They may not be the prettiest bunch of characters, but since their 2005 debut the Marvel Zombies have eaten their way into the hearts (and brains) of comics readers, becoming a publishing phenomenon. This fall, the fan-favorite flesh eaters are back with “Marvel Zombies Return,” a special five-issue weekly miniseries beginning in September. Announced by at the Wizard World Philly Convention last weekend, the series will feature the work of some of the literary world’s most popular Zombie novelists. CBR News spoke with writers Fred Van Lente, David Wellington, Jonathan Maberry, Seth Grahame-Smith, and their editor Bill Rosemann about the project.
“Marvel Zombies” and “Marvel Zombies 2” featured the highly acclaimed work of writer Robert Kirkman and artist Sean Phillips. Bill Rosemann inherited the “Marvel Zombies” franchise with the third installment, and was left with the difficult task of finding replacements for the original creators, who had moved on to other projects. Rosemann tapped writer Fred Van Lente (“Incredible Hercules”) and artist Kev Walker (“Annihilation: Nova”) for the series, and the duo produced a tale that proved just as popular as its previous installments and lead to “Marvel Zombies 4,” also by Van Lente and Walker.
“When you’re handed the keys to a franchise, your #1 goal is to not crash it into a tree. Your second goal is to top what has come before,” Rosemann told CBR. “Luckily, this series is blessed with a genre (i.e. zombies) that can be used to comment on a variety of themes and the strength to attract creators (i.e. Fred Van Lente, Kev Walker and the new team of pros jumping onboard for this round) who are smart and skilled enough to dig deep and raise the bar. As the doubters have discovered with Volumes 3 and 4, there’s still plenty of life in this undead express! Our only limitations in telling fresh and innovative stories is our brains–that is, if the zombies don’t eat them.”
Marvel wanted to keep that diversity going with “Marvel Zombies Return,” which is one of the reasons why Rosemann and Van Lente enlisted the help of three of the literary world’s popular zombie novelists. “With the rise of the quality and popularity of zombie fiction, I thought it would be fun to invite three of today’s top zombie writers over to the House of Ideas so they could crash the party and live out their childhood dreams of writing comic books,” Rosemann explained. “And can you believe all three are lifelong Marvel fans?”
In addition to being comics readers, the abilities of David Wellington, Jonathan Maberry and Seth Grahame-Smith made them especially suited for “Marvel Zombies Return.” “Just check out their websites or sample of their prose and you too will see that all three are at the top of the zombie game and can mix thrills, chills, and really, really dark humor with the best of them,” Rosemann said. “And don’t forget that we have fearsome Fred Van Lente overseeing the whole shebang and guiding us deeper and deeper into the depths of insanity.”
For the last two installments of “Marvel Zombies,” the series has revolved around the Marvel Universe and the titular super ghouls’ attempts to invade and devour it. In “Marvel Zombies Return,” Rosemann and his team of writers change the focus and location of the action. “As you’ll recall from the end of ‘Marvel Zombies 2,’ those characters got zapped away from their home dimension by the human population of New Wakanda,” Fred Van Lente explained. “Wherever they ended up, whatever this dimension is, it’s definitely is not moving along the same time line as the place they traveled from.”
The first four installments of “Marvel Zombies Return” focus on the individual ghouls as they explore and try to make sense of the new world they find themselves in. The fifth and final issue of the series brings things into wider focus as Earth’s Moldiest Heroes answer the call of “Avengers Dismember!”
Another departure from previous versions of “Marvel Zombies” is the standalone nature of “Return,” whereby each weekly installments has been designed so to be enjoyed individually. Fred Van Lente kicks the series off with “Marvel Zombies Return: Spider-Man,” a title that finds the Web-slinger exploring a world populated with familiar faces. This causes him to wrestle with an emotion he’s no stranger to, guilt. “The story takes place around the time of ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ #68,” Van Lente confirmed. “And the ‘Marvel Zombies’ version of Spider-Man was the first one to feel bad about eating all those people, particularly his Aunt May and his wife Mary Jane. So he sees this world as a chance to start again, to create a blank slate.
“And speaking of slate! He discovers that there’s a mysterious ancient tablet on display at Empire State University, which long time Spider-Man fans will immediately recognize as a big part of a Kingpin, Silvermane, and Man Mountain Marko story from this era. This tablet, if deciphered, gives you eternal life and Spider-Man realizes that if he actually gets his hands on it he may be able to cure himself of his zombieism. Unfortunately the Kingpin and the Sinister Six are also after the tablet and the real issue becomes can Zombie Spider-Man hold his hunger off long enough to become a hero again and save everybody, including the friends he failed to save on his original world? Or is he just an irredeemable monster? Does great hunger also come with great hunger? That’s a profound philosophical question which is being answered by this comic book.”
In “Marvel Zombies Return: Iron Man,” writer David Wellington crafts a story that has Tony Stark trying to resist two strong and dangerous compulsions: alcoholism and the craving for human flesh. Wellington is both a college friend of Fred Van Lente and a prolific horror author. He currently pens a series of vampire novels starring vampire hunter Laura Caxton, the fourth volume of which, “23 Hours,” is due out next week. It was his zombie apocalypse trilogy “Monster Island,” “Monster Nation,” and “Monster Planet” that lead to his “Marvel Zombies” assignment.
“I’ve been a comics fan since I was eight or nine years old,” Wellington told CBR. “I was really into the ‘New Mutants’ just when Bill Sienkiewicz started drawing the book, and John Byrne’s ‘Alpha Flight.’ The possibilities of the medium, the sheer scope of the stories and of the Marvel Universe, just blew me away when I was a kid. I’ve always wanted to write comics.”
Part of the reason Wellington wanted to tell an Iron Man story was the character’s unique outlook on life. “Tony Stark is just an amazing character, this guy who sees the world with all its cruelty and violence, and instead of just getting depressed and shutting down he decides he’s going to use what he has, these amazing skills as a weapon designer, to try to make things better,” Wellington said. “Then you add his alcoholism, his very human weakness, which is wonderfully resonant with the power and the near invulnerability of the armor, and I think that –really makes him a classic character. Heroic, but deeply flawed–and he knows it. He knows he has limits, that he can’t change the world on his own.”
Wellington’s story takes place right around the time of the classic “Iron Man” story line “Demon in a Bottle.” The story begins right as Tony Stark has made the decision to allow Jim Rhodes to take over as Iron Man. “It’s set right when Tony’s drinking hit rock bottom. He is not in good shape when the book starts. And yet he’s faced with a threat above that Iron Man on his best day would have trouble overcoming,” Wellington said. “I wanted to explore what Tony would do, what he could achieve, how he could be heroic even when he was at his lowest point. It plays out very differently than in the classic continuity–but you’ll have to read the book to find out how.”
“Marvel Zombies Return: Iron Man” not only details Tony Stark’s battles with addiction, it also chronicles how Stark and James Rhodes react when a horde of zombies attempts to storm the halls of Stark Industries. “This story is going to appeal very much to fans of my zombie novels,” Wellington explained. “Yeah, there’s some high-tech stuff going on, but at most it gives the heroes an edge. It does not, in any way, effectively prepare them for when the zombies attack.”
Week three sees the release of “Marvel Zombies Return: Wolverine” by writer Jonathan Maberry, author of the recent one-shot “Punisher MAX: Naked Kill” and new writer of “Black Panther.” His first novel, “Ghost Road Blues,” won a Bram Stoker award and his recent zombie action-thriller, “Patient Zero,” earned him his spot on the “Marvel Zombies Return” creative team.
It’s Wolverine’s warrior nature that makes the character compelling to Maberry. “He’s not just a fighter, but someone to whom war is both an art and science. He’s practical about those things that require practicality-strategies, tactics, technique-but he also philosophizes about the esoteric nature of conflict. That’s why he fits so well into stories set in Japan. There is definitely something of the Samurai about him,” the writer told CBR. “That said, the flip side of Wolverine is the berserker. There’s no higher mind there. It’s just beast, it’s just blood–and for a complex person there’s a tremendous sense of liberation-even fun – to being allowed to just kill.”
Maberry finds the zombie version of Wolverine especially interesting because the character lacks any of the moral compunctions exhibited by his counterpart. “The virus has distilled him down to a being who exists to kill,” the writer explained. “And yet–there’s just a flicker of ego there, enough to want to make sure that he is the best killing machine anywhere. Character conflict, baby–there’s nothing like it.”
Zombie Wolverine’s desire to be the best there is at what he does takes him to Japan. “It allowed for a bit of a martial arts subplot,” the writer said. “And, we wanted a big body count and there are a whole lotta members of the Hand.”
In addition to the Hand, “Marvel Zombies Return: Wolverine” features a who’s who of Marvel’s martial arts themed characters like Iron Fist, Shang Chi, and the Sons of the Tiger. “I’m a martial artist myself, so I’ve always liked stories where karate or kung-fu is matched up against the living dead. ‘Resident Evil,’ for example,” Maberry explained. “Unfortunately the zombie in question is Wolverine — so that might not work out as well as it might otherwise.”
Also starring in “Marvel Zombies Return: Wolverine” Kitty Pryde. “Kitty is as much the lead character of the story, and she’s our proxy,” Maberry confirmed. “It’s her innocent point of view, and sense of horror, that bring us into the story.”
The penultimate chapter of “Marvel Zombies Return” features the strongest and hungriest zombie there is, the Hulk, and is the comic book debut of writer Seth Grahame-Smith, best known for his recent undead parody “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” The success of that novel earned Grahame-Smith both the deal for his second upcoming work of fiction, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” as well as the deal for “Marvel Zombies Return: Hulk.”
“Bill Rosemann had been following what was going on with ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’, and he thought I’d make a nice addition to the Marvel Zombies monster squad,” Grahame-Smith told CBR. “I’m definitely a life long comic fan (I even wrote a book about Spidey once upon a time) – so for me, this was the no-brainer of all no-brainers. It’s like that line from ‘Ghostbusters.’ ‘When someone asks you if you’re a God, you say YES!’ Well, when Bill Rosemann asks you to write a comic for Marvel, you say YES!”
For Grahame-Smith, the most difficult thing about writing his first Marvel comic book was embracing the unlimited idea budget the comics medium affords creators. “When I write for TV, there’s always a little voice in my head saying, ‘We could never afford to do that.’ So step one was shutting that guy up,” Grahame-Smith explained.
What drew Grahame-Smith to the character of the Hulk was the Green Goliath’s limitless rage. “What I love about Hulk – particularly the ‘hell-bent on revenge/girded for war’ Hulk we meet at the beginning of this story, is that his motives are pure and uncomplicated,” the writer said. “‘Hulk smash’ pretty much sums it up. In a way, Hulk is kind of like a zombie, in that he can’t be reasoned with, and he’s driven by a single, all-encompassing hunger. At one point in this story, Hulk has a brief moment of guilt. But he gets over it in a hurry.”
While the other installments of “Marvel Zombies Return” are re-examining classic storylines through the filter of the super-powered ghouls, Grahame-Smith’s tale takes a different look at a more recent story, “World War Hulk.” “The Green King is tearing through space on his way back to earth, on a mission to destroy the Illuminati. His first stop is the moon, where he plans on pounding Black Bolt into a pancake before continuing to earth. But that’s where things take a major left turn in this version.”
“Marvel Zombies Return: Hulk” takes place both on the streets of New York and Black Bolt and the Inhumans home city of Attilan. “We definitely run into some zombiefied Inhumans in this one,” Grahame-Smith said. “I guess I’m fascinated by the idea of such an old race of beings – beings who’ve reached this incredible level of sophistication on one hand, but still have all of the unfortunate traits (warmongering, vanity, etc) of puny humans on the other. That’s what made them fun to add to this story – mighty, sophisticated Inhumans reduced to drooling over succulent brains.”
Fred Van Lente returns to tie everything together and bring the undead magnum opus to a close with “Marvel Zombies Return: Avengers.” Fear of spoiling the other books keep the writer from revealing much about the plot or which super ghouls make the team’s lineup. “It’s definitely 22 pages of cross-dimensional mayhem,” Van Lente remarked. “And did I mention the skin-eating? There’s also lots of skin-eating.”
For editor Bill Rosemann, getting an all-star team of zombie writers was only the first challenge of putting together “Marvel Zombies Return.” The second was finding the perfect artists to collaborate with his writing team. “Don’t think this series is light on the eye(ball) candy!” the editor said. “First we have Nick Dragotta (‘X-Men: First Class’), whose retro-riffic style brings a terrifying touch to Spidey’s swingin’ college days! Then we have the international influence of Andrea Mutti, who is the perfect fit for the jet-setting Tony Stark! And you won’t believe how excited we are to finally have Jason Shawn Alexander (‘Queen & Country,’ ‘Deadirons’) bring his gritty work to Marvel! And how could I forget Richard Elson, who’ll show Hulk fans why he’s one of the heaviest hitters in the UK? Last but certainly not least, we have Wellinton Alves who gets to draw zombies again, just like he did in his first issue of ‘Nova.’ Yes, clearly this is one stacked deck.”
“Marvel Zombies: Return” is full of nods to established Marvel continuity and is sure to please fans of the franchise, but Rosemann knew that when word got out of the talent involved, the project would attract some new readers as well. “Just in case you are a fan of the different authors’ work, but have never sampled the brilliance of the Marvel Zombie franchise, fear not! We’re crafting this story to make perfect sense for all new comers,” Rosemann said. “And if you are a dedicated fan of our previous installments, get ready for another wickedly wild ride. The zombie versions of Spider-Man and Wolverine are back — and they’re the best they are at what they do. And what they do is eat sweet, sweet flesh!”
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