Late in 2007, Archaia published the first three chapters of Nick Tapalanksy and Alex Eckman-Lawn's critically-acclaimed zombie noir series "Awakening," but the company's organizational restructuring put the series on hold... until now.
This June, "Awakening" returns in the first of two hardcover original graphic novels, and CBR News caught up with the creative team to get the details.
"Awakening" follows Private Investigator Derrick Peters as he uncovers an unconventional zombie outbreak. "[Peters] is a former detective for the Park Falls Police Department and retired early from the force," Nick Tapalansky told CBR. When "town crazy" Cynthia Ford starts spouting conspiracy theories linking a series of seemingly unrelated murders, most people dismiss her claims out of hand, but Peters' history with Ford drives the P.I. to dig deeper into her story.
Like other classic noir protagonists, "Awakening's" Derrick Peters is far from infallible. "I really like how Derrick isn't the perfect hero," Alex Eckman-Lawn said. "He's kind of a gloomy recluse and while he's certainly capable, he's not Batman, you know? He can't solve the case on his own and he knows it."
To that end, Peters enlists the aid of Dr. Daniel Howe, a young scientist in the employ of the United States Government. "Howe's here to dig into the problem and resolve it, but bureaucracy seems to have kept any useful information from him," Tapalansky explained. "It seems somebody knows there's something more to the rising number of missing and murdered in the city but if they know more than the general gist they certainly didn't tell Daniel. Once he and his equipment arrive in Park Falls he essentially starts from scratch, trying his best to discover a cause and solution to these 'awakenings' before it's too late."
Of the two protagonists, Eckman-Lawn finds it easier to identify with Peters. "Drawing Daniel-heavy pages actually used to make me mad because he's so damn slick and confident," the artist admitted. "I identify more with the uglier grumpier side of the team. I suppose that's very telling."
Both Tapalansky and Eckman-Lawn have loved comics for almost as long as they can remember. "An early issue of 'Web of Spider-Man' (post-symbiote, pre-red costume, guy with an axe on the cover, I think) and a wind-up swimming Spider-Man suckered me in," Tapalansky confessed. "If anybody knows the issue number I'll forever be in your debt." The "Metal Gear" ad on the back of the comic quickly eclipsed his interest in everybody's favorite webhead, but Tapalansky considered it a "call to arms" that was hard to ignore.
Tapalansky's first foray into creating comics came at the age of six with a story called "Kat Man." "In my infinite first grade wisdom, I mashed up Daredevil and some Ninja Turtles action (never realizing the connection between the two until years later) and voila: a freak chemical spill turns mild-mannered scientist into a man in a cat costume," Tapalansky said. "I... I also had cats at the time."
Eckman-Lawn's early interest in comics erred more on the side of the classics. "As a kid I remember trying to collect a lot of Silver Age stuff (which strikes me as a little strange now), but my interest in making comics came about because of people like Dave McKean, Ashley Wood, those kinds of guys, the more painterly, sometimes abstract graphic novel kind of stuff," the artist explained. "All of a sudden comic art wasn't just ink and flat color and rippling dudes in tights. Not that I don't love those things."
The seeds of "Awakening" were sown when Tapalansky was surveying his comic book pull-list circa 2005. "I was looking for something different to read, something that might have an entirely new take on something and just spin some heads, you know?" the writer said. It was also around that time that Tapalansky found his interest in the horror genre growing, and even though the success of books like Robert Kirkman's "The Walking Dead" had helped galvanize the zombie-comics movement, Tapalansky came to the conclusion that there was a decided dearth of unique voices in that particular horror sub-genre.
"So I says to myself, 'Self, if zombies are so cool then why aren't there more stories about them?'" After painfully slapping himself upside the head for thinking such a fallacy, Tapalansky rephrased the question: "Why aren't there more different stories about zombies?" This led the writer to conduct an in-depth exploration of pop culture zombie lore.
One thing that sets "Awakening" apart from most other stories in the zombie genre is that the outbreak is a gradual one, slow enough that it would take a small city months to discover the undead in their midst. With that as the backdrop, Tapalansky set out to answer a series of questions: "How would the city handle it? How would certain types of people approach it? What was causing it?" And the answers to these questions led the writer to conceive of an entirely new kind of zombie uprising, "one which might not offer any kind of pattern or reason for spreading, where somebody walking down the street would simply fall down and minutes later get up again, now changed."
Tapalansky continued, "There's a certain horror in not knowing what's going on around you and it's very different from the fight/flight horror that comes from exploring a mass uprising of undead."
Traditional survival-horror stories are so fast-paced as to more or less negate the possibility of a philosophical exploration of the zombie phenomenon, but, Tapalansky said, "In a situation like this, where we explore the city over the course of a full year, our characters have time to think about what this might mean as they grapple with the headier concepts of science vs. religion, reconciling old shortcomings and mistakes, and trying to evolve and grow as you see your city and world decomposing slowly, all the while still fighting to understand the core of the problem and overcome it before it's too late."
The first three chapters of "Awakening" were originally published in single- issue form by Archaia in late 2007, garnering the series four Eagle nominations. "The Eagle Awards are a funny thing, because they're one of the few awards that are based entirely on fan nominations and fan votes," Tapalansky said. The creative team made sure their fans knew that the book was eligible to win an Eagle, and all involved were pleasantly surprised to find themselves nominated alongside such distinguished competition. "We were up against 'Hellboy' and 'Captain America' in one category and I was up against Jason Aaron and Matt Fraction in another. How cool is that?"
"I think we were pretty much shocked all the way through the process," Eckman-Lawn agreed. "As Nick said, it's pretty crazy to think that we were considered in the same category as big time names like Captain America and Thor. It's like arm wrestling with your hero. You want to win, but mostly it's just exciting to hold their hand."
Not long after the third chapter of "Awakening" was published, Archaia underwent a restructuring process which gave many of its books pause. "When the restructuring was complete, which was well worth the wait, we were faced with two options: continue releasing issues, with issue #4 debuting after 18 months of silence in stores, or divvy the book into two hardcover collections instead," Tapalansky explained. "The hardcovers won out in the end, both because of the continuing decline of indie floppy issues on comic shop shelves and the ability to have the books available to more readers through bookstores."
And as proud as Eckman-Lawn was of the individual issues, for his money, "Awakening" reads all the better as a graphic novel. "We had always said the book was made to be told in chapters, but it reads really well in one go," the artist said. "A testament to Nick's skills I suppose."
The hardcover editions of "Awakening" feature supplementary journal entries from Derrick Peters that "flesh out the story between the chapters," written for the collections by Tapalansky and featuring new illustrations by Eckman-Lawn. In addition, the voumes feature pinups from artists like Mark Smylie, Patrick McEvoy, Mark Holmes, Pat Kinsella, and Kaitlin Terentz.
Alex Eckman-Lawn says his and Nick Tapalansky's styles complement each other quite well. "Nick's a really visual writer, and spins a mean yarn, so it's been pretty easy translating his scripts to paper," the artist said. "Best of all he's totally open to making changes in the interest of getting the best page possible. It's a real give and take, and it's been working out well! Just wait until you see what we've been working on lately!"
The duo has no fewer than four future collaborations planned after they wrap up "Awakening." But as far as "Awakening" goes, the entire story is more or less contained in this two-volume set. "I love these characters and this story but, sadly, Volume Two is going to be it for the series," Tapalansky confirmed. "It was always conceived with a fairly definitive beginning, middle, and ending and while it might be fun to revisit it in short stories later, that volume will be the capper on the series."
At this stage, the creators were vague about the secrets Volume Two holds. "Let's just say that the past is a bitch and the present is going to push people to accept who they are and grow or face some grim consequences," Tapalansky teased. "It'll make more sense after Volume One comes out, super swear!"
"It's tough to keep myself from blurting out all kinds of spoilers so I'll just say that things are going to get intense, and not necessarily in the way you're probably expecting," Eckman-Lawn added. "It's going to be rad."
"Awakening" Volume 1 goes on sale June 24 from Archaia.