Regional mysticism clashes with underworld vengeance in "Life Undead," a one-shot by "Lost" writer Paul Zbyszewski and illustrated by Stephen Thompson. The book ships this week from IDW Publishing and represents Zbyszewski's first comic book effort. CBR News spoke with the writer about the project and studying the dark arts.
"'Life Undead' is essentially a supernatural, noir detective tale. It's about a New Orleans cop who goes up against a Haitian drug kingpin, gets seduced by a femme fatale, and winds up a zombi for his troubles," Zbyszewski told CBR. "Only, when I say 'zombi,' I don't mean the mindless, moaning, groaning, brain-munching type of zombie. For this story, I wanted to go back to the genre's Haitian roots and explore its mythological origins, rather than do yet another take on the George Romero template. I love those stories, don't get me wrong; I just wanted to try something different."
Given the rather precise occult ideas Zbyszewski explores in "Life Undead," CBR asked what sort of research went into creating the story. "If I told you I went down to Haiti and watched a boko perform an actual zombi ritual, I'd be a liar," Zbyszewski confessed. "The truth is, I've always been fascinated by the subject. And there's a ton of material out there, in bookstores and on the internet -- most of it inconsistent at best, and contradictory at worst. So I read as much as I could - about Haiti as a country, the African origins of Vodou as a religion, the different ceremonies, the various spirits, the symbols - and then basically cherry-picked what I liked for the use of the story. I tried to remain faithful to the facts, but at some point a writer has to take creative license (like the tattooing of the vevers on the human body - that isn't a traditional ritual or custom of Vodou).
"I also attempted to differentiate American Voodoo from Haitian Vodou as much as I could without bogging the story down in exposition, but it was difficult. There's so much information, but so little room."
Zbyszewski admitted that there is already a glut of stories set in New Orleans due to the city's place in the popular imagination. He suggested, though, that his concept called for such a location, as opposed to starting with the setting and building the story from that. "New Orleans has a history with Voodoo like no other city in the United States, to the point where it's a cliche to use it as a backdrop. But I thought, I'm trying to put a different spin on the zombie origin story here; so why not embrace some of the other conventional aspects of the genre?" Zbyszewski said. "Also, I felt that an artist of Stephen Thompson's incredible talent could do a lot with the setting because of its texture. The novel 'Angel Heart' takes place entirely in New York; but in the movie, Mickey Rourke travels down to New Orleans, and the story feels richer and much more authentic because of that."
"Life Undead" is Zbyszewski's first foray into comics, though he has had prominent writing gigs for television, notably several episodes of "Lost." As to why he's decided to cross over, Zbyszewski said, "It's all Brian K. Vaughan's fault."
"I now believe my friend and (former) fellow 'Lost' writer conned me into thinking I could do it, because: A) he wanted me to understand what an art comic book writing really is; B) he wanted me to see how damned hard it really is; and C) how truly brilliant he is. Lesson learned on all counts," he joked.
"Seriously, though, when I was around six years old, my mom bought me a 'Richie Rich' comic in an effort to get me interested in reading -- an issue of 'Vault of Mystery' -- and though my tastes have broadened (and darkened), I've been reading ever since."
Though "Life Undead" is a done-in-one story, the writer appears to have left open the possibility of a sequel. "I would absolutely love to write another comic -- whether it's a continuation of "Life Undead," or something else entirely," Zbyszewski said. "From a creative standpoint, this project was both invigorating and maddening because it forced me to use different skills, different story muscles. The sheer economy of space, the scene structure, the dance between narration and dialogue, the partnership between writer and artist ...it makes you appreciate the skills of masters like Brian K. Vaughan, Brian Michael Bendis, Warren Ellis, and Brian Azzarello, just to name a few. But this was my first time at it. So honestly, I'm just hoping it doesn't suck."