What do you know about cults?
It’s an unnerving word – cults – one evocative of horror films and witchcraft, but seemingly far enough from reality their mere existence is mitigated by never touching our lives. But what if you crossed paths with one? Maybe you’d be scared they could actually hurt you, a legitimate threat in their fanaticism; maybe curiosity in its message and its appeal to loyal zealots; perhaps contempt for a danger no realer than the boogieman or ghosts, an irrational fear that concedes its power to a light switch. Sons of the Devil is that story, a suspense built from the unknown world of a cult as Travis, an adoptee, grew up to discover he was born of one.
We caught up with Brian Buccellato, writer of Sons of the Devil and the live-action short film of the same name, to talk about his series. You can also read our reviews of Sons of the Devil right here on BNP.
Black Nerd Problems: Sons of the Devil largely revolves around the danger from a fanatical religious leader. What sparked your interest in telling a story based on the underground world of a cult?
Brian Buccellato: When I a kid in the 80s, Satanic Panic was a hot-button topic that pervaded American culture. The idea that there were these evil cults operating in the shadows and committing ritual sacrifice was cultivated through talk shows and the media. So the idea of cults is a scary (if not dubious) part of my youth. While in high school in the 80s I read the true crime Manson book, Helter Skelter, which scared the crap out of me – and probably scarred me – to this day. I also played Dungeons & Dragons and remember that weird TV movie from the early 80s called Mazes & Monsters about the kid who goes nuts playing D&D… which fueled this fear that if you played the game you would end up in a devil cult.
By the way, I just looked at a clip on YouTube. I didn’t remember this, but it turns out the kid who goes crazy in the movie is Tom Hanks. Crazy!
Anyway… Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and David Koresh are all inspirations for Sons of the Devil. And maybe a little Tom Hanks.
BNP: Did you know much about cults before you began? Or did you learn most of what you know by necessity developing Sons of the Devil?
Buccellato: Like I said, I read Helter Skelter, I saw Rosemary’s Baby, I grew to adulthood during the McMartin Trial, so I was familiar with cults. But when I decided to write Sons of the Devil, I went back and did a lot of research, familiarizing myself with historical examples like Manson and Jim Jones.
BNP: We’re quite a way into the book and yet there aren’t many clear themes that rise to the surface. Not many obvious messages yet, anyway. Usually readers or viewers can pick up on early hints — a character death here, a traumatizing experience there — that let them know how the story intends to view the world. Sons of the Devil, I feel, is different, because other than a miscellaneous character here and a Travis temper-tantrum there, you haven’t shown your cards. It lends itself to the suspense, mostly because I have no idea how dark you plan to take this. Are there any themes you want readers to have picked up by now? Are you saving for the climax? Note: I refuse to see the film adaptation until I’m done with the comic, so shield me from spoilers.
Buccellato: Honestly, the theme is pretty simple. This is a story about family and Travis learning that the family you choose is more important than the family you are born into. Most of us grow up with families that we love and are bonded to. But even then, most of us go out into the world in search of a compatible mate to start our own families… and that becomes the focus of most of our lives. We live with our parents for 18-25 years, and then spend the next 50 hopefully forging our own lives. Travis is at a disadvantage because he never knew his family. So that motivates his action, even though he already has the beginnings of a family at home with Melissa. He needs learn that she is his family and that all of this nonsense with David and the cult doesn’t have to be his reality. Hopefully he will learn that lesson before bad things happen to him and those he loves.
BNP: I worry about Travis and Mel’s relationship more than what should be considered reasonable. It’s wholly irrational given that we, as readers, know their actual lives are in danger; I discuss it in one review in particular, citing their relationship as the biggest character-driver that keeps interest high while the story can continue its slow build. How would you explain Mel’s character and her role in Travis’ life?
Buccellato: You hit the nail on the head. Their relationship is the heart of the series, and it’s the thing that is most in jeopardy. Melissa is Travis’ foundation. She keeps him grounded and offers him a reason to give a shit about himself. Melissa has a bit of a savior’s complex and on an unconscious level she wants to be there for Travis to save him from his darker impulses – like his temper. She does love him, but there is a psychology behind that love that motivates her choices. It may not be a pure, or fairytale type of love, but this isn’t a fairytale. The attempt here (others can judge how successful) is to portray a real relationship. We’re all screwed up in our own ways, and the key to an enduring relationship is to find someone whose craziness compliments yours. And I feel like that’s what Travis and Melissa have.
BNP: When explaining your book to others I often find myself using two examples: the movie Se7en and the HBO series True Detective. The tone feels the same — dark, the ubiquitous feeling of danger — but how does the comparison feel to you? What other stories might you call similar, or hope to measure yours against?
Buccellato: I obviously love Se7en and True Detective (Season 1) – both are right up my alley. I don’t think True Detective had aired yet when I came up with the concept for Sons of the Devil, but stylistically and tonally that show absolutely captures what I would love to see in a Sons of the Devil series. Silence of the Lambs, Rosemary’s Baby, and even LOST are comparables that I would aspire to.
BNP: How would you describe what success looks like for you with this series? And has that definition changed over time?
Buccellato: That’s a tough question. Creator-owned comics are a tough business. The market is small and there are a lot of good products that come out each month that you have to compete with. Originally I wanted to do at least 25 issues of Sons of the Devil, but the economics of it make it almost impossible. So I had to modify my definition of success a bit. We will have a minimum of three trades that will conclude with a hopefully satisfying ending that could be revisited and continued if the opportunity presents itself. I think three trades is a success. Do I hope to one day be able to tell this story in film or television? Absolutely.
BNP: Much of the enjoyment of Sons of the Devil has to do with the build; there’s a steady tension that continues to grow bit by bit. It obviously deserves a rather big payoff. Do you feel any extra pressure in bringing it all to a head?
Buccellato: I don’t feel any extra pressure. I know the ending and I guess I’m arrogant enough to think that I’ve written a good story. Time will tell if I’m right or delusional.
BNP: What else are you working on these days? What’s next for you after Sons of the Devil?
Buccellato: I have a new Image series that I will be announcing in July. The first issue will be out in October, just before New York Comic Con. I’ll send you a link to the first few issues, but you can’t tell anyone about it until next month! [Editor’s note: stay tuned for the reveal next month, obviously]
BNP: Finally — and I ask this of all writers — what advice would you pay forward to creatives who are trying to write their own stories out there?
Buccellato: If you want to write comics, then you need to partner up with up and coming artists and make your own self-published comics. Whether you print 5, 50 or 500 copies, you need to go through the process from start to finish. At the end of the process you will know if this medium is something you are passionate about – and you will have a calling card that you can give away to publishers as a sample of your work. For legal and policy reasons, no one is going to read your spec Spider-Man versus Godzilla pitch. BUT, you might get a publisher to read your self-published indie comic.
In terms of the craft of writing, I don’t have anything groundbreaking to impart. Writers need to write. Every day. All the time. And you need to be willing to listen to constructive criticism about your work. Writing is a process. Don’t be discouraged. Writers should continue to grow, and inviting and accepting critiques are a big part of that.