Author and zombie expert Jonathan Maberry shares his insight about the undead phenomenon in popular culture, the differences between writing prose novels and comics, and his work on the "Marvel Universe vs." line of graphic novels.
Zombies seem to pervade pop culture
these days. What do you think is the appeal for readers? And what is the
appeal for you as a writer?
Jonathan Maberry: It
took a while for the mainstream to catch-on, but zombies are about the most
useful trope for telling just about any kind of story. You can’t say the same with vampires because
they’ve become so highly romanticized that they’ve become the story. Often they're more interesting than the human
characters, and after a while that can hit a single, grating note.
With zombies, the creatures have no personality, no
intelligence; they don’t crowd the humans out of the story. They represent a
massive, shared threat that every character in the story reacts to, and once
introduced it’s often best not to have them shamble through every scene.
Because everyone is reacting to this same threat, and because the monster’s
personality in no way intrudes, we get to put the human characters under the
microscope. We get to see how this shared threat impacts their lives. People
under stress are the very basis of drama.
Thematically, the zombie plague is a protean metaphor. It
can stand for something different to each writer and even, through
interpretation, to each reader/viewer.
In World War Z, Max Brooks chose to explore the way politics might
interfere with the response to a viral outbreak. Joe McKinney uses his series of novels as a
way of showcasing the failure of the government’s disaster response
infrastructure. S.G. Browne explored more personal matters of love and
disenfranchisement in Breathers. Charlie Higson gave us a new version of the
Generation Gap with The Enemy.
I’ve used zombies to explore a lot of different themes in my
novels, comics and short stories. In Patient Zero I took a look at how biotech
industries can use science to manipulate politics in order to maximize profits.
In Dead of Night and its forthcoming sequel Fall of Night, the story deals with
the moral issues of using (or even preserving for research purposes) the
biological warfare science of the Cold War. That book also uses a creepy
point-of-view subplot to explore dementia and Alzheimers. In Rot & Ruin and
its sequels we explore the value of human life.
There’s no end to the creative potential of the zombie
But…understand one thing, the creatures in Marvel Universe vs. aren’t zombies. They’re infected humans (and, in many cases, super humans).
They are closer in theme to the infected in George Romero’s other apocalyptic film, The Crazies, and
to the infected in 28 Days Later. They are alive but their entire physiological
makeup has been rewired to drive them to kill and consume. The outbreak model,
however, is very much the same as in the zombie stories.
You are an award-winning novelist for
adults and young adults alike, but writing a comic is a whole other story! How
does the process differ for you?
JM: Comic book writing came as a
result of writing novels. Axel Alonso read one of my novels, --Patient Zero—and
called me up to ask if I’d be willing to take a swing at writing comics. I was,
and in fact I’ve been a Marvel fan since the late sixties. I grew up with
Writing comics, though, is a lot different from
writing novels. With novels it’s pretty much a solo act. You, the writer, is
alone and your primary interaction is your own laptop. It’s only much later in
the process that you get feedback from an editor, but you spend months alone in
your own head.
With comics, everything is more interactive.
You pitch an idea and discuss it with your editor. You submit an outline and
beat sheet. You draft out the script and then get notes back on that. And you
interact with the artist along the way as he develops concept sketches,
pencils, and later finished art. It's a very collaborative process.
But a big difference is the way in which the
ideal story unfolds. The writer creates the story and the script, but comics
are a mainly visual medium. So, the writer has to anticipate the artist’s
ability to tell big chunks of the story through art rather than through the
writer’s dialogue. As a writer you have to dial down your need to be center
stage and let the other creative types share in the process. That takes some time
for a writer because until you’ve seen some of your scripts become completed
comics you don’t know how much you can or should trust the artist to get your
ideas onto the page. Over time, though, I’ve learned to trust many of the
artists I’ve worked with. I know for a fact that their visual storytelling has
made my scripts into better comics. No doubt about that.
How did you come onboard with this
“Marvel Universe vs.” trilogy? Had Marvel been on your radar for some time as a
JM: Axel and I kicked some ideas
around way back in 2008, right after I started writing for Marvel. There were
two ideas that coalesced into one. We’d cooked up something together called
Marvel Infected and I had a pitch for something called Punisher: Last Gun on
Earth. After a lot of brainstorming and tweaking, I turned in an outline for a
four-parter that was ultimately called Marvel Universe Vs. The Punisher.
Originally I’d seen it as a standalone limited
that was going to have a definite end-note. But during the process of telling
that story Axel and I realized that there was a lot more story waiting to be
told. So, when we saw how popular the Punisher series was, I pitched a
follow-up featuring Wolverine. And then last one with the Avengers, but with
Hawkeye as the point-of-view character.
The reason for that was simple: loss is a
personal thing, and these stories are all about loss, about losing what we hold
dear, and about losing control. The Punisher story is about guilt and redemption.
The Wolverine story is more noir in structure, and it’s about finding out that
you’re not powerful enough to save the world, no matter how much you want to.
And the Avengers/Hawkeye story is about finding your power and stepping up to
be a greater hero than you thought you could be.
Many of your written works like Patient Zeroand your Marvel Universe vs. trilogy, center on themes of the
gory horror full of action. How did you develop a taste for the genre?
JM: When I was ten years old I
snuck into a big old Art Deco movie house in Philadelphia to see the world
premier of Night of the Living Dead. That movie scared the bejeezus out of me,
but at the same time it poured a lot of gasoline on the fires in my imagination.
From the moment I left the theater I was imagining how I would or could survive
a zombie apocalypse.
But the core element of all of my stories is
not the monster. I don’t write stories about monsters. I write stories about
people who fight monsters. That’s a pretty important difference. I don’t
idolize the bad guy, I don’t go rah-rah for the predators and monsters. I write
stories about people who are confronting darkness of one kind or another
–darkness from without and sometimes darkness from within—and exploring how
they fight back. I grew up in a very rough neighborhood and lived in a very
violent and abusive household. I studied martial arts on the sly as a way of
becoming tough enough to defeat the monsters in my own life –which I did. I
also spent more than thirty years teaching martial arts and self-defense to
people who needed to become tough enough to defend themselves against
real-world predators and monsters. So, it’s no surprise that my fiction –in
short stories, comics, novels, and even plays—reflects that fight.
Were there any Marvel characters you were dying to use
(pun intended), that didn’t make it into the trilogy?
JM: I’m pretty sure I killed
everyone. But, yeah, there are some Marvel characters I didn’t use in the
series. I’d love to have pitted Loki against an infected Thor. I’d like to have
told the story of Shang-Chi in an infected world. And I definitely would like
to have explored more with Nick Fury. But those stories didn’t fit into the
three tales I told.
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