Mike Wolfer, perhaps Avatar Press’ busiest writer, is set to continue his run on the publisher’s “Living Dead” titles with his latest five-issue miniseries, “Night of the Living Dead: Death Valley.” Wolfer, who also co-writes “Lady Death” with Brian Pulido and “Gravel” and “Wolfskin” with Warren Ellis, has written or co-written all of Avatar’s “Night of the Living Dead” series since the franchise first landed with the publisher. For “Death Valley,” he has taken on the writing reins solo and is joined on art by Dheeraj Verma.
Avatar’s “Night of the Living Dead” series have included an adaptation of George Romero’s classic 1968 horror film — co-written by Wolfer with John Russo, who wrote the original film with Romero — as well as several spinoff stories examining the ramifications of the zombie outbreak. A series by Wolfer and Russo titled simply “Night of the Living Dead” and set in Washington, D.C., shortly after the events of the movie, concludes this month with issue #5.
CBR News spoke with Wolfer about his upcoming “Night of the Living Dead: Death Valley” series, as well as the latest “Night of the Living Dead Annual,” which he is both writing and drawing.
CBR News: Mike, you’ve worked on all of Avatar’s “Night of the Living Dead” books to date. At this point, do you feel you have a good sense of how this universe operates and the types of horror the zombies can and do represent?
Mike Wolfer: It’s interesting how you phrased the last part of the question — that’s usually how most people perceive these stories, that they’re tales of the zombies, and that the undead are metaphors. And they are, but my approach to writing these books is that the terrifying unknown is actually within the human characters, and the zombie threat is simply the catalyst which brings opposing ideologies and moralistic backgrounds onto a collision course with one another. It’s how we deal with the threat, and it’s how we deal with our own emotions and our relationships with others during those times of incredible stress where the true horror lies.
On many of the previous books, you’ve co-written with John Russo, who co-wrote and co-produced the original film. What was it like working with him, and what does it feel like to play in this universe solo?
I don’t know if John’s sick of hearing it yet, but he’s such an incredibly cool guy and co-writing with him has been an awesome experience. I can’t say it enough. And as I always mention, I’m a fanboy, too, so just the fact that I’ve been given this opportunity to help carve-out new chunks of unwritten history in such a prestigious franchise is incredible.
When setting a story in 1968, 1969, it’s hard to avoid bringing in some of the cultural and political phenomena that were going on at the time, and of course the film and your last miniseries played on this more than a little. What role does the era play in the “Death Valley” series?
The story in the current “Night of the Living Dead” series, the assault on Washington, D.C., that was very much influenced by the politics and social climate of the era. I think the historic elements really set these stories apart from the flood of other zombie products on the market. We have very “real world” events and characters, and “real world” locations, all compressed within the very volatile Vietnam War era, and really, it’s impossible to illustrate what a plague of this sort would have had on our nation at that time without examining the incredible turmoil that the country was experiencing before the living dead began to rise.
The D.C. story, in my opinion, is incredibly powerful and truly tragic and came together exactly as I had planned, and I’m very proud of it. There are a lot of messages, if you read between the pages with bright red ink splashed on them. In contrast, “Death Valley” takes place in a location far from the political and social turmoil, and it’s the complacency that the characters display that will be their downfall. They’re trying to escape the “real” world with a carefree weekend in the desert, but my intent is to illustrate that turning your back on a threat doesn’t make it disappear, it makes you unprepared for it when it strikes. And the threat in “Death Valley” doesn’t come from the living dead directly, it comes from the living themselves.
As “Death Valley” begins some time after the first “NotLD,” how bad are things generally when the comic opens, and how much worse do they get for our heroes in particular once the story gets underway?
The setting of “Death Valley” is serene, and one year and thousands of miles from the Eastern U.S. outbreak. I’m taking my cue from the finale of the first movie, that the police, military and even armed civilians have been able to contain the spread, but it’s always hiding somewhere and continues to surface. That, coupled with the news media downplaying the threat, has pushed the plague itself into the realm of urban myth, and these characters on the West Coast have a very believable attitude: if it doesn’t affect me directly, I’ll pretend it’s not there. In a way, it’s similar to how the AIDS epidemic spread so rampantly and eventually affected every societal demographic.
What can you tell us about the weekend warriors at the center of the story?
I love my cast, I really do. They’re really a bunch of great characters with such a lust for life, and they embody that unique, sun-and-surf California lifestyle that was the American dream back in the ’60s. They’re all intelligent, upwardly-mobile, middle-class, and they all have dreams, but because of that egocentric attitude, they’re ill-prepared for what they’re about to face in Death Valley. Readers of the previous books we’ve done will be surprised to see that “Death Valley” brings the return of Christine and Don, who were recurring characters in “NotLD: The Beginning” and the first NotLD Annual, “Dead Air.” Christine’s father was Chuck Blaine, the news anchor who was seen throughout the first movie, and she blames Don for his death. Christine has moved to California to get away from it all, but Don won’t let go and has followed her out West to make his final plea for forgiveness. Their love story is the thematic centerpiece of the story, and is sure to be quite controversial when it’s all played out.
You mentioned that some of the danger comes from the living, and there’s a hint in the solicitation text that the undead might not be the only threat lurking in “Death Valley.” Any clues as to what else is going on out there?
When I’m brainstorming story ideas, I try to keep a “real world” perspective on the fantastic premise. “If this was happening today (or in the past), how would people really react?” Human nature can be a horrible thing, and no matter the threat, someone is going to try to capitalize on it. Do you think street vendors who sold 9/11 FDNY t-shirts were doing it out of patriotism? Hell no, and it’s disgusting. And that’s what we have occurring in “Death Valley.” Someone with a very specific, but warped and homicidal, political agenda has plans for the reanimated dead, not knowing and not caring about the full implication of their actions. “Death Valley” is the flip-side of the organized cries for revolution we’re seeing in the Washington, D.C., storyline in the current NOTLD 5-issue series. Everyone was trying to change the world, to make a better world through peace, love and understanding; in “Death Valley,” the villains believe that change can only be achieved through chaos.
The original film “Night of the Living Dead” was notable because, among other things, nobody gets out alive. Is this freeing for you as a storyteller, that your readers are very aware even the most central characters might not make it out the other side of the mini?
Oh, absolutely. The thought that everyone is expendable does offer me a lot of opportunities to keep the reader off-guard, but it’s often a curse. I have to kill some very good people who don’t deserve their fates, you know? And, of course, at the same time we get to see some disgusting individuals get exactly what’s coming to them. There’s a lot of karma in the kills, but sometimes there’s no sense to it at all, just like in real life.
You’re working with Dheeraj Verma for this series, who has illustrated a few “Living Dead” series before. What makes him a good match for this particular “Night of the Living Dead” tale?
Dheeraj was the artist on “Escape of the Living Dead” and “EotLD: Airborne,” and I’m so glad that he’s back for “Death Valley.” It’s hard to describe, but there’s just something innately retro about his work and he has a really great sense of style that perfectly captures that whole late ’60s/early ’70s vibe. His handling of the human body in particular makes him a perfect match on this series: the big, wide eyes sparkling with wonder, luxurious, flowing hair, the stylized physiques of the characters. Dheeraj’s art has that Southern California/American Dream kind of feel that really brings this story to life. And he does gore amazingly well, too!
You’ve also got the Annual coming up, which you’re writing and drawing, as you did with the “Holiday Special.” How do you choose which stories to illustrate yourself? Do prefer to do one-shots and annuals?
Which books I get to draw is based solely on my schedule, so when I’m working on a regular monthly book as I was with “Gravel,” I don’t have the time to also take on another entire miniseries, but the occasional one-shot is doable. Actually, in terms of both writing and drawing, I prefer longer form series as I tend to think in very grand terms with sprawling stories and subplots. I’m really getting my fill of that by co-writing the “Lady Death” monthly series with Brian Pulido, as it’s a huge epic. But the one-shot is also fun, as to me it’s reminiscent of the tales in the “Eerie,” “Creepy” and “Vampirella” magazines I grew up with.
In the annual, people are desperately seeking a new refuge from the zombies. For our characters, what is the logic behind fleeing to the Louisiana bayous? And why does this turn out to be a terrible idea?
The focal characters in the annual are a couple who have made a vacation road trip to New Orleans, so they’re strangers in a strange land. When the zombie threat flares up, they’re literally fleeing for their lives in whichever direction they can manage to escape to, and that leads them into bayou country. Coincidentally, though, it does seem like a refuge because the ghouls are following their instincts and are being drawn toward the cities because that’s where they find the highest concentration of the living. And dinner. But the bayou has its own share of threats, human, animal and undead.
You’ve worked on a lot of horror series, both as an artist and a writer. What are some of the challenges of the genre, and what’s your favorite thing about exploring these bloody worlds?
Probably the greatest challenge I face really isn’t a challenge for me, personally; it’s a challenge for the reader to understand the limitations of the comic book format and look beyond their own expectations, particularly with one-shot stories. Occasionally, a long-time “NotLD” fan will say, “It’s just the same thing all over again, they’re trapped and the zombies kill everyone.” If you look at any zombie story, regardless of medium, yes, that’s the whole point, no matter how it’s dressed. But it’s the subtlety between the kills that some readers fail to notice, and that’s where I do my best work and what makes each story unique. Forget the gory, horrible thing the zombie just did to that guy, did you read what that girl just said? Did you catch the irony of the entire situation? And how about that social commentary which is a reflection of the time in which the story was set? Sometimes, those pieces of finesse get lost when you have a main female character running around with no pants on, as we saw in the “NotLD Holiday Special.”
I’m often asked why we have sexual situations and nudity in the “NotLD” comics, because there wasn’t any in the original movie. Honestly, those elements aren’t essential to the stories, but they are a natural part of life and it gives the comics a unique feel that stands apart from the films. So on the one hand, some fans want something new and different, but they also want the comfort of getting exactly the same thing they’ve seen before, the conventions of the genre. It’s a balancing act to be sure, but at the end of the day, we are actually giving everyone everything that they’re asking for.