Strange is a subjective term, especially in comics. What one reader may find weird or creepy can often strike another, perhaps more jaded fan as totally normal for a medium that’s seen its share of horror, psychodrama and mystery tales.
But with Image Comics‘ “Revival,” Tim Seeley and Mike Norton have so far found a way to confound definition except for maybe the mysterious term “rural noir” that coined the series at it launch. Part small town character drama, part disturbing horror series, part religious thriller and part noir mystery, “Revival” kicked off with a number of enticing, unnerving story threads and earned multiple sellouts of its early issues as a result.
This week, issue #5 shipped to comic shops and continued the story of a Wisconsin town mysteriously experiencing a wave of the recently deceased coming back to life as if nothing every happened. While “Reviver” task force leader Dana struggles to find a place in a sheriff’s department run by her father, waitress May has been kidnapped by a sham artist exorcist who believes he’s found God’s true calling. Meanwhile, Dana’s secretive (and secretly revived) sister Em sets out on a self-destructive path that brings her close to the mournful forrest creature who’s appearance only adds more questions to an already heady amount of religious prophecy.
CBR News spoke with Seeley about the book to date including the creators choice not to show the big moment when the dead arose, the challenges of juggling so many characters, stories and ideas, the impact of the Bible on the book and the motivations that make this undefinable series more crime comic than anything else.
CBR News: Tim, when “Revival” was announced the premise of a rural town hit by a rash of mysteriously resurrected (and surprisingly normal-seeming) dead folks seemed like a creepy presence. But at the outset, I kept saying, “This doesn’t quite feel like a Tim Seeley book yet.” And then a woman got stabbed in the throat and there was a near mutilation with a scythe, and I felt like I was right back in your world.
Tim Seeley: [Laughs] Nice!
But seriously, often in comics we get mystery stories that are compartmentalized where there are clearly defined four or six-issues that are meant to function like stand-alone TV episodes. In “Revival,” the structure is much more fluid, and the weirdness and the mystery and the character work all work in and out of each other. What was the guiding force in how you planned this book long term with Mike?
It’s a weird thing because one thing I always have done and that I think most people do in comics is start with your arc, and you go, “This is a three-issue arc or a six-issue arc or whatever.” To me, the more I’ve worked with that they more I feel like it can give people jumping off points. And I always felt that in the great mystery shows – and Mike was a big “Lost” fan which influenced this -Â there is no point at which all the mysteries just wrap up. There’s always something building in the story. There are always new things developing. We didn’t want this to be something that broke up because these people’s lives are so completely wrapped up in this situation. At any point, they’re unable to take a rest and go, “At least that’s over.” Every character has to constantly deal with these things.
We just solicited our first trade, which is the first five issues. And in that, one case is dealt with only to see another start in the middle of that story. There’s never any arc or an arc that ends. It’s all about following characters through all this stuff. It’s about people more so than the plotting. The plot is a way to deal with the characters rather than the other way around.
It’ll probably drive us crazy. [Laughter] Mike and I got together the other day to go over stories, and we’re juggling all this stuff going, “Oh my God. Why did we do this?!?” It’s insane, but I think it makes for a really interesting comic.
It even started more off kilter. Usually when you see a high concept comic like this, you get a real dramatic introduction to the premise. The first issue of “Y: The Last Man” works like that where you see all the men die. In “Revival,” you instead throw us into the story after Revival Day has taken place. The dead living is now the norm, and we’ve got to figure it out contextually. Why start with all the balls in the air between a quarantine for the town and new mysteries and everything?
Our decision on that was to have a weird mix of old school and new school. Part of this came from discussions Mike and I would have about old superhero comics that didn’t spend a whole lot of time on the origins. Spider-Man’s origin was 12 pages, and then you just dropped right into it. The new technique is to do “Ultimate Spider-Man” and spend five issues on the origin. The other part of it was treating Revival Day where readers could view it the same way as the characters. The characters are confused and not quite sure what’s going on. They’re just trying to deal with this and go on with their lives. If we just give the readers the same amount of surprises as the characters get, it makes our cast that much more relatable and understandable. They’re just trying to deal with a crazy situation, and they don’t know what happened.
Part of the inspiration for that was the novel “White Noise” by Don Delillo. In that book, you never see the event they’re running from. Everybody’s just trying to get out of town to avoid this cloud, but they never know what happened. All the media reports are contradictory, and they’re just dealing. Having the reader go, “Here’s a day in the life” and have to follow along makes things more relatable.
And I don’t just want to waste an entire issue on that exposition stuff. There were scenes we had that we cut out like people in Time’s Square seeing words flash up on those big screens – “Dead people come back to life!” And then we fly over to Israel where Hamas is attacking because they think this is something of religious significance. Ultimately, we felt like it was way more effective if it was just the people in this town -Â them feeling very claustrophobic and cabin feverish. That was more important than seeing how other people dealt with it who weren’t the victims.
The central mystery right now is less about “Why has this happened?” so much as it is “Are the Revivers crazy or dangerous?” Do you have a breakdown for yourself on big questions you want to answer sooner or later or in between? Or does that issue of the Revivers and what they are run through the whole series?
I think the “What are they, and what will they do?” gets answered several times over the course of the series, and all those answers represent different opinions. I’ve loved zombie stuff forever, and I grew up watching the Romero movies, but as fun as those movies are, there’s never a question of what to do with those zombies. Even if you know this thing has your grandma’s face on it as she comes towards you, the question of whether or not you’ll shoot your grandma in the head is really easy! She’s coming to bite your brain out. And after a while the way that keeps getting played, it’s just not scary anymore. The first zombie movie you see, you’re scared of it. And after that, you keep watching them because you’re a fan of the genre more than the fact that you’re ever scared.
And so much of that territory has already been explored, especially in “The Walking Dead” which I think has done the best job with that idea period. So if we were to do something in that area, we were going to have to think of a completely new way to do it. We’re treating people who have come back from the dead with the idea that “We don’t know if they’re cool or not. Some of them seem okay, and some of them don’t.” That we play as a central ongoing theme in the story. They’re people. Some people react well, and some people use it for good, and some people use it for revenge. Instead of giving everyone the motivation of “We’re going to eat your flesh because we’re dead,” I think this makes it more complex. It allows us to play it like a crime story more than anything.
People having very different motivations for why they do what they do is a tenant of a noir story, and that’s really something we wanted to play with, hence the term “rural noir.” People gave us some flak for calling the book that and were saying, “This isn’t really a crime story.” Oh, yes it is, and you shall see. [Laughter]
The core relationship that underlines that point is between sisters Dana and Em. Dana is the person who sees all the different motivations and actions taken by the Revivers because she’s the cop tasked with dealing with their issues. Meanwhile, Em is sleeping with her professor and throwing herself into fights because of that and causing all this trouble…and she’s dead! Dana is someone whose point of view we get right away, while Em is an almost a blank slate. Is Dana really the true point of view character in that we’ll only ever get into her head?
I think Dana is the central character. She’s the one who deals with all the various aspects of this town -Â living with someone who is a Reviver, having to deal with the crime, having to deal with the government. All the important factors that make this story compelling, she’s right in the middle of all of them. On the other hand, Em is who makes the mystery part of this. We’re going to see her do things that we understand and relate to, and then we’re going to see her do things where we’re not sure what she’s thinking.
Something Mike and I talk about all the time is that this has to be an ensemble cast because we need to see people reacting to this stuff in as many ways as possible. That keeps it interesting. But I also think Dana needs to remain the heart of it while Em will be everyone’s favorite character. [Laughs] I think she’s going to be the cosplay crowd’s favorite.
You’ve got a lot of Bible names in this comic -Â Cyprus, Ibrahaim and on down the line. When the book launched, we talked about the influence of religion and religious thought on where it would go. Should we be going through our Bibles to find these names as specific clues as to who these characters will be, or is their inclusion just part of the more general theme?
Part of it is just doing a story in the tradition of the story of the Bible. I mean, that is a story about someone coming back to life. Making our character Ibrahaim and not Abraham and things like that are definitely thematic. You see in issue #4, May is tied to the back of a tow truck, and she’s strung up in the form of the cross. That’s a way to reinforce that theme without having stuff hit you in the face. The girl’s initials aren’t “J.C.” But those notes help underline how important those stories are to our culture and how important they are to all cultures throughout history. It’s the one great mystery we’ll likely never solve. Why that’s so compelling to people and is a thing we always return to is something we’ll deal with deliberately but also in a way that’s not too cheesy. Obviously, it’s easy to do it way overdone.
But there’s definitely a part of the book where we want readers to figure out, “Hey…find out what symbolism is in there, and call out the visual references.” It’s for layered storytelling.
Let’s run down the important stories leading into issue #5 and beyond, and see if we can’t shed a little light on what will be most immediately important for the book. First up, May has been caught and strung up by the exorcist who’s a fake but doesn’t believe he’s fake. Then we’ve got the weird forrest demon/creature confronting Em, and I’m always trying to figure out what the creature is moaning about the baby but can’t do it yet. [Seeley Laughs] And then we’ve got a step brother and sister who are sleeping together as their Revived father may be totally crazy. Which of those three stories become most important next, and how do the others spin in or out of that?
I think the Blaine and May story wraps up pretty well by issue #5. The family story with Jamie and Justin will carry on for a little bit and be a mystery that Dana has to deal with. And moving forward in #6 and 7, it’s about Dana doing her detective thing while relying on Em for assistance, but then 10 through 11 is a more Em-centric story. Meanwhile, lots of other characters pass through. May has an important part coming up. The character Lester and his dog will have an important moment coming up.
I see in reviews people going, “It’s so much to remember,” but that’s what we want it to be! [Laughs] We want this to be complex where you have to pay a little attention. I’ll probably regret this because I’ll go crazy and pull my hair out writing it. But the idea is to have stuff just build and build and build. All the stuff we started since issue #1, so far we haven’t abandoned any characters or stories. But that may just mean the end for Mike and I, actually. [Laughs] So far, we’re happy to do it. We like sitting down and going, “I like that character. What can we do with them?” There are so many threads to build on.
As this goes along, you guys may have to cut down on your workload where you’re only writing eight books, and he’s only drawing six.
[Laughs] Exactly. One thing we did realize is that we started this series with a lot on our respective workloads, but the complexity of “Revival” means we might have to cut back so we’re just working on a few things. I can probably do one other book besides “Revival” in the future. The complexity of this means we can’t do what we normally do, which is mindlessly jam on tons of stuff. It’s not like writing “Love Bunny” or something. I actually have to think about this. But we think this is a kind of story comic readers weren’t being served, and we’re glad there are other people looking for a book like this other than us.
How has the response been so far? It can be hard to launch a new comic, but this seems to be going strong out the gate?
Yeah. It’s getting less hard to launch a new book because there’s such a hunger for something new now. When I started doing Image books eight or nine years ago, it was really hard to launch something new. But I think people are kind of getting sick of the status quo. They’re not being served by the things they used to read as much anymore. We started “Revival” and realized there was an audience going, “Give us something NEW that we haven’t seen before!” That’s amazing in comics. It hasn’t been that way in a long time. And I think that will continue so long as we keep getting books like “Saga” and “Fatale” -Â the kind of books that no one has ever seen. There’s just a huge audience waiting to eat that stuff up. It’s given me all kinds of newfound faith in everything that that audience exists.
“Revival” #5 is in stores now from Image Comics.