There's a good chance that this Halloween, Bill Jemas is prepared for a bunch of jokes about how nothing in comics stays dead for too long.
The former Marvel Publisher and current head of Double Take Comics (a division of game studio Take-Two) tells CBR News that today marks the launch of the comic company's first property, an expansion of the stories from the 1968 zombie classic "Night of the Living Dead." As the original George Romero film has entered the public domain, Double Take has drafted creators including writers Brian Clevenger and Jeff McComsey and Take-Two artists Kurt Tiede and Julian Rowe to expand on the scenes and stories from the movie to build a new fictional world.
The first three serials spinning from the movie -- "Rise," "Soul" and "Insurrection" -- start serializing today via the Double Take Facebook page. New pages and stories will be added regularly, with an eye on social media sharing, but Jemas told CBR in an interview that the full plan for the project includes launching a Kickstarter campaign for expanded print versions before eventual distribution via both traditional comic shops and digital platforms like comiXology and MadeFire.
"Double Take is publishing a series of new stories, starting with the first scenes from the first episodes of three graphic novels: 'Rise,' 'Soul' and 'Insurrection.' All are set in the universe established by the 1968 film 'Night of the Living Dead,'" Jemas explained. "You will see our work in progress -- mostly in black and white. We will add color versions of those scenes, new scenes and/or new stories, pretty-much every day. In the long run, we hope to add the most to the stories you like the best.
"The material that we're working on is such that we're using the original film as a springboard," the publisher added. "To get the film fans comfortable, there is a lot of content directly from the film in the first few stories, but after an issue or two, everything that you'll be seeing will be completely original. This will be one, large universe that happens to start with this particular set of stories. All the stories we do will eventually be combined in one universe...these zombies and the characters we create as a part of this series will always be a part of the Double Take world. We will use that Marvel/DC/Valiant model, but we're starting with this story because there are a lot of fans of 'Night of the Living Dead' and an enormous zombie fanbase. Though superheroes and other characters will be coming down the pike, and they'll be attached to this same universe."
Of course, Jemas is trying not to get too far ahead of himself. While his former employer is declaring its movie plans for the next five years, he said that he's trying to use the Double Take launch as a more organic model for content creation. "Way back when, a really nice, smart guy named Mark Alessi jumped into comics with his life savings, and Mark mapped out like nine years of stories," he recalled of the CrossGen founder. "He started publishing when I started publishing, and at the time I said to him, as nicely as I could, 'Mark, don't you want to know what the audience has to say before you commit that hard?' I kind of feel like it's silly to decide so much before you publish your first book."
Jemas noted that while many stories have been in development at Double Take, "What really happened is that we tried a lot of content -- a lot of different stories from a lot of different creators -- over the past year or so. And we didn't think that what we were producing was all that good, yet. One of the nice things about working at a company like Take-Two is that there is no pressure to publish or perish. We were allowed to workshop and grow our ideas slowly.
"With the 'Living Dead' stories, we love the way they're coming out," he said of the decision to launch today. "We all love the movie, and we think we're taking the old content as a springboard to some really new fun things. It's still one step at a time. The Facebook launch is a place where people can see exactly what we're doing and then either laugh or cry. I have a pretty good filter for fan commentary. If we would have listened to all the fan commentary when I was at Marvel, we would have charged right into the second bankruptcy. If we would have listened to none of it, we would have charged into the second bankruptcy. It's important to publish and see how the audience reacts. Our first year has been looking at the content ourselves without rose-colored glasses on. But now we're looking at content we think is ready to get out in front of the zombie audience and see what they think."
The rollout will take place over multiple social media formats to try and engage fans of the original film wherever they choose to read web comics. "We'll have the first three stories arriving in increments," Jemas said. "We do want to distribute this in chunks, and we've workshopped over the past year some good techniques for digital-first publishing. If you look online, you can use the Facebook gallery software to read it. Or if you're on your phone, I think you can read it a little easier through Tumblr. And we've got WordPress page-flipper software installed on our own website. Those three places will be very easy for readers to connect with. These will be a one-panel-at-a-time presentation of our comic stories.
"Even though I don't have a reputation for being falsely humble, but I would be shocked and really disappointed if this didn't turn into a significant publishing property. Our plans are to roll out through social media, get the website up and running, do digital sales through comiXology and MadeFire and then approach Diamond and the retailer market from a little bit of a fanbase. Retailers who are buying this on a non-returnable basis want to know they're buying something that already has fans. And one of the nice things that the digital distribution world has proven -- and I think we even showed this back when we were doing the first 'Dot Comics' at Marvel -- was that popular digital books make for really strong-selling print books.
"That was not something I would have guessed at the start. It was a really happy surprise. Back then, we had 'Ultimate Spider-Man' as a comic doing 125,000 units, which was solid. It was one of the top books in the industry. Then we launched our Dot Comic version of it and got around 1 million digital readers. We were happily surprised that the print sales popped up, and then the graphic novels popped up."
As for a timeline of when the print version of Double Take's "Living Dead" comics may arrive, Jemas shoots straight. "If we haven't built a significant customer base by January, then there's something wrong with the content," he said. "I'd love to be Kickstarting before January, but by January at the latest. And then I'd love to be in Diamond's distribution system as soon as they are comfortable that the content will sell. We want to move this as quickly as we can, but we don't want to move so fast that we don't get tangible quantitative and qualitative feedback from readers. This content is really strong, and I think the crucible of digital publishing will make it stronger."
Creatively, Jemas said that tapping the minds behind indie comics successes like "Atomic Robo" and "American Terror" was a priority for how he saw "Living Dead" expanding. "Brian happens to be one of my favorite independent writers and is my son's absolute favorite. And Jeff McComsey has done some wonderful zombie stuff independently. He's been putting out high quality stuff for years, so they're the two people we wanted working with us," the publisher explained. "Saying 'Night of the Living Dead' is just magic to people. One author said to us -- and I think he might be embarrassed by this -- 'I think I've seen that film 40 times.' So there are so many people who hear 'Night of the Living Dead' and they grew up watching it. It's a wonderfully simple film that I think was in the public domain pre-YouTube, so there are lots and lots of people who have seen it in lots of different ways. To pitch a creator on this was really easy. If you're pitching someone on an original property, they might say, 'I don't know. I've got my own original properties going. Call me if you get back to Marvel.' But for something like this, people really want to work on this project.
"And we had some ideas that made the zombies better characters for stories. The zombies, of course, fill a specific function in pop culture and horror. Here's something I can kill, and I don't have to feel bad about killing it or experience my moral human reflexes. It's a zombie. It's already dead. It's going to kill me. So let me kill it. But there are some nuances in our version that should make this a lot of fun."
Double Takes first look at their "Night of the Living Dead" serials are now live at Facebook.com/DoubleTakeComics