Split Lip – Horror Stories from an Indifferent Universe

Split Lip is a horror anthology webcomic in the tradition of Creepy and Tales from the Crypt. Creator Sam Costello writes each of the short, self-contained stories, which run the gamut from body horror to ghost stories to creepy close encounters sure to send a shiver up your spine. Each story is illustrated by a different artist, and their styles vary as widely as the myriad themes Costello explores. The result is a remarkable collection of terrifying tales—with something for horror fans of all stripes.

Costello just released the third printed volume of Split Lip stories, Termites in Your Smile and Other Stories.  Costello emerges as a keen student of horror, one who understands the nagging thoughts that keep us awake at night, as well as sharp-eyed curator of artistic talent. We spoke with him about working with different artists, the economics of horror comics, and why it’s far more frightening when your protagonists live than when they die. Note: This contains plot spoilers for some of Costello’s stories, but does not spoil their inherent creepiness.

Why did you decide to start working on Split Lip?

Originally, I had thought about trying to get into working on comics about 10 years ago, so maybe around 2000, 2001. I was kind of going through the traditional channels of trying to network and trying to place short stories in anthologies as a way to break in and build up connections, and I just wasn’t having a lot of success with it. I had placed maybe one story in a pretty small anthology, and I realized that I didn’t want to have my opportunity to get my stories into other people’s anthologies to stop me from telling the stories that I wanted to tell. And I realized looking at the web and webcomics at the time that there was no reason I couldn’t do that also. So basically, I started writing the stories that I had been making notes on for a while and thinking about, and once I had maybe six or seven scripts done, I started looking for artists.

What about the horror genre, and specifically short stories in horror, attracts you?

Basically, as long as I can remember, I’ve liked horror. I was actually just talking about this the other day, trying to figure out what it is that makes some people like horror and some people not. And I’m not sure I necessarily have the greatest answer as to why I like it; it’s just as long as I can remember, I’ve liked scary things.

As far as the short story, there’s just something I like about the short form, the sense that everything in it really matters, and that it’s not a high-pressure situation for the writer necessarily, but something about the compression of the story makes it seem very urgent and very exciting, too.

You explore such a wide variety of subjects and subgenres in your stories. What do you start with when you begin a story? Is it the germ of something you personally find creepy? Do you try to pay tribute to certain writers or genres? What about the most recent one,

So that’s a good example. That story started out as just thinking about that point, when there was a changeover in Hollywood from silent films to sound films, and just thinking about points in history where a major industrial change like that can be disruptive. And I think I probably first got interested in that moment during a film class in college if I had to guess. And that just sort of stuck with me, and as it germinated, I thought, well, there were bound to be winners and losers from that, people who had done well and people who didn’t, and that the person who knew how to use the sound process when they first introduced it was going to have a lot of power. And from thinking about that scenario, it struck me as being a particularly rich setting for a darker story.

For other ones, they could be things that I just find personally upsetting or scary. One that was up on the site last year, “Termites in Your Smile,” ends with the main character and all of his teeth falling out and then his jaw falling off. And that image of the teeth falling out was from when I was younger. A pretty frequently recurring stress dream that I would have is that my teeth were falling out, and it’s something that you can’t stop and you can’t control and you don’t know why it’s happening.

What’s great about “An Old Man, Looking” is that you have this really frightening image of the man looking in your window, but what’s really much more horrifying in the end is this idea of illness and what you can’t control. Do you play off that a lot, the classic horror tropes with the things in life that are really, truly horrifying?

It’s definitely something that I have in mind when I write. I don’t think I necessarily try to look for ways to embody a metaphor and turn that into the monster or the villain of the piece.

But what tends to interest me about horror is not the things that will kill us, but what happens to us in the course of being alive. It always strikes me that, once your character is dead, they’re dead. The worst thing that could happen to them has happened to them, and that’s it. It’s kind of over. But continuing to live and continuing to go through all the potentially horrible things that exist in all of our lives, absent of the supernatural or anything like that, that seems almost more frightening somehow—and certainly a greater challenge. So when I’m writing, I’m thinking about these larger issues of people’s lives and larger themes, but that death is almost an escape from the horror, not the horror itself.

That’s true. The one that stuck with me was “The Cousin of Death,” where the man has his body stolen. That kept me awake for a while.

I’m not sure whether to apologize or say, “Thank you.” Maybe a little of both. Yeah, that’s a great example. That’s one where the character, in a different version of that story, could die, but that’s not all that scary, actually. The scarier thing to think is not only is this guy stuck in this stasis, this kind of in-between state where he’s still alive and can see everything that’s going on around him, but can’t interact with anyone. That on one hand is horrifying.

But on the other hand, there’s the implication that there could be tons of people in that same situation all over the world, and there’s no way for us to know, and they’re essentially consigned to this ongoing torment, which is, in fact, something totally random that’s been visited upon them. It’s not that they are being punished. It’s not that they did something. It’s just what happened in the world, in the same way that any of us get sick or get in a car accident or whatever else. It’s not something that we did. It’s just the chaos of the world. And that sense that the universe is not inherently moral, that the universe is just this space in which we exist, and that the universe is kind of indifferent to us is the thing that I think is the most scary.

We don’t see a lot of straight horror comics in webcomics. We see a lot of webcomics that use horror tropes, but are ultimate comedy stories, or science fiction stories. Do you have any sense of why we don’t see the straight horror stories?

I think there might be a lot of different reasons that could be driving that. One of them is probably just sheer economics. The overall comics-buying horror audience I think is smaller than a lot of other genres. So your potential for selling a lot of books or t-shirts or whatever to fund the making of the comics is naturally a bit lower. I think maybe the overall audience for horror is a bit smaller. Everybody likes to laugh. Most people can enjoy a good romance, or might like an action story or something like that. But not everybody is willing to dive into horror for whatever reason. I think in some cases people might not want to put themselves through these things or may not want to be confronted with gore or things like that. And I’ve found that that’s one of the difficulties I’ve run into with Split Lip, because while I entirely agree with your characterization that it’s a straight-up horror comic, and that’s what I’m trying to do, I find that when people read it, especially people who don’t necessarily read a lot of comics, what they tell me is, “It’s not what I was expecting. It is a horror comic, but it’s not what I thought you meant when you said ‘horror,’ because it’s not slashers; it’s not zombies; it’s not vampires; it’s not gore for its own sake; it’s not playing with the dodgy gender politics of a lot of mainstream horror.” And oftentimes, when people encounter [Split Lip], oftentimes it’ll find an audience. But I think it’s that label that puts some people off.

You do such a wonderful job of matching the pieces to the artwork. How much direction do you give the artists? Or do you see an artist’s style and know they’d be perfect for a certain story?

It’s been different for different circumstances. There are situations where I’ll write a story without a particular artist in mind, and try to track someone down and try to match that right style to what I’m envisioning for the story. In all cases, I’m writing in the full script format, so I’m giving the artist panel-by-panel descriptions and dialogue. In other situations, I will write for a specific artist. And sometimes somebody that I’ve worked with once or twice before, when we get to detailing, they say, “I’d really like to draw something that has X, Y, or Z in it.” And I’ll try to build a story around that. That’s less common, but not unheard of, and has been a lot of fun.

It’s amazing how well the artists connect with the stories.

I think I’ve been really lucky to work with the folks that I have, and me being somebody who’s not particularly a name in the industry, and I’m just kind of doing this on my own. Of course I pay my artists, but I can’t pay them very much. I think I’ve been lucky to work with folks who are, first of all, dedicated and who are starting to show up in larger indie and larger publishers’ books. Some of the folks I’ve worked with have had stuff out in Image, in Slave Labor, IDW, BOOM!—all over the place. I’ve been very happy and, as I keep saying, very fortunate to work with these people, and I’m gratified that it shows on the page.

And where does the title “Split Lip” come from?

The title doesn’t come from any one thing. It’s not a specific reference to anything. It’s just this idea that I had, that I wanted a title that captured a sort of visceral sensation of the skin of your body coming apart. I wanted something kind of short, memorable, that had a good sound, but evoked that fundamental sort of body discomfort that I was hoping the stories might induce.

[Split Lip]