They came out of nowhere to steal the hearts of Marvel Comics fans and the kidneys, gizzards, and brains of Marvel Comics heroes. They're the stars of what has become a publishing phenomenon. They're the "Marvel Zombies." In this first part of a series of looks at "Marvel Zombies," CBR News goes back at the origins and the development of the sensation with former "Marvel Zombies" and "Ultimate Fantastic Four" editor John Barber.
When Mark Millar first came to Barber with the Marvel Zombies idea for a story he was doing in "Ultimate Fantastic Four," the editor knew the Scottish writer was onto something. "I thought it was a great idea," John Barber told CBR News. "I was a big fan of all the stuff Mark was doing in his 'Ultimate FF' run. I think it was some of the best FF stuff anybody has done since…the old Lee and Kirby stuff where it was just crazy idea after crazy idea.
"Mark always liked the idea of doing the zombie stuff as a spin-off written and drawn by other creators," Barber continued. "At first, we kind of thought that was a little crazy. Nobody thought the idea was a big moneymaker. It really seemed like a wacky idea but Mark's got good instincts."
Once it was decided to follow Millar's lead and create a "Marvel Zombies" spin-off series, Barber and his fellow editors set out to find the best writer for the project. "Ralph Macchio, Nicole Boose, and I were all throwing out ideas about who could write it," Barber said. "I don't remember if it was Ralph or I who said, 'you know who would be perfect for it? Robert Kirkman! It's too bad he can't do it because he does both superhero and zombie stuff.'
"Then we all kind of stopped and went, 'Wait a second.' I ran next door for Tom Brevoort since Robert had mostly been working with Tom at that time. I asked Tom what Robert's schedule was like and if he thought Robert would be able to do something like this. It was one of those ideas that seemed almost too perfect. Once we realized we should ask Robert, it just all fit together really well."
Artist Sean Phillips' involvement with "Marvel Zombies" came about in a similar fashion. "Greg Land had drawn the original story in 'Ultimate FF' and we kind of wanted to do something a little different from Greg's photorealism and really stylized, beautiful looking people," Barber explained. "We wanted something a little darker and dirtier and we were thinking of somebody along the lines of Sean Phillips would be great. There are a lot of artists, especially in the UK, who have influences like Sean, [like] some Mignola and maybe some Dave McKean from the 'Cages' era. There's a whole kind of school of artists like that. I thought maybe we could get one of those guys. I think it was [Marvel Talent Coordinator] Chris Allo who said, 'Maybe we could actually get Sean Phillips?' I was like, 'That's a good idea.' It was another choice that was so blindingly obvious that once it was pointed out, it just seemed like there wasn't any other way to go."
Barber feels Phillips's storytelling sense made him the perfect artist for "Marvel Zombies." "There's this murkiness to his art but everything still is really clear. His stuff just exudes a noir feel," Barber stated. "At the time he was just coming off of 'Sleeper' which was one of my favorite books when it was coming out. I've liked Sean's stuff for years. I enjoyed his work on 'Hellblazer' way back when. Taking the noir feel of his art and putting it in a horror setting just seemed to fit."
Arthur Suydam, who provides the signature covers for "Marvel Zombies," was an artist many at Marvel wanted to work with. "Arthur is somebody that Chris Allo has been trying to get working here for some time," Barber said. "I know Axel Alonso had tried to bring Arthur in to do some stuff a couple of years ago. It just hadn't worked out at the time. Chris Allo was very interested in getting Arthur to do these covers and I was excited because I was a fan of Arthur's from as far back as when Epic had printed the 'Cholly and Flytrap' stuff. Ralph Macchio was also a fan of Arthur's work from that era and he just seemed like a great fit.
"If I'm remembering it right, it was Joe Quesada who suggested we do takes on classic Marvel covers," Barber continued. "I remember when I first heard that, I was like, 'That's pretty interesting but I don't know. It kind of seems like a waste of Arthur.' But when Arthur turned in that first cover, I was like, 'Oh! He's going to take this to a whole different level than just a parody of these covers. It's going to be something totally new.' Arthur has obviously been a huge part of this whole phenomenon."
Once production began on "Marvel Zombies, the editorial and creative teams knew they were putting together something special. "All of us that were working on it thought it was a good series but to everyone else it seemed like kind of a one note joke," Barber explained. "There was just some weird alchemy that fit together everyone on the creative team so nicely. Ralph, Nicole and I all saw it happening. We knew we had something really good on our hands but you never know if something is going to be well received despite how good it may be.
"When issue #2 outsold #1, we knew we had something rare going on," Barber continued. "It's really just been the trend the whole way, even through the recent 'Army of Darkness' stuff, the 'Dead Days' one-shot. All of it's been doing better and better. It's pretty exciting."
Barber feels the shocking gore of the series is one of the reasons why "Marvel Zombies" resonated with so many readers. "It's sort of the 'I can't believe they're doing this' aspect. One of the things that Robert said early on was that when he turned in the first script, he thought he went way overboard on what we'd allow him to do with the characters," Barber said. "I don't think we ever reined him in on anything involving the gore or anything else because that was the fun of the book, it was crazy zombie stuff. We were a little worried about it, too -- at first. I was talking to Joe Quesada and asked him, 'Can we get away with this? Is this okay?' and he said, 'Yeah! They're zombies, that is what they're supposed to do.'
"It's been kind of crazy to see it turned into toys and busts and those little minimates figures," Barber continued. "I saw those on the cover of 'Previews' and I was like, 'Oh my god. We've destroyed society.' It's fun for the Marvel fans to see all these different takes on the characters."
It's surprising enough how well "Marvel Zombies" did with Marvelites and comic fans in general, but what's more amazing is how successful the series has been outside of comic stores. "Marvel Zombies" T-shirts and the collected hardcover appear in stores like Hot Topic, and the series has won prizes at Spike TV's Scream Awards show.
"It has the benefit of being a pretty easy concept to understand; it's the Marvel characters but their zombies," Barber said. "I think there's more depth to it in terms of the actual story but as a concept it's just something easy to understand and attractive to people. It's fun for the people who aren't huge Marvel fans, too, because it's a great, crazy zombie story. There's just something iconoclastic about seeing all these great heroes doing all these horrific things to each other. Plus, those covers don't hurt either.
"If anything, we really thought this would have been a really insular comics industry book that didn't have the success in bookstores and sold the way the hardcover has. Like I said, there's something appealing about it even if you're not a Marvel superheroes fan, it's something you don't really see with big corporate entities."
The "Marvel Zombies" hardcover has become one of the most successful collected editions Marvel's ever released. "To be honest, I don't know the actual sales figures but I know we've reprinted it a lot," Barber said. "It's got to be one of the best selling hard covers we ever put out. And the thing is, we fly through them. My involvement with the hardcovers is pretty limited. Every once in a while, someone will come down the hall and say, 'Hey we need a new cover for the 'Marvel Zombies!' hardcover and I'm like, 'What? We just got you one five weeks ago.' And they reply back, 'Yeah and it's already sold out.'"
While the first "Marvel Zombies" was coming to an end, plans were being laid for follow- ups to the series. "The day after Robert finished the last script, he sent in the first three pages of the second series," Barber revealed. "We hadn't really talked about it and maybe kind of danced around the fact that the thing is pretty successful and we might want to do another one. Then Robert sent those pages in and it was like 'Oh! That's where you're going to go with it? That's pretty good.' So everything about the series has been very organic and the next series picks up in a pretty unique and crazy place."
The first follow-up to "Marvel Zombies" from the original creative team was the one-shot "Dead Days." "I don't remember exactly how that came about," Barber remarked. "I think we just wanted to do a special and go back and explore things we didn't see in the 'FF' story."
"Dead Days" was released around the same time as the third issue of "Marvel Zombies vs. The Army of Darkness," a five-issue crossover miniseries by writer John Layman and artist Fabiano Neves, which pitted the flesh-hungry Marvel characters up against Ash from the "Evil Dead" films. "I don't know the actual business dealings of it," Barber said. "Publisher Dan Buckley came to us and said, 'what do you guys think about doing a cross-over with 'Army of Darkness?' It seemed like a natural fit. Robert couldn't do it because of time constraints but he kind of oversaw the scripts that John Layman wrote. John, among many other things, had done some of the [Dynamite Entertainment] 'Army of Darkness' comics.
"It was kind of a business deal but it was a series that fit together really well," Barber continued. "It's another weird example of the organic way the whole 'Marvel Zombies' phenomenon has developed. Putting together a licensed book with Marvel characters should have been a [legal] disaster, but it turned out to be a really fun story. We had some great moments in there I thought."
Barber believes "Marvel Zombies vs. Army of Darkness" had a slightly different feel than the original "Zombies" series. "I think John's stuff has got more of a straight comedic tone to it, where as Robert's stuff tends to be funny because of the darkness of the situation; it's more of a black humor," said Barber. "Not that there isn't black humor in the 'AOD' series, it's just that the humor in Robert's stuff comes more out of the situation. Ash is a funny character and he's going to make some funny observations about the superhero world, which wouldn't make sense for somebody who's part of the superhero world to make. John was also introducing a lot of the contemporary Marvel heroes like Nextwave in really funny ways. That part was almost a straight parody of the way Nextwave worked whereas I don't think Robert ever did anything that was like that kind of parody."
Following the conclusion of the "Army of Darkness" series, the Marvel Zombies again ran afoul of the Fantastic Four, but this time it was the latest 616 incarnation of the team, in a story that took place recently in "Black Panther" #28-30. "Axel Alonso, the editor of the book, and Reggie Hudlin, the writer, talked that out," Barber explained. "Axel came down the hallway and asked Ralph and me what we thought about sending the new FF into the zombieverse. We e-mailed Robert and kept him in the loop the whole time. It makes sense to send the Fantastic Four up against the Marvel Zombies even if it was a radically different Fantastic Four. I think that was the fun of the story; having a very different FF go up against the zombies. If you'll remember the whole zombies idea came out of a story that made you think that the Ultimate Universe was going to crossover with the Marvel Universe."
With the original "Marvel Zombies" exploding into a huge publishing success, expectations are high for the sequel, "Marvel Zombies 2," which hits stores in a few weeks. Barber feels there are certain necessary elements for a good "Marvel Zombies" story, and that the sequel has them in spades.
"The story needs to be a little bit shocking. It needs to go a little further than you thought it might go," Barber said. "It needs the black humor element, it isn't a dark continuity obsessed story," he said. "Stay tuned. The best is yet to come and get eaten."
The Dead Man's Party is not over yet! Come back on Monday for part 2, where Robert Kirkman spills his guts to CBR News about "Marvel Zombies 2."
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