Palmiotti & Gray Unleash G.I. Zombie on "Star-Spangled War Stories"

After being asked by DC Comics to reimagine iconic war comic protagonist Unknown Soldier (again) for the New 52, co-writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray joked that "G.I. Combat" would have sold better if it was called "G.I. Zombie." That's what you call an aha! moment.

Bolstered by the iconic "Star-Spangled War Stories" title, a new horror/war series written by Palmiotti and Gray and illustrated by Scott Hampton arrives this July featuring Jared Kabe, also known as G.I. Zombie -- described by the fan-favorite writing team as funny, charming, serious, deadly and above all else, a soldier hungry for war -- and some brains, too.

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In a candid interview with CBR News, Palmiotti and Gray shared details about G.I. Zombie's comrades-in-arms, how "Star-Spangled War Stories featuring G.I. Zombie" and its characters tie into the New 52 and why the climate for a new war comic is challenging so taking risks and storytelling with a sense of urgency are vital if they want to keep their undead soldier alive.

CBR News: This first question may be the toughest, but DC Comics has tried war books a number of times in recent years, and even launching them in the New 52 "Men of War" and "G.I. Combat," the latter featuring an Unknown Soldier arc written by you two. What makes "Star-Spangled War Stories" any different?

Jimmy Palmiotti: The difference is this series is about one character called G.I. Zombie with the "Star-Spangled" title above it. It does not have a rotating cast of other war stories and characters and is very focused on building up a completely new character in the DCU. The other difference is this is a horror comic mixed with the war theme and its something we have not seen before in a comic book.

Justin Gray: I think we learned a valuable lesson about the market and how it feels about war comics while writing the Unknown Soldier. With that in mind, we set out to make "Star-Spangled War Stories Featuring G.I. Zombie something very different from the previous offerings in both "Men of War" and "G.I. Combat."

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Are you a fan of the classic war series your new book takes its name from that was written and edited by Robert Kanigher?

Palmiotti: I had a bunch of them and some original art from them as well. And I love the creative nature of the stories. Robert didn't just write stories about battles but he really went and made some very unique genre bashing adventures and during his run, created some of the coolest and way-out there comics of that time. His imagination was way out of control and I loved it.

I believe G.I. Zombie is a new character, but honestly there were some pretty fantastic stories back in the day during the original 200+ issue run of "Star-Spangled War Stories" and I haven't read them all, so I guess he may be a re-imagining. What can you tell us about him beyond "a man who is neither dead nor alive, who fights for his country again... and again... and again!"?

Palmiotti: G.I. Zombie is a brand new character created by Justin and I and we pitched the idea to DC. They wanted to release a new "Star-Spangled" series and thought it was a good idea to approach it with something fresh rather than going back to rework other characters like they have done with the other new 52 war stories.

Gray: It was one of those head slapping moments where the name exploded into a concept that seemed so obvious we were wondering why no one had done it before.

Palmiotti: G.I. Zombie is an interesting character because we join him in the middle of a mission and get to learn a little about him with each issue. We did not want to approach this book in a conventional way where we open with his origin.

Gray: We wanted to defy expectations of what a first issue is and how to introduce a new character in a way that was mysterious and exciting.

Palmiotti: We create a bit of a mystery that unfolds slowly to the reader and the supporting cast around him and it gets wilder and crazier with every turn. This is the story of a man who has seen it all, fought in major wars and has a bit of an appetite for flesh that kind of works with what he does.

Jared Kabe AKA G.I. Zombie is funny, charming, serious, deadly and above all enjoying his time on the planet, getting his hands dirty and bloody.

Can you take us back to that initial head slapping moment?

Palmiotti: I believe the character name came about when we were having a conversation about how selling war comics is a tough market, that no matter how good a book might be, it's a tough sell to people because maybe we see this kind of thing daily on TV and people want to turn off to the concept of war.

Gray: Exactly. When we were approached to give Unknown Soldier a new spin it felt like we were setting ourselves up for failure. I love the character and I desperately wanted to be a part of a war comic but the market was already groaning about how short a time "Men at War" lasted before our first issue even hit stores. It was a shame, but I get it, so as the sales declined and it became evident war comics as we knew them in the classical sense weren't going to appeal to people Jimmy and I fell into sarcastic mode.

Palmiotti: We were talking about how "G.I. Combat" would have sold better by calling it "G.I. Zombie" at that's when the light bulb went off. Justin and I started constructing a backstory, a supporting cast and the mission here in the States that he would be on and how the look and feel of the book had to be unexpected. We discussed how building an interesting and complex character was the way to go and from there, we pitched it to DC Comics. After that, we got to work.

Gray: The voice and tone is completely different from other books we've collaborated on. I think there's a sense of urgency in this book from the first page of the first issue because we don't have a lot of room for error. We want people to pick it up just to be surprised and destroy preconceptions.

Will you be telling one-and-done stories with G.I. Zombie or do you have longer story arcs planned for him?

Palmiotti: We have ongoing story arcs and because the book is set in the DCU, there are some interesting things coming, including the special "Futures End" tie-in issue in September where we are part of the company-wide event.

These are war stories but, as you said, there is an obvious horror element too, right?

Palmiotti: The theme of war has always been horror on a number of levels, but throwing a zombie soldier into the mix really ups the ante. There are a lot of moments in the book that are just plain insane, with our hero responsible for bringing it on. He has an appetite for war and more.

Gray: And keep in mind that we learned from trying to make a war book in the conventional sense. G.I. Zombie is a soldier and a valuable military asset who can be used in ways no other soldier can.

You mentioned a supporting cast. What can you share about them? And does G.I. Zombie have an arch enemy?

Palmiotti: The supporting cast includes his partner Carmen King, who is a vet that's having trouble adjusting to being back home after three tours of duty. Carmen is working alongside Jared and getting to know him as the story goes on. They work together undercover and are stationed stateside, dealing with domestic terror.

The other supporting character is a long time fiend of Jared's named Able Anderson AKA Gravedigger. Yes, that's right. We introduce a new Gravedigger into the New 52 and he is featured in the second issue. Jared and Able have history together and they are fun to be around when in the heat of the battle.

As far as the villain, we have a lot of bad guys lined up and will talk about them soon. Since we are playing in the DCU we will be experimenting a bit with what we can get away with.

As you mentioned, it's awesome that G.I. Zombie also has a "Future's End" special in September, which means that he exists in the modern DC Universe. Does that open the door for guest appearances? I would think G.I. Zombie teaming up with Frankenstein would be a no-brainer...

Palmiotti: You just wait. Don't want to spoil the surprises we have in store, but the answer is yes.

While "Star-Spangled War Stories" features G.I. Zombie as the headliner will there be other stories told within the pages like "The War that Time Forgot?" And if not multiple features within each issue, do you plan to rotate the headliner for each new arc?

Palmiotti: Nope. It's G.I. Zombie's title all the way through.

Gray: I think the smart thing to do here is stick with one character if only to help foster an audience. My concern is you're not going to get people to buy half a book at full price if they only like one story or character. This is G.I. Zombie falling under the "Star-Spangled" banner in much the same way Jonah Hex fell under "All-Star Western" for a period of time.

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It's also very cool that Scott Hampton is illustrating the series. I thought his work on "Simon Dark" was highly underrated. How did you hook up with him?

Palmiotti: Our editor Joey [Cavalieri] suggested Scott and we jumped right on that. I have been friends with Scott since the Marvel Knights days and worked with him on a "Black Widow" series back then. I am a huge fan of his art and storytelling abilities and being able to get someone of this caliber to work on the title out of the gate was an amazing gift. When you see these pages, you will understand that he is taking what we wrote to another level. He is doing all the art -- pencils, inks and color -- and it's just amazing. He's also one of the kindest and most generous people in our industry and his talent is just amazing.

Gray: This is my first time working with Scott although I've been a fan of his work for years. In fact, we were going over lettering just this morning and Scott brings G.I. Zombie to life in spectacular fashion.

And then you have two newcomers doing covers: Howard Porter and Darwyn Cooke. Are they any good?

Palmiotti: These kids are new to the game so we gave them a shot. They both brought something unique to the look of the character. These guys have a real future in comics. [Laughs] Honestly, I think what I like best about them is that they both like to experiment with their work and it shows in both pieces.

Finally, since we are dealing with the undead, it would seem that the end of Jonah Hex in "All-Star Western" was a tad premature as a new issue was solicited this week. Can you confirm that as far as you know Jonah's adventures will continue for the foreseeable future?

Palmiotti: We just finished writing "All-Star Western" #34 with a guest artist on board that has more Eisner Awards than I have teeth. I can see the future, but can only see a few months at a time, beyond that, it's all fuzzy.

"Star-Spangled War Stories Featuring G.I. Zombie" #, by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray and Scott Hampton rises from the grave July 23.

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