Dwellings #1, from Emmy Award-winning animator and Eisner Award-nominated cartoonist Jay Stephens, was published by Oni Comics on August 9, 2023. Don’t let the innocent, childlike art fool you — this is a horror series about a small town dealing with murder, possession and more. Stephens spoke to Cemetery Dance about his Harvey Comics influence, the pathway to getting Dwellings published, and what he hopes readers take away from the series.
(Interview conducted by Danica Davidson)
CEMETERY DANCE: How were Harvey Comics an inspiration for Dwellings?
JAY STEPHENS: I found the character designs of those Casper, Wendy, Richie Rich, and Little Dot comic books to be absolutely irresistible as a kid. So cute that I begged my mum for a Casper doll and, like many kids my age, had the Friendly Ghost as my first pick of Collegeville Halloween costumes. But I can’t be the only 7-year-old who wondered how Casper died, and I spent years searching for the issue where his gory murder was revealed. The drawings were adorable, but I truly believed they were hiding something sinister. I mean… when you find yourself reading the adventures of Hot Stuff, The Little Devil while your grandparents are watching The Exorcist on TV in the background, your little brain can’t help but conclude there are terrible secrets to be revealed one day. Dwellings is a grimly nostalgic revisit to those uncomfortable feelings.
Besides titles from Harvey Comics, have other horror comics been a major influence for you?
I was crazy about the Marvel horror “heroes” like Brother Voodoo, Ghost Rider, Werewolf By Night, Son Of Satan, and Morbius The Living Vampire, around the same time I was dropping quarters on Harvey comics. But it was a gore-fan babysitter named Susan that truly blew my young mind with a stack of Creepy and Vampirella magazines from Warren Publishing, as well as the oozingly tasteless schlock from Eerie Publications. Trash that, alongside the tribute film Creepshow by Stephen King and George A. Romero, led to my discovery of the spectacular EC Comics classics. Drawing the EC tribute variant covers for the original crowd-funded print run was a love letter to that indelible influence.
What do you think it is about mixing childlike drawings with graphic horror that works so well in Dwellings?
The retro, mid-century visual style is meant to be familiar and comforting, setting up the reader of a Dwellings story for something cute… maybe some black comedy, at worst. When the visceral horror hits, the psychological elements feel all the more shocking and disturbing by contrast. Or maybe we just get squeamish watching cute things getting murdered. Either way, it seems to be working!
What was the pathway to getting Dwellings picked up by Oni Press?
Dwellings originally debuted as a single-issue series of small press comics, crowd-funded through my dear friend Michel Vrana’s Black Eye Books imprint, giving me the freedom and time to craft them into something I could be proud of. We did the first one as a lark, having no idea what to expect, and the grass roots just kept growing. Oni Publisher Hunter Gorinson backed one of the campaigns, and, after reading the stuff, presented me with an incredible opportunity to re-inflict these stabby tales onto a whole new gang of eyeballs. Oni is repackaging them as prestige format, bi-monthly, double-size issues, just like those old “Giant-Size” Harvey Comics. Or late-night, drive-in, double-feature picture shows.
What would you like readers to take away from it?
I hope these cute-looking tales of terror invoke that gradually emerging, hair-raising feeling of getting older and encountering the frightening adult mysteries that our childhood selves suspected but never fully comprehended. Dwellings is meant to be those horrible truths revealed through the brightly colored kaleidoscope of familiar childhood imagery. I guarantee your visit to the town of Elwich, Ontario, will not be what you expected.
Where can people learn more about you and your other work?
I can be found posting pretty regularly on Instagram (@jstephenscomics) where you’ll find links to behind-the-scenes videos on my YouTube channel, the latest news on what I’m currently working on, and much more.