Ten years ago, Marvel Comics took readers to a frightening alternate reality where their heroes and villains were infected with a plague that transformed them into the flesh-hungry, super-powered, undead stars of “Marvel Zombies”. The original series, written by “Walking Dead” scribe Robert Kirkman with art by Sean Phillips, proved to be wildly popular thanks to its blend of horror and black humor. The “Zombies” series has since been revisited in several sequels, including one where heroes battled to stop the plague from infecting the main Marvel Earth.
This summer, the Marvel Zombies will make their return in a new series as part of the massive “Secret Wars” event — much to the chagrin of the populace of Battleworld, the patchwork planet at the heart of the storyline that contains the remains of dozens of alternate Earths. In June, series writer Simon Spurrier and artist Kev Walker will take readers deep inside the dangerous, undead domain as they strand second generation monster hunter Elsa Bloodstone inside its borders and thrust her into a desperate battle for survival against the hordes of super-powered undead.
CBR News spoke with Spurrier about the appeal of revisiting the world of “Marvel Zombies,” what he finds most fascinating about his protagonist, the joy of working with Kev Walker and the iconic zombies they’ll pit against Elsa.
CBR News: So Simon, with “Marvel Zombies” you’re taking readers behind the large wall called the Shield that protects the citizens of Battleworld from its southern realms and into one of the patchwork planet’s most dangerous domains: the Deadlands. What made you want to reimagine and revisit the world of “Marvel Zombies” as a Battleworld domain?
Simon Spurrier: A combination of things, I guess. Bear in mind one fairly large corner of my career was built on subverting the zombie trope. I’m thinking of the “Crossed” stuff here, in which shared-world my literary hero Alan Moore recently asked me to pick up the reins of his own [Avatar Press] title, which was not only the most humbling and rewarding request I’ve ever had but hopefully suggests I’m doing something right. Whether that went into my editor’s decision-making when the Elsa/”Zombies” book arose, I don’t know, but hey: I have views about the over-saturation of tired old tropes in our industry, and will wax prolix to anyone who cares to hear about the need to reinvigorate them by thinking differently. This book is just me putting my Marvel where my mouth is.
Reason two: Elsa. We’ll come back to her in a bit, I think, as an un-turn-downable writing proposition. Suffice to say, I think she’s one of the most exciting characters in the Marvel canon. At a time when people are finally waking to the dual glories of gender parity and tar-black snark, it’s ridiculous she’s not been used more.
Lastly, the biggest sell for me — and this is pretty selfish — was the simple aim of playing in the Marvel sandbox in a way very distinct from my previous books. Waving the versatility flag, basically. Both my recent titles, “X-Men Legacy” and “X-Force,” have been characterized by a tone and thematic payload which, well — fans of either have tended to use the term “cerebral,” which I’m pretty sure is flattering, but at the very least lovers and haters alike can agree they were very dense and layered. With “Zombies,” I wanted to focus on character, relentlessness and elegance. That’s not to say it’s a brainless book, far from it — zombies need sustenance as much as anyone. More that I’m at pains to introduce a sense of space and pace to match the tale, rather a stew of force-fed feels.
Generally speaking I’m the first to complain about the dumbing-down which can be the unwanted side-effect of decompression, so I’ve given this stuff a lot of thought. With this book I wanted to let the artist really run riot and invite readers to explore the world themselves, rather than guiding their thoughts and reactions like a narrative tyrant. Basically this book is me shamelessly spoiling the readers, after several years of setting them fiendish challenges.
The Deadlands are populated by flesh-hungry, undead versions of Marvel villains and heroes, but what else can you tell us about the domain? Do the zombies of the Deadlands all have the intelligence they had in life, or are some just shambling hunger machines? Is there any form of governance in the Deadlande?
I think the Rules of Zombiedom in this case are classic: the dead have an ineffable need — magic, psychic or viral, who knows? — to feast on living brains. This hunger is so all-consuming there’s no room in a zombie’s mind for anything else.
Two upshots: one, a zombie continues to be dangerous until its brain is destroyed. And two, a really really well-fed zombie might just be able to do some next-level thinking in between jonesing for flesh. This means that the most successful zombies just keep on getting smarter and hence better at collecting meat. You couldn’t exactly call it governance — it’s more like a perverse table flip of Natural Selection — but you end-up with prominent zombies accumulating armies of others, like flies around shit.
I mention all of the above as demonstration of the fact that there’s some simple narrative logic in place to determine Elsa’s challenges. Those challenges permit us plenty of creative nastiness with awesome, grotesque and funny visuals — but, I actually think zombies are the least interesting thematic ingredient of a zombie story.
Former “MZ” tales have crossed the spectrum from creepy to gross to deliberately daft, always focusing on the zombie-ness and zombie-ing itself. With this tale I’m doing something a little sneakier, positioning the trope as my controlling idea to drive the more interesting element: Elsa’s story. In other words, the whole tale revolves around relentlessness and single-minded purpose. In the case of the zombies that’s obvious: brains brains brains brains brains. In Elsa’s case, it’s a deeper crucible of indomitable drives to do with family, duty and old scars, which manifest as a deeply-ingrained refusal to give up.
Actually, worth mentioning, we are going to encounter several undead characters who really are characters, as opposed to groaning terrain-features. I’ve come up with a bit of exquisite nastiness to make that happen. But I can’t say anything here without spoiling the surprise.
It’s clear you love Elsa Bloodstone. Which aspects of her character do you find especially intriguing?
She’s got more layers than a dyslexic dragon, basically. She’s one of those characters who’s appeared in stories of wildly different tone and flavor, but still manages to feel like a plausible part of them all. From her overtly “Buffy”-esque first adventures, through the balls-out absurdism of “Nextwave” and on to her monster-centric, hero-centric and Brit-centric appearances of more recent times. She works in all of them somehow, and somewhere in the twisted overlap exists a strong, complicated, indomitable, vulnerable, solid-fucking-gold character.
She’s the sort of woman who doesn’t know how to quit. She tries to displace all evidence of her vulnerability behind championship-level snark — fans of my dalliances with Doctor Nemesis, or indeed Elsa’s “Nextwave” incarnation, will enjoy themselves here a lot — so when her heart does come out it’s like a tidal wave kicking down a dam. She’s tangled deeply in an emotional web centered around her father — the legendary monster-hunter Ulysses Bloodstone, long since dead — whose shadow and legacy loom large.
To an extent I’m revisiting some themes I toyed with during my run of “X-Men Legacy,” in the sense that both protagonists struggle with the example being set by their absent padres. The difference is that where poor Legion wrestled with the doomed desire to live up to his father’s reputation, Elsa’s dad was a stone-cold, brainwashing bastard who was so dedicated to Fighting The Good Fight he basically traumatized, bullied and terrified his daughter into becoming a similar monomaniacal obsessive. On the other hand: he had great hair.
The beating heart of this story emerges from juxtaposing two relationships: first, Elsa’s childhood memories of time spent with her father; second, her present-day interactions with a nameless child she discovers in the Deadlands. The driving goal — or tragedy, I guess — lies in her attempts to Not Be As Much Of A Prick as her dad. Which is, y’know, tough.
Can you talk at all about Elsa’s mission into the Deadlands or her motivation for accepting this mission? It seems like things must be really desperate for her to willingly step beyond the Shield and venture into such a dangerous place.
This is pretty cool, actually. Marvel has basically allowed me to tell a story with a really unusual driving force, which doesn’t revolve around a contrived quest or duty.
Put simply: Elsa gets stuck in the Deadlands by mistake. She starts out as a Section-Commander on the Shield, the mega-structural barrier which divides the pestilent south of Battleworld from its arguably more civilized north. We’ll get a chance to see her day-to-day ass kicking self in action right at the beginning — before everything goes wrong. There’s this stupid, infuriatingly unforeseen, totally random accident which leaves her stranded a hundred miles from help. Bizarrely, the first person she encounters isn’t a zombie but another living person: a terrified child with scrambled memories and no survival skills.
Elsa’s first instinct is to try and get back to the Shield, but, as we’ll discover during episode one, that’s basically an impossibility. You have to understand what I’m saying here: this is a book whose first act ends with the heroes tacitly accepting that they’re going to die. And then — full of gallows humor and bleak adventurousness — deciding how they’re going to spend the time before the axe falls. It’s basically me inflicting some venomous British humor onto Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” with an ocean of Marvelicious ideas and a lot of big surprises along the way.
Let’s talk a little bit about the supporting cast of “Marvel Zombies.” Sounds like we have the mysterious child Elsa finds, but how much a role does Elsa’s deceased father Ulysses play in your story?
Ulysses himself is a character, I suppose, in the sense that Elsa’s memories of him — and the cruel lessons he taught her — weave throughout the whole book. Likewise, as I hinted above, there are several undead guys and gals who play a deeper role than that of mere groaning meat-botherers, but I’ll leave their identities, and the sneaky means they’ve discovered of getting smart, as a surprise.
How much fun are you having turning Marvel characters into the undead? Can you hint or tease some of the Marvel Zombies that Elsa will tangle with?
This is where the lion’s share of the creative giggles were to be had, yeah. That’s true for Kev and me as well as for the readers. The way the story works, most — not all — of the zombie encounters are done-and-gone in one, so it’s this fabulous parade of disgustingly inventive scenarios, thrilling fights and grotesque sight-gags.
It’s no surprise that, with something like “Marvel Zombies,” part and parcel of the fun lies in the popping-up of recognizable characters, each reimagined in sickly undead detail. For Kev and me it would’ve been all too easy to just play a version of necromantic Pokemon — gotta catch all the cameos, kids! — which would I think have been cheap and lazy. Instead we’ve done our best to invest each and every zombie appearance with something new, something creative and something darkly cool.
Hence we’ve got the Blob heaving around his withered folds of necrotic fat, now a mobile rat’s nest. We’ve got Carnage reimagined as Clottage: all his prehensile blood-flesh scabbed-over like a living carpet. We’ve got zombie Azazel — the “red terror” — whose lightning-fast attacks upon the Shield involve him cheerfully throwing soldiers down to the waiting hordes below, BAMFing for blood. And I’m not even going to explain the “weeping Soars”, who circle endlessly in the clouds…
Of course the other fun part of “Marvel Zombies” has got to be seeing the story come to life via the pencils of veteran artist Kev Walker, who provided the art for the “Marvel Zombies 3” and “Marvel Zombies 4” limited series.
Buddy, you don’t know the half of it. Some of my first comic book purchases had that guy’s name on them. “ABC Warriors,” “Judge Anderson,” “Daemonifuge.” I’ve spent most of my professional career in awe of Kev and now here I am discussing the finer points of decomposition and shotgun etiquette with him. That’s “achievement unlocked” in a big way, for me.
He’s the full package, basically. A consummate draftsman and intuitive storyteller, who never scrimps on grotesque detail and brings his own creative flourishes to bear in a really powerful, but sympathetic way. He never runs away with stories like some artists can, but works with the script to wring the absolute most of out of it, and make it far more than the sum of its parts.
It’s a joy. His mouldering zombie-Doc-Ock had me punching the air in borrowed triumph. I suspect this isn’t just some of the best work Kev’s ever done, but quite probably the greatest zombie/horror comic art you’ve ever seen too. No exaggeration intended.
Finally, it seems like first and foremost “Marvel Zombies is a horror story, but there is also quite a bit of black humor to it as well, correct?
Yeah, I think horror is probably the key vibe, although — like most genre descriptors — that doesn’t really tell you much about anything. Ultimately, we’re cherry-picking tonal influences and deploying them as we see fit. There’s a bit of wilderness-walking “Mad Max” in there, cut through with the bleakness of “The Road,” and a whole lot of flashback to monster-hunting memories, which are by turns thrilling and harrowing.
But yeah, this is me. So you know it’s going to be underscored by a perverse melody of gallows humor and snark blacker than a smoker’s lung. I’d like to conclude by saying, “braaaaaaaaaaaaains.” Oh, and come find me on Twitter or Tumblr to ask more questions or rage furiously about the unnecessary length of my interview answers.
“Marvel Zombies” shambles into comic shops on June 10.
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