[Michael DeShane checks in from the front lines with the creators of the zombie war comic '68.]
Fans of the award-winning, seriously ass-kicking Vietnam era zombie comic ’68 are getting more of what they want. On March 27, a new collected edition, ’68 Volume 2: Scars, was released, and on April 3 a new series, ’68 Jungle Jim: Hellhole begins.
The first critically praised ’68 one-shot came out back in 2006 and told the story of a small group of American soldiers who set out to find missing comrades in the jungles of Vietnam, only to discover they had a new enemy – the undead. For the next several years individual commitments kept ’68’s creators – writer Mark Kidwell, artist Nat Jones and colorist/letterer/graphic designer Jay Fotos – apart. Then, starting in 2011, they followed up with a new four-issue mini-series, two one-shots (’68: Jungle Jim with art by Nate Van Dyke and ’68: Hardship with art by Jeff Zornow), and the latest mini-series ’68: Scars, with art by Nat Jones (all of which are collected in the first two ’68 trade paperbacks). The creators’ quality-over-quantity approach has won over fans of intelligent, hard-hitting horror and led to sold-out print runs.
Rue Morgue talked with Fotos, Kidwell and Zornow, the creative team behind the new, must-read Jungle Jim: Hellhole comic, about the “’68 Experience” at conventions, drawing maggots, and something nasty called adiposity.
Mark Kidwell: I met Jeff Zornow through Dead Dog Comics, where I was doing zombie books, werewolf books, sea-monster stories – all manner of off-beat horror goodness. He and I collaborated on a Day of the Dead mini-series that continued the story from the George Romero film. Unfortunately, the series only saw its first issue published before the publisher closed the doors on comic book production. Jeff knew Jay and Nat from the Dead Dog days too (the same place I met ’em) and he’s always been one of our “go-to” guys when it comes to getting a special project off the ground with great illustration and gruesome EC-style storytelling. Jeff, Jay and I had worked together on the dinosaur comic romp, Tyrannosaurus Rex as well as the award-winning ’68 one-shot Hardship and once we knew we were going to continue the Jungle Jim storyline as a full four-issue mini-series, Jeff was our guy. We all work really well together and have the same direction in mind when it comes to horror related material. Plus, Jeff loves to draw maggots.
Jay Fotos: Funny thing too, Jeff and I went to the same art school in NYC, years apart from each other though.
Jeff Zornow: I didn’t know you went to SVA, Jay! Or maybe I did and I forgot.
Mark pretty much got the whole story of us coming together on this, though I will add not only do I like to draw maggots, I dig drawing monsters, and over-the-top action sequences, as well as cool, gnarly jungles and animals.
Can you tell us what the “rules” are for your zombies, and what different types of undead you have lurking in the jungles of Southeast Asia?
MK: The series is basically set in the same world as Romero and Russo’s Night of the Living Dead, taking the release year of that movie as zombie gospel as far as tagging a start date for the rise of the hungry dead, so we stick very close to the tenets set forth in that film. Some zombies are fast if their injuries and state of decay allow it, some are slowed down as rigor mortis or bodily dismemberment affects their mobility. The dead remain “alive” so long as their brains stay intact and their heads are not removed from their bodies (in this case, the head would still snap and hiss, but the torso and limbs are pretty much done).
As far as different undead types, the series has already shown such iconic specimens as “Sniper Zombies,” who still retain enough of their living minds to aim through a scope (albeit shakily) and fire a bullet if one remains in their rifle’s chamber, “Bayonet Zombies” who utilize hand-held weapons, rocks and sharp objects to aid them in their kills, and our classic “Multi-zombie,” made up of parts of several decomposing bodies buried inside the walls of Viet Cong tunnel systems. With the multi-ghoul, we had a lot of leeway in design, as we used the factual medical phenomenon of adiposity, in which bodily fats and tissues melt down to poisonous goo during decomposition. Our dead guerrillas oozed together in the soil and when the spark of reanimation hit them, they rose as an amorphous mass of cannibalistic monstrosity. This is just the ground we’ve covered; there’s a lot more lurking about out there.
JZ: Basically as far as drawing zombies, like other monsters, it’s impossible to really draw them wrong. [The] possibilities are endless, and ghoulishly fun.
MK: The original Jungle Jim was a US Army sergeant named Jim Asher. He was a hero, one of those officers that went out of his way to help his men and train them to keep them alive. He took an inexperienced private named Sam Adler under his wing, taught him the ropes of jungle warfare in Vietnam… then, during an intense firefight outside a remote village, the reanimated dead strike Asher’s squad from behind. Adler loses it, forgetting all his training and all of Asher’s mentoring. In his panic, he accidentally shoots Sergeant Asher in the chest, leaving him to rise again as one of the undead. Later, Adler finds salvation from an unlikely source and begins a quest, a haphazard journey through the hell of war-torn Vietnam searching for the zombie that Asher has become. On his helmet, he’s written “Jungle Jim,” in honor of his fallen mentor. Along the way, Adler rescues American POWs from VC concentration camps and battles the enemy, both living and dead, wherever he finds them.
Is the new series, Jungle Jim: Hellhole, a good jump-on point for new readers?
MK: It’s a great place to start! We not only introduce you to the new “Grim Reaper in a Gas Mask,” marine Brian Curliss, but we give you a healthy dose of the Jungle Jim back story as well, bringing anyone who hasn’t read the original origin one-shot right up to speed. You’ll learn Adler’s fate and see why the new guy has taken up the mask, the bamboo and the arsenal to continue the search for Jim Asher. You’ll see just how crazy war and the rise of the undead can make a man.
What comes next in the ’68 story?
MK: We’ve got a new one-shot in the works entitled ’68: Hallowed Ground. It’s a dark little tale that brings readers back to the United States again for a peek at what happens when a passenger train carrying soldiers home from the war gets derailed by dozens of zombies blocking the tracks. The survivors hole up in a small country church…there’s a sniper in the bell tower and a battle-hardened grunt calling the shots in the sanctuary below. The story is told in two halves – one for each of the main characters’ points of view.
Following that, we’ll roll out the next four-issue story arc, tentatively titled ’68: Rule of War. That series returns us to Tan Son Nhat airport in Saigon, shows us the fates of Private Kuen Yam and his band. It will give you snapshots of New York City and New Jersey as Yam’s parents try to survive the holocaust on home shores. And it will mark the return of CIA agent Declan Rule, the grim G-man from the first ’68 story arc, as he searches for a rogue neurosurgeon in the wilds of monster-haunted Cambodia. The arc promises to be a bloodbath…
How much research goes into creating the realism of ’68?
MK: Tons of it. We all do it, haunting the Internet, watching DVDs, reading books on Vietnam history…everybody jumps in and adds pieces to the storyline. The book shines in its authenticity and everyone involved in the series has been instrumental in finding interesting and sometimes mind-blowing facts about the war and the period of the late 1960s in general. It has always been our intent to portray a believable world before burning it all down with the rise of the dead.
MK: Absolutely. We’re all constantly aware that there are people living right here in the US that survived that war and there are whole new generations whose fathers are veterans of the conflict. We also realize that there are more than likely still some people over there, lost as POWs. The Vietnam era is and always will be an extremely sensitive subject. Our approach to the subject matter has been to simply tell our story and to use facts wherever possible. What we don’t do is choose sides. We try to portray the drama from an “every-man” standpoint, opening the camera’s lens, so to speak, and capturing the events as we feel they may have happened, sticking close to our research before tossing in the dark fantasy element of the living dead. We’re not trying to make a statement with ’68; we’re just trying to tell one hell of a horror story. We leave the question of “What’s worse, the horrors of war or the nightmare of the zombie apocalypse?” to the readers.
JZ: Horror survival and zombie apocalypse stories tend to have all sorts of sensitive issues arise. I’ve always felt that part of horror’s job as a genre is to blast these subjects open and pull out their guts so we can all see, and maybe understand how it works a little better.
Using the Vietnam War as an umbrella or backdrop I think is wonderful, especially for diving into a mix of history and dramatization, and hopefully readers will have a different outlook on what things were like back then, with the safety net of the fictional zombie aspect to keep it from being too heavy.
You have great zombie props in your booth at conventions. Can you tell us about them and how they are made?
MK: Jay Fotos can. He’s the guy with the secret laboratory and the habit of haunting cemeteries late at night…
JF: Ah, the props – gotta love this stuff! It started off as a goof of sorts that I made a life-sized zombie character out of the original 2006 ’68 one-shot comic called Meat Grinder to bring along at shows for photo ops. Needless to say he was a big hit, everyone ran to him to take pictures. So now every year I make more and more props to add to what we call the “’68 Experience” at shows that permit us. We include life-sized zombies, fully geared-up Jungle Jim, ’68-themed military jeep, POW cage and a full sized, sand-bagged ’68 bunker equipped with a mounted M60 machine gun! All of this stuff is made interactive for the fans to come up and touch, take photos and have fun.
Which conventions can fans meet you at in the near future?
MK: The big one, the show where Jay gets to go all PT Barnum and pull an army of rotting skeletons out of his closet, is this year’s Phoenix Comicon. That’s the place to go to see the full-size zombies, the disembodied heads, the jeep, the bamboo cages, the bunker. I’m also doing a lot of shows close to home in Kentucky. I’ll be at the Cincinnati Comics Expo in June, Derby City Comicon in Louisville, Ky. and Wizard World Chicago.
JF: Phoenix Comicon is our “all-out” show. They grant us the space to spread our creative wings and we try and deliver a bigger and better ’68 Experience every year. I will also hit the Tucson Comicon and I’m looking to branch out to LA, Vegas, New Mexico and maybe Texas. It really depends on my schedule and if the venues can fit us in.
JZ: Being based in New York City, I tend to follow the East Coast horror conventions.
I just appeared with Fright-Rags at the Monster Mania con in the beginning of March, then traveled to North Carolina for the Mad Monster Party. Other horror cons and events I will be at are Motor City Nightmares this April in my hometown of Detroit; Maryland Death Festival in Baltimore in May; Hudson Horror Show VII in June in upstate New York, which is a one-day movie festival in a theatre with vendors; New York Deathfest 1, also in June, the first metal festival in Brooklyn, being thrown by my friends at Gutterchrist Productions and Useless Drunk Productions, (I’ll be vending there as well).
In mid-July is G-Fest in Chicago, North America’s largest gathering for Japanese kaiju/giant monster and tokusatsu/SPFX movies. August brings me back to Monster Mania in New Jersey again with Fright-Rags, and then Monster Mania again in September in Hunt Valley, Maryland.
Then October brings New Jersey Deathfest 5, the annual metal festival from Gutterchrist Productions and Useless Drunk Productions; and the giant New York Comicon is also in October. And then I think I’m done with shows for the year.
MK: There’s a lot of stuff in the works right now, some of it definite, some of it still in a state of flux. We all feel that the ’68 concept fits perfectly in the realm of film, high-end video games, board games, etc. It’s just a matter of finding the right studios, the right people who share our passion in the book and its story. Things will happen, we’re just not sure when.
JF: We also have a cool statue of Meat Grinder coming through Quarantine Studios later this year. We also keep adding neat-o products to our ’68 store at www.68zombie.com, from T-shirts to signed prints and comics – all fun stuff for the ’68 fan!
What has been the most enjoyable part of working on ’68 for each of you?
MK: For me, it’s been continuing to work in the comics field with people I like working with. Working with Nat, Jay, Jeff, Nate Van Dyke, Josh Medors, Jerry Beck and all the other crazies feels like getting together with old friends, sipping a beer and hurling out tons of “What if we do this…!” moments. It’s like jumping out of a plane without a parachute and being freaked out until you look around and see that all your buddies are plummeting alongside you. Producing ’68 is a helluva lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun too.
JF: Making comics is a very solitary profession, so when you have opportunities to create worlds with like-minded artists it’s very rewarding…with fifteen years in the business and the hundreds of books I’ve worked on, I still get giddy when the postman brings me my comics, so that’s gotta count for something, right?
JZ: Always enjoy working with Jay and Mark, we’ve been fiends for a long time now. And as much as I love doing horror illustration, whether it’s for Fright Rags T-shirts, or a DVD/Blu-ray cover or whatever, my true love is sequential storytelling – making comics. It’s one thing to make one image that tells a story, but when you make many to tell much more detail visually, that’s always exciting and fun.
Also the subject matter, splatter, cannot be beat! We have a masked character going thru the perils of the Vietnam War with all-out brutality, and we have thrown zombies on top of all that grue!
You can see previews of Jungle Jim: Hellhole and other ’68 comics here: http://www.68zombie.com/gallery/
More ’68 on the web: