Newton Lilavois and his brothers were obsessed with Marvel comics as kids. After emigrating to Brooklyn with his family from Haiti at age 5, he found comic books to be incredibly helpful in his acclimation to American culture; Lilavois remembers creating comics of his own out of notebook paper and selling them to his classmates in elementary school.
Fast-forward to 2018. Inspired by other indie comic book creators like Spike Trotman and Roye Okupe, Newton, a computer programmer by trade, decided to crowdfund the production of his own comic book, Crescent City Monsters. And just as he had success selling his comics as a kid, he was able to raise the money to make Crescent City Monsters a reality.
With gorgeous artwork by Gian Carlo Bernal, the comic traces the about Jonas, a young bandleader living in 1960s New Orleans, who happens to be a powerful vodoun priest. One night after a gig, he ends up in the fight of his life — the story is a love letter to both Lilavois' Haitian Creole roots and his love of noir zombie classics.
You can read the first chapter here and then pre-order the print version, which releases on December 21. SYFY WIRE spoke with him about his influences, how he's successfully used crowdfunding platforms to create his work, and how he wants to show the often-misunderstood vodoun religion in a more positive light.
Who were your favorite comic book characters when you first started reading them?
Newton: I liked everything. I just loved comic books. I don't think I had an affinity towards just one superhero or superhero team. I just read and loved everything. We kind of had to hide our comics, actually, because my parents were really old-school Haitians and told us, "Don't waste your money and time with that." So I'd have one of my classmates sometimes get the comics for us. I didn't actually get to go to a comic book store until I was much older.
At what age did you realize that you could actually write comics as a profession?
In terms of conceptualizing the idea of making comics and then selling it to people, that started early. I was doing that in the sixth grade. Me and my twin brother used to draw and write comics as kids and take loose-leaf papers, draw it up, and then sell them to classmates and whatnot. It was maybe junior high school when I finally read the names in a comic book and realized that there are all these other people who create comics. But it still never really occurred to me that I could write comic books, that it was something that I could do, because I also loved computer programming at the time. So that was the direction I took, because that was something that I could see myself making a living at.
That was also easier to explain to your parents.
Exactly. My parents would have thought it was crazy if I told them I wanted to do comic books. The concept would have been crazy to them. But at some point I realized I just liked writing. It wasn't really writing just comic books, it was just writing. Creative writing. I'm always, like, trying to do all these different side projects besides my regular nine to five, because I always need some kind of outlet for that creative part of me.
What finally gave you that push to start creating your own comics?
I'm a big supporter of Kickstarter. I would always fund projects for little gadgets and stuff, because I was in tech. And then one time I saw that somebody had a comic book project on Kickstarter, and when I looked, I found that they have a whole section of people that create comic books. I found a Spike Trotman Kickstarter project.
At first I thought it was her book because she is the face her company. But then I realized that it was for a book by Sophie Campbell.
What was the book?
Shadoweyes. I contributed to that campaign, and it kind of blew my mind when I read it; I'd never seen anything like it, and I loved it because it was different. It wasn't necessarily about superheroes, and you could see the person was building their own world.
I started looking into comic books that people are creating on Kickstarter, and they were people like me: regular people who don't necessarily work in the comic book field. Then Spike also had these sort of instructional PDFs on how to kickstart a comic, and they really inspired me. Sometime in 2016 after I read the PDF and then maybe around December of 2016, I was like, OK, this is what I'm going to do.
Where did the story for Crescent City Monsters come from?
I'm a big fan of The Walking Dead comics. I love what Robert Kirkman did with it, and I wanted to do comic book like that. One that wasn't about superheroes; it was just so different from anything I'd read before. I said to myself, "How can I make a zombie story different?" So the story started off with me wanting to do a zombie story, but as I went along it morphed into something else. So it's a zombie story, but with Haitian voodoo. But I wanted to represent the voodoo better than the way [Hollywood] does it. Because like, you know, vodoun is a religion. But [the word] has all of these negative connotations in the American vernacular, like voodoo economics, etc.
Did you ever consider placing the story in Haiti instead of New Orleans?
I was going to start the story in Haiti, but then that would be a lot of research for me to make it authentic. I haven't been in Haiti in a while; my Creole is rusty. So I thought the next best place is New Orleans. New Orleans has the French vibe, the supernatural, and a historical connection to Haitians who migrated to there.
Why did you decide to make it a period piece?
I needed to create friction. I wanted everything to just feel uncomfortable, and I really wanted to explore some of the racial issues. I wanted to show that the stuff that is happening now is a reflection of what happened in the past. The '60s [in this country] were crazy. There was so much friction going on then. There's so much to play with.
Where did you find Gian Carlo Bernal? His artwork is amazing.
I backed a Kickstarter project that he was the artist on called The Last Days of Kevin. Then I discovered he had worked on another project called The Ronin, which led me to his DeviantArt page. At that point, I had reached out to a few artists already, but I contacted him and let's just say Crescent City Monsters would've been a totally different story if I hadn't found Gian. He's incredible.
In one script I wrote, Jonas had some rings on. [Gian] didn't just put rings on his fingers, he put like different designs on the rings. The one thing I learned too about this is if you're just a writer and you're collaborating with a great artist, the artist can have a lot of sway in how you create the story.
I'm assuming he's working on the second issue.
Yes. He's working on chapter two, and believe it or not, his artwork has even gotten better.
How many issues are you planning on doing in this story arc, and are you building a Crescent City Universe?
It's going to be a 12-issue arc, and yeah, I thought about doing flashbacks and feature other characters. The idea behind Jonah and his family is that the magic they practice is called Kreyol magic, a mixture of African, European, and Native American magic and myth. I want to explore that whole history, his family. And how his familiars, the crow and the owl, are connected. There's also a side story with werewolves, and there's a whole bunch of other stuff I want to explore.