In the past few years, the marriage between Hollywood and comic books has become more tightly woven than ever before. Whether it’s turning a beloved illustrated classic into the next big screen blockbuster or expanding a fan favorite television show into a monthly comic series, there’s no shortage of possibilities.
David Dastmalchian is no stranger to the Hollywood comic book world, having appeared in THE DARK KNIGHT, THE FLASH, both ANT-MAN films, and James Gunn’s upcoming SUICIDE SQUAD. Now he’s penned his first comic book: Dark Horse’s COUNT CROWLEY: RELUCTANT MIDNIGHT MONSTER HUNTER. We got him to peel back the curtain on his career and see how fright nights, comic spinner racks, and maybe Famous Monsters magazine helped birth this new hero of the night.
Famous Monsters. THE DARK KNIGHT, GOTHAM, TWIN PEAKS, BLADE RUNNER, MACGYVER, SUICIDE SQUAD, DUNE… this is just a small piece of your extensive filmography. You’ve been part of the most popular films of our time and also managed to play some standout characters. What’s makes you gravitate to these unique roles?
David Dastmalchian. It’s an interesting blend of fate, fortune, and focus. Being cast in THE DARK KNIGHT was my first time setting foot on a film set. Imagine being a lifelong comic book collector and a giant film nut, then all of a sudden standing on set next to the greatest cinematic portrayal of the clown prince of crime. It was insane. At the time, I was making a very humble living doing theater and some occasional television commercials, and from the time I first started acting, I always found the characters that lived in the shadows. I have this fondness and connectivity to those who are misunderstood. I think it also comes from my love for classic horror cinema. I find that characters on the edge challenge and excite me. Although, as an actor, especially at the beginning of your career, you’re at the whim of what audition you’re given. So there is that fortune and fate factor. The part I auditioned for in THE DARK KNIGHT was not the part I ultimately played — the audition was for one of the masked heist participants who rob the bank with the Joker at the beginning. Then I got cast for the Thomas Schiff role, and all of a sudden I was playing this dark character who is really scary but, you come to realize, is also sympathetic. I love getting to explore people like that. I did it again in Denis Villeneuve’s PRISONERS — you’re looking at the character on the surface, and it’s similar to how we look at the Phantom [of the Opera] or the Hunchback [of Notre Dame] or in many regards, the Wolf Man. They’re scary, terrifying, bad, evil, whatever word you want to use. Then as you get deeper and you peel back the layers, you realize that there’s somebody we can empathize with inside.
FM. They’re all tortured souls.
DD. Yeah, and I think a lot of that comes from my background in stage. I think my understanding that a really great, dark, twisted, tortured soul is going to be brought about collaboratively by incredible makeup, wardrobe, lighting, direction, and writing, but underneath it, if there is not a character we can connect with, then it’s not going to do what it needs to do. I think that’s why was drawn to actors like Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney Jr — what he did with his eyes was insane. And Boris Karloff! That guy’s eye acting was off the charts.
FM. Back in 2014, I worked at Dreamworld Comics in Culver City. I remember you coming in one day and picking up a stack of comics. If memory serves correctly, you had some Ant-Man in there, but it didn’t feel like the typical role-research adventure. You walked in like comics were in your blood. Have you always been drawn to the paneled world of storytelling?
DD. I was always intrigued by the world of comic books. As a kid I would see the old reruns of the BATMAN TV show, or I’d watch the cartoon SUPER FRIENDS. When I was in third grade, I saw a comic book on the spinning rack at a convenience store and asked my parents to buy it. It was AVENGERS #249, and they got it for me, which was rare. I ended up fascinated with every page of that book. We had some friends who were into comics, so I’d pore over their collections. Then I found the magic of our local brick and mortar comic shop in Kansas City: Clint’s Comics. I wandered in there to fill the holes in the series I could get from the spinning racks, but what I discovered was this world of comic books that I gleefully jumped into and never left. It was such a huge moment for me as a kid, who even at a young age was struggling with anxiety and depression, trying to find outlets and ways of escape and expression. I started with AVENGERS, then fell into WEST COAST AVENGERS. Then I became obsessed with DETECTIVE COMICS. I always loved the Joker. I thought he was the greatest villain in modern mythology. The really fascinating thing about comic shops and why brick and mortar shops are so important is that while crawling around through rows of long boxes and back issues at Clint’s Comics, I discovered vintage horror comics! The old EC stuff, CREEPY and EERIE. I fell in love with BLOOD OF DRACULA and the more contemporary horror books at the time — there was great MORBIUS run happening, and WEREWOLF BY NIGHT.
FM. Anyone who’s been keeping an eye on the comic nerdosphere has probably seen you dressed as your alter ego, Dr. Fearless. When did that begin, and did Famous Monsters have some part in it?
DD. Oh, yeah! So there I was, an elementary school lad in the suburbs of Kansas City. It was the 1980s, and I was in a very religious household, so I had to sneak downstairs on Friday nights to watch Crematia Mortem’s FRIDAY NIGHTMARE, our local creature feature host. Through Crematia, I was introduced to all of my early heroes. They scared the living sh-t out of me, but they also kept me coming back for more. There was something about the work in the performances of Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing… It was around the same time I was going through the long boxes at Clint’s Comics and finding old horror comics. I began to piece together all of this wonderful mythology of monsters — from Frankenstein all the way to the RE-ANIMATOR stuff. Finding and discovering the magic of things like Conan, Heavy Metal, Fangoria, and then this incredible thing that still happens to this day: the weekend garage sale. I’ll never forget seeing those classic Famous Monsters. There was something so wonderful about the love and adoration the magazine had for the actors as well as the creators behind the films. I loved reading interviews, stories, and sometimes gossipy tidbits behind the scenes of what had happened during the making of a certain film. It instilled in me the wonder that comes along with the culture of horror fandom. And as a kid, it was neat because I was being introduced by the old guard to all this stuff that had meant so much to them when they were young. By the time I was reading an interview with, let’s say, Peter Cushing, it was close to 40 years after the original performance.
FM. As someone who is now creating his own monsters, where did the inspiration for COUNT CROWLEY come from?
DD. I had a notion from probably age 12 that kind of grew and grew: how cool it would be if a person hosting creature features was only someone’s alter ego, and that they were actually a monster hunter? They knew all the secret mythology that the rest of us didn’t know. We had seen something kind of similar to that when the original FRIGHT NIGHT came out — I loved that they went and got the horror host to help them. Then when I grew up, difficulties and darkness began to manifest in my life: a battle with substance abuse, as well as my struggle with depression. Seventeen years ago, I found the miracle of sobriety. Similarly to Van Helsing populating his doctor’s bag with tools a monster hunter would use approach a coven of vampires, I had to create my own invisible bag of weapons to protect myself, to find peace and enjoy my life in spite of having depression, anxiety, and being an addict. I think that’s where the underlying meat, the soul of the story started to really grow. I put myself into the hero, Jerri Bartman, who is as plagued by the demons within herself as she is by the monsters that she is going to discover are real. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel when it came to werewolves, vampires, zombies, witches, or any other creatures. [Artist Lukas Ketner] is a mad scientist freakin’ genius, and has done the most beautiful job conveying them, but I still wanted them to feel like classic monsters. We’ve also entered an era where the concept of distrusting the media has become so prevalent that we’ve made a phrase for it: “fake news”. So monsters, as part of a legion of evil through the generations, have been able to spin all kinds of fake information into our society. What you and I have been taught by movies and comic books is all a lie in the world of Count Crowley. Wooden stakes do not slay a vampire. The silver bullet will not stop a werewolf. One thing I was very adamant about when creating this world was that I wanted the way we kill a monster to be so hard it would seem almost impossible.
FM. I feel like I need to know, now. I don’t think I can wait till the book comes out.
DD. [laughs] Ah man, it’s so fun thinking about the ways to stop these incredible monsters. I was hugely inspired by Emil Ferris’ MY FAVORITE THING IS MONSTERS. It’s one of the greatest graphic novels ever made. Emil plays with this idea of good monsters and bad monsters. One of the wonderful challenges with Jerri in her journey is going to be when it comes to a “good” monster. Is it possible to save a good monster? Even If I only get this four-issue run, I’m grateful for it. Four issues, 22 pages each, of incredible artwork. Every single panel, every single page, every cover that Lukas has created outdoes the previous one. But my hope is that enough people dig this story that we’ll get to keep making it. I have years of arcs and stories that I want to explore.
FM. Nowadays, storytelling goes well beyond just film, television, and books. We have video games that are starting to tell much more in-depth stories, and with the growth of VR, people are really getting immersed in these worlds. When I saw the first few preview pages of COUNT CROWLEY, I immediately thought that if TellTale Games was still around, it would have been right up their alley. Do you see that kind of future for your story?
DD. You know, it’s fascinating… the way Count Crowley came about was me thinking up this story and finding the meaning behind it, and I initially envisioned it as a television series. I [needed] advice about how to pitch television series, so I sat down with Peter Lenkov, who actually is a huge comic book guy but also the mastermind behind rebooting MACGYVER, HAWAII FIVE-0, and MAGNUM P.I. I was trying to get advice from him about how to put together a pitch for a TV show. I mentioned the show KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER, and Peter sat up and was like “Oh, I love Kolchak!” Next thing I know, Peter has connected me with Mike Richardson at Dark Horse with the idea of writing CROWLEY as a comic book, which blew my mind. In all my wildest dreams I never imagined I would get to do a comic series, let alone a horror comic series. The possibility of going to and exploring the television landscape now, especially with the streaming opportunities that are out there, is very much like comic book creation. Then you start thinking about interactive gameplay, and I was like, with this world and with the mythology it would be so fun to create a video game or a VR experience where you are the hero. Let’s say you’re not Jerri, let’s say you get to create your own horror host who is also secretly a monster hunter. I’m really gratefulI have so many awesome people supporting me and connecting me with really talented collaborators. They’re making this moment happen in such a beautiful way.
FM. That’s so awesome. Time for some IMDB True or False! It says that you used to be an Alaskan ice fisherman and also a Circus Performer. Is that true?
DD. [laughter] Uh, true and false. True, I was a Alaskan fisherman when I was in college. I got a great scholarship to go the theater school of DePaul University in Chicago, but even with my scholarship I still was struggling to pay rent, food, bills and pay for my comic collecting and Famous Monsters subscription. I had read for years in the back of comic books that you could make all this money working in Alaska. So I sent away for one of those things in the back of a comic book, which was $20 to “get the secrets of how to get a job in Alaska”. Basically, all they did was mail what I could have gotten from the Yellow Pages — phone numbers for all the fishing companies in Seattle, which is where fishing companies that work in Alaska are usually based out of. I asked for a leave of absence out of school, took a Greyhound bus and my last bit of cash up to Seattle, and got a job on a fishing boat. I ended up doing it for quite a long time because the money was great, but it was also an amazing adventure. So yeah, that’s true. Circus performer… I am a firebreather, I swallow swords, and I have tamed some wild beasts.
FM. That’s just another Saturday night, right?
DD. Yeah, just another day of me trying to get my kids to bed.
FM. Lastly and most importantly, who is your movie monster spirit animal?
DD. The Wolf Man. I wear a pin on my shirt. I think that the werewolf is a fantastic metaphor for addiction, or for people who feel they’ve got inner demons. That feeling of trying to control something that causes you to hurt the people you love. In the mythology of Count Crowley, there is no cure for lycanthropy yet. But that doesn’t mean Jerri isn’t going to do her damndest to find it. My lycanthropy, my werewolf inside, is completely under control at the moment, but that doesn’t mean the sleeping beast doesn’t sit inside of me and wait for me to give it that first drink that would wake it back up.
COUNT CROWLEY #1 ships to stores on October 23, 2019.