While the initial four-issue miniseries focused on soldiers coming into direct opposition with the undead in the jungles of Vietnam, the upcoming one-shots explore that world in more specific ways. October’s “’68: Hardship” showcases a young man returning home to the States around the time of the outbreak and features art by Jeff Zornow. November’s “’68: Jungle Jim” deals with a one-man army taking out every zombie he lays eyes on and is drawn by Nate Van Dyke. Both focus on the characters’ mental states as much as they do the dead walking around them — and all the conflicts therein. Comic Book Resources spoke with Kidwell about working with different artists on these books, how each one-shot fits into the larger “’68” universe and why he felt the need to turn these stories into their own comics instead of fitting them into the mini.
“There are a lot of stories to be told within the ”68′ universe, and some of them stray from the base storyline to the extent that they need their own format,” Kidwell said. “That’s the case with the one-shots. We use the freedom that the ‘one and done’ format offers to swing the ‘camera’ around on the rise of the dead during the age of Aquarius, giving readers a wider world view than just our main characters in Vietnam. We’re focusing as much on the period of our setting as we are on the war itself. Plus, the one-shots give us the opportunity to introduce a much larger cast of characters that may or may not come into play in the main storyline on down the road. ”68′ will continue as an ongoing series, told in ‘chunks,’ with a continuity-based main storyline evolving through new story arcs. This story will occasionally cross paths with some of the one-shot tales.”
The first one-shot, “Hardship,” zeroes in on Teddy, a young man heading back home to Nebraska after being discharged from the military. As you might expect, though, things don’t exactly go smoothly for him.
“‘Hardship’ revolves around Teddy Calhoun, a battle-fatigued grunt formerly stationed at firebase Aries,” Kidwell said. “Calhoun is suspected of wounding or killing several of his own squad mates in a ‘friendly fire’ incident while in the bush, and as a result, is issued a ‘hardship’ discharge. The supposed reason for the release is his ailing mother back home in Nebraska, but the truth is, some of his fellow soldiers don’t trust him at their backs. So, as far as fitting in with the main story, Calhoun is a veteran of the exact setting of the main series, but he misses the zombie uprising by a few weeks, experiencing it on the home front instead.”
Between the mind-altering experience of living through war and the realization that the dead have decided to get up and walk around, Teddy’s not exactly in the best state of mind.
“I can’t see the traumas of day-to-day, ‘kill or be killed’ survival in the Vietnam War as being vastly different from the same situation forced upon anyone caught up in an undead uprising,” Kidwell said. “Same situation, different enemy. And when you’re a trained soldier, with weapons and honed skills at your disposal, it doesn’t really matter who’s on the receiving end of your wrath. Add in the fact that psychologically, you can’t see a change in your enemy, and it’s just business as usual. The harsh reality of ‘Hardship’ is visited more upon the people around Teddy Calhoun, and the horror of the story is seen and felt more deeply through their perceptions.”
So, with pre-existing problems heaped on top of brand-new ones, Teddy has a less than glorious homecoming waiting for him.
“Teddy’s been ‘in country’ too long, seen too much,” Kidwell said. “When he gets back home, he can’t just turn off the visions his mind offers him. Reality and war-torn fantasy begin to intertwine, and Teddy begins to see ‘Charlie’ in Nebraska. With his senses and reflexes tuned to daily jungle survival, he reacts like a soldier, responding to the illusions in his mind with force and violence. You’ll also get a glimpse of Teddy’s life from before the war, through his boyhood girlfriend. You’ll see how Teddy sees her now, through new, altered eyes.”
Unlike the miniseries, which is penciled by Nat Jones, the art chores for “Hardship” are being handled by Jeff Zornow, a kindred spirit for Kidwell when it comes to horror.
“First off, Jeff is a madman,” Kidwell said. “He and I share a love and passion for hardcore horror in film, literature and comics that melds our thinking and drives both story and illustration toward the same grim tone. His artwork brings a frantic energy to my scripts, propelling the story along as much as the narrative and dialogue. And the gore, well, let’s just say that Jeff brings his own red buckets along when we work together, pouring it all over the big crimson puddles I’ve already established. In short, I love working with Zornow. It’s always smooth, enjoyable and full of surprises when he puts his own additional touches on the page.”
From mental torment on the home front, Kidwell shifts back to the troubles of Vietnam for “Jungle Jim,” which stars the titular man of mystery blasting baddies on all sides.
“A lot of that information is classified, soldier,” Kidwell responded when asked what lead Jim to his current state. “Seriously, I can’t spill too much in this area because Jim’s past and purposes are central to the heart of the book. What I can say is that Jim’s motivations are very strong, driving him mentally as well as physically. He’s a one-man army, operating in not only a war zone, but in a world gone mad with the hellish awakening of the dead. As he follows his self-imposed ‘mission,’ he encounters enemy soldiers, American POWs and the undead. Armed to the teeth and armored against the infectious bite of vicious zombies, he’s ready for all of them.”
Sticking with the concept of how the events of “’68” take their toll on the minds of the people subjected to war and zombie uprisings, Jungle Jim has his own set of mental problems.
“Jim is not alone,” Kidwell said. “At least not in the metaphorical sense. There are voices in his head, voices that respond to him and direct him. Voices from his recent past. He also gets some true physical support from an unlikely ally and even has a sort of ‘safe house’ to retreat to between patrols. To put it lightly, Jim is mentally troubled, but the fragile network of support he’s managed to construct keeps him alive and sane enough to do what he pushes himself to do.”
The real question is whether anyone can keep their sanity given these experiences. That will be a focus of the one-shot which picks up fairly early in the zombie apocalypse.
“It’s still early in the apocalypse of the dead, so Jim has only been doing his thing for several weeks,” Kidwell said. “As you’ll see when the full book comes out, he’s been thrust into his situation by events beyond his control and has adapted rapidly. His survival of the war and the initial rise of the dead have been fraught with luck and narrow escapes, but now he’s steady, moving to the beat of his own drummer so to speak.”
With “Jungle Jim,” Kidwell collaborates with artist Nate Van Dyke, whose style the writer thinks fits in perfectly with the existing world of “’68.”
“Nate’s work is edgy,” Kidwell said. “It’s stark and harsh, with hard ink lines and a scratchy, rigid, almost biomechanical quality that lends itself amazingly toward the military aspect of the ”68′ world. There’s an energy to it that really works when you’re depicting Jungle Jim’s shadowy world. A world where danger, horror and despair are driven back only by steely determination and action. Nate is really bringing this story to life — or un-life — and we’re all glad to have him on board.”