It’s 1968 in Vietnam. The vicious “Tet” offensive is over, the Viet-Cong left crippled by losses, and the US support for the war and troop moral both caught in a terrible downward spiral. A small US fire team is dropped off in the heart of enemy occupied territory to investigate the sudden silence of a deep cover listening post used to spy on VC troop movements. What the team discovers goes far beyond the seemingly boundless horrors and atrocities of war, as the dead from both sides begin to rise and devour the flesh of the living.
“Think ‘Platoon’ running full tilt boogie into the realm of the Romero’s ‘Dead’ trilogy and you’re on the right track,” writer Mark Kidwell told CBR News of his new Image Comics one-shot, “68.” Illustrated by Nat Jones (“30 Days Of Night Annual”) & Jay Fotos (“Spawn”), “68” is the sort of zombie story you wish you thought of first. “If the original ‘Night of the Living Dead’ took place in 1968,” Kidwell said, “what was happening in the rest of the world? The obvious one-word answer was ‘Vietnam.’ Considering the horror inherent in a limited number of recent dead rising in the civilian population of the US, what would a battle torn jungle filled with casualties be like? The war was horror story enough…add in the cannibalistic dead…whew!”
Kidwell continued, “If you were a grunt, on the ground in the ‘Nam, and you’d seen the atrocities of guerilla war on a daily basis for almost a year, what would your reaction be to the rising of the dead? Would it stop you cold? Would you finally lose it? Or, would you stand by your brothers in arms, keep it together and keep fighting to stay alive?”
Among those fighting to stay alive is Lieutenant Tommy Blake. A young, white, clean-cut G.I. from Pittsburgh and leader of the profoundly unlucky squad, Tommy has only two months left on his tour. “All he wants is to get back to the world and see his girlfriend and his hometown,” Kidwell said. The writer also assured us that in the best zombie genre tradition, “68” comes with bucketfuls of ultra-violence and sidesteps any political commentary that a Vietnam period piece may tempt.
“The story is basically a character piece, centering on Lt. Blake and his squad as they come face to face with the undead. In that vein, I figured the average soldier involved in that conflict was too busy keeping himself and his fellow troopers alive to spend much time worrying about the political correctness (or in-correctness) of the big picture. I figure he wanted to win the war – whatever the opinion may be in the world – and just go home.”
Joining Blake on this mission from hell is Private “Bronto” Jackson, a huge battle-hardened vet and Blake’s right-hand man. “Bronto’s” speciality is machine gun cover and Louisiana mojo, while Billy “Band-Aid” Kirk is on hand with morphine and super glue as the troops’ medic. “Bonnie” Benitez handles the radio chores while trigger-happy new guy “Dixie Dawg” Mann keeps the team spooked with rumors of what he did during the “Tet.”
Kidwell credits his addiction to documentaries, fiction and film concerning Vietnam and World War II as part of the inspiration behind “68.” “What impresses me most about true stories of any conflict throughout history,” the writer said, “is the consistent willingness of human beings to put themselves in harm’s way, against impossible odds, to protect each other during combat. That blows me away.”
But war is only half the fun in a war-horror story and Kidwell’s no stranger to horror fiction, having worked as a writer and an illustrator on titles ranging from “Off Season,” “Live Girls,” “Curse Of The Blood Clan,” “Day Of The Dead: The Rising Of Bub” and “Night Of The Living Dead: Barbara’s Zombie Chronicles.” The writer is a fan of everything horror, citing numerous influences on his increasingly acclaimed work. “[Evertyhing] from the old EC books to the Hammer films of the ’60s and ’70s. The old Universal stuff to the hardcore splatter films of the ’80s to the present. Horror fiction ranging from Stephen King and Clive Barker to the hardcore guys like Jack Ketchum, Ray Garton, Joe Lansdale and Edward Lee. Bernie Wrigtson’s stuff on ‘House of Mystery’ and ‘Swamp Thing’ to Tim Vigil’s hardcore dark stuff, Corben’s Poe work to Barry Windsor Smith’s ‘Conan.'”
It was in fact Kidwell and co.’s work on Dead Dog’s “Night Of The Living Dead” comics that lead to “68’s” creation. “The book was originally planned as a ‘bridge’ issue between story arcs of the ‘Night of the Living Dead’ mini-series from Dead Dog Comics. As the artwork was being done, Nat Jones, Jay Fotos, Chazz DeMoss and I began to see it grow into its own entity. We decided it had outgrown its original purpose and was strong enough to stand on its own, carving its own little unexplored niche into the whole mythos of the living dead. It’s a self-contained story with a definite beginning, middle and end. There are, however, huge possibilities for an extension of the story. Nat and I have already mapped out a bigger tale and depending on demand, would love to expand it.”
“68” parachutes (and claws its way out of the ground and) into comic stores on January 3rd .