For nearly nine years writer Dirk Manning has put his devoted comic-book readers on edge with his supernaturalhorror series Nightmare World.
He has penned stories about Irish sea-faring creatures known as the merrow, about a baby boy who may or may not be the devil's spawn, about crazed psycho killers and vengeful fathers.
With his trademark image of a black top hat, scarf and trench coat, Manning's comic book persona looks like a late-night TV horror host. So what gives him nightmares?
“The nakedness of man when faced with the absurd,” the Toledo writer said, quoting one of his favorite authors, Franz Kafka. “That's a theme that's very prevalent in a lot of my work.
“I had a very close friend who came down with a horrible mental illness that eventually resulted in this person having to commit suicide. At least in her mind, that was the only way she could have peace with herself. Within a matter of five years she was dead by her own hand. It left me confounded. It left me naked in its absurdity. How can this sweet woman degenerate into this?
“The fact that you can wake up in the morning and kiss your husband or your wife goodbye and go to work and — bam — never see them again. That's what scares me. Just the random absurdities of life.”
Manning's work, as he said, is built on such cruelties that come often for no reason. It's how one reacts to these moments that truly defines character and makes for some riveting reads.
“To me it's about the characters and the morality plays that writing about the supernatural can give you,” he said. “You're not bound by the confines of the mundane, but you can still speak about the human condition in very extreme conditions. Rod Serling from The Twilight Zone, H.P. Lovecraft, Alfred Hitchcock, they took normal people and put them in an extreme set of circumstances and then [would] say, ‘Go!'
“I'm not a gorehound,” Manning, 35, says. “I don't like to write about people getting hurt. I don't like to write about people getting killed. That stuff doesn't interest me. Tell me the story of what someone will do to protect their kid, tell me what someone will do to right a wrong … to stay alive or to protect their integrity. That's what interests me.”
Toledo born and raised, Manning was a voracious reader growing up, he said, devouring books as quickly as he could. As a teenager he discovered comic books. Among his first reads were the graphic novels Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, two seminal works that ushered in a new era of comic books as more than just stories for kids.
“I was a Stephen King baby before that [and] I was a Twilight Zone baby, but reading that stuff and just realizing the things that you can do with juxtaposition and character development and pacing and just the way you can communicate with comics, using words and pictures, it blew me away. … Twenty years later, here I am.”
Not that his arrival as a professional comic-book writer was easy.
As Manning is fond of saying, “I'm an overnight story seven years in the making.”
After graduating with an English degree from Bowling Green State University, Manning worked as a music journalist. But comics were his true focus.
In 2001 he hatched what he considered to be “a pretty revolutionary plan” of meeting artists and writing eight-page stories that they would want to draw.
The kicker was to do it all online. For free.
“To me, it was a free way to get our work out there,” he said.
Manning hooked up with Golden Goat Studios in Kansas, which had a stable of artists, and they began posting their collaborations online at nightmareworld.com by 2002. It was a “guerilla operation,” Manning said. “This was me at a computer, and an artist in Louisiana, an artist in Kansas, an artist in Tennessee, an artist in Alberta, Canada.”
Word about the project got out and young comic artists, looking for an opportunity
to get their work seen, began contacting Manning. The Nightmare World series grew from six short stories to 12, then 13, then 24, and finally to 52, with an overarching theme to tie in nearly every story, part of Manning's grand plan. In 2007, Image comics, one of the big four in the industry — the other three being Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse — began re-releasing the Nightmare World series online through its Shadowline branch. Within two months, Nightmare World was the site's most-read comic.
Last year, Shadowline published the first collection of Nightmare World stories, Volume One: Thirteen Tales of Terror ($15.99, available locally at Borders at Westfield Franklin Park or Amazon.com.) The graphic novel sold well enough that Volume Two: Leave the Light On was just released.
“I think it's really interesting what he does when he plays with conventions,” said Leah Lederman, 27, of West Toledo, who was waiting in line with other Manning friends and fans at a recent book signing at Borders. “You can see broader literary influences being put into his book, so it's not just a comic book. It's not just a story; it's drawing in from his knowledge of literature and even some semi-autobiographical things, which are fantastic. They're shielded through this kind of dark, crazy world but you can definitely see the writer behind all of that. That's something I never knew you could do with graphic novels.”
Manning is hopeful that volumes three and four will be released in 2011 and 2012,
respectively. Meanwhile, he's moved on to other projects, including a fantasy-based series called Farseeker that Manning describes as “The Hobbit meets The Magnificent Seven”; a married superhero mom called Hope, and Tales of Mr. Rhee, a supernatural noir about a paranormal troubleshooter “who doesn't always do the right things and that usually comes back to bite him in very big ways.” All three series will be available for free online. Manning is also part of a new subscription-based site, Comics Pipeline, featuring work by other professional comic book creators.
To reach that point is difficult. Manning still has day jobs to help support his family, and he's what's considered a true success in the industry. For those would like to take a stab at a comic book career, Manning offers advice through his online column, Write or Wrong, as well as his Facebook page, and in comic book conventions, such as Detroit Fanfare in Dearborn this weekend and Mid-Ohio Con in Columbus on Nov. 6-7.
He also suggests budding comic-book creators pick up Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud.
“Let's be blunt: I did not make any money doing comic books for eight years doing
my own work. …. That's a long time not to be making money on a project I work on three or four hours a night,” he said. “Another comic book artist said ‘You have to have a sickness to want to do this.' I have to do this. This is the only way I want to write.”
Contact Kirk Baird at