In Tamboerskloof, high above Cape Town, Lauren Beukes wakes to the beautiful sight of Table Mountain and cascading clouds over the roofs of historic houses. Though, what she sees behind it are unsettling horror stories than can make your blood run cold.
Right at her doorstep you get a clue to what kind of person Beukes is. There is a crack in the floorboards, near the threshold, that she has stuffed with newspaper. She saw in a movie that ghosts can find their way through such a crack, so she filled it in just in case.
This is an insight into the twisted mind of a comic book entrepreneur, who earns good money for dark stories that will have you looking over your shoulder. The unsettling world of Beukes caught the eye of international comic book brand DC Comics, thousands of kilometers away in its headquarters in New York. In many ways DC is the Washington DC of North America’s $1.03 billion industry, that sells 99 million copies a year. That’s almost enough to give a comic book to every person in South Africa and Uganda combined.
It all began long before Beukes filled the crack in her floor – with a chance meeting, in an equally unlikely surrounding, at her first book launch at a science fiction convention in 2009 in Montreal, Canada.
“I flew there so broke. I was eating the hotel breakfast and smuggling the extras into my bag,” she says.
Her prospects in Toronto weren’t as hungry.
There, Beukes met Bill Willingham, creator of Fables, one of the biggest adult DC Comic titles, who has been in the industry for over a decade. He set up a meeting for Beukes with DC deputy editor Shelly Bond in New York.
“He said, ‘you are going to go see her. The meeting is on Tuesday at three o’clock. You better be there’,” says Beukes.
Beukes’ existential moment came in the DC lobby, in front of a statue of Superman swinging into a telephone booth (we’re not joking). A more intimidating place could not have been created for a comic book fan like Beukes. Superman had been her hero as long as she could remember.
“The first time I went, shame, there was a young guy in a new suit, he was really sweaty and clutching his portfolio and three different people got his name wrong. Then Shelly Bond comes up to me and was like ‘Lauren, Bill said he was going to send you’.”
“I was thinking I don’t know what I am doing here, I am such a fraud. Now I get to work on titles like 2000AD which were childhood influences,” says Beukes.
Beukes nailed the introduction. She was asked to present a new idea and she gave them a horrifying rendition of Rapunzel, of long hair and fairy tale fame, haunted by her past and a Japanese ghost.
“I thought Rapunzel is all about the hair. Japanese horror is all about the hair. This can’t be a coincidence,” says Beukes.
The story took off and DC wanted more. After Fables, Beukes went back, only to find, to her horror, her ideas had dried up.
That was it, Beukes thought, she was on her way out and on the verge of leaving comic book heaven empty handed. She was on the way out with her head down when she remembered a conversation she had with her friend and cover illustrator, Dale Halvorsen, back in Cape Town.
“I was heading out with [Bond]; I wondered… ‘should I say this idea [Halvorsen] thought of?’ So I told [Bond]. She was like ‘yes, that. Give me the full pitch now. I want to start with the artists.’ She was literally walking me to the elevator.”
Halvorsen’s idea was hauntingly simple: what if the 1980s horror movies were real and where are those kids who were in them today? Halvorsen and Beukes watched horror movies for years and had been playing with the idea for a matter of weeks. They never expected DC to want it.
In this moment of rejection, dejection and desperation, Survivors’ Club was born. The story put Beukes back in business with DC.
“Horror has its own particular set of rules which goes with each genre. It tends to be very formulaic, but if you understand those rules you can subvert them and interesting things start to happen,” says Halvorsen.
“We wanted to pull the rug out from under you, and then you look down and realize the rug is made from human skin, and then you realize it’s not your human feet,” says Beukes.
It is here in Tamboerskloof, ghost free we hope, where the adventure began. They called the brainstorming behind their ideas ‘creepy playtime’, using every dark corner of the living room to fire their imagination.
Under a wall-sized bookshelf filled with action figures and comic books, the pair spent countless hours discussing the sounds a shotgun should make when it blows your brains out; to acting out the horrific adventures their characters endure.
“It’s the only way to make it sound natural. It’s kind of like improvisation; we try to figure out what needs to be said in the scene. In reality we try to creep each other out. Every line is by both of us. We play out dialogue and act it out,” says Beukes.
They draw inspiration from within.
“You take a seed of your personality and you grow it into a tree. There are bits of me in Alice [one of the main actors in Survivors’ Club], and bits of us in all the characters. I just love acting Alice out the most because she is so evil,” says Beukes.
And if you thought Beukes’ neighbors would be worried about the screams in the night – think again – the neighbors are in on the act. Often, they help out by acting out a lingering horrid death.
It’s all about the devil in the detail. The pair believes strongly in creating lifelike scenes, to the point where they will consult a paramedic from New York and a Gambian living on a cyber waste dump to find out how they speak. At one point, Halvorsen had to bring in his action figures because there was so much choreography and then so many characters they were losing track of.
“My eight-year-old daughter comes in the room and says why are you swearing and we tell her we are acting… we’re deep nerds,” says Beukes.
Before Beukes was famous, she would often be found rummaging through the comics at the Readers Den, a nearby comic book store in Rondebosch, Cape Town, recalls owner Mahdi Abrahams.
“Lauren is a long-time comics fan. She’s done quite a bit of comics work over the last few years for main publishers such as DC, Vertigo, and 2000AD. Except for Joe Daly, she is the only South African writer who has managed to break into the international comics scene, to the best of my knowledge. She has definitely put South Africa on the map as a result and naturally serves as an inspiration,” says Abrahams.
“The fact that she is a best-selling novelist with worldwide recognition, writing comics of course, further reinforces the validity of the comics medium, and makes people aware that comics are not a lowbrow art form churned out by hacks.”
There is growing demand to see women take the lead. For the 40-year-old Beukes, being a successful woman in the industry is rare.
“[Beukes] is also very much on the forefront of furthering the position of women in comics: as professionals working in the industry, as an increasingly large part of the comics readership and audience, as well as the growing positive representation of female characters in comics,” says Abrahams.
What has opened the doors for new authors is the search for fresh ideas. For years, comics have catered for the middle-class teenage white male.
“In South Africa we need to get more girls into comics. Every time I go into Readers Den, they want to offer me a reader’s discount, I say to them you can give me a discount, but I want you to give that to the next girl who comes in here. I’ve pushed them that we need to see more comics for girls. I don’t want Archie. I want to see superheroes that aren’t Catwoman and sexualized.”
“We need to be reaching girls. Girls don’t even know that comics are an option available to them. So much of the superhero stuff is so slanted to boys. That’s why you have so many people cosplaying as Harley Quinn, because she is a freaking badass.”
The pair are leading by example. Survivors’ Club features strong female leads like Chenzira Moleko, a black South African who opens the gates of hell playing an arcade game in a shebeen in Soweto. Before you ask, you can probably guess the other five characters being either possessed, haunted or insane.
The love Halvorsen and Beukes have for comic books started in childhood. Back then comic books were scarce and often lost track of running stories.
“I think that’s where storytelling comes in, because you had issue 12 and then issue 33 of Spider-Woman and you had to work out what happened in between,” says Beukes.
These days, it’s much easier getting your hands on comic books. But getting your name out as a twisted like-minded author is a tough task.
“Where we fall down is as writers. [South Africans] can be absolutely incredible in drawing but they haven’t developed the writing skills. Right now there isn’t enough money to support it. I think South African artists need to know that they can pitch internationally, and it’s not as hard as they think it is,” says Beukes.
Another who has been fighting for more than 25 years promoting African talent is Moray Rhoda, known as the godfather of South African comic books.
“I think Lauren Beukes has made an incredible difference to how South African comics are perceived. Her background in writing fiction literature means that people tend to give her work more weight and consider it more seriously than they usually do,” says the 47-year-old design lecturer.
“I think the fact that we have locals making international waves and coming to the attention of international publishers could, finally, be the big thing that inspires our community of comic book creators to make that South African invasion of international comics a reality.”
The challenge is finding readers.
“It’s such a rich environment here. But in having said that, I’ve pitched stories to Vertigo, set in South Africa ,and they come back asking for an American point of view character, so we can understand the environment they are in,” says Beukes.
It’s all part of Beukes’ dream that began with an elevator pitch in New York, that flourished in a house with a crack in the floor on the gentle hills of Cape Town, and ends up delivering horror to the shelves of the comic book stores around the world.