Take a left at Hannibal, then a right at Dan Brown, and head straight into the heartland of America: these directions might get you to Devil’s Highway. The latest haunting title in new publisher AWA Studio’s line-up, Devil’s Highway follows a woman with a criminal past as she searches for her father’s killer. What she finds instead is a vast, underground conspiracy that stretches as far and wide as the roads she travels.
Devil’s Highway is the second AWA title from writer Benjamin Percy (Wolverine, James Bond), after the international zombie thriller Year Zero. To tell this story of horror in the heartland, Percy teams with artist Brent Schoonover (Batman ’66, Ant-Man).
Newsarama recently spoke with the pair about the new series; here’s what we learned.
Newsarama: Let's start with you, Ben. Did you pitch the idea for Devil's Highway to AWA, or did they come to you? And if you did pitch it, how did you do so?
Benjamin Percy: Brent and I had been talking about Devil's Highway for some time. We typically get together for a big breakfast at a diner called Keys before the May comics convention here in the Twin Cities. That's where we first started talking about ideas for collaboration -- all while guzzling black coffee and forking into eggs and hashbrowns.
I knew Brent was a horror fiend, and I had been thinking about an idea (still rough, not fully formed) for years that I thought might suit him. A story about an invisible world that exists in plain sight: the trucking industry. The FBI believes that there could be a dozen or more serial killers operating semi-trucks right now. It's an ideal profession for a murderer, given their anonymity, their mobility, their exposure to vulnerable populations. We talked about true crimes. We talked about conspiracies like the Smiley Face Killer. And we talked about how the story could have qualities to it that aligned it with movies like Seven and shows like True Detective, Fargo, and Mindhunter.
I'd been working with Axel Alonso at Marvel -- he was one of the people responsible for hiring me to write the audio drama Wolverine: The Long Night -- and when he launched AWA, he asked me to get on the phone. He wanted me to write a zombie story for him -- what would become Year Zero -- but he also requested some creator-owned ideas. So, Brent and I put together a pitch with some concept art included -- we got the gig -- and we've been burning rubber on the Devil's Highway ever since.
Nrama: Brent, Devil's Highway is a dark departure from much of your Big Two work, especially Batman '66. Is that part of what drew you to it?
Brent Schoonover: Absolutely. I’ve kind of been jumping around the DC and Marvel universe for about five-plus years and while I love drawing capes and tights, books like Stray Bullets, Criminal, Scalped, and Fatale are in my DNA. Creating and developing a crime book was on my comic bucket list.
One of my earliest trips to the comic shops I found the awesome series, Johnny Dynamite by Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty. It’s hard to find crime series but it’s an absolute gem. And Dick Tracy was also a huge early influence and inspiration. So, crime comics have always been a big part of my interest in the comic medium as a fan and creator.
Nrama: Ben, what drew you to this particular area of the United States? What interested you about the heartland?
Percy: I grew up in Oregon, but I married into the Midwest. I've lived in Minnesota for eight years, and prior to that, I worked in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois. This is my home, and as Brent and I discussed, it's not often represented in the media. We wanted to bring the north to life and create a kind of rural gothic vibe. The story takes place in the winter, and the ice-slicked freeways and steamy diners and shadow-pooled, oil-stained truck stops are our principal locations.
There's always been an obsession in the media with the coasts -- and with wealth -- and I'm frankly getting a little exhausted by their confluence in everything from Billions to Succession to superhero stories. By contrast, there's a working-class quality to the characters in Devil's Highway; they're cops and waitresses and drivers and clerks and mechanics and they're all just trying to survive -- some of them quite literally.
Nrama: Speaking of the heartland, Brent, what went into building the scenery in Devil's Highway? And more importantly, how did you make it so creepy? (Or is Wisconsin just like that?)
Yeah, I know the Wisconsin roads well. I grew up in a small town in Illinois that was actually right on the state border of Wisconsin. I moved to Minneapolis to go to college and for the last 20 years I’ve been making the trek back home and I’ve probably stopped at every possible greasy spoon, rest stop, and gas station off the highway. Always noticing anything odd or shifty. But I think it’s always just helped being a people watcher. Picking up on uniqueness that comes with living in the Midwest. The good and the bad. Growing up in an industrial town that has seen better days and how that translates to the lower and middle class.
Nrama: Let's talk briefly about our hero, Sharon. Brent, can you tell us a little bit about who she is and what went into creating her unique look?
Schoonover: The fun part about creating the look for Sharon was having Ben and Axel looped in and making suggestions. And you can dissect the things that each of us felt strongly about. Ben sent me a lot of practical l outdoor survivalist type clothing that he felt she would be wearing.
Axel really felt like she should possess this really fit ex-military physical appearance, and I wanted her to have some small rebel/punk tendencies that probably lead to her leaving her dad and the town at a young age. That’s where the strip of pink hair and half-shaved head comes from. We also put a tattoo of three trees on her collarbone to represent her family. And a noose on her left hand/forearm to remind her of her mom’s suicide.
Sharon is a tough and complex woman. Especially when it comes to her family. I think her and her father had a lot to figure out, but sadly that opportunity is taken away from them.
Nrama: Alright Ben, there's some especially terrifying stuff that's going on in this book, and I have to ask: is any of it supernatural?
Percy: We're taking a tour through an underworld most aren't aware of -- and actual people are getting victimized. Having a supernatural component would almost excuse and distract from that. We're focused on the real evil humans are capable of -- but also the good.
Nrama: Whatever's going on, it's clear there's a national (maybe international?) conspiracy going on in Devil's Highway.
To close out, I wanted to ask both of you: Are you believers in any particular conspiracies? Or if not, is there one that especially scares you?
Percy: The freeway system unites our country in a tangled snake of asphalt. We're creating our own mystery -- and conspiracy -- that draws off true crimes and takes them to the next level.
Schoonover: For me, the idea of conspiracies is actually more interesting than a conspiracy itself. The summer Ben and I met and started developing this idea, I watched a ton of videos made by Bigfoot Believers. I do not believe but I find it fascinating learning about those that do. And one of the bigger conspiracies that we based this concept off of was the Smiley Face Killer theory. Which is pretty disturbing. With all that said- I do think there are pockets on the internet where those that have killed have a chance to interact with each other. How much so, I don’t know. But what little I’ve learned from the Dark Web from doing this book- it’s very likely that is going on.