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Helen Mullane's first comic is a bone-chilling druid horror-thriller
Someone is trying to unleash the power of ancient gods in Northern England, and one girl has the ability to stop them. Humanoids' fledgling imprint H1 dropped new horror comic Nicnevin and the Bloody Queen this week. The coming-of-age thriller centers around Nicnevin “Nissy” Oswald, a London teen spending a boring summer with her family in the country. She occupies her days spying on her cute neighbor and ignoring her little brother, but that mundane life takes a horrific turn when a string of murders terrorizes her village, and she finds herself on the wrong end of a chase to hunt down a ritualistic serial killer.
The inspiration for Nissy came from writer Helen Mullane’s own formative years growing up in London and spending summers in the countryside with her family. "I can really sympathize with her frustrated boredom," Mullane tells SYFY WIRE. "Until the magical madness starts, of course; then our experiences start to diverge!"
Mullane would read anything she could get her hands on, from Hardy to Kafka to Sweet Valley High. The very first comics Mullane remembers were hardback annuals of the popular U.K. series The Beano and The Dandy, as well as She-Ra, Jem and the Holograms, and Dinoriders. But her biggest influences were all fantasy sci-fi fare like The Owl Service, The Midwich Cuckoos, and Point Horror.
Originally conceived for television, Nicnevin is a pastoral druid comic steeped in England’s folk history, black magic, and family secrets. The mystery is intensified by Dom Reardon and Matthew Dow Smith’s artwork and also features a fantastic cover series by the legendary Jock (Prométheé 13:13, Daredevil Reborn, The Losers).
Mullane hails from the world of documentary filmmaking and, in fact, co-produced Futureshock!, one of the most in-depth documentaries on the legendary British comic book publisher 2000 AD, which is responsible for such titles as Judge Dredd, ABC Warriors, and more. After a decade in the industry, she left behind city life, switching careers to become a writer. (When she isn’t writing she’s a musher or sled dog trainer in Alaska and Norway.)
SYFY WIRE spoke with Mullane about what it was like working on her very first comic, Celtic bards, and how even Care Bears lore fits into the story.
What inspired this story?
I wanted to make something similar to The Owl Service or Children of the Stones, these incredibly creepy '70s kids' TV shows. Even the stuff that I grew up with feels incredibly sanitized when compared to British kids' TV of that era. It was super challenging, genuinely scary, and often explored the murky waters of teen desire.
So that idea was just knocking about my brain gathering dust when we were shooting Futureshock!, a documentary I made about 2000 AD. We were on a shooting road trip when Dom and I spent some hours enthusing over our favorite classic folk horror over a couple of beers and he suggested I write my TV idea as a script. That was when this vague idea started to take form. I was so excited by the idea of writing it as a comic, I went away and wrote the whole thing. Thankfully he liked it, and a beautiful collaboration was born!
Since this is a new medium for you, did you bring anything from your filmmaking background into your work?
I think that no matter what medium you’re working in, it’s best to just bring everything you’ve got to the table. My background in film development really helped me cut through the distractions and get to the heart of the story. I’ve had so much practice saying, “No, this doesn’t work, let’s try this” that I’m able to self-edit the narrative without getting precious, which is really valuable — and take notes!
When I was writing I tried to think in terms of imagery. Just like in film, I believe in that golden rule of “show, don’t tell,” and luckily I was collaborating with incredible artists in Dom and Matthew, who were able to do the heavy lifting to make that work.
What was it like collaborating with them?
It was a joy collaborating with such experienced and talented artists. They breathe so much life into the script. They’re into a lot of the same classic folk horror as me, so it was so fun bringing all that to life. Every time I received new pages my mind was blown anew to see how each scene looked through the prism of their creative brains.
The same went for when Lee delivered his colors, these evocative but muted tones, and Robin the letters — finding a way to somehow express all these different voices and points of view. That’s the wonder of comics, it’s a collaboration between these creative people, and everyone brings something to the table that makes the initial story better.
Much of the story seems to be linked with lore. How much research did you put into the history of the Celts for this story?
I researched this book almost to the point of total procrastination. I had to give myself a kick up the arse at some point and say, “You’ve done enough, now write the thing.”
Because I had this concept, to draw from as many real things as possible, I sometimes had to go pretty deep to find places or stories to fit with what I wanted to convey. When I found Yeavering Bell with these ancient hill forts in Northumberland in the north of England, it was a total eureka moment, and the rest of the story started to fall into place from there.
What was the most challenging thing about this project? What was the most fun part?
The most challenging aspects of the project tended to come out of my own inexperience. Sometimes I tried to put too much or not enough on a page, and I realized that the super quiet, minimalist comic Dom and I had first discussed wouldn’t quite work, because fewer words in comics makes the book read faster, not slower. But those challenges were amazing in their own way too, because as I rescripted some sections I learned so much about the process that I can use to make my next script more polished.
The most fun part was for sure getting pages in. Especially those early pages, when it was such a novelty to see things transferred from the script to the page. It was surreal and beautiful! And then recently my comps arrived, and that was such a moment. The book is beautiful, that stunning cover from Jock, and the whole thing’s the culmination of so much work and talent from everyone involved.
Is Nissy a fey? Or are they just her familiars?
Well, I don’t want to give too much away and spoil the comic!
But (heavy spoilers) according to the internal mythology of the comic Nissy is more than a fey, she is the direct ancestor of the goddess Nicnevin herself and has inherited her power, if she would care to use it.
Did any other horror comics or stories inspire this one?
I am a big fan of Alan Moore and Steve Bisette’s work on Swamp Thing, but apart from that, the comic was influenced more by film, novels, and TV. Classic British horror stuff like Hammer Horror, The Wicker Man, Children of the Stones, and Penda’s Fen, but then with a bit of "kitchen sink" melodrama thrown in for good measure.
For the most eagle-eyed readers (or those similar in age to me, maybe), there’s even a reference to the Care Bear Movie in there — an underrated classic of slow-burning terror!
This feels like an origin story. Will we see Nissy grow into her power?
I would love to write more in the world and more about Nissy. I’ve grown very attached to her as a character through this process. Also, connected to the aforementioned over-researching, I have a whole mythology mapped out going back through generations of the family! I guess we’ll just have to see how the next couple of weeks go, fingers crossed.