Isle Of Zombies: Warren Ellis talks "Blackgas"

It's a good time to be a zombie. Really, you'd have to be dead not to notice that zombies have made quite the comeback in horror circles. In the recent films "28 Days Later," the "Dawn of the Dead" remake and "Shaun of the Dead," we've been given looks at a variety of different sorts of zombies, from the dim-witted, slow moving classic zombie to the crazed, sprinter style zombie. And it's not just film that's paid their respects to the living dead. Zombies can be found in comics, too, within the pages of Steve Niles' "Remains," Robert Kirkman's "The Walking Dead" or John Russo's "Escape of the Living Dead." You can add one more name to the stable of writers who'll be bringing his signature style to the world of zombies: Warren Ellis. The writer of "Fell" and "Desolation Jones" returns to the world of horror this January in the three-issue series "Blackgass" with artist Max Fiumara from Avatar Press. We caught up with Ellis to find out what his plans are for the living dead.

The series begins on a tiny little island that sits on its own fault line. "Tyler's bringing his girlfriend Soo back to the place he grew up: Smoky Island, somewhere off the northeast coast of the States," Ellis told CBR News. "Just one small town there, called Footstep, and masses of forest, dominated by the Bulge, the weird geological bump in the middle of the island. Smoky Island's had a historian working in the wilds for years, and he knows things have gotten weird there in the distant past. But no-one knows how weird. That night, we find out. Tyler and Soo are staying in a cabin on the other side of the Bulge... as the Bulge splits open. And black gas leaks out, blown south, passing over Footstep..."

While the citizens of Footstep can't escape the gas that spells their doom, Tyler and Soo are lucky enough to be on the north end of the island and outside the reach of the gas which blew south. That doesn't mean they have it easy, though. Not by a long shot. "The story focuses on Tyler and Soo's fight for survival, and, to an extent, how totally unfit for it they are," said Ellis. "The generations above them, as seen in the story, know things about the world, about the island, about chemistry (which is important). Tyler and Soo are young arts students, unequipped for pretty much anything to do with real life. I'm not making a big point out of it, but, really, we're talking about people who've evolved for digital life, who wouldn't think of taking a knife with them into deep woodland...

"Now, the only way off the island is using one of the boats on Footstep Bay. So Tyler and Soo have to go south, through the town of Footstep, to get to the bay."

Terror Cover "Blackgas" #2

As we saw in the film "28 Days Later," zombies have changed over the years and you can expect Ellis will be placing his own signature on the living dead as well. "The Warren Ellis zombie, in its early phase, is actually aware of what's happening to its brain and body," said Ellis. "In its early phase, the 'Blackgas' zombie can actually talk."

Once the infection's done spreading, you'll see a more familiar style of zombie, but with some Ellis additions. "Some expectations, you have to meet," explained Ellis. "Zombies eat people. The zombie bite imparts... Zombification. (I can hear Maddie Greene, zombie fan and organizer of this year's Zombie Lurch in Madison Wisconsin, laughing as I struggle with that word.) There are parallels to Ebola or other similar vicious diseases: the chemical load of the black gas expresses out in the black foam drooling from our zombies' mouths, and drips from their eyes as black muck (I took that visual from the eye haemmorhages Ebola victims suffer, blood streaking out of their eyes and down their faces.)

"For me, the big thing is psychological: the black gas releases the worst things in our heads. They don't just eat people. They do utterly disgusting things. All that black stuff in the back of our brains that we never act on... That all comes out. They're out of control, but technically they're not mindless. They're just beyond reasoning with."

While in film, filmmakers have the ability to scare audiences by having characters jump out from shadows and what not, the same tools aren't available to comic writers as it's the reader controls the experience (i.e. flipping to the next page). Ellis said exploring the psychological side of the story is what will grip readers with fear in "Blackgas." "It's about drawing people in. It's about creating a tone, and slowly tuning it so that everything becomes threatening," said Ellis. "It's hard to do the sharp-shock of horror in comics, but it is possible to create a real miasma of disturbingness (which may not be a word). Bit by bit, you can worm your way into a reader's head and, not outright scare them, but disturb them... create genuine revulsion, so that they feel like they need a shower afterwards."

While Ellis has written horror before with books like "Hellblazer," "Hellstorm," "Strange Kiss" and "Scars," it's been a few years since he's played within the genre. When it comes to the writing, Ellis explained that the timing in a horror story is, in many ways, quite different compared to a straight up super-hero story or his work on books like "Planetary" and "Fell." "Horror very much depends on the context of the 'good life,' the status quo," explained Ellis. "So you start slower, you show life as it should be lived. And then someone starts bleeding. And something is moving behind the door that's ajar. You know what I mean? The bad stuff leaks in. A little at first. And then a lot. And then when you think it couldn't get any worse lots of little men run in with buckets and fling some more on."

Terror Cover"Black Gas" #2,

Gore Cover

Ellis said that "Blackgas" got its start from a request by Avatar's Editor-In-Chief William Christiansen. "William has a thing about zombies," said Ellis. "He's been after me for years to write him a zombie book. A ways back, I broke down and devised 'Blackgas,' specifically for him. It's basically me writing a book for my friend to read. Because my friend is sick in the head, it has disgusting violence and gutbusting horror in it. That's the whole deal, really. Sometimes it's just as simple as that."

But what is it about zombies that have recaptured the minds of horror fans the past five years? Ellis had some thoughts on the subject. "Zombies tend to enjoy a resurgence when Western society feels it's up against a faceless, silent threat -- whether it's conservative culture threatened by Communists or radical Islam, or liberal culture terrified by all-enveloping capitalism and the world turning into a mall full of drones.

"But that's not what you want to hear. PEOPLE LIKE IT WHEN ZOMBIES' HEADS EXPLODE."

As for the influences Ellis is pulling from for "Blackgas," he said American horror films played a part in the development of this series. "I lifted that classic kind of American horror film structure, where two attractive young people go somewhere to have sex and are punished for it by their world turning to shit," said Ellis. "Patton Oswalt said it best: 'There's nothing in the woods! Gimme some of that pussy! CHOP!' Simple structure, simple goal-- get through the town full of zombies to jump in the boat and escape-- and the fun is in what happens to them along the way."

Just a few short years ago it was pretty difficult to find many horror related comics on the market outside of a Vertigo book here or there. Today, though, things are quite different, with an abundance of horror comics available for readers to sample from. "There have always been horror comics-- I've written a lot of them-- and they go up and down in a cycle like most everything else," said Ellis. "If there was a dip, it was likely because Vertigo has been transitioning out of the 'horror imprint' thing into mainstream fiction and other genres.

"Much of the horror work I have noticed of late has very much been in the artistic mode of Ben Templesmith/Ash Wood, that impressionistic fog of almost hallucinated horror. With Max Fiumara on the job, 'Blackgas' has a terrible clarity to its art-- you'll be able to see all the awful details, whether you want to or not. And because he's such a flexible artist, the early sequences really ground the book in reality, which is what I like in horror: you start with the real world as the ideal, and then the shitrain begins, and you really want to get back to the beautiful world you started with...except that, deep down, you know you won't."

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