbacks. Once i started I accidentally did the wrong color. After looking at it though, I think we felt that blue for arctic and red for other settings worked better. We decided to use different colors in the gutters to signify flashbacks. I had been doing blue and red washes on a lot of my Alphabeast drawings, so it just kinda fit.
GH: In self-contained stories, the protagonist often sets the pace and offers the reader a point of emotional connection with the story. Can you tell us about Silas and what makes him such an interesting figure?
CS: The idea behind Silas was to attempt to use Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” template, but to pervert it, so the protagonist brought something horrible back with him instead of a “boon.” What I liked about writing Silas is that he doesn’t evolve in the traditional healthy way we’re used to seeing our heroes change. He starts off filled with self-loathing (everyone can identify with that, right?). He finds a reprieve in Millicent and then spirals even further down by the end of the story.
KW: I love Silas because he’s such a reluctant everything. There’s something so engrossing about his reluctance and self-loathing, then to find something that makes him feel good and then to watch it all become even more horrible. I think he might be one of the first characters I’ve worked with that I actually developed a bit of an emotional attachment to. Like, there is a point where I was laying out pages and I just felt bad for the guy, haha.
GH: There are several other players in The Cabinet. Would you briefly describe them and their roles in the story?
CS: Each of the characters that make up the shadow cabinet are representative of people who were marginalized at the time the story takes place. So we’ve got an anarchist, a suffragette, a native american, a freed slave and a chinese migrant worker. Even though piracy was behind us by then, Captain Salters represents that outlaw myth. And Fran McClintock is what’s left of the Wild West, a sharpshooter performer who is now a recovering alcoholic. Fred Nieman and Millicent Flake are both important to how the plot of THE CABINET plays out, but all the players have a role showing the tensions surrounding America’s growth.
KW: I’ll let Christian have that one. I’ll say this though, Fran became one of my favorite characters and Salters one of my favorite to draw.
GH: Did you approach The Cabinet as a reflection on modern ideologies or purely intend it to be a fictional retrospective piece?
CS: It was definitely meant to reflect modern ideology. It’s still astonishing to me that over a hundred years later we’re still struggling with the same changes and beliefs.
KW: One of the things that makes this story work so well is that it embraces the reality. Because the reality is already pretty messed up.
GH: The Cabinet ventures into some deeply horrific territory. What compelled you to juxtapose stark horror against the backdrop of political intrigue?
CS: The true stories of what happened in the Northwest Passage were already rather grim. So I chose to layer supernatural horror over the political story to amplify the feelings of helplessness and chaos that went along with that era. I’ll admit that it got even darker when I started specifically writing for Kelly. We’re both fans of horror and I wanted to give him something so awful to draw that it would genuinely disturb our readers.
KW: Yeah, when you think about all the death and disappearances in the Northwest Passage and the fact that the only way for them to end up is creepy, that almost takes care of itself. I have to admit that I would get super into the crazier pages after drawing pages of more normal day to day stuff. So the mix was nice. I basically drew the entire book in order, with the exception of a couple pages.
GH: Are there any particular films or stories that inspired your work on The Cabinet?
CS: Definitely John Carpenter’s THE THING. DEADWOOD was an inspiration for handling the era and dialogue. Both EVENT HORIZON and the DOCTOR WHO episode “The Waters of Mars” were science fiction inspirations for a journey that leads to utter horror and despair. I also re-read Stephen King’s DANSE MACABRE while writing this and it affected how I approached the horror reveals.
KW: John Carpenters The Thing for sure. Actually, John Carpenter’s anything really. I watched a lot of horror movies while I was working on the book, including pretty much every John Carpenter movie. Anything base din the arctic too. Documentaries etc. Full disclosure: I watch a lot of horror movies anyways.
GH: Why did you chose to create The Cabinet as a single graphic novel as opposed to a multi-issue series?
CS: I think at one point we talked about a series instead of a single book, but when I did the page break downs the chapters weren’t of equal length. Rather than restrict the story to 20-22 pages per chapter we went with a single book for a more natural pace to the story.
KW: I think graphic novel format was the best way to go. I like that it is all together and self contained and we didn’t force it to fit a format. The story itself just felt like it needed to be in this format I guess.
GH: Finally, for those who enjoy The Cabinet, do you have any other comic recommendations?
CS: Definitely Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s work on FROM HELL. Also Philip Gelatt and Tyler Crook’s PETROGRAD.
KW: Yeah, FROM HELL for sure. WHITEOUT from Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber too. That book was always nearby while I was working.