Under Norman Osborn's Dark Reign, the Marvel Universe has become a pretty nasty place. Many heroes have been forced underground, and villains have achieved ultimate power.
But hey! At least the world hasn't been ravaged by a zombie virus that turns the living into flesh hungry undead ghouls!
That might change, though, if the heroes of "Marvel Zombies 4" fail in their quest. CBR News spoke with writer Fred Van Lente about his and artist Kev Walker's new four-issue miniseries that begins in April.
Van Lente and Walker were the creative team behind "Marvel Zombies 3," and when they signed on for that project they had no idea they were fated to bring to life both the third and fourth chapters in the publishing phenomenon that is Marvel Zombies. "What happened was 'Marvel Zombies 3' sold out either the day it was released or shortly afterwards," Van Lente told CBR News. "Once that happened, we were immediately asked to start planning out the next series."
In "Marvel Zombies 3," the titular characters found a gateway from their nightmarish home dimension into the Marvel Universe. The forces of the clandestine government agency A.R.M.O.R. [Alternate Reality Monitoring and Operational Response] and their allies repelled a full-scale invasion attempt by the Marvel Zombies, but not before a few of the undead escaped and headed out to eat the Marvel Universe. At the end of the series, Michael Morbius - a.k.a. the Living Vampire -- promised to assemble a team to track down and the escaped zombies.
"He's definitely driven by a desire for vengeance," Van Lente said. "The question is at what point does that desire for vengeance start clashing with the safety of his team mates and their desire for justice?"
The chance to further explore a compelling character like Morbius was one of the reasons why Van Lente wanted to write "Marvel Zombies 4." "I like Morbius because although he's a vampire and technically a supernatural creature, he originally gained his curse through science. Plus he's a biochemist, which is what my dad was, so I have a certain degree of affinity for him there as well. I like him because he's an empirical scientist, so it's fun to throw him into these insane supernatural situations, with Voodoo, witchcraft, and all that other stuff. That's because even though he's got fangs, he's still kind of a straightforward twenty-first century kind of guy."
The team Morbius assembles for the zombie hunt in "Marvel Zombies 4" is a new incarnation of the Midnight Sons, a loose knit band of supernatural champions that once included characters like Ghost Rider and Blade and operated in the '90s. The first member Morbius recruits is the sorceress Jennifer Kale, who also underwent a frightful ordeal in "Marvel Zombies 3." "She's like Morbius in that she's trying to put her best face forward, but unfortunately for her and others, there are a lot of supernatural elements at play this time around and some of those elements may be able to exploit any weakness in any of our team members," Van Lente explained. "Including Jennifer, who is ashamed by the way she reacted when the zombies over ran A.R.M.O.R. in 'Marvel Zombies 3.' So she's kind of got a chip on her shoulder."
Like Morbius, Van Lente finds the down-to-earth qualities of Jennifer Kale to be among her most interesting traits. The writer drew inspiration from the way creator Steve Gerber portrayed the character in his "Man-Thing" stories; as a normal American teenager with vast mystical powers
Rounding out the new Midnight Sons are the characters of Jack Russell; the title character of Marvel's classic "Werewolf by Night" series; Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan; the Man-Thing; and maybe couple of surprise characters who Van Lente hinted could pop up as the series unfolds. "When the series begins, our team is up and running. Obviously, Jennifer Kale and Morbius were already around from 'Marvel Zombies 3,' and Jack Russell is a pal of Morbius's. They used to team up a lot when Morbius had his own series in the '90s. So they know each other. As far as Hellstrom, he never registered with the U.S. Government, but he was a member of Kyle Richmond's New Jersey based Defenders team that was deactivated, so he's been transferred to this situation with A.R.M.O.R. And Man-Thing is a reserve member who doesn't necessarily show up right away. So everyone is already established. That way we can immediately get to the blowing up of zombies."
Van Lente says the third "Marvel Zombies" series took place right before the Skrulls' Secret Invasion, and told CBR the fourth series kicks off at the very beginning of Norman Osborn's Dark Reign. So for a team that's been together a short time the new Midnight Sons get along fairly well. "Morbius had to invent a wolf pheromone to douse them all in so Jack Russell, the werewolf, will recognize them as friendly," Van Lente said. "Because he is the Son of Satan, Daimon Hellstrom is oodles of fun to be around. I say that sarcastically because his laugh tends to send chills up you spine. If Hellstrom is happy, you kind of want to look around and see what's on fire or what kind of degradation is going on.
"Ralph Macchio, my editor, urged me to read the Warren Ellis series 'Hellstorm' and that's definitely informed this interpretation of Hellstrom, and we totally redid his look," Van Lente continued. "One of the things I found interesting about the Daimon Hellstrom appearances that were collected in 'Essential Marvel Horror' Volume 1 was that according to his origins, he's apparently an ordained priest. So now we've got him tooling around in a Jesuit Cassock, which looks pretty cool the way Kev Walker draws it."
The Midnight Sons' hunt for the escaped zombies will take them across the globe and thrust them into a situation where they'll have to confront both human and undead depravity. "As the solicitations says, we start off on a cruise ship beset by underwater zombies, but the pursuit of the fugitive zombies from A.R.M.O.R. ends up leading them to an island nation called Taino, which is the residence and headquarters of a long time Voodoo Marvel villain," Van Lente explained. "Who as we learn finds these unstoppable biological weapons under his control, so he decides to try and sell them."
The auctioning off of the fugitive zombies attracts a number of interested buyers, mot notably underworld kingpin The Hood. "The Hood of course may not be acting of his own volition, since he has an unholy alliance with the Dread Dormammu, who may want the zombies and the virus that creates them for his own nefarious purposes," Van Lente said. "Plus, the Hood doesn't just bring any group of villains with him on this jaunt. He brings a very horror-oriented group of villains with him. People know I love to dip as far back as I can into obscure Marvel-ania and a team I always enjoyed and never felt got their time was the Night Shift. So they're working for the Hood now."
Because the title of the series is "Marvel Zombies 4," fans are of course wondering which Marvel characters they'll see zombified in the series. "Probably the most obvious Marvel character to zombify gets zombified in this series," Van Lente hinted. "Plus, a character whose popularity I was surprised by and probably shouldn't have been makes his return in 'Marvel Zombies 4.' Now we've taken to calling this character 'The Merc with only a mouth.'"
Van Lente and Walker's "Marvel Zombies 3" was very different than the two Robert Kirkman and Sean Philips series that preceded it, and Van Lente is again looking to tell a distinctly different type of tale. "I hazard to guess that some people might be feeling a bit sorry for the zombies this time around," the writer remarked. "Since this time around they are the object of everyone's quest and are what everyone is trying to get their hands on."
The writer is of course happy to be collaborating once again with Kev Walker. "I know it sounds cliche but he's really outdone himself this time," Van Lente said. "I think his style is this sort of melding of Mike Mignola and Steve Bissette and it's perfect for this series."
For Van Lente, "Marvel Zombies 4" is not only the chance to tell the next chapter in the Marvel Zombies saga, it's also the chance to bring together a new team of Marvel heroes in the Midnight Sons, and the writer wouldn't mind another crack at either group of characters. "If I start doing 'Marvel Zombies 9' please kill me," he laughed. "But as long as we keep coming up with ideas that are exciting and interesting, I'll keep doing them for the Midnight Sons and 'Marvel Zombies' proper.
"'Marvel Zombies 4' is a classic horror comic. We have zombies and now we have demons, witchcraft, mist enveloped cemeteries, and all that other fun stuff and it really looks kick ass."
"Marvel Zombies 4" #1 shambles into stores April 8 from Marvel Comics.