by Brian Truitt)
Joshua Williamson is going to make you think twice about chewing your nails ever again.
Bad habits, serial killers, gallows humor and a small town all play heavily into the comic-book writer's new Image Comics horror series Nailbiter, out Wednesday. The series takes an Army intelligence officer to Buckaroo, Ore., a Northwest locale that's home to 16 of the worst serial killers America's ever seen.
And one's still living there: Edward "Nailbiter" Warren.
Williamson developed the idea following a stint living in a small town but also being obsessed with serial killers — the place where he grew up actually had five operating at the same time. He couldn't find the right hook, however, until a co-worker of his broke up with a boyfriend when she found out his uncle was a murderer.
"The boyfriend had nothing to do with the killings, but she just couldn't be with someone that was that close to such evil. That stuck with me," says Williamson, who's working with artist Mike Henderson on Nailbiter.
"We talk a lot about the victim's families but never the families of the killers — how having a killer close to them would change their lives."
In Nailbiter, Nicholas Finch is at a low point in his life when he gets a call from his friend Carroll. One of the cops who originally brought down Warren three years ago, Carroll has been obsessively trying to find a connection between the 16 "Buckaroo Butchers," and he wants to show Finch his findings firsthand.
When Finch rolls into Buckaroo, he discovers that Carroll has gone missing and meets Sheriff Crane, who becomes Finch's partner of sorts when it seems like there are copycats of old serial killers running loose in the town.
One of the culprits may just be the real deal, though. Even though he was put on trial for 45 counts of first-degree murder — along with a laundry list of other crimes — Warren was somehow acquitted, and now he's holed up in Buckaroo with police seemingly watching his every move.
Williamson wanted a serial killer unlike any other for his series, and that's where the Nailbiter came in, he says. "A serial killer who would only go after people who chewed their nails. He'd kidnap them, chew their nails for them, and then when he was full, kill them."
Warren is a hybrid of the many infamous serial killers Williamson researched — Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein, David Berkowitz, Richard Ramirez, etc. — "but at the same time we wanted to create someone new that stood on his own, and we could tell his story. He's one guinea pig as we dive into the mind of a killer," says the writer.
He also gave his killer a personal twist.
"Sadly, I've been chewing my nails pretty much my whole life," Williamson says. "It's a mix of bad habit that I can't break and neurotic nervous tick. And it's something that has stood out for me.
"The idea that a serial killer would target me just based on that was a fear that popped into my head and just didn't go away. A lot like the bad habit."
Finch's background and job for Army intelligence plays an important part in the Nailbiter series, Williamson teases. "Let's just say he has a bit more in common with the serial killers then we are letting on. And he knows that, which is why he is in such a dark place when we find him."
He does make fast friends with Crane, who has her own past connection with Warren, but for the most part Finch doesn't care about the town or its citizens.
"He just wants to find his friend," the writer says. "But he's going to learn that to do that, he's going to need to deal with the odd characters of Buckaroo and its small-town politics. He's still not happy about it."
Aside from Warren, there are 15 other Buckaroo Butchers — not to mention any new wackos running around — and Williamson and Henderson hatched their cadre of distinctive killers mainly by looking at Batman's gallery of rogues.
While Williamson admits that sounds weird, "Batman's bad guys are filled with crazy nuts but they are also outlandish and colorful. We wanted to do that. So in some ways it was like creating a bunch of new Batman villains."
The creative pair mainly pulled from the darkest recesses of their imagination to come up with such folks as The Terrible Two and the Book Burner, but there is a bit of reality in there, too, according to Williamson.
"Especially with the Blonde, a serial killer who only killed men who cat-called women on the street, that one is straight-up power fantasy," the writer says.
He watched a lot of "making of" documentaries in movies to figure out the best way to tell a horror story as well as come up with relatable characters. That was a challenge for Williamson, to make a reader hate Warren but also be interested in following his story, while also showcasing Sheriff Crane and Finch as likable, complicated but not bland law types.
The first arc of Nailbiter is all about establishing the town of Buckaroo and Finch's investigation, according to Williamson, and something will happen in the first issues to make him stick around.
Carroll also had begun talking regularly with Warren before his disappearance, and that will be a major plot beginning in the fifth issue.
"I wanted to hold off on that at first to build up the world with Finch and Crane," Williamson says. "Since Carroll had already figured out 'the secret,' I wanted to keep his investigation off the table for a bit."
In terms of Williamson's own interest in serial killers, and America's penchant on the whole for the likes of the Bundys and the Dahmers in history, he feels that people deep down like to take safe peeks into the darkness, "the side of people that have gone a bit nuts and went off the deep end. And it makes them feel good to know that it's not them," the writer says.
"As for the backgrounds, they want answers. They want reasons. Everyone always wants to be able to say, 'Well, this happened and that must have caused him to go crazy.' But the truth is much darker and scarier than that, because the fact of the matter is that it's random."