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"Toy Story meets Sandman": Inside the new Image Comics series Kill Your Darlings

"We've had a multi-year crash course in the comics industry, and Kill Your Darlings is the result": Ethan S. Parker and Griffin Sheridan discuss their new comic Kill Your Darlings.

Kill Your Darlings #1 cover cropped
Image credit: Image Comics

Sometimes the world of make-believe can be a scary place. It’s all fun and games until an inferno consumes your house. Kill Your Darlings is a new series from Image Comics, focusing on the misadventures of a young girl named Rose. Picture the world of Toy Story combined with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, add some extra horror, and that should give you an idea of what the series is. Rose likes to play imaginative games with her stuffed animals, but what happens when she loses control of her world of make-believe? And what monsters dwell within that world?

Kill Your Darlings is written by the creative duo Ethan S. Parker and Griffin Sheridan. The two writers have been best friends since childhood, creating various comic book fan podcasts, including Superiority: A Superior Spider-Man Podcast. As teenagers, they interviewed creators such as Ryan Stegman, which led to more projects. The duo helped Ryan Stegman launch the Steg-Man and his Amazing Friends Podcast. From there, they began working with other creators, such as Donny Cates, on podcast and Substack projects.

Now the writing team have stepped away from the keyboard and microphone to publish their first comic. Kill Your Darlings features chilling pencils from Robert Quinn, and a variant cover from their mentor Ryan Stegman which is guaranteed to give you nightmares. Popverse had a chance to catch up with Parker and Sheridan, who are riding high after the release of their first issue. The duo gave us some insight on the creation of their comic, and teased what we can expect next.

Popverse: Describe the working relationship you have with one another.

Kill Your Darlings interior
Image credit: Image Comics

Griffin Sheridan: Ethan and I have been friends for a decade now. We had the benefit of having a very established rapport when we started working on the book. But we did still have some hurdles to overcome, as we started co-writing, because we were learning not just how to write comic books for the first time, but also how to write comic books together. We had to figure out how to meld our minds in just the right way that we would both be satisfied with. Typically, at this point, we will get together and figure out the biggest points of each issue, the overall story and everything. And then I'll run away with that and do like a skeleton that is just the panel breakdowns and layouts, and all the visual descriptions. And then I'll hand that off to Ethan and he will go in and add all the character stuff and the dialogue. These are the two strengths that we discovered we have. Once we allowed each other to play to those strengths, and sort of more specifically have domain over specific areas of the script is when everything clicked. But it was not always that smooth, and I'm glad we finally got there.

Ethan S. Parker: It's taken a while to figure out how to be co-writers, but I think especially once it's clicked, it feels like the same working relationship as when we just made ridiculous podcasts together. We're just jamming on ideas and messing around and having a great time.

Describe the reaction that you guys got from Image when you pitched this series. Did they call you sick little bastards?

Parker: We pitched it to Image, and they were incredibly accepting because Image is the land of creative freedom, and they're also the land of very violent emotionally scarring comic books. I think Kill Your Darlings is perfect for their ecosystem. I don't think anybody batted an eye at all of the shocking imagery of the series.

Sheridan: Someone should go check on the Image Comics higher-ups to make sure they're okay. There was no response, which was great, because it was just like - 'Yep, you're in, now go do your thing.' We're very appreciative of that. We just get to make the book exactly how we want to make it over there.

How has the series evolved from its initial pitch?

Parker: Oh, man. We've been working on the book for about three years now. It evolved from just a couple of initial images that we had to an outline that is almost unrecognizable from what the book is now. it spent more than a year as a very different book with a different title. The book was initially called Scorned, and that was the pitch that was approved as well. We were told by Image that we had to switch that title out because they've got a book called Scorched coming out. You don't want Scorched and Scorned on the shelf together. And I'm really happy that happened because I think Kill Your Darlings is a cooler and more unique title, and it fits the book so well. The title switching I feel like is highly emblematic of the changes in the book. The first half of the book is pretty similar to what we thought it would be before, but the back half of the book is completely different. The book feels like a living thing and as we've written it, it's continued to grow and change right along with us. And now as we're writing the final couple of issues, it's just like, 'Oh, this is what the book is. I'm glad we finally found it.'

Sheridan: It's gone through a lot of evolution because we've had the privilege of working on it for a long time. As often as we would kind of get creatively stir crazy on it because of how long we had to work on it, at the end of the day we're very grateful to have been able to retool it over and over again until it's to this point where we feel it is very rock solid, and we're very proud of it.

How do you build a horror scene? What kind of notes did you give Robert Quinn? 'Please add more internal organs to the scene' or something like that?

Kill Your Darlings #1 interior
Image credit: Image Comics

Sheridan: There's not so much like a real conversation where we sit down and really give him pointers about each one. When it comes to issue 1 specifically, we started writing it before we had Bob on board. We were kind of writing that with a lot more gusto and description than we do now that we have Bob. We know how to work with him and how to write for him. We were kind of writing a very general script with all of the flourishes that we knew we wanted to have in there. And in terms of building the scene, it's less about notes that we are really giving Bob, because he has such great instincts about it all. I think we'll have ideas about color and light, but we don't necessarily share those with him, because we want him to have the freedom to do that. And then when it comes in, it looks exactly how we pictured it most of the time. And in terms of building a horror scene, it's pretty much the same as writing a joke. There has to be the setup and the payoff. Issue 1 does take its time, I think with the setup of it all and then there is sort of a freefall of a payoff for about 10 pages straight where we just sort of relentlessly show you really upsetting stuff.

Parker: Horror in comics is interesting because you have two main options when you're doing a horror thing. You do your slow build to where as people are turning the pages, that tension is building. Or just being really sudden with imagery, where a page turns, or like your eye shifts from one panel to the next and there's just something unexpected there. That's really interesting every time we get to a moment that we want to be really impactful. We figure out the best approach to that like he was saying. Issue 1 is all about that slow build, but we've got some issues coming up where you're just gonna turn and it's just gonna punch you in the gut.

Sheridan: We kind of want to give you as many moments where your eyes suddenly go wide as we can.

Speaking of eyes going wide, when I first saw that variant cover by Ryan Stegman - wow! Was the goal to traumatize the readers?

Kill Your Darlings variant cover by Ryan Stegman
Image credit: Image Comics

Sheridan: That is just all from the twisted mind of Ryan Stegman. We didn't give him any notes. He read issue 1 and said 'Here's what I'm thinking for this variant cover.' He showed us the layout, which didn't include any of the blood. His pencils were just of Rose and the stuffed animal corpses. I think we thought that there might be stuffing all around her, because that's what it is in the book. But when he sent the final version over, we thought, oh that's brutal. The fact that poor Rose is soaked in it is a level of upsetting that we were not ready for. We like the way it plays with Bob's cover. For that cover we had meticulously crafted it, because we wanted it to convey both sides of the book, the horror and the fantasy. So she's in the armor, but there is still the trail of blood. Stegman's reflects the other end of the book, which is the real world visceral, and there is no fun and games involved.

Parker: Ryan has been a hero of ours for so many years. Getting that from him was so surreal and so fantastic. He never does horror really, he does mostly superheroes and cool action stuff. And, it's been fun to see people's reactions, because he clearly has it in him. He's really freaking people out with this (laughs).

Why set the book in the 1990s?

Sheridan: It's interesting, because Ethan and I were both born in the late 90s. We were not alive during 1995, where the bulk of issue 1 is set. I think we picked it, because it does have sort of a mystical warmth for us, having not fully experienced it, but experienced it enough. Especially through media from the 90s, which we consumed a lot of as kids that were becoming cognizant during the early 2000s. I have an older sibling and she would sort of relay stuff to me. So much of the early 2000s is like all the media from the 90s sort of spilling in, and washing over you as we sort of transition. I think we just wanted it to be in a time where it was just more likely that a kid would be playing pretend. I don't think we're trying to like get on a soapbox here and shake our fists as angry old men, '(mock old man voice) Nobody plays anymore. They're always on their phone.' But at the same time, that kind of is what we were like. There shouldn't be any phones, she should have nothing to do in her room, except to play with her stuffed animals and play pretend. In a way there is a warmth to that time period for us and probably for Rose as well. Who knows, it might all get yanked away.

Parker: There are some elements to the time period stuff we're playing with, and those choices that we can't exactly talk about yet. The book is very personal to us and our experiences, and we grew up over a very strange period. As we were growing up, technology just continued to creep in and become more and more pervasive and in every part of life. It was important that where we kick off here is in a time that feels simpler.

The issue begins with fire and ends with another fire. Was that choice intentional?

Kill Your Darlings interior
Image credit: Image Comics

Parker: Oh yeah, definitely. We've had a long time to work on this book, and over the course of that time we have rewritten, and rewritten, and rewritten. You're looking at draft number 1,004 of Kill Your Darlings. Because of that, we've been fortunate enough to be able to connect a lot of dots, to inject a lot of small elements that we're hoping people will pick up on. The fire that you see at the start with one character, and the fire that you see at the end with another character is a clear indication that there is a particular tie between those characters that we are going to explore.

We get a close up on a Wizard of Oz VHS. Was that window dressing, or does that have a deeper meaning?

Sheridan: It's kind of window dressing. I don't think that it's necessarily going to come into play.

Parker: This is not a secret Wizard of Oz sequel.

Sheridan: However, I think I pushed for this. The Wizard of Oz was and continues to be highly influential for me. It's one of the earliest films that I can remember seeing. And not just seeing, but recounting in my head, and quoting. It was so transformative for myself at like four-years-old. I think Kill Your Darlings has a lot of cues and sort of vague little touchstones from Wizard of Oz. Not that we were purposely trying to make a Wizard of Oz homage.

Parker: So much of it is unintentional. The cover is a character on a red blood road. There's a lot of it that's unintentional. But if you've got Wizard of Oz in your head, you might notice some little thematic things. I mean, it's not a secret that there is some magic going on in this book.

Sheridan: I think it was just one of those things where after we'd written so much of it, and we went back to issue 1. When we were finalizing it for Bob, there was just a big push to try and inject it with as much specificity from our own childhood. And that was such a comfort movie for me, so I just gave it to Rose too.

Parker: There are many elements of Rose's life that are directly from our lives. She's not us, but she's living some of our experiences in one way or another. As we say in our letters in the back, you might relate to this book. And that could be really cool - but also sorry!

Without spoiling too much, what could you tease about what's coming next?

Kill Your Darlings #2 cover
Image credit: Image Comics

Sheridan: We like using the phrase - it's a horror fantasy epic. For us an epic is a tale that has a large scope. I think it's an interesting word to use for this series because there is the implication of much larger things and worlds happening here throughout the book, but the cast is quite intimate. However, the timeline of the book is kind of sprawling. And I think that's the thing that I like teasing people with. We're going to be kind of jumping around in time quite a bit to give you a very full picture, but I don't think it'll be in the way that anybody is really expecting.

Parker: The reactions that we're getting to issue 1, a lot of them orbit around how unexpected the events are, how surprising it is. That is something we strive for in every single issue, to really never let you get too comfortable. When we think you may be expecting one thing, we try to give you something else. We'll be jumping around, and we're going to keep you on your toes for sure.

How long do you have the story mapped out? You mentioned plotting the final issues.

Parker: This is a finite story. We always wanted this to have a definitive beginning, middle, and end. That was really important for us with it being our debut as writers that we tell a complete story. And we show people that we're here to satisfy. A story is only as good as its ending. From its planning, to getting Bob Quinn on board, it was always a finite story. We are in the midst of writing the final issue. As far as how long, and what the structure is, It's kind of under wraps. But when you get to the ending, you're gonna be like, 'Oh, perfect. They nailed it.'

Sheridan: The perfect number of issues.

You've been on the periphery of the industry for years with podcasts, Substack, and other projects. You were podcasting with Ryan Stegman as a teenager! How did that experience help you when it was finally time to start the script?

Sheridan: Being the world's greatest podcasters did not necessarily lead to us being the world's greatest comic book writers (laughs). But in terms of us being surrounded by people who are far more famous than us for the past few years, it was an invaluable resource. All these people are very kind and generous with their feedback and time. But we also knew that even if it wasn't finite, we wanted to treat it like a finite thing, where we weren't going to be constantly badgering people to look at this script and give us feedback, or look at this pitch and give us feedback. We didn't want to waste their time. So in terms of that, we basically just were very particular about how we played our cards, and what we asked people that we admire to look at. And then when they looked at it, and when they gave us the feedback, we took it to heart and ran with it.

Parker: And we've been lucky enough to work with so many of our biggest heroes in the medium. It was inevitable that we made something that we poured all of ourselves into, because we're just constantly breathing in these inspirational fumes from just being around so much great creation, and so many great creators.

Sheridan: And these, all these people that we have the absolute privilege of knowing and working with have been influences on us for a very long time, and continue to be. And so even before we were working with them, they were people that we admired. It's interesting that in so many ways, their creative energies is sort of flowing through this as well. We're super appreciative of that. It's kind of surreal.

Parker: We've had a multi-year crash course in the comics industry, and Kill Your Darlings is the result of that.

What is your dream comic book project?

Parker: This is our dream project! It truly is, and that's not blowing any kind of smoke at all. A lot of people come in and their dream is to get on their favorite character and whatever. And of course, we would love to. We're not opposed to anything, and there are so many experiences we would love to have. But I think our biggest priority is to be able to tell our own stories, and to tell them how we want to. The fact that we are able to start off with a book that is completely under our creative control and the creative control of our team, and where we can make any choices that we feel are the right ones, that we can express any feelings that we want to, that we can share any experiences through whatever lens we would like, that is the dream. And I think that's the dream for so many. That is why we are just in an absolute surreal headspace at the moment, because we have made exactly what we want to make at this point in our lives. And we've put it out into the world. We're already living the dream, everything else is icing on the cake.

Sheridan: It's a completely uncompromised vision. When we sat down to make it, we asked ourselves this question. What is the best comic book we could make right now? And it's this. We are super excited that it is finally unleashed from the confines of our minds, and that you can read it now. And we hope you enjoy it.

Kill Your Darlings #1 is available for purchase now. Kill Your Darlings #2 will be available at comic book retailers on October 18.