Matt Blairstone makes horror comics happen. He writes grim scary tales. He puts artists to work. He builds communities. He learns. In recent years he’s created and published his own intensely personal, delightfully deranged tale of crazed, freakish scientists battling for dominance over a world gone mad. Mad Doctors featured, among other things, what appeared to be a gourd with the face of Doctor Doom and a horned cyclops in a lab coat (plus a character who was an avatar of Kate, his wife of seven years).
These days, Blairstone is in the midst of building his craziest endeavor yet – a 200-page comic book anthology called Green Inferno: The World Celebrates Your Demise. Inferno, to be published by his Tenebrous Press, is a collection of comics and short stories from eighteen artists creating in six countries, thematically united by what Blairstone has coined “terrestrial horror.” It’s ambitious, and to make it happen, Blairstone has set up a Kickstarter campaign that, as of this writing, is about midway through its allotted time and has raised more than $5,000 of its $9,000 goal.
What does Blairstone mean by “terrestrial horror”? Like a lot of artists’ work these days, the germ of Blairstone’s vision is rooted in the context of COVID. “[The Green Inferno] is kind of a summation of the pandemic,” he says. “We made a trip to Lincoln City in September. It was our first excursion out of the house, our first attempt at some kind of normal trip. We were going to meet Kate’s mom and grandmother at the coast in Lincoln City and stay at a big cabin for a couple of days. The day we arrive there were these huge, violent windstorms that knocked the power out. The next day those windstorms had blown in all the forest fires. We had to get evacuated. We got back and suddenly I’m watching the AQI on my phone every fifteen minutes. The windows are shut. The sky is this crazy yellow and orange color. That was the low point of quarantine for me and Kate because we had taken for granted being able to have fresh air, and then to be trapped inside after so many months without the option of going outside –” he stops. “You were here, you know.”
That weekend in September gave Blairstone a template for his vision. He wrote a story about “the earth assimilating sentient beings,” he says with a smile. He cites DC Comics’ Swamp Thing or Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds or the works of Jeff VanderMeer as examples of the kind of work he characterizes as “terrestrial” or “earthbound” horror: “What I want to do with Green Inferno is not necessarily ‘Earth takes its revenge,’ but that idea definitely encapsulates a lot of the pieces that have been submitted.” Nine months later, what started out as the vacation in Hell is on the precipice of becoming something singularly special. It’s been a long time coming.
Seven years ago, Blairstone had a decision to make. He could keep spiraling downward further and further into his alcohol abuse, and that might wreck his marriage before it even got started – or he could take charge of his life and forcibly turn it around. “Six out of seven days,” he remembers, “I would wind up passed out on the couch.” When he looks back on what he calls his “years in the wilderness,” he shakes his head. “I was able to say, ‘I’m a writer’ because it’s so easy to say you’re a writer and be an alcoholic at the same time.” He had a lot of stories to tell, but “there was no impetus to get them down.”
A few Green Inferno collaborators …
Only weeks away from his betrothal, Blairstone found himself at the crossroads. His life could go down the path – a well-worn path of self-destruction – or he could take care of himself and his relationship. Luckily, he didn’t have to make the choice on his own.
“Kate was instrumental,” he recalls. “Once the decision was made, she immediately bought me a set of grayscale markers and a set of pencils and a sketchbook. We went to the coast and I just started drawing things. I hadn’t drawn since I was twelve. I drew this thing that looked like a cucumber and Dr. Doom mixed, and that became a character in Mad Doctors. I drew a cyclops with a horn that was kind of Ray Harryhausen-esque and that became a character. Whatever my id put down on paper I decided that that was going to be the story that I wanted to tell because I needed to occupy all the time that I spent at a bar. It was definitely replacement therapy initially.”
Or, as he put it succinctly in the last (?) issue of Mad Doctors:
“August 10th, 2014, I quit drinking.
August 31st, 2014, I got married.
September 6th, 2014, I started drawing ‘Mad Doctors’.”
That’s a heck of a month by anyone’s standards.
Blairstone’s “replacement therapy” was comic books. Not just collecting them, but drawing them. Writing them. Inking them. Coloring them. Printing them, binding them, stapling them, publishing them. Aside from an introductory class on comics at Portland Community College, Blairstone proceeded to teach himself everything he could about how comics were created. And then he created them.
(It is a telling irony that unlike the stereotype of Poe, Ginsberg or Bukowski, Blairstone became significantly more creative when he left his addiction behind. That obsessive behavior is still there, but now focused towards making.)
A few more of the artists …
Focused by now on making comics a career, Blairstone tried to learn to play the industry game. He made his comics. He made merchandise. He took his wares to conventions and local comic stores. He spent a couple of years working the comic-book social media network. And it got him nowhere: “I’m a logical person. I know that social media is important. But that’s not where I want to focus most of my energy.”
“In comics,” Blairstone says, “everyone approaches everything like it’s a zero sum game.” He pauses and considers what he’s going to say next. “The comic book industry, like everything else, is driven by fear; fear of being excluded from it.”
Blairstone didn’t want to live in that fear, let alone drown in it. “I had a chip on my shoulder about being a small fish,” he says, “I’m not even a small fish. I’m more like algae. And that’s okay. Algae serve a lot of important purposes.” Blairstone didn’t feel the need to compete. Strive to achieve? Yes. But he was less interested in scratching and clawing at the bottom of the comic book heap. “There’s plenty of room,” he says, “for me to carve out my own niche.” Taking his cue from Groucho Marx, he decided to “create the community he wanted to be a part of.”
Fundamentally, that meant finding other like-minded creators. If nothing else, his years of working the social media circuit had taught him where to find them. He had an idea, a stimulus check, and a plan: “I asked a couple of folks that I knew, and then I did a couple of open calls on horror writers guild boards and places of that ilk.”
Then he sat back and waited.
And nothing happened.
“Nothing came in for a couple of weeks,” Blairstone says, “and because we live in an instant gratification society I was like “AAUUGH! I failed!” But then something changed. The submissions started trickling in. And then streaming. And then they became a torrent. “My inbox just got flooded so hard,” he says now, “I had to shut down the window.”
… and three more on the Green Inferno team
This might’ve been the time for Blairstone to ask for help, to sort through all the work. But he decided against it. Green Inferno was his baby. This first time out, he decided, the vision had to come all from him. “I was very determined that this first go-around I’m going to do everything myself,“ he says. “I’m learning the publishing software. I’m a Luddite as far as new technology goes. I pretty much don’t know how to use any function on the system except one that I particularly learned how to use.”
That was just the technology side. There was also the perhaps tougher task of curating the art. “I put on my publisher/editor funny hat and just read through the slush pile for a while. Narrowed it down. Found pieces that would complement each other well.”
The trick was that even though he wanted the pieces to be thematically aligned, he didn’t want them all to be the same. “I wanted to select from a really broad swath,” he says. “Luckily, I got submissions from Italy, Romania, Japan.”
Something about what Blairstone is doing is rallying his artists around him. They’re not just invested in Green Inferno’s success; they’re going above and beyond to make sure it happens. “The creators have been great as far as an all-hands-on-deck kind of thing,” he says. “I’ve been like, what are your favorite shops in San Francisco? In New York?” When they tell him, he calls those shops to make a pitch, and is fearless about dropping the names of the artists they know.
Further, the creators have been generous in helping to make the Kickstarter campaign an exciting one. They’ve been willing to “contribute some works that they’ve been a part of,” Blairstone says, “or some personalized sketches to put into the Kickstarter tiers.” In other words, Blairstone has already gone a long way toward achieving his stated goal of creating the community he wanted to be a part of: “I’ve found some really great people that I want to work with in a more personalized fashion.”
It helps that at the core of everything Blairstone does is respect. Respect for the horror genre, respect for the comic book medium, and respect for his creators. And in America, respect means money. “There are so many artists who are afraid to say ‘no’ to anything,” he says. “They’ll take any gig – no matter how crappy – that gets thrown at them.” Blairstone is determined never to be one of those gigs. “There are major comic book companies that pay their artists less than what I’m paying,” he says. “What they’re paying is not realistic. I am not paying great. But I will pay better the second go-around.” This is important to Blairstone because, “my name is all I have. I don’t have much of a reputation yet, but what reputation I have I want to be 100 percent solid. The only way to do that is to treat people as what they are worth.”
Which is what the Kickstarter is for. Up to now, Blairstone has paid for everything out of his own pocket. Two -hirds of the money raised takes care of the creators. The rest goes to actually publishing the book, and to Kickstarter.
Blairstone has no desire to be a one-man band forever. He doesn’t want to be Michel Fiffe, the creator of the comic Copra, which is entirely a one-man operation and one of Blairstone’s favorite books out there. “That guy is insane,” says Blairstone. “He does everything himself, and that is what makes him happy. I don’t know that there’s one specific story that makes me happy.” Blairstone is happier creating an umbrella for other artists – and himself – to create under. Green Inferno is the prototype for that umbrella.
But perhaps what draws other artists to Blairstone more than anything else is his humility, which is wrapped in a thick layer of hustle. He has no illusions about his own draftsmanship, which he calls “rudimentary.” He also doesn’t give a damn. He just keeps creating. “What I am at my core is a storyteller,” he says. “I began to feel comfortable in the language of comic books and started reaching out to artists who were far superior to me and were telling stories that I couldn’t tell. If I wanted to tell something grim, I don’t know that I could achieve that. If I wanted something moody and atmospheric, I don’t have that skillset. But that’s okay. Because I know a lot of people who do. I have the skillset to write it and let someone else draw it.”
That skill is only one among many that Blairstone has gained since quitting alcohol seven years ago. Today, Matt Blairstone – married, with a child named Ramone (yes, after the band) – writes, draws, edits, publishes, inspires, assembles artists, and builds community as he contributes to the world’s horrors.