David Dastmalchian’s Empathy for the Devils

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David Dastmalchian is the face of interesting characters. Although it has been nearly 14 years since he debuted as one of Joker’s gang members in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the performance remains chilling. Since then, he has continued making a mark as a Wombat in Ant-Man, a Mentat in Dune, and a Polka-Dot Man in The Suicide Squad, amongst other roles. Dastmalchian is likewise the face behind an interesting character: Late-night horror hostess and supernatural warrior Jerri Bartman, who returns for another adventure in the new Dark Horse comic, Count Crowley: Amateur Monster Hunter.

Created by Dastmalchian, with art by Lukas Ketner, coloring by Lauren Affe, and lettering by Frank Cvetkovic, the new volume, available March 23, picks up immediately following 2019’s Reluctant Monster Hunter. Set in 1983 Missouri, the story follows Jerri, an alcoholic TV reporter forced to return to her small hometown to work for her family-run local station. After getting drunk and botching a report, she agrees to fill in for the channel’s missing late-night horror host Count Crowley. She soon learns that assuming the mantle of Crowley also means becoming the latest, but presumably first female, “Appointed” monster hunter.

Reluctant no more, Jerri is ready to accept her role, which means dealing with zombies, werewolves, and a vampire from the big city — while also dealing with her addiction and trying to protect her family. It is a thrilling horror comic with bite that tackles the paranormal and unfortunately all-too-normal monstrous humans but doesn’t short readers on laughs or gore. And recently, David Dastmalchian joined me for an episode of the Den of Geek paranormal pop culture show Talking Strange — which is embedded below, and available on YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts — to delve into all things Count Crowley.

“I was raised with a lot of fear,” he says about the origins of the story. As well as being “raised under the thumb of satanic panic,” Dastmalchian says he grew up in the 1980s in the Kansas City suburbs in a culture of fear developed by segregationist, religious, and nationalistic attitudes where Reaganomics and “archaic thinking” were shoved into young minds. But there was also the fear of the big city as well as the fear of the “undeveloped country” beyond his town.

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The stage was set, then, for a young David to get lost in the worlds of sci-fi, comics, and late-night hosts showing scary movies — specifically Crematia Mortem “who indoctrinated me to horror” on her KSHB 41 Creature Feature show in Kansas City. And as he watched those scary movies, he would be both frightened as well as feel great empathy for the monsters.

“The beautiful thing about monsters is they represent fears we have of our own selves,” he says. “The Curse of the Werewolf? I was heartbroken for him but also terrified of him. Frankenstein, I was crying and had so much empathy for him but would have nightmares about him being in my attic.”

Dastmalchian, who will celebrate 20 years of sobriety in May, said that empathy hit home in a more personal way when he was struggling with substance abuse because, “that addiction and my mental illness gave me the appearance and behavior of a monster.”

So, while Jerri Bartman fights monsters, she’s also struggling with her own.

But Jerri was initially supposed to be “Jerry.” At first Dastmalchian viewed himself in the character of Count Crowley, drawing inspiration from the likes of Crematia and Svengoolie, as well as Roddy McDowell’s character Peter Vincent from 1985’s Fright Night.

“It’s always jokes and yucks, and mostly fun, and rarely do you get a horror host who takes it very seriously” he says about the late-night hosts from the 1970s and ‘80s. “What if one of them out there was a genius cryptozoologist who knew a lot about stuff going on behind the scenes, and this was their cover, and they were trained in the ways of stopping the threat of monsters.”

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But for the comic, Dastmalchian came to believe his hero needed to be a woman. And while Jerri faces doubt from those around her about her addiction, she has experienced events in her past as a broadcaster which aren’t believed because she is a woman.

“This woman Jerri is trying to convince her brother she is going to be on the right path … and she yet has this added element because she might be late to recording an episode because she was killing a zombie, but to protect her brother and family, she can’t tell her brother she was killing a zombie. She has to show up with a scratch on her face, or dent in her car and and overcome the hurdle of, ‘You’re drinking again.’”

Dastmalchian said this is authentic to a “slippery moment” people face when in recovery where “you start to do what you’re supposed to be doing, and you’re told if you do the right thing, things will start to come together.” And it will in the big picture, but people still face skepticism in the beginning.

For Jerri, as she seeks information about her strange new role, she begins a dysfunctional tutelage of sorts with a retired Appointed monster hunter, and former late-night host, the cantankerous, misogynistic Vincent Frights. He gives her the rundown of the creatures she’s facing, yet frequently reminds her that there has never been a woman on the job in the ancient order (according to him).

In the new volume of Crowley, Vincent’s story will be important, as will that of Rich Barnes, her immediate predecessor who has gone missing.

“We’re going to get to know so much more about Vincent in the next couple of issues,” he says. “[And] Rich Barnes, who replaced Vincent Frights, his story is crucial…How many are still living? Why does it seem like, up until this moment in history, there have been no Appointed women monster hunters? Or have there? We don’t know, and we will have to find out.”

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Additionally, Dastmalchian promises Jerri’s world is going to get more “complicated” with the arrival of a vampire visitor from New York. After a zombie (called a Billy in the Crowley-verse) tipped off his undead bosses about the host, they will start doing some digging into her.

“That digging is going to lead to gouging, slashing … Oh man, it’s going to get gnarly.”

Some of these baddies will also tap into themes of media, and the power to plant seeds of doubt into humanity’s minds, he added. This is an idea Dastmalchian had more time to think about on Crowley’s hiatus between volumes. After the first batch of issues sold well, he said he and Ketner were greenlit to make more before the pandemic hit.

“I always had a vision of where the story was going,” he says. “I was deep in the writing process. The week we went into lockdown was the week I got the call Dark Horse was tabling all projects in production. I had written three scripts; I had seen pencils from Lukas. We were rip-roaring ready to go, and then everything went on a screeching halt.”

But, over the course of the pandemic, he said he took the time “to go back in and sharpen and make the scripts better…Because of all the fear I was wrestling with, I was imbuing new ideas, and new fears.”

With that in mind, Jerri is finding her own path forward to dealing with supernatural threats because the old ways are not as reliable as we were led to think. That echoes Dastmalchian’s same opinion that we incorrectly believe, as a society, those who came before had all the answers, and had it figured out.

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“If they really had figured it all out, we wouldn’t be in the scenarios we find ourselves in,” he says.

And along with developing new tactics to dispatch monsters, Dastmalchian says he wants Crowley, while being a fun ride, to reflect his own belief that there is a path towards better places.

“If somebody is a werewolf, is that it? Is it a death sentence?” he asks. “I will tell you, when people looked at me, and said, ‘You’re a heroin addict, that’s a death sentence’… it’s hard to unhear that…At the end of the day, I am an optimist. I do believe there is a world where we can save all the good monsters walking on earth right now, and we can defeat all the bad ones.”

Count Crowley: Amateur Monster Hunter from Dark Horse Comics is available March 23, and Count Crowley: Reluctant Monster Hunter is available in a collected edition now. To hear more from my Talking Strange interview with David Dastmalchian, check out the episode on YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts, and subscribe to catch new episodes every Tuesday.

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