Zero the Hero: Nelson Talks "Zero Killer"

On August 6th and August 9th, 1945, the world witnessed the destructive might of the atomic bomb when the U.S. dropped two such bombs on Japan, thus ending World War II. In the world of "Zero Killer," a new, bi-monthly, ongoing series from Dark Horse Comics by writer Arvid Nelson and artist Matt Camp, the U.S. never bombed Japan and a vastly different world was the result; a world devastated by nuclear holocaust. CBR News spoke with Nelson about the series, which takes place in the bombed out ruins of New York City in 2007.

Like Nelson's other ongoing series from Dark Horse, "Rex Mundi," "Zero Killer" takes place in a world where the events of a certain point in history have diverged to create an entirely new reality. "For me, looking at history differently is a way of letting my imagination run wild," Nelson told CBR News. "It's sort of like chasing a blizzard back to the beating of a butterfly's wings and then figuring out everything that happened in between. 'Rex Mundi' is all about the Protestant Reformation and that's huge. It impacts you no matter who you are and where you live in the world; the same thing is true with the decision to drop atom bombs on Japan. It affected everything. If that had gone even slightly different we could be living in a very different world right now."

The very different world of "Zero Killer" came about because of where Nelson lives. "I live in New York City," he said. "This is my homage to the city and great movies like 'Escape from New York' and 'The Warriors.' I realize there have been a lot of post apocalyptic stories set in New York. I live in the city and I love it here so I look at those other stories sort of as competition. I want 'Zero Killer' to be something different; both distinct and unique."

One of the things that will make "Zero Killer" so distinct and unique is the sheer amount of historical detail Nelson has injected into his fictional world. Interested readers can view a detailed time line of the events that shaped the world of "Zero Killer at this Web site. "I spent a long time working on the time line," Nelson stated. "I've been refining it for many years now." Nelson added that while the timeline adds a lot of background flavor to the series, it's not absolutely necessary to enjoy the series.

The inhabitants of "Zero Killer" live in a world where the highest amount of satisfaction many of them might achieve is just to survive another day. In the series, the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel, Syria and Egypt touched off a global nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. The effects of the nuclear war caused much of Manhattan Island to sink below the waters. Now the survivors eke out an existence in the remains of New York City's once great skyscrapers, which are ruled by vicious gangs who treat their respective towers as personal kingdoms. Navigation between the towers adds a unique element to the NYC landscape. "I like to think of the towers sort of as a large post apocalyptic Ewok village," Nelson said. "Most of the towers in New York are clustered into Midtown and Downtown Manhattan. So, there are these two interconnected webs of towers and there are a network tow lines and suspension bridges between them. People also travel by boats. They won't use large boats but sort of jury rigged canoes or kayaks or things like that."

Hope is a quality that's hard to find in the post-apocalyptic world of "Zero Killer," so the tower dwellers latch onto whatever beliefs offer the promise of a better world, which has lead to the rise of a unique religion. "One of the coolest things about New York is that there are all kinds of weird religions floating around," Nelson said. "Things like Santeria and Rastafarianism. I'm really interested in African and Caribbean religions. If you look at certain periods in Medieval Europe, I think when people go through really hard times religion actually becomes more important to them. You'd think going through the Dark Ages and being attacked by Vikings would make you not believe in God, but it had the exact opposite effect on people. It's the same thing here.

"There's a religion in this world which has arisen that is a combination of Voodoo, Rastafarianism, Santeria and just plain old Pentecostal Christianity," Nelson continued. "The Bible is all about the Promised Land and this is where 'Zero Killer' becomes darkly satirical; the idea is that the United States and the Soviet Union never dropped bombs on Africa because they didn't care about Africa. So Africa escaped the nuclear holocaust and the people in the towers look at it as kind of a sign and it's also the last vestige of pre-holocaust civilization. So, it's become semi-mythologized to the people in the towers."

The monks who study and follow this religion known as La Via de Dios y Esuchristus or more simply La Via, operate out of an old New York City land mark. "The Cloisters are a museum that's part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art," Nelson said. "It's quite beautiful. It's on this kind of bluff overlooking the Palisades in New Jersey so it's the only part of the city that's above water. In reality it's just a museum that looks like a medieval cloister and in the world of 'Zero Killer' it's actually become that. It's home to the order of monks who practice this religion. They reside in the Cloisters."

Like medieval monasteries, the Cloisters in "Zero Killer" are also a place of scholarship, which is not commonplace in the devastated world. "People are eating rats and cockroaches to survive so people who know how to read and writer like the monks I mentioned are rare," Nelson said.

Because scholarship is a rare thing and "Zero Killer" takes place over thirty years after the nuclear holocaust, the world is in danger of forgetting what life was like before the nuclear war or "Zero Hour" as the survivors have dubbed it. "There are some survivors who remember how things were," Nelson explained. "But thirty four years is a long time so things have become very hazy already."

Remembering the past is a difficult thing for the survivors in "Zero Killer," but Zero, the title character of the book, is haunted by his past. "Zero has kind of a complicated past and this definitely motivates a lot of what he does in the context of the comic book," Nelson stated. "He's someone who used to be a really, really bad person and he's had a transformative experience. If I said anything more it would ruin some of the surprises in the story. I can also say that he's a romantic person in the sense that he's a dreamer."

Zero's not a member of any of the gangs that control the various towers; he actually works as a "trashman," a freelance operative for the various gangs. "'Trashman' is sort of a derogatory nick name that everyone has for them," Nelson explained. "Zero's place in society is that he'll sort of do things that nobody else will do. He's a bounty hunter.

"There's a martial art that was created on Riker's Island, which is the big prison in New York City. It's on a big island just like one hundred yards away from La Guardia Airport," Nelson continued. "And in 'Zero Killer,' because there was a nuclear war, this fighting style has kind of become something similar to Shao Lin Long Fist Boxing. Zero is a master of this martial art. He's very tough, but it's not so much that he's physically stronger or larger than anyone else, he's just smarter and a better tactician. So, he's really useful to the gang lords because he'll do things like hunt down a renegade gangster and bring them in for punishment, which is something that other gang members obviously wouldn't want to do. That's why he's tolerated. He's kind of like a hovering angel of death over the gangsters; if someone steps out of line, Zero is the one who will step in and put them in line."

Zero's reputation and usefulness makes him tolerated by all the gangs, but friends with none of them. "His usefulness makes him very disliked by everybody," Nelson said. "People call him Zero as an insult. Like, 'You're a zero.' But he's taken a perverse liking to it."

Zero may be a man with few friends, but he's a man who knows what he wants to accomplish. "If I say too much it will ruin some surprises that are coming, but he has some very specific goals," Nelson stated. "It's his desire to meet these goals that gets the first story arc rolling.

"Zero is planning on doing something stupid and almost suicidal. It's part of his past and his perceived need to atone for the bad things he's done. Someone comes to him with an easy way out; a way for him to achieve what he wants without all the difficulty. So, he goes for it and of course it's not going to be as easy as it was presented. That's vague, I know, but if I say anything more it may ruin some things.

Zero's quest to repent in the first arc will make him the target of a horde of enemies. "The adversaries and obstacles he encounters include anything and everything," Nelson said. "He's hated by the people who live in the towers and he's going to draw the attention of JOCOM in very short order. That's going to put him and everyone he cares about into a huge amount of danger."

JOCOM is a mysterious military organization that's feared and hated by the inhabitants of the towers of the towers in "Zero Killer" They conduct kidnappings of the tower populace. No one is sure why but it appears the soldiers of JOCOM are the surviving military vestige of the United States. "They more or less have complete impunity," Nelson remarked. "JOCOM has access to extremely powerful weapons. Zero is a relative bad ass but there's nothing he can do against an assault rifle or a rocket launcher. They're almost like the Spaniards were to the Incans. They have god like power."

The god like power that JOCOM has access to isn't just modern weapons like military firearms and explosions. "One of the things about 'Zero Killer' is that it's not straight, pure post apocalyptic fiction," Nelson explained. "There's going to be some really cool science fiction, almost cyber punk moments in this series. In some ways the nuclear war actually sped up technological progress it didn't slow it down, so Zero is going to be facing a wide variety of adversaries and environments."

JOCOM's technological advances aren't just in the area of weapons. The organization is also conducting something called the Trinary Project. "The Trinary Project is going to be one of 'Zero Killer's' deepest mysteries," Nelson said. "All I can say is I can't wait until we get there because it's going to be so cool."

Another ongoing mystery involving JOCOM is the identity of the organization's founder. The "Zero Killer" website states the organization was set up by a high ranking civilian official in the cabinet of Richard Nixon. "Their founder's identity will be revealed," Nelson said. "It will be good, too! "

In the first arc of "Zero Killer," Zero will face down enemies from both JOCOM and the tower gangs, but he won't be without friends and allies of his own. "There's a character we meet and in a lot of ways the first story is told from her point of view. She's younger around fifteen or sixteen and Zero kind of inadvertently ends up saving her without really meaning to and she attaches herself to him," Nelson said. "She's sort of analogous to a Luke Skywalker type character; younger but in some ways a lot more hardnosed than Zero. Towards the end of the story she has to end up looking out for Zero just like Zero has to look out for her. Sometimes their relationship is parasitic and sometimes symbiotic.

"Zero is also friends with a kind of mechanic," Nelson continued. "In the towers they actually have working machinery. They've jury rigged things. They have running water in a lot of places and mechanical lifts and electric lighting. So Zero's friend is this kind of gentle, hippy mechanic."

This past Free Comic Book Day, Dark Horse's offering featured a five page "Zero Killer" story, but those who may have missed the book don't need to worry. You don't need to have read that story to understand and enjoy "Zero Killer" #1. "The Free Comic Book Day story just adds flavor and my hope is that we will eventually collect it in a trade paperback," Nelson explained. "It's pure flavor, but at the same time I think there will be some in jokes referring to the story in the actual 'Zero Killer' series. So, the people who have read that story will go 'oh yeah' and people who haven't will sort of scratch their heads."

One thing readers won't have to scratch their heads and wonder about "Zero Killer" is whether or not the series will have a definite ending. "I have a very definite ending planned and once that story is told that's it," Nelson stated. "I want it to end gracefully and for people to think, 'Wow what a great story!' rather than to drag things out and slowly bleed the series dry."

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