Of the four Sandman Universe titles, House of Whispers is far and away the wild card. Following somewhat in the thematic steps of House of Secrets and House of Mystery, House of Whispers introduces a brand-new House to the Dreaming, plucked out of a mix of voodoo, African and Indigenous mythologies and quite literally dropped into the world of Daniel, Lucien, Matthew, Merv and the rest of the familiar cast. Writer Nalo Hopkinson is an accomplished prose author who has earned multiple award nominations for her fantasy and horror stories set primarily within communities of color—a viewpoint too rarely explored in either genre. Artist Dominike “Domo” Stanton has been at the comic game a bit longer, but is most often associated with action-packed superhero offerings, not the morally murky world of Vertigo. Colorist John Rauch and letterer Deron Bennett, both prolific industry veterans at this point, round out the creative team.
In advance of House of Whispers #1, which sets the groundwork for a complex interweaving of mythical and political subterfuge and the interpersonal drama of a young Black family in the midst of it all, Paste invited the complete creative team of House of Whispers—Hopkinson, Stanton, Rauch and Bennett—to talk us through one of the first issue’s most impressive spreads, as well as their general approaches to the book and its role within the larger Sandman Universe. Check out their commentary below, alongside process art of Mistress Mambo Erzulie Freda of Dahomey’s all-inclusive welcoming party. House of Whispers #1 hits comic store shelves this Wednesday.
House of Whispers #1 Layout Art by Dominike “Domo” Stanton
One of the huge delights for me as a prose person is seeing the people, settings and scenes I envision become real images. I’m very fond of this spread. It’s the first scene I imagined for this first issue, and everyone has made it so gorgeous! It is set in the main ballroom of the house of Mistress Mambo Erzulie Freda of Dahomey. She is the loa (or lwa, or orisha, or deity) of love and luxury. She’s hosting a party attended by the spirits of her human followers.
I have combined a number of different traditions from this belief system. It’s a set of real-world living religions with millions of believers, so I’m trying to reference as many of those traditions as I can throughout the series. Erzulie sits in state on her throne in the center. I asked for her to be in mermaid form, holding her mirror. I was also adamant that she should have a goodly amount of meat on her bones. A skinny mermaid is a chilly mermaid. She is greeting Uncle Monday, a shape-shifting alligator man from a Florida folktale which references the fact that many Africans who escaped slavery in the region were welcomed by the local Seminole peoples.
Uncle Monday is being ushered in by Alter Boi, a genderqueer follower of Erzulie’s. (I told Domo I wanted zir to look a bit like an aging Grace Jones. However, this weekend I saw a documentary about the 70-year-old Ms. Jones, and it seems aging is just not something she does!) Uncle Monday is greeting Erzulie with words from one of her praise-songs.
There are people just hanging out and talking in one part of the ballroom, children playing a ring game in another, Erzulie’s praise-singers playing music and chanting odes to her, a person in drag calling people to compete in strutting their stuff on a runway. Her drag name is Djanga Défilée, which is a multilingual play on words & meaning, as well as referencing Haitian revolutionary history. In addition to being special to women and children, Erzulie considers queer people to be in her care. I wanted to make sure that was visible. And Domo ran with it. At one point I asked him what was holding on the bow ties of the two shirtless men to the left, then I decided that was better left to my imagination. And if I recall correctly, the men rope dancing in the air was Domo’s idea.
Domo and John’s work leaves me in awe; the multiple skin tones and hair textures (Black and Latinx people don’t come in one shade), the range of ages, gender expression and body types, the lovely warm browns of the colour palette, the sense of space, the way the light falls on people’s bodies. I appreciate Deron’s vision, too; look at how Djanga’s speech bubbles incorporate musical notes, for instance. So much conveyed with that one little bit of design.
House of Whispers #1 Ink Art by Dominike “Domo” Stanton
For me this spread was a ton of fun, but it took a lot of planning as well. In general, if you’re familiar with Nalo’s prose novel work, you know she’s a major advocate of using lots of diversity. In this scene we really wanted to establish a vast array of characters with different cultural ethnicity, nationality, age and sexual orientations. Nalo wanted dancers, Congolese sapeurs, kids playing, one a paraplegic, drag queens, a DJ, people drinking, braiding hair, conversing, musicians and an overall lit party scene. This is the first time we see Queen Erzulie in her world throwing a party for the spirits of her human followers and it needed to be big. The biggest challenge in this actually wasn’t trying to squeeze in all the different types of characters Nalo wanted to show, but almost like a wedding planner, placing those characters in the scene where it made the most sense, interacting, dancing, communicating, breathing and partying, while also setting the stage so that the Queen Erzulie remained the most prominent figure.
Creating depth in the scene was another challenge. Picking an angle that could give me a good foreground element, and at the same time establish all the different types of characters was the first thing I needed to figure out. Since Uncle Monday is being shown into the scene in the previous page I figured it was a good opportunity to do an over the should shot from Uncle Monday’s perspective, so that the reader is immersed into the scene alongside him. This angle also gave me the chance to not only show all the characters but really give the reader a sense of how massive the place is by the way the ceiling just engulfs the page. Had I used a higher angle looking down on the crowd, I would’ve been able to establish all the characters, but the impact of us seeing this world for the first time, feeling that immersion, would be lost. Originally in the script, Nalo suggested the party on the deck of Erzulie’s house boat (The house of Dahomey), but I had different plans for the deck and felt it would be better to establish the heart of her home on the inside, with Erzulie as the center of attention, framed by the action around her.
My initial thought when reading the script was that this scene should have a Great Gatsby-sized quality/feel to it. The words extravagant, exciting, elegant and luxurious came to mind immediately, so when designing the interior, I knew right away I would be drawing a tall place with high ceilings, chandeliers and big giant windows. A lot of our characters and story are based around New Orleans as well, so I wanted to bring a little of that influence in the railing of the staircase and second floor. Crown moldings in the walls and somewhat intricate, but simple, carved patterns so to give the feeling of a luxurious palace, but at the same time not take too much attention away from the characters in the scene.
For me this series is such a huge opportunity and I really hope everyone enjoys what we bring to this universe, because we are putting everything into hopefully standing out as an important new addition to Neil Gaiman’s already popular universe.
House of Whispers #1 Unlettered Interior Art by Dominike “Domo” Stanton & John Rauch
As a colorist, my job is to focus on the less obvious ways that stories are told. If I do it well, I help immerse the reader into the scene, evoke the appropriate feelings, create a short hand that the reader will grasp intuitively, and emphasize and organize the story beats by scene, page and panel. In this case, the spread is an introduction into a new world, so I wanted it to be rich, inviting and full, without being too much all at once. Since this was also the first scene I colored in this book, it was where I decided which tools and techniques I thought would work best to compliment Domo’s beautiful line work. I decided to use a mostly earthy palette with lots of warm colors, and I did the majority of the rendering with brush strokes that had a line-like quality to them, while still allowing some breathing room for the eye to rest.
The way the characters were drawn in groupings also gave me a chance to give each group its own slightly different base tone and lighting indicating the literal things like lighting and depth of field, but also subtle things like relevance to the scene and the order I hope the reader notices the characters in front of them. On a personal note, I had a lot of fun creating the streaky little reflections on the floor and love finding little isolated instances like that to add something to the scene that wasn’t there before, like my own little drum solo.
House of Whispers #1 Interior Art by Dominike “Domo” Stanton, John Rauch & Deron Bennett
So, this is our first foray into Erzulie’s domain, and it’s a grand entrance indeed. A lot is going on in this world, and my goal with the lettering is to serve the story as best as I can. A big part of that mission was to stay true to the overall Sandman Universe. Letterer Simon Bowland set the stage in The Sandman Universe #1. I decided to emulate his work because a. he made some excellent choices with the lettering style and b. I had to consider that if the audience were to read these stories as a collection, I didn’t want to break the world they were visiting with alternate fonts or balloon styles.
So, the font and organic balloon shapes were primarily derived from Bowland’s lead. He maintained a thin, undulating outline for the balloons which I loved, so I created some forms in service to that. There are variations in the line weight of the balloons, captions and sound effects. The tails also have a thin taper to them.
But, of course, I had to add my own flavor to the lettering, so I tinkered where I could, regarding the design. Djanga Défilée/Roger is calling into the microphone for anyone to perform. To aid the visual of her singing out the line, I wanted to use music notes and italicized text, but I also wanted to do something creative with the musical notes. So, I had them shaped out of the balloon. Each instance of singing would begin with the treble clef and incorporate other musical notes as needed. The tail would also be wavy so that there is a pitch or wavelength presented there.
With the sound coming from the DJ booth, I wanted it to appear loud, but not so loud as to encompass the entire room. With the conversation between Erzulie and Uncle Monday, as well as Djanga speaking into the mic, the music couldn’t interfere with that. So, I relegated it to the corner of the booth, in fun, bold letters, each varying in size to reflect the change in the bass. The yellow is muted to stay within the tonal range of the page’s colors.
While I typically use a different approach to handling foreign languages, I chose a more traditional lettering convention. Thinking again concerning how it would be used in the larger Sandman Universe, I wanted to use something that other letterers playing in the world would be familiar with, so we didn’t contradict each other. A simple italicized bit of text with a small translation caption below did the trick, tying everything together in a uniquely defined world.
House of Whispers #1 Variant Cover Art by Bill Sienkiewicz