Comics: El Torres Beats the DRUMS of Horror with Santeria/Vodou Graphic Mysteries

Chris Arrant of Newsrama interviews Spain’s comic-book writer El Torres to mark the publication today of a four-issue series titles Drums, a murder investigation series involving several of the Caribbean’s African-derived religions.

We hear about weird and unusual crimes every day; in fact, some newspapers have a special section of unique and disturbing stories that cross the police radio bands. But in a new series from Image Comics, a string of murders takes an unusual twist when the victims start coming back to life. Launching today, the four-issue series Drums follows an FBI agent named Martin Irons who’s tasked to investigate the bizarre deaths at a Santerian ceremonial ritual in the heart of Florida. As a foreboding storm swarms over the Sunshine State, one of the victims comes back as a zombie and puts Irons’ case in a whole new category. With the Santerian drums beating as the thunder rolls, Irons and his team look to find answers for the deaths while also trying to prevent more tragedy.

Drums comes from the mind of independent comics writer El Torres. Hailing from across the ocean in Spain, Torres has done a number of indie series such as The Veil and Suicide Forest, and this new venture sees him reaching out for new blood – both in collaborators and story.

Newsarama: What can you tell us about Drums, El?

El Torres: Drums is a 4-issue horror mini-series, with an FBI investigation on the sudden deaths of an entire gathering at a religious ritual. One of the bodies rises and tells the FBI agent in charge a lot of strange things, and then, people start to die.

There are various Afro-Caribbean religions involved (call it Santería, Candomblé, Palo Mayombe or Voodoo), and there are walking and talking dead. And, of course, as in every crime story… a whodunnit.

Nrama: What can you tell us about FBI Agent Martin Irons, the man tasked to sort this all out?

Torres: Irons and his partner, Poltz, are introduced as our “buddy cops”. Different ethnicities, different points of view and different personalities. Martin is young, methodical… and empty inside. There is no more in his world than his job. His by-the-book and inscrutable personality gained him the “Robocop” nickname (not very original, I know). We’ll learn later that his father was a preacher and he grew up almost alone and despising religion. But, of course, his supernatural encounter will shake his neatly organized world view.

Nrama: About this assignment – for the Santeria murders – how did Irons get the (un)lucky pick to lead up the investigation?

Torres: Irons belongs to the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, and he’s a veteran Special Agent. He’s one of the best, and he’s black, so perhaps FBI directives put him in charge for the sake of being politically correct.

Nrama: This book delves deep into the world of voodoo. There’s been a lot of truth and fiction told about voodoo, so how you’d delineate it all to tell a story that feels real but is still creative and imaginary?

Torres: There is a lot of real elements of the Afro-Caribbean religions, not only Voodoo -but mostly Santería, twisted and blended with elements of fiction to create the set, the atmosphere I was looking for. I wanted to portray the practice and practitioners with respect, but add elements of dark supernatural forces to give it the ‘horror story’ aspect. We fear the unknown, and I don’t mean only what lies after death, I mean the little things we don’t know. If you have a neighbor that is a Santería devotee and see him with the drums and all these painted idols with candles and offerings, you tend to fear that. The truth is that the vast majority of these practitioners are people like you and me. But we tend to demonize what we don’t understand.

Santería doesn’t have a tradition of zombies, unlike Voodoo with their drug-induced ‘zombies’. Anyway, there are walking dead in Drums but they’re not as important as the supernatural aspect. This is not your everyday zombie book.

Nrama:The title – Drums – what does it mean to the series itself?

Torres: The drumming in the Santería ceremonies is very important. There are three different types of drums, called Batá, and they have their “souls” and their own names: Okonkolo, Iya, Itotele. They always come in three, of course. The constant drumming and songs to the Orishas prepares you to enter into a state of spiritual openness. The drums “talk” with the assistants to the ceremony, they praise the Orishas… and they’re cool to hear.

In the book, we find the drumming in the ceremony, we find the drumming in the thunders of the big storm over Florida, and that rhythm is great for the pace of a horror story. We usually put a set of quick panels and then a big “Thoom”, that reminds you of the drumming as a persistent presence. The characters come in three too: Irons, Poltz, Michelle.

Nrama: Where did the idea for what became Drums come from?

Torres: The recent zombie stories craze has built a genre for themselves: walking dead that eat people. But before George Romero created his magnum opus, there were lots of zombie stories, movies, comics and tales. These were based on the voodoo tradition, and they’re still pretty scary.

Then I found that voodoo is only part of a complex mixture of the Afro-Caribbean religions brought by the Yoruba and Bantu people that were sold as slaves. We have these other religions that have thousands of practitioners, and all of them with the same basis in belief.

The clichés about Voodoo are well known, and if you know something it’s hard to create fear. That’s why I decided to focus in the other Afro-Caribbean religions. I researched and assisted at a ceremony the Santería is spreading here in Spain as well. With that I knew the story was there.

Nrama: Although we’ve talked in the past, the artists on this – Abe Hernando & Fran Gomboa – are new to me.  How’d you come to work with them on this book, and what about their style made them the right fit for the book?

Torres: There are more people involved in the book: Kwaichang Kraneo on the artwork and Pica on the colors of the first issue. And we can’t forget the awesome covers that Raul Allen has been doing for the series. He even designed the logo, and probably soon he’ll be drawing a new tale with me. Not to mention C. Edward Sellner, that helps a lot with editing my ramblings into something understandable.

Fran Gamboa has been working with me forever. He colored the Nancy In Hell mini-series that we released at Image; they treat us so well. He’s one of the few guys that isn’t have afraid to color Juan José Ryp drawings. He’s great at setting moods and atmosphere.

I met Abe at a convention; he’s a great artist that can manage several styles. I wanted this book to have a different look than the ones I did with Gabriel Hernández (The Veil and Suicide Forest), so I looked for inks, big masses of darkness and digital color. But Abe is great doing a painted style, so we could see more of him in that style too. Perhaps Gabriel and me will come back to finish our “Ghost Trilogy”. Who knows!

Nrama: Speaking of Gabe, This is the latest in a line of creator-owned series you’ve done after The Veil and Suicide Forest. What keeps you going on this path, El?

Torres: Nobody would hire a guy living in Spain to write a series, so I have to create them on my own. I would be really happy writing Shang-Chi, believe me.

Nah, I guess it’s because I believe that every story must have a beginning and an end. When reading a horror story, if you know that the main characters are going to make it because it’s issue #173 of a series, the horror element decreases. Miniseries are perfect to do horror. You can set a cliffhanger in every chapter, you know that the story will end in one way or another, you know that the main character can die.

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