How the vampires finally got to Alaska is the stuff of comic book legend.
For a while, it looked like they weren't going to make it. It was the mid-'90s, and comic book writer Steve Niles was down and out in Los Angeles. In quick succession, Disney Interactive had hired him, moved him across the country from Pittsburgh to the West Coast — and then laid him off.
The character Cal McDonald was Niles' big property at the time. A hard-boiled, paranormal detective who solves cases with the help of a zombie sidekick and a network of ghouls, Cal appears in a book Niles wrote, called Criminal Macabre. Cal, like Niles, relocates to Los Angeles. Once there, Cal, also like Niles, meets some dubious characters. Niles went around town pitching Cal and every other story he had to anybody in Hollywood who would listen.
One of the ideas kicking around in his head was about a town in Alaska where it's night for a good portion of the year. He'd read about an Alaskan hamlet that outlawed alcohol because the depression rate was so high, where the townsfolk were imbued with a kind of survivor mentality. Niles immediately thought, “vampires.” Not that he knew what to do with the idea, exactly. Make it a movie maybe? He'd pitched it earlier as a comic book to Vertigo, the only big indie publisher at the time. It didn't want it.
Neither did Hollywood. Mostly because they didn't get it. “Let me throw a wrinkle at you,” one studio executive said. “What if there was a diamond buried under the town, and the vampires wanted it, and that was why they came to the town, because that diamond would turn them into day walkers.”
“What?” Niles said.
“I just don't understand the vampires' motivation,” the executive said.
Niles sighed and leaned forward. “To kill you,” he said.
It was downhill from there.
“They were picturing Bela Lugosi running around in a cape in the snow,” Niles says.
It is a decade later, and Niles is now 46 — wiry, energetic, a bit on the scruffy side. Back in the days of manifold rejection, he was 33 years old, making $125 a week working retail at Book City in Burbank.
He is sitting in his home office, in the cozy Toluca Lake house he shares with his girlfriend, cats, dogs, a turtle and, conservatively, several thousand toy skulls, robots, sea creatures, zombies and miscellaneous monsters. His office is not so much a man cave as a boy cave — a teenage horror geek's wet dream.
Eventually, someone took a chance. Niles' friend Ted Adams of IDW Publishing liked the vampires-in-Alaska idea. “To me it was a no-brainer,” Adams recalls. “It stood out as a great high-concept story, something you could describe in three or four sentences. It was like Mardi Gras for vampires.”
IDW, then a fledgling company, published the resulting story, titled 30 Days of Night, as a comic book miniseries.
When it came out, suddenly, everybody who initially said no was interested. And suddenly, the tone of the Hollywood meetings changed.
“They were blowing us off in a different way,” Niles recalls. “Instead of 'Thank you for coming in,' it was 'Thank you for coming in. We're gonna go talk to some people.' ”
Agents swore up and down on their mothers' lives that Niles had never offered them the idea before. A bidding war ensued — MGM versus Sony versus DreamWorks. Sony won, and produced the film via Columbia Pictures, working with Evil Dead director Sam Raimi, Niles' longtime hero.
The comic book and resultant 2009 film were the making of both Niles and the tiny independent company that published him. It was IDW's breakout hit. Now, the company is the third largest comic book publisher in the United States and dukes it out each year for the top indie-publisher slot with Dark Horse (of the Hellboy franchise) and Image (of Walking Dead).
“It was a huge moment for comics,” Niles says. “The fact that it was a little tiny independent comic made it special.”
For a year or so after Niles sold the movie rights, everything he touched found a buyer: The mass of stories he'd been writing since he was 15, the Bigfoot sagas and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde narratives and mutant–demon baby tales he'd been stashing away in desk drawers. The fairy tale came true. Lovers of independent comics took heart: One of their own had made it. “30 Days of Night gave me my career,” Niles says. “I had all but given up.”
Life is a series, however, not a one-off. Like most success stories, Niles' is a lesson in the grind of the everyday as much as in how luck favors the prepared mind. These days, comic sales are down while online pirating is up. Which means people are reading them, yes, “but they're stealing them,” Niles says.
“You are killing the stuff you want,” he'll tell kids. “If you like corporately controlled art, keep it up.”
Yes, 30 Days of Night was a million-dollar deal. But Niles didn't get a million bucks. He made a few hundred thousand. He bought a house. But talk about horror: His ex-wife took it with her when they divorced.
“I rent now,” he says with a shrug. “I live check to check, project to project. Someone became a millionaire off 30 Days of Night, just not me.”
If he thought about the unfairness of it, he believes he'd lose his mind.
He makes a living by writing, a lot. Most of it is scary. “I don't know why I like horror,” Niles says. “Everyone always asks me that. I think it's a big release. We work out our fears by being scared. Horror guys, we work out a lot.”
He's killed everyone who's ever hurt him 10 times over in comics. “You get your Clive Barkers and your Stephen Kings, and they are the sweetest, nicest guys. Now go get the guy who writes and draws Tinkerbell? There is one angry guy.”
Currently Niles is adapting Paradise Lost into a graphic novel and writing a 12-issue sequel to Frankenstein, called Frankenstein Alive, Alive! It begins where Mary Shelley's novel leaves off, with the Monster standing over Dr. Frankenstein's body, regretting the vengeance he took on his creator. In Niles' vision, he then jumps ship and floats away on an ice floe.
He's also doing a relaunch of 30 Days of Night, in which the vampires get really mad at humans for wrecking the planet. Vampires are immortal and have to live here for quite a bit longer than we do. They regard humans as food. Seen from their perspective, Niles explains, “It's like finding out cows are destroying the Earth.”
In case you were wondering, that's their motivation.
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