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Interview with Jude Ellison S. Doyle of THE NEIGHBORS!

The Neighbors is a captivating horror title grounded in its queerness and themes around parenthood and family. In honor of The Neighbors #3 releasing TODAY from BOOM! Studios, Your Friendly Neighborhood Bi Lauren sat down to chat with writer and creator Jude Ellison S. Doyle all about it!

Wednesday Pull List: Thanks so much for agreeing to chat with me, Jude! I know it’s been hard for us to coordinate schedules, but I think you have something very special with The Neighbors!

Jude Ellison S. Doyle: I’m so glad you think so. Of everything I’ve written, this is maybe the one that is most dedicated to just dredging up my personal obsessions and putting them into a story. So to hear that it communicates with anyone else is a relief.

WPL: How did you decide on the setting for The Neighbors? A “quaint mountain town” seems both like the start of a horror film AND where many of us gays would run away to if we could!

JD: It actually started with the house. Casey’s abduction, in the first issue, is a rendition of a nightmare that I had back in 2019, while I was writing “Maw.” I wrote it down as five pages or so of script, because I knew if I could convey the atmosphere of this dream and why it scared me so much, I could write horror.

In the dream, I knew there was something very wrong with the house that was causing men in black to show up and take the people who lived there. I was pretty sure the men had a way in and that there was something underneath the house that gave them access. But it wasn’t a story. It was just a scene. I figured it was an exercise.

That was really all I had, until a few years later, when my partner and I — somehow — won this raffle at our kid’s daycare. The prize was a weekend in a cabin in Maine. I was like, “well, we’re either extremely lucky or they’re bigots and this is an elaborate plan to murder us.” Every fairy tale and every horror movie has a little house out in the woods, because you’re vulnerable there. You’re isolated. You’re surrounded by the other-than-human world. So my fears about the cabin in Maine connected back to the nightmare about the men in black, and the story just kind of sprang into being.

WPL: It's crazy to think of how one or two things, such as a house and a dream, can inspire an entire story! Tackling genres and themes such as horror and parenthood alone seems like a great challenge- what led you to put these together?

JD: Lots of horror is about parenthood, actually! That, or being a child. “The Shining” is about losing your ability to be a decent parent due to addiction. “The Exorcist” is a really scolding, punitive story about a single working mother — mom’s out of the house, partying and being an actress, and sure enough, Satan shows up with a ouija board in the basement to corrupt her kid.

I think family is a particularly tough topic for queer people. A ton of queer people are parents. A ton of trans people are parents. Many or most of the queer people I know have kids. But the mainstream narrative of “family” cuts us out. People who want to “defend the family” don’t want to defend us, they want to eliminate us. On a really basic “representation matters” front, I wanted this to be a boring, unglamorous family made up of queer and trans people. It felt like that was a side of trans life that headlines weren’t really capturing.

On the other hand, queer people’s experience of “family” growing up can be really dark. There are a ton of people, including myself, who are partially or totally estranged from our parents. Trans people often didn’t have happy childhoods, and even parents who wanted to help us didn’t really see us, or didn’t have enough information to give us the things we needed. For many queer people, part of the point of claiming that label is that they DON’T want “family” in the traditional sense; they don’t want marriage and they don’t want children and they don’t want this normative trajectory for their lives. Rejecting that norm, drawing your own map, is the beauty of being queer, and that can make “family” feel like a limited, limiting thing. Like a trap.

I think “The Neighbors” is about both sides of that. What do you do when “the family” doesn’t include you, was never built to include you, needs to erase you in order to exist? What do you do when “the family” is enforced as the norm everyone has to fit, including you, even if that means denying who you are? “The family” in this story is an ideal and a trap. But “the family” is not Oliver and Janet and Casey and Isobel and Janet’s ex Carolyn. That’s “a family,” a real group of people trying to love each other and help each other exist in the world. The difference between “a family” and “the family” is part of what the story is trying to explore.

WPL: From what I’ve seen, there’s little representation of queer parents in the media. Being a parent yourself, was this an outlet for you to process your own fears in the world? How did you approach confronting your own fears in your writing, if so?

JD: I think that, if you want to scare other people, you’ve got to scare yourself first. You have to find something that makes you really, genuinely uncomfortable, and for me, that’s danger coming to my kid.

The love I feel for my child is insane. It’s like looking into the face of God. You’re just staring at this literally perfect person someone put into the world. And then, almost immediately, you learn that this person will not stop putting themselves in harm’s way. The other day, my daughter almost fell off a second-floor balcony because she saw something she wanted in a tree. Someone put a shiny little carabiner on a branch, and — in the five seconds I was looking down to tie my shoe — she had managed to climb up on the railing and lean over to grab it. My partner grabbed her, but I was on the rim of the abyss for a few seconds. I thought my life was over.

That’s not a queer-specific fear. I think straight parents also have railings and trees to contend with. But when you add structural oppression to that, and you add headlines about families like yours being taken apart and forcibly separated by the state, it’s like the entire world is a second-floor balcony and the railings are shaky. You’re always on the edge of something. And I thought the best way to scare people was to bring them inside that fear.

WPL: That's a great point! In The Neighbors, parents Janet and Oliver have a 2-year-old daughter named Isobel. Why choose for Isobel to be 2-years-old, particularly in a horror context?

JD: It seemed like the most vulnerable age. At two years old, someone can move around on their own pretty rapidly. You can lose them by turning around for a second. They can get everywhere, but they don’t know what’s going on. They can’t identify or even really comprehend danger. They can talk, but not much, so they might not be able to convey everything that’s happening to them. There are moments in “Neighbors” when Casey is being horrible to Isobel, but Isobel can’t tell anyone, because she can’t really talk yet, and she loses her language a bit in the face of trauma, as kids do. The more scared she gets, the less she can ask for help or tell anyone what she’s afraid of.

Horror that takes a child’s perspective is always the most disturbing to me, because it reawakens those ancient feelings of being helpless. We all carry those memories of being small and lost and defenseless somewhere inside. Innocence cannot comprehend evil. It walks into bad situations without knowing what they are. When you rewatch that with adult eyes, it can be unbearable to see how much danger you were in the whole time.

WPL: Creative teams for comics are put together in many different ways; what were you hoping creatives like Letizia Cadonici (House of Slaughter) and colorist Alessandro Santoro (Bloom) would bring to the team when they joined The Neighbors?

JD: A lot of the comics I came up with in the ‘90s and 2000s were either black and white, or really scratchy and splattery with dim color palettes, like “30 Days of Night” or something. People decided that “horror” meant de-saturated, bleached-out color palettes with a little red, somewhere in the 2000s, and a lot of things are made with that in mind.

I think there’s power in that style — “From Hell” is black-and-white chicken scratch, and it’s maybe the best horror comic ever made — but “The Neighbors” walks a borderline between horror and fantasy, and it felt like it needed a very rich color palette and a sense of beauty to reflect that. It needed to be pretty and oversaturated, like the visual version of an Angela Carter story. Santoro’s colors, I think, are what bring us there. There are panels that just glow with color, interspersed with these deep, dark shadows. It brings you into that heightened reality.

Letizia Cadonici can pull off a genuinely terrifying panel — I just saw one from Issue 5 that upsets me way beyond anything I’ve seen — but she also has really beautifully expressive characters. She hones in on the emotional truth of a panel like no-one I’ve seen, where sometimes I was rewriting the dialogue because the character’s face was so much more emotional than the line I had written. So between her and Santoro’s colors, we have the deep, vivid, beautiful look the series needs.

WPL: Without spoilers for future issues, what was the scariest part about writing The Neighbors for you, if anything?

JD: Honestly, the love story element. It feels so dorky and raw to write “they kiss” in, like, a panel description. If I get this wrong, people will be convinced that I don’t know how human beings interact, which is frightening on a much deeper level than monsters.

WPL: On the other hand, what are you most excited for in the coming issues of The Neighbors?

JD: Issue 4 is my favorite, because we get to see this other world that has been operating around and beneath our characters. It’s the Twin Peaks “Black Lodge” moment, where we’re no longer bound to the rules of linear storytelling. It dives into a lot of mythology that I’ve always loved, and that I’ve never seen executed quite how I think it should be — I don’t know if I pulled it off, either, but it was so exciting to just sit with my little books of lore and poetry and try to pull together a vision of this other world.

WPL: You’ve written other things such as MAW, released by Boom! Studios in 2021, and two non-fiction books, Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and Dead Blondes and Bad Powers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy and the Fear of Female Power (Melville House, 2019). You also write opinion essays!

In your career so far, what has been the most challenging form of writing for you to tackle? What speaks to you the most, if anything?

JD: Honestly, out of everything I do, the thing I have loved doing most is the comics. I think it’s because I’m not really the center of attention. The characters matter. The art matters. The story matters, but the story feels like a living thing that exists outside me; I have to stay still and listen to it and translate it faithfully, and I’m creating a springboard for all of these astonishing artists to come in and do their work, but none of that is about me. I’m really just in the background trying to make sure things run smoothly. I’m like the chef at a restaurant. You don’t see me, and you don’t have to. You’re there for the food.

A huge thank you again to Jude Ellison S. Doyle for chatting with me!

Issue 3 of The Neighbors In Shops TODAY! (May 24, 2023)

You can get The Neighbors, published by BOOM! Studios, at your Local Comic Shop (LCS) or from the BOOM! Studios webstore!

Check out The Neighbors on Previews World and find your LCS here

You can find Lauren, Your Friendly Neighborhood Bi, on all her platforms here

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