“War Party” Creator Justin Murphy Talks Horror, History, and Werewolves (Interview – Festival of Dread Special)
Earlier in October, independent comic book creator Justin Murphy launched an Indiegogo campaign for War Party, an six-issue comic book miniseries about supernatural lycanthropes in Colonial America. We were fortunate enough to get a chance to discuss his War Party campaign which is still available to support here.
As always, the answers below are represented as closely to “as written” as possible with only minimal edits.
The Splintering: First things first, Altered Beast, Wolfchild or Bloody Roar?
Justin Murphy: Definitely Altered Beast. Next to Gauntlet and Dragon’s Lair that game excited me the most as a kid.
TS: From the details available on the Indiegogo campaign page, the protagonists in War Party get their lycanthropic power from a Native American shaman. There are several representations of shape-changing Native Americans across pop culture (i.e. the werewolf tribes in Twilight, Nightwolf in Mortal Kombat 3, Running Wolf by Algernon Blackwood, etc.). Have you found a cultural basis for this connection in Native American traditions, or is this all a cherry-picked coincidence?
JM: Celts did the same thing and it is mentioned in the series. Berserkers in Europe drank hallucinogens and wore the skin of beasts when they went into combat, so it’s not just a Native American thing. In the context of this story however, it just made the most sense. I just got to thinking, these warriors really believed they were transforming into an animal. What if they really did? How cool would that be? How would that give them an edge over their enemies?
TS: What other inspirations did you draw from when you were brainstorming War Party?
JM: The Michael Mann film Last of the Mohicans. The French and Indian War was incredibly brutal and many frontier families and tribes suffered. It was a wild and untamed land and seemed the perfect backdrop for a little werewolf action.
TS: Do you believe in any cryptozoological creatures such as Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Wendigo, the Beast of Bladenboro, etc?
JM: There have been enough credible sightings since the 1800s to make a possible case for Bigfoot. Something is being encountered in the Northwest, whether misidentified or not. There are many things that can’t be explained outright, so I’m open to the possibility. I used to listen to a paranormal radio show called Coast to Coast with Art Bell and always found his guests fascinating.
TS: Is War Party a completely standalone story, or is there a chance for a sequel/follow-up story in the future?
JM: Originally a stand-alone series was the plan, but as the story developed, my focus turned to the shaman character of Dyani. Since one of her powers is cell regeneration, she ages very slowly (similar to Wolverine that way). This opens up a lot of story possibilities in various time periods from the 1700s all the way to the present, and even beyond. There is a hint of what’s to come in this story, but that’s all I will say about that.
TS: Which lycanthropic character do you find to be the most fun to draw? Is there a particular “were-creature” that didn’t make the cut that you might want to include in future projects?
JM: I enjoy drawing the Were-Gator the most. I remember McFarlane’s Lizard in Spiderman and always wanted to draw a reptilian character of my own. There is a climactic battle in the story between the French and English army and the War Party in their beastly forms. There will also be other creatures that get involved, without telling too much. Even animals like raccoons, bobcats and moose, as funny as that may sound (don’t worry, they will all look badass). Since each character is paired with their spirit animal, it is a decision that nature makes for them, so they don’t get to choose. They have to wear a pelt made from the skin of the animal and drink Dyani’s ‘special’ potion in order to transform. Once in beast form, all abilities are enhanced and they have regenerative healing, so they are very hard to kill.
TS: If you were to release your own inner beast, what kind of animal would you be, and what specific manner of havoc would you wreak?
JM: Probably a gorilla. Time for some Rampage, to cite another video game.
TS: Veteran comic book writer Chuck Dixon laments that comics took a hard turn towards superheroes several decades ago, and that the industry would be healthier today if it had not largely abandoned other genres like fantasy and horror. Do you agree? How would you describe the current state of the comics market regarding non-superhero books?
JM: I think superheroes were the only thing that would sell, so publishers just went with it. This was largely because of the Comics Code. Few remember that EC’s horror books sold millions in the 1950s, and romance and crime comics sold well too. The Code screwed all of that up and the industry never really recovered. We lost those readers and most never came back once comics were deemed a kid’s medium. Superheroes thrived in the Jim Shooter days, and that’s when I was reading comics, but to be honest my favorite books were not superhero fare. I loved The ‘Nam, Savage Sword of Conan and a little indie fantasy book called The Realm. I don’t read current superhero comics, though I did pick up Three Jokers and thought it was outstanding. As for non-superhero books, it seems Manga and YA stuff is the thing now. The direct market is fading away, which is why crowdfunding is looking so good to creators. I think if the characters are engaging and the art is quality you can tell any story with a comic book and make it work, superhero or otherwise.
TS: Horror films often rely on the unseen, “jump scares” and sound design to build suspense. What makes the comic book medium unique as one well suited for horror?
JM: For horror to work in a comic (or even a novel) it has to be somewhat psychological and less about jump-scares. I remember reading Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison. It was disturbing and even gave my sister nightmares when she read it. Dave McKean’s illustrations were equally horrific. But War Party isn’t really horror, other than having werewolves and full moons. The transformations are somewhat horrific, as the pelt penetrates into and merges with the flesh of the wearer. And of course it is gory, but it’s mostly action and drama.
TS: So you don’t consider War Party to be a horror book then?
JM: I would put it more in the action/adventure category. Yes it has monsters, but it isn’t really scary. It’s more of a power fantasy like the old Hulk TV show from the 1970s. I always loved seeing Banner get kicked around and thrown into a gravel pit. Then as his attackers laughed and turned their backs, his eyes would turn white, the creepy music would play, and Lou Ferrigno would tear a pair of jeans. There was nothing cooler to a 5 year old than that; and of course the General Lee jumping a creek on Dukes of Hazzard! Yes, I’m showing my age.
TS: Having conducted multiple campaigns for animated movies, I know that you’re no stranger to crowdfunding. Still, six issues for a total of 144 pages sounds like a lot of book for a $25 buy-in. What’s your secret formula for completing and delivering such an ambitious project? What lessons learned are you applying to the War Party campaign?
JM: Most of it is complete, as I have been working on it for two years now. I’m going with the saddle-stitch format instead of prestige binding, so that is a little less expensive. I’ve also already invested money into it prior to launching my campaign, so readers aren’t having to foot that part of the bill either. They are paying around $4.00 per issue, which is reasonable, so I couldn’t justify asking patrons to pay more than cover price. Maybe I’m selling myself short, but I am not a superstar fresh from Marvel or DC and very few people in comics have ever heard of me (even though I’ve been self-publishing on and off since 1992). If I want readers to give War Party a chance, I have to offer them a lot of value for their money.
TS: Besides comics, in what other entertainment mediums do you see War Party?
JM: It would make an excellent TV or streaming series, especially since each season could be in a different time period with Dyani as the one consistent character.
TS: A year from now, how would you describe success for the War Party project?
JM: Publishing a follow-up War Party graphic novel and re-releasing issues 1-6 into one volume as well.
TS: What would you do with the power of the Beyonder?
JM: Give Elon Musk and Space X a little boost to help colonize Mars faster.
We would like to once again thank Justin Murphy for taking the time to answer our questions and to have some fun with us. You can read more of our coverage of the War Party project here, or visit the War Party Indiegogo page here. And of course, thank you for reading! You can check out more of The Splintering’s Festival of Dread content here!
*Note: This post was updated on 14 October to correct misspellings of Justin Murphy’s name, which was written as “Martin” in multiple instances. Point and laugh, kids. I deserve it.