Zac Thompson talks THE REPLACER, a new original graphic novella based on a true story from his childhood

Zac Thompson.

By Zack Quaintance — Writer Zac Thompson (Age of X-Man, The Dregs) has a truly powerful new graphic novella due next month, on April 24, to be precise. The work, which is called The Replacer, is illustrated by Arjuna Susini, colored by Dee Cunniffe, and lettered by Marshall Dillon. Set in the 1990s, it tells a story from Thompson’s childhood tinged with horror genre trappings to accentuate the feelings, fears, and events.

I loved this work (click here for our in-depth TRADE RATING review), which stands as a moving and illustrative encapsulation of childhood tragedies and our responses to them, filtered through a very personal lens. I could continue, but Thompson—for obvious reasons—has far more interesting things to say. I’ll wrap up this intro by simply noting that the final cutoff for The Replacer is Monday, April 1…and that I highly recommend calling your local shop to pre-order.

Now, here’s my recent conversation with Zac Thompson…

Final orders for The Replacer are due 4/1/2019.

Q: Many comics readers may be familiar with your Marvel and creator-owned work, but The Replacer is something wholly different and far more personal (and really really powerful). I understand it’s based on a true story from your life. How much of you and your childhood are in The Replacer?

Zac Thompson: I grew up in a small town, in the smallest province in Canada. When I was seven, in 1995, my father suffered a massive stroke. The Replacer is somewhat based on that turning point for me with a few changes for the sake of verisimilitude. My two brothers and I were left at a loss when my Dad left our childhood home after his stroke. In the ensuing years, he spent a lot of time in hospitals and nursing homes that were better equipped to help him in his recovery. So the timeline of the book is noticeably sped up from how this works in real life.

The horror of losing my able-bodied, mentally aware father at a very young age colored my world for a very long time. When my father eventually returned home he was paralyzed on the entire right side of his body and could no longer speak more than a few words. When I was a kid, this seemed terrifying to me. I couldn’t make sense of what happened to him when he was whisked away in an ambulance. It’s something I remembered clear as crystal, seeing my father struggling to use his legs as he was carted off for a year, only to return a completely different person. It’s something that left me feeling owed, like I was short changed a real upbringing with an able bodied father. I was confused, angry, and had no outlet for my frustration until much later in life. So yeah, The Replacer is heavily influenced by my isolated upbringing with my disabled father, single mother, and two siblings. Some of the details are changed for the sake of protecting the lives of those closest to me, but the emotions are all ripped from my own heart.

Q: One thing I thought was really well-done was how unflinchingly the little boy (who I assume you based on yourself) is depicted as unable to deal with his loss. Did writing this story teach you more about yourself, and did it help you process some of these experiences from childhood at all?

ZT: I think when you experience tragedy at a really young age you come to think you’re broken or that you deserve something more than what you got. Writing The Replacer certainly helped me make peace with a lot of that longing for something more, something vague. My whole writing life is about processing that feeling for something I feel like I missed out on earlier in life. But this project in particular was hard because it really required me to go back to my past and fully immerse myself in something that’s hard to revisit. The protagonist, Marcus, is based on an amalgamation of myself and my youngest brother. So in coming up with his character, I went through old photos and journals to bring myself back to what I felt like as a kid. It might not come as a surprise that I’ve been sitting on this story for years, trying to find the best way to approach it. So in finally sitting down to put the script together, I was deathly afraid of what I may have found out about myself along the way.

I knew the ending from the moment I started the first page. I knew that capturing these experiences was going to be tough, and sometimes nearly impossible to write. There are a few scenes in here where I had to imagine myself closer to events than I actually was. The scene were Marcus actually witnesses his father in the midst of his stroke was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to script. I had tears in my eyes the entire time.

Writing the book definitely taught me how to make peace with some parts of myself I’ve always considered ugly. My childhood was painful and confusing. I looked for answers in a lot of places and never really found anything that felt like it could help outside of pure escapism into comics, film, or television. So in writing the book, I learned to make peace with the hurt inside myself and that lack of answers that can consume you when something happens to you at a very young age. I became content with letting the mystery be, so to speak, and forgiving parts of myself for acting in ways that were truly ugly. When I finished scripting the book, I had a breakdown and wept for hours. It felt like I had truly let part of myself go that I had been holding onto for years.

Q: The graphic novella format is relatively untapped within the medium. What were some of the specific reasons you found it ideally suited for The Replacer?

ZT: I'm excited to tell this story as a graphic novella because I wanted to create a personal story that didn't rely on issue breaks to build tension but instead create an engrossing story that slowly mounts tension in a one and done format. The idea was to create something akin to a full horror movie. An immersive experience that you're wrapped up in and doesn't let you go. The decision to format the story as a 60-page OGN gives readers three issues of content for the price of two, while also telling the story in the most captivating and complete way possible. You get the beginning, middle, and end in one read. The whole story at once.

Q: What was it like collaborating with artist Arjuna Susini (who did an absolutely phenomenal job) on a story that was so personal to you?

ZT: Arjuna was a dream collaborator. He came in and really wanted to ensure that this story felt authentic to what I had experienced. We spent a lot of time crafting character sketches and designing the home where most of the story took place. I wanted everything to feel tight and confined and show that there was this outside force encroaching on everyone in the book. As things progressed, Arjuna did small subtle things to evoke mood and really captured a lot of the pain and confusion in the emotions of the characters. His storytelling decisions went a really long way into conveying just how overwhelming this would feel for everyone involved. But most of all, he brought an incredible horror lens to everything. His design of The Replacer was something that I couldn’t have been more thrilled with. It took a couple discussions about what the monster was, and what it does, but once he got it, HE GOT IT. And man, there are some truly terrifying images in here that Arjuna really helped craft. He was the best collaborator I could have asked for in telling this story.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Dee Cuniffe as well. Dee and I have collaborated on three projects now, and every time I feel like we evolve as a creative team. Dee brought a real look to the book that captured the comics I grew up with, while adding a ton of depth to the home. He designed wallpapers and color schemes that added to the storytelling on every page.

Q: I found the balance between the paranormal and the depictions of a family coping with medical challenges to be really well-done and engrossing, how much did you think about interspersing those scenes as you wrote this script?

ZT: It was really important to me that readers understood the reality of this struggle as much as they’d understand the supernatural conclusions Marcus drew. I felt that if I’m dealing with disability that I have a responsibility to deal with the struggle of coping authentically. It’s not easy for someone to learn to walk and talk again, and I felt that if I was a little kid looking for fiction that empathized with my experience that I would have felt short changed if that wasn’t in there. The paranormal stuff was more about how, specifically, Marcus was coping and I felt that it carried more weight to see him make these conclusions in the face of raw evidence.

But beyond all of that, when something like this happens to you, everyone has an explanation for what happened. Everyone wants to tell you why or how but none of it makes perfect sense in the face of the world you’re living in. Even the most scientific explanations feel like they’re lacking because they’re centered around treating this human being that you love like a defective piece of hardware that can be poked, prodded, and molded until it’s back in fighting shape. The whole thing tears you from a nice idyllic reality into something more sinister, and I wanted to capture all of that. All of the conflict, all of the confusion, and all of the overwhelming desire to have it all make sense.

Q: Where did you find the supernatural lore you incorporate into this story?

ZT: When I was originally scripting this series, I was deep down a rabbit hole on Japanese folklore. I found it immensely interesting that most of their paranormal demons, ghosts, or otherwise were not inherently menovolant. Most of the time these creatures were merely misunderstood. I wanted something like that for Marcus’ journey because I really didn’t want to go the full pure evil route, as I felt that it would undercut embodying the horror within a disabled person. It was paramount to me that when Marcus made conclusions about Gary that we didn’t compare a stroke victim to a beast from hell, or insatiable demon who was hellbent on spreading fear and hate. None of that would have worked for me. It was all about finding the right thing that would ignite Marcus’ mind but strike a careful balance. Of course, once I found some of the lore I twisted it to make it my own. I didn’t want things to be too clean, because there’s this tendency in horror to give everything a clear explanation… but horror is so personal that oftentimes that clarity actually diminishes the final product.

Q: What can you tell us about the role religion played in your life and the ways you bring it into the story here? As someone who was raised in the Catholic Church, I found the criticism of kaiju movies as “unclean films” to be especially familiar and poignant...

ZT: I grew up Roman Catholic. There were things that were always banned from my life because of it. I wasn’t allowed to watch The Simpsons, I wasn’t allowed to watch horror movies, or anything that had hints of violence. I think in the face of what happened to my father, there was this hope that religion was going to help us make sense of it all. But for me, I think religion gave me something else to rebel against because it basically told me to be content with what happened to my Dad. That everything we endured as a family had happened for a reason, and that felt so bogus. I struggled with religion for my entire childhood because it just felt like an opportunity to control and limit my worldview. It felt like it was ignoring my pain rather than explaining it in a way that made sense. In many ways it was given to me as this crutch to keep me afloat but it really only made me more angry and confused about the world I lived in. I wanted to capture that in this book because it’s often a fixture of possession stories.

When you’re young and religious, tragedy seems to be taken as this great gift that has befallen you. You’re made to suffer so that others can learn from your journey, but it all felt like this great game of bullshit to me. It didn’t add up, and I really wanted to take the inversion of what you typically see in possession stories and confront people with the reality of that. The way we look at the Catholic Church in 2019, is a very different thing than when The Exorcist came out in 1973. I wanted to show just how dissatisfying my experience with religion was and that it actually, in many ways, made my Dad’s stroke worse (at least for me).

Q: Overall, is there a specific question you sought to raise with this story, and if so, what can you tell us about that?

ZT: I think we often don’t think about the way disability affects those closest to the disabled. We’re told that in the face of tragedy we’re supposed to endure and smile and keep moving. But the reality is so much more complicated. I wanted to show people the pain we endure and how just because something happens to someone else doesn’t mean we can’t lose part of ourselves in the process.

It’s about shining a light on the ugly fallout of tragedy. How children, families, and people closest to disability can lose themselves too. But more than anything, The Replacer is about throwing a lifeline to these people. Showing them that if they’re angry, confused, resentful, worried, sad in the face of a disabled family that they’re not alone… and those ugly feelings are normal.  

THE REPLACER / $7.99 / 64 pages / Full Color / ON SALE 04.24.2019
Zac Thompson
Artist: Arjuna Susini
Colorist: Dee Cunniffe
Letterer: Marshall Dillon

The Replacer is available for pre-order now.

Check out our review of The Replacer and other long-form comicbook storytelling in Trade Rating.

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.