Keith Davidsen writes for Bleeding Cool.
For over twenty years, writer/artist Mike Wolfer has been terrifying comic fans with work on such horror titles as Widow, Godzilla, Friday the 13th, and Alan Moore's Yuggoth Creatures. He's taken the reins alongside Warren Ellis in bringing combat magicians and 'shroom-tripping barbarians to life in the multiple Gravel and Wolfskin series. Perhaps his most expansive comic project has been building upon George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead franchise, a six-year undertaking which has seen the spread of undead hordes across the United States.
Wolfer sits down with Bleeding Cool's Keith Davidsen for ten questions about his current work on the Lady Death monthly series, as well as his brand new projects, the 5-issue Night of the Living Dead: Death Valley miniseries (launching in March) and the Night of the Living Dead 2011 Annual (April).
Keith Davidsen: In the upcoming Night of the Living Dead: Death Valley series, the zombie uprising takes place in California. In the NOTLD 2011 Annual, the horror erupts in the murky bayou. In these tales, how has the zombie plague spread from southern Pennsylvania across the country?
Mike Wolfer: The origin of the plague has been a point of contention among fans since the movie first premiered, and George Romero and John Russo wanted it that way for a reason. The story isn't about how it got here, it's about the psychological impact it has on society as a whole and human nature, in particular. So, really, how it spreads isn't as important as what happens when it takes root, but to answer your question directly, if it's a pathogen, any living or dead body could be a carrier. If it's radiation from space, as the original screenplay hinted but didn't define, it could be anywhere waiting to reanimate anyone who dies. But in Death Valley, yes, there is a very physical and intentional way that it was transferred from the eastern states to the California desert, and that's part of the surprise.
KD: For me, dune buggies under the hot sun don't automatically invoke a sense of terror (although I'm sure your story will change that perception). What drew you to place the action of Death Valley in eastern California?
Mike Wolfer: Uh… because Death Valley is in eastern California. No, seriously, it was a simple matter of wanting to take the action into another part of the country, not only to bring some fresh scenery to the stories, but to get a new perspective on the story itself. By that, I mean that in both the original film and the comics from Avatar Press, we know about the outbreaks and what the East Coast had to endure, but my interpretation of the events that occurred between Night and Dawn of the Dead includes government and media disinformation. This was intended to prevent wide-scale panic in uninfected areas, but it also allowed the plague to spread, because the rest of the country was being told that the chaos was either a hoax, the work of Vietnam-era militants, things like that. The only way, in my opinion, that the plague could get such a firm grip on the entire country was because of ignorance of the facts. Moving the action to another part of the country has allowed me to pursue that theme in a very direct manner.
KD: On the other hand, Louisiana seems particularly ripe for horror. What inspired you to set your Night of the Living Dead 2011 Annual tale there? Also, what resources have you used to capture its atmosphere in your work?
Mike Wolfer: Resources? The internet, my friend. I couldn't talk our editor-in-chief into footing the bill for a fact-finding research trip to New Orleans. As for the setting, it was just like the choice of location for Death Valley; where haven't we gone yet that's in stark contrast to what we've seen before?
KD: You've had a hand in every Living Dead comic book published over the past six years, either as the storyteller or assuming both the writing and artistic chores. What do you do differently when scriptwriting for other artists?
Mike Wolfer: How much actual writing I do depends on who I'm writing for. If I'm illustrating, naturally I don't need to write detailed panel descriptions as I've already envisioned everything mentally, right down to the clothing, camera angles and lighting. I'm not saying that I don't put in as much work on a script for myself as I do for another artist, if the man at Avatar who cuts the paychecks reads this interview.
KD: The Living Dead storylines tend to introduce a new cast on a regular basis, since… y'know, zombies find them delectable. Some characters live, but many die. What do you take into consideration when assembling your cast?
Mike Wolfer: That's a good question. I guess there's a certain formula with all of these stories and certain character types which we see repeated: "The last girl," "the heroic guy," "the hothead," "the asshole." At the same time, each character has to have their own unique twists which come from life experiences, usually fleshed-out in back stories, dialogue, or their actions while dealing with the menace at hand. In cases such as the Annual or the Holiday Special, I only have 22 pages to introduce a cast, get the reader to like them, and then start killing them, so I don't really have the luxury of space and the characters tend to be a little more stereotypical because of the limited page count. One thing that I keep in mind when composing the cast is that, whether it's Night, Escape, or Plague of the Living Dead, this is all one world which I'm constructing, so consistency of events, facts, times, dates, and characters are all harmonious. If anyone wants to scrutinize every page of all of the Living Dead books Avatar's published, they'll see little crossovers of characters and ideas, bits of cross-referencing that I throw in. And we see that very literally in Death Valley. I've written an ensemble cast, but one of the main characters is Christine, who was introduced in NOTLD: The Beginning. Chuck Blaine, her news anchor father who was seen throughout the first movie, was killed in the first NOTLD Annual (Dead Air). She's fled Pennsylvania to leave the horror of her past behind her for a new life with friends in California, but she's been followed by Don, her boyfriend from those early stories.
Mike Wolfer: There was one scene in the NOTLD: New York one-shot where a man is fleeing zombies who have overrun Times Square, and he's carrying a baby whose mother has been killed. When he becomes trapped in an adult peep show theater, he leaves the baby on the floor as a distraction so that he can run to safety as the zombies go for the crying infant. It's an example of the worst in human nature and it still bothers me. That poor baby! There's also a scene coming up in Death Valley #3 which I think will be quite repulsive, which deals with an act performed by humans upon a zombie. Really, we expect horrible things from the undead, but when we see them from the living characters… well, that's where the real horror is.
KD: You're also keeping busy plotting the new Lady Death ongoing series for the Boundless Comics line, a series known for its horror elements. What are the differences in the type of horror between Night of the Living Dead and Lady Death? As a writer, do you approach them differently?
Mike Wolfer: I do. The horror elements in Lady Death have a totally different feel, because the fantasy elements of the story tend to lessen the impact of what scares us. In costume fantasy, you expect to see demons, zombies, decapitations and the like, and there are certainly plenty of those in the new Lady Death. But in a real world, modern-day setting, those events possess a more unsettling vibe. They're two different animals.
KD: Three issues of Lady Death have hit newsstands so far – the Lady Death Premiere book, plus issues #0 and #1. What can you tell us about the behind-the-scenes progress on the current story arc and its aftermath?
Mike Wolfer: The first story arc concludes with #6, in which everything we've been working toward comes to a head, with an incredibly shocking conclusion. Everything Lady Death thinks she knows, everything in which she has believed is shattered, and it's a revelation that will send her down a very, very dark path. The second arc (#7-#12) is already well underway and is being drawn by Gabriel Andrade; in this way, we have two art teams working simultaneously to insure our monthly publishing commitment. Marcelo Mueller, who has drawn #0-#6, picks up the reins again with #13, so for those of you who have fallen in love with his gorgeous pencils, he'll be back before you know it.
Mike Wolfer: I think what I'm enjoying the most is sitting back and reading the books as they're released to stores. I've been so close to the project for two years now, so immersed in it, that it's sometimes difficult to see it from the perspective of a new reader. I know what we're working so hard to accomplish, but it's only when I read the printed copy, several months later that I can really "feel" how much different this Lady Death is from previous incarnations. From the standpoint of an "outsider," being able to play with Brian Pulido's character and take her new places, then see the finished product and know that it really, really does work is incredibly fulfilling. I hope that long-time readers will appreciate this new direction and recognize our commitment to honoring her past while marching unflinchingly into the future.
KD: With so much carnage on your mind, do you ever spook yourself out? Any instances of imagined terror that you've experienced in the real world as a side-effect of your imagination?
Mike Wolfer: Imagined terror? No, I can't say that I've ever experience that. Real terror? Saturday morning shoppers at our local, rural Wal-Mart is more than enough to provide me with nightmare fuel.
When he's not busy trying to sell comics and graphic novels to retailers, Keith Davidsen goes to adult peep shows. He's much too preoccupied to watch zombies eating babies in the aisle next to him.
Mike Wolfer ruined Christmas by drawing a comic book cover depicting Santa Claus munching on the OTHER "other white meat." Despite that, he's a pretty swell guy.