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Small town horror re-imagined with Stillwater by Chip Zdarsky and Ramón K. Pérez

(Image credit: Ramón K. Pérez/Mike Spicer (Image Comics))

In the small town of Stillwater, there are two rules: you can't leave, and you can't die. Not for lack of trying on either, but once young Daniel crosses into the Stillwater border, he learns those lessons rather quickly.

(Image credit: Ramón K. Pérez/Mike Spicer (Image Comics))

Debuting September 16, Stillwater by writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Ramón K. Pérez is being described by Image Comics / Skybound Entertainment as "The Walking Dead meets Gideon Falls." It's a small-town horror story about into the unknown and finding more strange horrors you couldn't imagine.

Newsarama spoke to Zdarsky and Pérez about the series, the characters within Stillwater, the inspirations they wanted to channel into it, and how Skybound assists with the production so they can spend more time to create.

Newsarama: Chip, Ramón, before we dive into the Stillwater book, how are you both holding in the lockdown?

Chip Zdarsky: What are you talking about? Is there something going on? [Laughs]

Ramón K. Pérez: As a freelance artist, I don't leave the house anyway.

Zdarsky: Yeah the freelance life doesn't change much from quarantine to non-quarantine. I just have less social pressure to see people.

Pérez: I'm pretty much the same way.

(Image credit: Ramón K. Pérez/Mike Spicer (Image Comics))

Nrama: Well that's good. Nobody is getting infected or sick.

Pérez: No, not out here.

Nrama: So Chip, Ramon, how did you both get together for Stillwater?

Zdarsky: Well Ramon and I have known each other for almost 20 years now.

Pérez: Just shy, yeah. We're old.

Zdarsky: [Laughs] We were in the same studio together and we crossed paths. 

That's the RAID Studio, and yeah he's amazing and always wanted to work with him. 

Finally got the chance to on Marvel Two-In-Ones a couple of years ago. It was everything I had hoped it would be.

Pérez: We also collaborated on that Trudeau special.

Zdarsky: Oh yeah! Our finest Canadian moment.

Pérez: The most press I will ever receive on one comic book.

Zdarsky: It was pretty crazy! I know we had talked about independent comics and it was nice to work outside of the Marvel and DC realm. 

I had taken the idea of Stillwater to Skybound in 2017 and at that point, we didn't even have an idea for an artist, but the more I kept writing it the more I kept picturing Ramon drawing it. So he was our first choice and everybody is super excited.

(Image credit: Ramón K. Pérez/Mike Spicer (Image Comics))

Newsarama: So I got to read the first issue of Stillwater and it has a very Twin Peaks vibe. That small-town horror element to it like Children of the Corn, too. What were some of the horror influences you wanted to incorporate here?

Pérez: You mentioned Children of the Corn and that was sort of what I was going for with pacing and the visual storytelling. It's a very normal town on the surface, but you slowly introduce those moments of discomfort whether it's through visuals, or pacing, or dialogue. I didn't want to get too whacky with camera angles or anything like that. As the story builds, I will break away from traditional layouts.

Zdarsky: Yeah, I'm a sucker for that small town that's fine on the surface. You know you mentioned Twink Peaks too and that was a huge touchstone for me, I loved that series. Stillwater skews more horror than that but it's still the same kind of vibe that every town has its secrets just past the surface.

Nrama: Chip, you've really expanded writing over the past five years after being known for a cartoonist and interiors, but with Kaptara, White Trees, Daredevil, and now with Stillwater, so with you leaning more into that, what's your writing process like?

Zdarsky: I'm an idiot.

Nrama: Okay.

Zdarsky: Yeah, that's the first thing. [Laughs] 

It's a poorly planned out writer's career because I can't imagine there being anything such as a Chip Zdarsky fan because who goes from Jughead to Daredevil to Stillwater? It doesn't make any sense, and I was talking about this earlier with another comic writer and that I just wanted to write the things I'd enjoy. Which means there's very little planning going on from project to project in regards to a career.

Like any of us, I'm a fan of a lot of things. I don't know anybody in my life that's like "Oh, I only like horror or comedy.' You know? Like those people are super rare but the writers of those don't really stick to a genre. So I've been floating around the industry doing the things I've been wanting to do, hoping people will read them. That's been the progression, really.

(Image credit: Ramón K. Pérez/Mike Spicer (Image Comics))

Nrama: Let's talk about the main character, Daniel, for a quick second. Right from the jump on the first page, we know this guy has a temper and likes to fight. Aside from that, how do you see him?

Zdarsky: He has some unresolved anger issues that will play out over the series. He's a young man that doesn't know what he wants out of life and kind of transporting him into this situation, we get to see that play out over the series as well. He has violence issues and moves to a town where nobody can die felt like an interesting idea to explore.

Pérez: Yeah, I always picture this guy with a short fuse and not like being told what to do. So going to a town where he's told he can't leave, he has to do all these certain things, not doing them is going to get lit more often than not.

Nrama: So far with the marketing, Stillwater has been billed as The Walking Dead meets Gideon Falls and the tagline about how nobody can die, but how would you really describe the series in your own words?

Zdarsky: Any kind of story that involves immortality at any level it comes down to what do you do to stay alive? What do you do with the chance to not die? In a town where you can't die, it opens the possibilities of a wide range of stories. 

I know Skybound made Gideon Falls and Walking Dead comparisons, but that's because I'm not smart enough to make a comparison of 'this meets that' for anything. So that's a pretty pristine way to sell a series. 

Yeah, I don't know. 

I don't know how to sum it up as it twists and changes and don't want to give too much away. It's something that's small and focused and contained but it grows larger pretty quickly as the series goes on.

(Image credit: Ramón K. Pérez/Mike Spicer (Image Comics))

Pérez: I've been echoing pretty much the same in regards to that, especially Twin Peaks and Children of the Corn and even the catchphrase of 'no one dies,' but that doesn't mean you can't suffer. That doesn't mean you can't feel pain. 

Imagine immortality but you're trapped within this five-block radius where you can live forever but you can't really do much. So it's very interesting to have this gift bestowed upon you but you're sort of screwed with what you can do with it.

Nrama: Chip you've had books at Image proper, but those not in the know, what's the biggest difference between that and having a title at Skybound?

Zdarsky: So when I had the idea for the book I was in a position where I didn't have a lot of time. Not that I have a lot of time now, but doing an Image book requires a lot more of the production on the creators' end. We have to coordinate with the artists, the letterer, the colorist - an editor if we want one - write the solicitation copy. 

With Skybound, we'd have an editor who could run the ship in a way that would free us up to spend more time writing and drawing the book more. The support we get from Skybound has enabled us to freely create.

(Image credit: Ramón K. Pérez (Image Comics/Skybound Entertainment))

Nrama: Ramon, let's talk about this small town and its citizens. Everybody is in plain clothes so there's no costumes or fun uniforms or anything like that, what was the biggest challenge in designing them all with very distinctive looks?

Pérez: I mean, I was trying to make them interesting and define them without using weird scars or anything like that. I think comics suffer when everybody draws girls one way and boys the other so if I could add in longer faces and pointed noses or add some weight to a person, I'm going to do that. 

Chip was great too, he gave me touchstones to work with. Like this guy will have a goatee or this person kind of looks like a certain actor or actress maybe. Ran a few ideas by him to get ideas for stature, factual structure, body size, that sort of thing.

Zdarsky: I would say to Ramon this character is very handsome so he has to look like me.  

Pérez: Touchstones. Beauty I can't capture.

Zdarsky: And then I had to give them their outfits. You have people who have been stuck in a town since the '80s, '90s, whatever and just which of these people would be fashion-forward. Would they evolve with the times? Or who would stay like how they dressed in the '70s? Even playing with those nuances kind of helps define characters as well. You can wear just jogging pants in a small town and nobody would care.

Pérez: We haven't even touched upon the characters who wanted to be nudists. Just walking in a local diner.

Nrama: So can you talk about the rules of immorality in Stillwater? Because have the kid that Daniel meets as he gets in there so can you leave and come back? Then do you age? Is it that you can't die or do you not grow up either?

Zdarsky: They never grow old, that's the thing. So if a child leaves the town, they grow, if they come back, it kicks back in. That's an interesting thing to look at, developmentally what happens to children, if a child becomes a sociopath at a certain age but leaves and their brain develops, does it stay that way though? The kids have been really an interesting part of the story.

Nrama: I might be reading too much into this, and trying not to give too much away, but there's a scene where Daniel is driving and nobody knows or at least wants to tell him where Stillwater is. There's a sign that states it's this far to Cold Water and this far to Stone...something, and it made me think if that's why Stillwater is called that because it's just...still.

(Image credit: Ramón K. Pérez/Mike Spicer (Image Comics))

Zdarsky: Yeah [laughs]. 

I was stuck on the name for the longest time and back in 2017 I was visiting my in-laws and I just needed a name for this town and I was thinking since I was from a town called Cold Water and I had that playing around in my head for a title, but felt it was too common and didn't really sum it up. So my father-in-law goes 'How about Stillwater' and just 'Oh my God, that's perfect.' So he gets 50% of everything I make now. [laughs]

Nrama: You have so many residuals out there.

Zdarsky: I know I know. Alimony everywhere.

Nrama: Okay so longterm, where do you see Stillwater? Do you want it to run like The Walking Dead or are you looking for something more finite? Do you have an ending already in mind?

Zdarsky: When I was plotting out, the first major storyline...maybe four or five volumes, there was an ending, but an ending that could still be expanded upon. 

One thing I've noticed in writing is that there is a lot of time between issues because we've been kinda gestating it so I've actually sped up the story a fair amount. So what originally would have been 10 issues is now about six. 

So I don't know how long it could go for, but it's open-ended and people like it and I have to be the next Walking Dead then so be it. I'll gladly take that curse and live on forever.

Lan Pitts likes watching, talking, and writing comics about wrestling. He has mapped every great taco spot in the DC and Baltimore areas. He lives with his partner and their menagerie of pets who are utterly perfect in every way.