Not The Love Boat: Smith on "Dead Ahead"

A small group of survivors fighting for life aboard a vessel adrift at sea is a compelling enough source of drama, but what happens when any hope for rescue involves staving off a horde of flesh-eating zombies? Image Comics tackles this question in "Dead Ahead," a three-issue minseries beginning in September, illustrated by Alex Niño with Moose Baumann coloring, and written by the team of Mel Smith and Clark Castillo. CBR News caught up with Smith to discuss the series, his life with "Gumby," and the comics industry's short-term memory.

Mel Smith describes "Dead Ahead" as "Dawn of the Dead on a cruise ship," and suggests that our protagonists "are not a bunch of heroes per se, but survivors out at sea on board a tugboat." The cast includes a four-member crew of would-be revelers who happened to hire the boat on the very day when "the dead came back to life and began savagely changing things back on land and so prevent them going back," Smith said.

"In the first issue, the group is exposed primarily to each other and the elements at sea -- with brief island-hopping excursions for supplies amidst the zombies heating things up," Smith told CBR. "We close the first chapter with the survivors face to face with a huge luxury liner in front of them and a decision of whether to either leave it and go further out to sea or board her and face up to 4,000 living dead waiting to feast on their living human flesh!"

Though there are strong elements of zombie epic in "Dead Ahead," there is also a high seas adventure aspect which Smith hopes will set his story apart. "The inspiration for 'Dead Ahead' was of course a love of zombies. And even with a gigazillionuch comics out there, I truly feel this is something no one's done with the whole approach to the genre," the writer said. "It all started New Year's Eve last year, my writing partner Clark Castillo babbled an idea about zombies on a boat and all of a sudden a light went off in my head. I said 'cruise ship,' then that in turn developed into creating the survivors to add suspense element to it all. Along with this we added the dilemma of making the characters decide whether they should board a ship for supplies and take their chances against it containing nearly 4,000 chomping dead or risk the ocean in their small ship with rations already nearly depleted. What would you do?"

Smith heaped praise on "Dead Ahead" artist Alex Niño, best known for his work on "House of Secrets" and "Vampirella" in the '70s and '80s, as well as his contributions to "Heavy Metal." "You know, there is a lot of high seas in the first issue which works great for one reason: Alex Niño," Smith remarked. "The man was born to draw this book! I swear! 90% of the first issue is set at sea and man did Alex just tear it up!!

"Funny story, and I won't name the editorial individual from a company we decided not to go with, but I was sure Alex was right for this job and knew he could handle drawing boats and water. Anyway, I spoke to this editor and he told me that all new artists had to send in samples. I looked this gentleman in the face as I tried holding back laughing too quickly and notified him that Alex was a thirty-plus year comic veteran so I was pretty sure he could handle the chores easily!"

Niño has been a rare presence in comics since the mid-nineties, but recently he has been ramping up his output, illustrating the indie title "God the Dyslexic Dog" and chapters of "Planet Hulk." He's also been active in other media. "Quick fact - people don't realize Alex worked on Disney's 'Atlantis' movies where his water designs and looks were used throughout the movie," Smith revealed on behalf of his collaborator.

Desperate castaways struggling against flesh-eating zombies may seem quite a departure from Smith's most recent comic work--resurrecting the "Gumby" license through his Wildcard Ink studio--but looking a bit further back to his days writing "Child's Play" for Innovation Comics, one might start to see his affection for the horror genre. "'Dead Ahead' is indeed a far cry from our little green boy of clay," Smith said about his involvement with "Gumby." "I laugh at times about it. You know, it's definitely one extreme to the other as far as projects go. Working on 'Gumby' is a fulltime gig but every so often a window opens up for a moment of air that allows me either to relax or find something else to do as well, and this fit that description for me to branch out and cut my teeth as a storyteller after learning so much from Bob Burden about great writing.

"And I'm finding it very enjoyable working with Alex Niño, Tom Orzechowski, Lois Buhalis, Moose Baumann, Paul H. Birch and Image Comics on 'Dead Ahead' because they all make me look better than I ever imagined I could be. That will certainly translate itself in terms of fantastic entertainment value for the audience reading the series, making it a big plus for them!"

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