Shelf Space: An Interview with Artist Nathan Thomas Milliner
Horror artists. I'm not referring to drawing myself as Jason Voorhees-- that gets you suspended from middle school. What I am talking about is the people who merge their talent and love for horror to give the genre visible viability and piety with pieces of art that could even make Rubin stop and look. With all the classic horror films getting Blu-ray releases and the phenomenon of commissioned art such as MONDO posters, we are experiencing a renaissance of sorts amongst up and coming horror artists. At the head of the fleet is esteemed creator Nathan Thomas Milliner.
Milliner has been churning out incredible work throughout his considerably short time on the circuit. Most widely noted for his painted grindhouse style posters that accompany Scream! Factory Blu-ray releases. But as I learned in my research, it doesn't stop there. This dude is busy. Like.. extremely busy.. Being the goto Scream! Factory artist, artist/writer for Horror Hound, creating multiple comic series, and even directing his own films. It's making me sweat just thinking about all that work. I guess this family-sized bag of Doritos doesn't help much either.
I was able to shoot some questions over to Milliner to which I received some delightfully loquacious responses.
Bloody Good Horror: Can you tell me a little bit about your art background?
Nathan Thomas Milliner: I started drawing when I was about 5. I pretty much taught myself, never attended art school. I just drew all of the time and studied the artistic heroes I came across growing up. I drew pretty much whatever I was interested in at the time. Being the 1980s that was anything from Star Wars, G.I. Joe to Robocop. All over the map. It wasn't until 1988 at 12 years old that I started drawing the horror stuff. I was pretty obsessed with Freddy Krueger. The next year Tim Burton's Batman came out and I was suddenly a comic book artist and for the next 15 years that is pretty much what I decided I wanted to be. In 2003 I had my first comic published and over the next 5 years I produced several graphic novels and standard comics. In 2007, a film production of one of my comics started and in 2008 I became a staff member of HorrorHound Magazine. Comics had been a tough sell, but the horror fanbase really embraced my work in HorrorHound and I quickly focused on providing original horror art. In 2012, I was contacted by Shout! Factory who were upstarting their sister label SCREAM! Factory and suddenly my work and my name was everywhere and my life has been in fast forward ever since.
BGH: I see you are both writing and drawing a lot of your comics. Which do you find more stimulating? Does one inform the other?
NTM: I definitely enjoy the writing more than the drawing. I always wrote my comics because it was me or no one. So I taught myself to. My freshman year in college I discovered, through my writing courses, that I actually had a knack for writing and storytelling. I just loved constructing a story, manipulating the reader, trying to invent and come up with intriguing stories that would take people on an emotional ride. Writing allows me to work out my social issues and anger. I do think they go hand and hand. Writing, like art, is all about observation. Seeing things in precise detail. We observe the world through different eyes and we see what most don't. The way things look, the way people talk, act and relate to one another. I think all artists are strong observers. I just love to tell stories. Cinema has easily been the number one inspiration for me in my storytelling. I am a film fanatic. I watch everything.
BGH: Who are some writers and artists you admire in the comic realm? Are you currently reading anything?
NTM: That's a long list. I learned so much from so many great writers and artists. Lets see, just to throw some names out there: Jim Lee, Stan Lee, John Byrne, Neal Adams, Berni Wrightson, Frank Frazetta, Barry Windsor Smith, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Jim Steranko, John Romita, Sam Keith, Mike Mignola, Mark Silvestri, Tim Bradstreet, Alex Ross, David Mazzachelli, Norm Breyfogle, Neil Gaiman, Dennis O'Neil, Brian Bolland, Cam Kennedy, Mark Millar, Geoff Darrow and on and on. With my workload, I don't get to read much these days. I am currently reading "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" which is pretty great. As for comics, I think my last read was "A Superman for All Seasons" which was pretty fantastic.
BGH: What is the commissioning process at a place like Horror Hound and Scream Factory? Do they hand select each artist for their projects or are you able to approach them with a certain job in mind?
NTM: I got lucky with both HorrorHound and Scream! Factory. A lot of artists think there is a way in but it probably isn't as easy as it was for me. At least not with Scream. I visited a bookstore around 2005-2006 and bought a copy of HorrorHound (Their second issue) and Rue Morgue. I hadn't bought or read a horror magazine since the 80s with Fangoria. But something made me pick these two mags up. Rue Morgue was okay but they did very little for me. HorrorHound on the otherhand was one of the best magazines I had ever read. I was literally blown away. They covered ALL THINGS HORROR and they didn't talk down to their readers or spend time trashing anything. It was a positive read and easily recognizable as a fan's mag. They eventually set to calling themselves "THE FAN'S MAGAZINE." So I saw they were stationed in Cincinatti (2 hours away from my base of operations) so I took a shot and wrote the editor-in-chief, Nathan Hanneman. I just really loved the mag and wanted to draw for them. Nathan wrote me back and said we had a lot in common and he liked me and my work. But being that they were only 2 issues in, and a new company--they had no money to hire artists or staff. But he told me I could enter the art contest they were holding for issue 3. I did, and won. Over the next 2-3 years I was published in the fan art section. In late 2008 Nathan gave me a shot. He had kept track of my work through myspace and had a project he thought I might be right for. Recreating the classic CREEPSHOW poster but making it HorrorHound-like. I turned it in and the staff loved it. For the next issue, managing editor Aaron Crowell hired me to provide art for his article and I was suddenly a staff member and 4 issue in they gave me a cover. I couldn't believe it. 5 years later and I am still a proud member of the magazine (although I don't do as much with them these days) but those guys are like family now and I love seeing all of them each Spring and Fall at HorrorHound Weekend.
As for Scream, my story is much easier with them. In 2011 I did a poster for HorrorHound Weekend that featured Slasherfest. The poster featured guests of the show that were all slasher actors from the 1980s. Three of the slashers featured were Michael Myers, the killer from Terror Train and the killer from Funhouse. Shout Factory was gearing up to do a spinoff called Scream Factory that would focus on putting out Collector Editions of 1980s movie on blu ray with new features and new artwork. They wanted to show love to these forgotten gems. Cliff MacMillan was the guy who wrote me in mid-2011. He didn't tell me who he worked for but that "his company" was aquiring the rights to "Terror Train" and he wanted to know if I was interested in doing the cover. One of my lifelong dreams was to do movie posters but with Hollywood no longer using illustrations for movie marketing I figured that dream was over. Of course I said yes. One year passes by. I forgot all about it. Then I get a phone call from the art director of Shout Factory and she asks if I remember Cliff talking to me about Terror Train and if I was still interested. Cliff was a fan of my work and I guess he saw me as untapped talent as while I worked for HorrorHound, the readership was fairly small at the time. They gave me Terror Train. Then called back and wowed me with an offer to do Halloween 2 and Halloween 3. Then called me back again to give me The Funhouse. These would be the first 4 releases for Scream Factory to be released in the Fall of 2012. Cliff wanted to use a variety of artists so their next title, They Live, went to popular Brit artist The Dude Designs who had at that time, just done the poster art for "Hobo With a Shotgun." The Dude was a big name and I thought my days with Scream were over. But then they gave me "Deadly Blessing". In late 2012 they announced 6 new titles for 2013 and my jaw dropped at the titles. I figured I would get 1 or 2 while other artists got to work on the others. To my surprise they ended up giving me 4 out of the 6 titles announced. Those included The Burning, The Howling, Day of the Dead and Night of the Comet. I was in Heaven. To date, I have produced 10 covers for them and am about to start on an 11th. I love these guys. Each one of them is a pleasure to work with. We have a great working relationship and I hope that this keeps going and going and going because I am literally having the time of my life being a part of these releases. I got the job because the right guy saw the right piece and was a fan of my work. I continued to work there because of how well we get along and because they and the fans really responded to what I was giving them. They call me the fan favorite which I kind of fear. Nothing attracts backlash like being called "the fan favorite"...lol. Kind of like people hating the Dallas Cowboys for being called, "America's Team."
BGH: I'm currently looking at this huge mash up of horror-icons that you created for issue #41 of Horror Hound. Do you have a personal favorite figure in horror? Is there anything/anyone you HAVENT drawn in the genre?
NTM: For me, the obssession with horror started with Freddy Krueger, so he is easily my personal favorite character. That piece in issue #41 was sort of my full circle in horror art I felt. I poured my heart into that piece and it was originally intended to be the cover. The article it was for got cut short so they threw Beetlejuice the Cartoon on the cover but that piece, titled "1988" was for an article about the year of 1988 which was dubbed "The Year of the Sequel." That year we got A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Friday the 13th Part 7, Halloween 4, Phantasm 2, Fright Night 2, Hellraiser 2 and a few others. Nearly every big franchise had a new movie out that year. I wanted to do a piece to commemorate it as that was the year I became a horror fan...1988. I started thinking of cover ideas and everything I was doing was boring. Then I started thinking about the films. I immediately thought of Nightmare 4 and the scene where Freddy dies by having all of the souls inside of him, rip their way out. PERFECT! I had a really cool idea. What if instead of the souls of his children ripping out of him, all of the other icons from that year are ripping out of him instead? Jason, Michael, Pinhead...all tearing out of him. I added Chucky, Killer Klowns and Pumpkinhead as they were all released in 1988 as well.
There are plenty of characters from the genre of horror I have never drawn. That is the fun part. I recently drew covers for Night of the Comet and Night of the Demons which I had never drawn anything from before. Last year in HorrorHound I got to work on a really cool piece. The writers were choosing VERSUS movies and I had to bring these epic battles to fruition. I came up with the idea of an old American town in front of a movie theater and all of the monsters were fighting each other. Many of the featured monsters I had never drawn. We had Pumpkinhead vs. Jeepers Creepers (which I wrote that piece), we had Wishmaster vs. Leprechaun, The Blind Dead vs Paul Naschy's Wolfman, Gremlins vs. Critters and The Blob vs. The Thing. I had flying saucers and tanks. It was a blast. The movie theater was called The Corman Theater. I always look forward to attacking things I have never attempted.
BGH: What's been the most challenging thing you've faced in one of your commissioned pieces?
NTM: Cars are pretty hard for me. I recently had to draw a piece for Death Race 2000. The cover I am doing for Scream (Wes Craven film) currently was hard. There wasn't an easy way to show the killer without ruining anything. Not a lot of HORROR to put on the HORROR cover. I was having a lot of trouble figuring that one out. The first sketch I did I really loved but the art department thought the tone was not appropriate to the film. They were right. It was a tough one.
BGH: What's your favorite piece you've done for Scream Factory thus far? Do they have other releases that you wish you would have had the chance to draw for?
NTM: It is really hard for me to pick my favorite. Halloween 2 is probably the one as it was the VERY FIRST one I did and it is my favorite horror film of the ones I have done. Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street are tied as my favorite horror film so getting to illustrate Michael Myers, Dr. Loomis and Laurie Strode for an actual blu ray release was so thrilling. I also really love this row I was on earlier in the year starting with The Burning, onto The Howling and then Day of the Dead. I love all three of those covers. The movie I wished I had gotten to do the most that I didn't get was Phantasm 2. A lot of fans wanted me to do that one and had a lot of great ideas for it. It is my favorite of that series. I also wish I could have done art for The Town that Dreaded Sundown but they had to release that one with the original poster art. I would have liked to have done the Vincent Price collection as I adore Price. They have released several John Carpenter films and I have been looked over all 4 times...lol. The Dude did They Live, Justin Osbourn did The Fog and Prince of Darkness and someone else is doing Assault on Precinct 13. I am really hoping they release Escape from New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China or In the Mouth of Madness in the future and think of me. I also have to say I have my fingers crossed for Nightbreed's Director's Cut next year. It has been thrilling to work on titles for directors I love. I keep making the list. So far I have done covers for Wes Craven, Joe Dante, George Romero and Tobe Hooper films. Adding Carpenter and Barker would almost be perfect.
BGH: Have you received any feedback from people directly related to the horror movies you've done work for?
NTM: I have been fortunate enough to meet a lot of people involved in the films over the years at conventions. Well over 200 now and many of them I have shared my art with. Robert Englund and John Carpenter would be highlights for sure. I have recieved repsonses from other directors as well. Don Coscarelli wrote me with his approval of a Phantasm cover I did. I was lucky to finally meet Don a few months ago. Amazing guy. Joe Dante gave me his thumbs up for my Howling blu ray art. Linnea Quigley approved of my Night of the Demons artwork. I had a conversation with both Kelly Maroney and Catherine Mary Stewart on facebook recently about my Night of the Comets artwork. I was able to meet Michael Berryman and share my Deadly Blessing art with him and put him in contact with Scream to do some special features on the film. Dick Warlock has been one of the best. He called me a class act and thanked me for making him an icon on the Halloween 2 cover art. He loved it. Tommy Le Wallace loved the Halloween 3 cover. No matter how many people out there dislike what I am doing--as that comes with doing anything in the art world--it rarely matters much when the creators of these films give you an enthusiastic thumbs up.
BGH: Does a person with a huge workload like yourself keep a physical copy of every blu-ray, magazine, record, etc that you've had a part in?
NTM: I try to. Doing a lot of overseas stuff it is hard to get physical copies of everything. I have done 11 blu ray covers for overseas distributors as well and I only own 2 of them. I have done books and mags in South America. I do have one copy. I like to have collections of what I have worked on but it doesn't always happen. Scream is good and sends me plenty of free copies and I usually give one to my mother. Some as gifts to friends.
BGH: To top it all off, you've just directed your first film "A Wish for the Dead". Talk to me about that! Why directing? When is the public able to see it?
NTM: A Wish for the Dead was based on a comic short I wrote in 2002 for a horror anthology comic book that never saw print. I ended up publishing the short along with another horror short I did called Girl Number Three in 2007. Shortly after, Girl Number Three was turned into a film by Renegade Art Productions and while on the festival circuit I made a deal with them to direct A Wish for the Dead as I had only written the screenplay on Girl. A Wish for the Dead is a drama/horror film that connect the lives of several characters in a Pulp Fiction/Trick r Treat way. The core story is about a young husband whose wife is dying of cancer and in his desperation to save her life he takes a locket from a mysterious man who visits him in the hospital promising a way to save her with one wish. A wish from the heart. His wish goes terribly wrong, in a very Monkey's Paw style. Being a movie fanatic since I was a kid I really needed to direct something. I was original going to direct Girl Number Three but that didn't happen. I knew the right people who had the right resources so I decided I wanted to direct at least one movie before I die. The movie is in post right now. All that is left is audio editing, sfx, maybe some adr, a few special effects and a score. It is scheduled to be complete on October 6th. We'll see. As it is a low budget affair, people are working on the side to get it done. So it is dictated by when those involved are free to do the work.
BGH: Was the directing experience everything you had hoped for? Do you plan on jumping back in the chair anytime soon?
NTM: I had gotten a little experience working on Girl Number Three so I wasn't completely new to it all. But I was just really excited to be there making sure I got my vision on the screen this time. Girl Number Three was a fun film and I love it but it was directed in a more popcorn way that I intended it to be when I wrote it. It is still a fun film but I wanted to make sure this time, what you see on screen is MY vision. Directing a movie is a blast. I would love to do a film again. I have several ideas. I think most likely, I will be making a crime film next. I have one called Lay Down You're Dead or I'd really like to adapt my prized comic book The Malevolent to the screen. We'll see. I might want to do some short films before to try to really get a better grip on the job. Luckily I had some great folks on Wish to help me out with the major task of making a film.
BGH: To finish the interview I wanted to end it with a question that we as well as the readers can ask themselves- Why horror?
NTM: Horror started out for me, as a young kid, as a place where you weren't supposed to go. Horror was off limits. Taboo. There was scary stuff, violence and nudity and sex. A 12 year-old isn't supposed to see these things. So there was the danger factor. You were testing your fears. You are scared to look, but you can't look away fully. And once you do look, you realize just how fun it all really is. As an adult, I enjoy horror for very different reasons. It is interesting to study man and his fears and how he deals with life and death. Horror to me is really all about dealing with our own demise, or the death of those we love and care about. A Wish for the Dead is all about that. It goes back to the caveman tales of the hunter facing the monsters (the man eating animals out in the dark). We all fear something. Horror is fun, horror is thrilling. The only other genre that makes us feel just as involved physically and emotionally is comedy. In horror...we scream, we cower and we laugh. And they are damn fun to make. Everyone loves a good ghost story...right?