Dark Horse Comics’ “Dead Vengeance” starts in classic horror style: with a corpse floating in a tank at a carnival freak show. The body belongs to Johnny Dover, a.k.a. John Doe, radio commentator and enemy of Detroit’s criminal Purple Gang. But, as the title indicates, just because John’s dead doesn’t mean he can’t seek vengeance.
“Dead Vengeance” follows John Doe as he jumps forward ten years in time to solve the mystery of his wife’s murder. The supernatural twist? His consciousness has jumped forward a decade but he’s stuck in his own body — which is now a corpse. The series is written and illustrated by Bill Morrison, creator of “Roswell, Little Green Man” as well as co-founder of Bongo Comics; Morrison also served as the art director on “Futurama” and scripted dozens of “Simpsons” comics. Inker Keith Champagne rounds out the creative team.
“Dead Vengeance” has undergone a number of changes since it was first talked up at 2008’s Comic-Con International in San Diego. The four-issue miniseries will be coming out from Dark Horse starting in October. CBR News caught up with Morrison and talked about the genre-bending miniseries finally going to press, sidestepping humor and his favorite pulp heroes.
CBR News: Time travel and mystery are each complicated genres that require the reader to keep track of a lot of story elements — and “Dead Vengeance” is both. How did you keep everything organized while writing?
Bill Morrison: It wasn’t easy. The main idea was that this guy finds a way to travel ten years into the future to get revenge on a mobster who is in prison. He can’t wait a whole decade, but he stumbles onto a way to send his spirit forward in time to inhabit his own body — sort of like what they did in “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” but in reverse. But, when he arrives in the future, his body is dead and he reanimates his own corpse. This took the usual problems you have with time paradoxes and further complicated them. Most of those issues got worked out by asking my wife, Kayre, to read a detailed outline. She helped me solve some big problems and gave a lot of good notes. Her contribution was so important to making it all work she has a co-creator credit.
After Dark Horse took it on, I received some great editorial guidance from Scott Allie and Daniel Chabon, as well. I believe it’s really important to let people read your stuff and give you notes because it’s so easy to get too close to your work and you don’t always notice problems that other people can see immediately. You can also fall in love with ideas that you think are clever or cool, but they don’t always serve the story. It’s good to have a second pair of eyes on the story, someone you trust to be honest and tell you if something isn’t really working.
“Dead Vengeance” is a supernatural story, but it’s rooted in a very real place: 1930s and 1940s Detroit. What inspired you to choose that setting, and what role does the setting play in the story?
I wanted a setting that I was familiar with, so it was either Los Angeles, where I’ve lived for most of my adult life, or Detroit, where I grew up. I was born in Wyandotte Michigan, just south of Detroit, and I grew up in the Detroit area and went to art school in the city. I’ve always loved it and still call it home. Detroit in the ’30s and ’40s had the perfect pulpy noir vibe that the story needed. Plus, it had a very colorful mob called the Purple Gang; I used them in the story.
This project has been in the works for a long time, and I’m sure it’s changed a lot since that first pitch. What’s the most unexpected turn it has taken?
My original plan was to do a pulp-like character that was a dark avenging force against crime; I figured he’d be like the Shadow or the Green Hornet and have a series of adventures. Because he was a time-traveller who inhabited his own dead body, I called him “The Corpse,” but I soon realized there was a character in “Hellboy” with that name. Eventually I started calling him John Doe and that stuck. I guess the most unexpected turn came when I realized that “Dead Vengeance” isn’t only about John Doe getting revenge on the criminals who murdered his wife and stole his life. It’s also about redemption and coming to terms with a horrifying turn of events. It got a little deeper than that first concept of a reanimated corpse fighting crime.
Tod Browning’s 1932 film “Freaks” was inspirational for the carnival aspect. Also Dr. Strange for the astral projection element. And as I mentioned, pulp heroes like the Shadow and the Green Hornet were on my mind a lot. Although it may not be very apparent, I’m very influenced by Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer. Dave and I both shared a desire to create an iconic hero that pays homage to the films, comics, and radio shows of the ’30s and 40s that we loved. So while I was writing this initial story, I was always comparing my work to Dave’s and trying to do something that I think he would have enjoyed. Dave was a fan of my “Roswell, Little Green Man” series, a fact that I could never quite wrap my head around, and it was so gratifying to have his support. I guess I’m always trying to do work that I think he would dig.
What do you think are the most important elements of a good horror story?
To me, the most important element is a sense of dread about what’s coming next. It’s like that famous moment in the Lon Chaney version of “The Phantom of the Opera,” when Christine (Mary Philbin) is behind Erik (Lon Chaney) as he plays the organ and she’s reaching to take off his mask. She’s afraid to see what’s under the mask, but she can’t stop herself. If you can create that feeling in your audience, where they don’t really want to turn the page, but at the same time they must, then I think you have a successful horror story.
You’ve done a lot of comedy in your career — will we find any in this horror series?
Not a lot. There is some dark humor, but I wanted the tone to be completely different than my usual writing. I sort of fell into comedy when I started working on “The Simpsons,” and then “Futurama,” but I’ve always been influenced by comics and films in the genres of horror, suspense, science fiction, and super heroes, as well. But prior to the “Simpsons” comics, I was an artist only. I never wrote until I was given the opportunity to write “The Simpsons.” I learned to write comics in the humor genre, but lately I’ve been trying my hand with horror and science fiction. with stories for “Creepy” and “Mars Attacks,” and also with “Lady Robotika,” the series I created with Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s.
All of that being said, though, I love how the recent Marvel movies have a great mix of adventure and humor. They don’t take themselves too seriously and I really admire that. This initial “Dead Vengeance” story doesn’t lend itself well to very much humor, but if the series goes on I could see it lightening up and having moments of humor born out of the physical difficulties that John Doe faces, being a living, thinking person trapped in a body that’s decaying every day. After all, that’s really what we’re all doing as we age. I recently wrote a “Simpsons” book titled “Grampa Simpson’s Guide to Aging” that has a lot about finding humor in the things that happen to our bodies as they break down and stop working like they should. It’s bad enough feeling like you’re 21 but trapped in the body of an old person; imagine being trapped in a corpse!
Dark Horse’s “Dead Vengeance” #1 hits stores on October 7, 2015.
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