Keith Davidsen used to work for Diamond Comic Distributors. He used to write Poison Elves. Now he works for Avatar Press as the publishers rep to retailers. He also gets to hag with Avatar creator Mike Wolfer an awful lot. And talk about zombies. Bleeding Cool pulled back the drawstring and let it go…
Keith: When we’re talking about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD not as a franchise, but rather in terms of the original cult film itself, does it hold a special place in your cinematic library? Do any particular memories of watching the film stand out?
Mike: I never had a chance to see the film until it was released on VHS back in the 1980’s, but I had read about it for years prior in Famous Monsters of Filmland. God, I couldn’t wait to see it one day, because from what I had read and heard, it was the most horrific thing ever put on film. When I finally saw it for the first time, I’m glad that it was as an adult rather than a kid, because there was so much going on contextually that I would never have appreciated or understood if I was younger.
Keith: Your recent workload has included collaborations alongside Warren Ellis on WOLFSKIN: HUNDREDTH DREAM and GRAVEL, and now you’re taking on LADY DEATH and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. How do you transition from one project to the next, from a creative standpoint?
Mike: It’s not difficult, really. Each book I write has its own rhythm that I get into instantly. WOLFSKIN has a certain lyrical, mythological feel, GRAVEL is hard-edged, real-world magic, LADY DEATH is horror/fantasy with a veneer of super-heroics. Each one is very different from the other, so there’s a kind of “freshness” that each brings to my work schedule, and I’m sure that’s what keeps me creatively excited; each successive script is thematically different from the last I completed, so it always feels like I have an incredible new horizon ahead of me and new worlds to delineate. I imagine this might not be the case if I were, say, writing three superhero books a month. I can see how that might burn out someone.
Keith: How specifically do you get into the right mindset to write NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD comics?
Mike: I actually don’t have to adopt a unique mindset when working on NOTLD. I know some writers have to psyche themselves up for certain projects, but this type of work comes naturally to me. I don’t have to do any mental preparation, because horror is what I was raised on; it’s in my blood, so to speak. For me, any time is a good time to write horror. I just open a new file on my laptop and it just happens. It’s more romantic to imagine that I light some black candles and sit in the dark listening to death metal while I’m writing, but there’s just as much horror to be found in the daylight with the windows open and chirping birds in the background.
Keith: As with your past LIVING DEAD projects, you’re working with the co-writer / co-producer of the original film, John Russo. What’s the collaborative process like with Russo?
Mike: John’s a hell of a guy, and he’s always bursting with ideas, so when you say, “John, why don’t you roll around some story concepts,” he turns in 25 pages of fully-realized characters and a detailed plot. He’s incredible. With this story, William and I discussed setting it in Washington D.C., and John turned in a really cool concept featuring Johnny, Barbra, and little Karen Cooper (all deceased) and centered around the siege of a church, so I took the two ideas and meshed them together into one story that’s much more complex than what I had originally envisioned. It all makes so much sense and works so perfectly, I’m really proud of the resulting series and the messages wedged between the gore.
Keith: So this new LIVING DEAD series takes place on that same fateful evening in 1968 from the film, but this time, the undead swarm the nation’s capitol. So… what do you have against Lyndon B. Johnson?
Mike: Ha! I guess that all depends on which character’s point of view I’m writing from, and we see all sides in this story, from loyal Presidential aides to hippies chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ… How many kids have you killed today?”
Keith: That brings to mind a good point – the LIVING DEAD films and comics have always intertwined with social commentary. When you’re writing these scripts, are there times when the political or social context poses a challenge to the otherwise straightforward telling of a horror tale?
Mike: That’s a good question, and it’s something which I think about every time I work on a new NOTLD series: “How can we make this more than just a string of violent acts?” I’m all for gore and mayhem, but it’s the characters who really matter here, not the zombies, just as the cast in the original film were much more riveting than what was pounding on the windows trying to get in and devour them. The answer, then, is right in your question, as long as we add a few words to the end…
Keith: So “the political / social context does pose a challenge to the straightforward horror tale…”
Keith: Gotcha. So, in the bigger scope of things, if you consider other fictional tales set against the backdrop of the Vietnam era, I think you’d agree that they frequently paint the government in a negative light. Is there a political stance being taken in the new NOTLD series?
Mike: There certainly is… every stance! That’s the backbone of the series, how an event like the zombie outbreak gets such a firm grip on the country so quickly, because the United States is tearing itself up from within. We’ve got a really interesting core of key characters, all from different walks of life, backgrounds and experiences, thrown together during the most horrific fictional event in American history. It’s 1968, so we’ve got anti-war protestors, National Guard soldiers facing impending deployment overseas, a recently-returned Vietnam Vet with an explosive secret, even the President of the United States, and every one of them has been pushed to their emotional limit. And they all truly believe in their actions and convictions. The Vietnam War, race relations, political upheaval caused by Johnson’s announcement that he will not run for re-election, the Civil Rights Movement. It’s an incredibly emotional backdrop, and needless to say, it is not a good time for a full-scale zombie attack on the Capitol.
Keith: Now, aside from the new five-issue miniseries, I know you’ve got a one-shot slated for release in December – the first-ever NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD HOLIDAY SPECIAL. What possessed you to bring zombies home for the holidays?
Mike: It just seemed like the right thing to do. (Laughter) No, seriously, it was just one of those things. William (Christensen) had the idea of doing a special holiday release and after looking at creator availability and what would be the most reasonable series in which to do this kind of book, NOTLD and I were the obvious choices. I also have a bit of a break built into my drawing schedule between the current GRAVEL story arc and the next, so here we are!
Keith: How does it feel to return to art chores in the LIVING DEAD universe with your work on the HOLIDAY SPECIAL?
Mike: I can’t tell you how excited I was to be asked to illustrate the HOLIDAY SPECIAL as well as write it. I haven’t drawn a LIVING DEAD book since the ESCAPE OF THE LIVING DEAD FEARBOOK a few years ago, and even though I still get to play with various horror elements in GRAVEL, NOTLD is pure, undiluted scary stuff. I also like to play around with all of those fashions, the bell-bottoms and afros; that era was such a unique time and I love doing the research and going for absolute accuracy. It’s nice to mix it up, occasionally, and take a break from GRAVEL’s modern-day London, like in my Ragdoll serial that ran in Raw Media years ago, with its 18th Century setting.
Keith: Let’s say the world does get overrun by zombies. Should we turn to Mike Wolfer as a zombie expert and our salvation? Or is it all men and women for themselves, sucka?
Mike: Your salvation? Oh, hell no! Have you ever read one of my books? I can only show you how to die a horrible death. (Laughter) If you need survival tips, I’d recommend talking to Max Brooks (The Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z). I hear he even possesses blueprints for a Zombie-Proof House…