With the class struggles of Downton Abbey fascinating audiences right now, this week's release of Vertigo's The New Deadwardians collection is well timed.But while it's set in Downton's Edwardian England, the Vertigo series puts a whole new twist on class structure by giving it a supernatural basis. And it adds a little Sherlock Holmes, as the story focuses on a murder mystery being investigated by Scotland Yard.
So what's the supernatural twist? In this alternate version of the 1910's, the poor masses start being infected as zombies, so the upper classes decide to avoid being eaten by turning themselves into vampires. And the middle class are stuck as humans.
Written by Dan Abnett with art by I.N.J. Culbard, The New Deadwardians was released as an eight-issue series last year to rave reviews. With the release of this week's 176-page collection, Abnett is toying around with a sequel to the first volume.
Newsarama talked to Abnett to find out more about what inspired the story and what themes are explored in The New Deadwardians.
Newsarama: Dan, this book really fits a lot of genres, because it's this detective story that is also a period piece with this theme of class struggle, yet it's also a supernatural story, with very specific rules for the universe. Where did you get the idea for The New Deadwardians?
Dan Abnett: I'm not quite sure. It almost simply came from the title. Wherever I go, I carry around a little notebook with me and I write down all sorts of ideas and thoughts and words, because sometimes I get an idea and I think, "That's going to be something, but I don't know what it is."
And this one, I liked the idea. I knew it was something that was a period piece and a supernatural story. And as I started thinking about it, I came up with the basic concept of how the world works.Nrama: Without spoiling anything for people who might pick up the paperback collection, how would you describe the way the world works.?
Abnett: It's 1910; it's the Edwardian period but in an alternate history. It's a place where there has been, basically, a zombie apocalypse in the 1860s. And the upper classes, in order to protect themselves, have elected vampirism, which makes them undead and therefore invisible to the other undead. So these zombies no longer see the vampires.
And the British Empire has been sustained that way, with a stratified class system where zombies make up the poor masses, and normal humans are sort of the middle classes, and the upper classes are vampires.
Of course, in the story, we never call anyone zombies or vampires. We're quite discreet about those things. But these are certainly not vampires in the way they've been portrayed very often, because these are people who are staunchly getting on with their lives and trying to remain as normal as possible and downplay all the characteristics that make them vampires. They just happen to be vampires.
So that was the notion. And once I had this idea, I thought, "That's quite interesting. I wonder what I can do with it." And I realized it was a story about vampires and zombies, which are everywhere at the moment. I had never thought I'd do that type of story, because there are so many of them. There are some very, very good zombie and vampire stories out there, so I thought, "Why try to compete?"
But it was only after I came up with the idea that I realized, by necessity, I had both of them in the story. But I also felt like the story was strong enough that I had to do something with it. And when I came up with the framing story, the murder mystery, and I pitched the idea to Vertigo, they jumped at it immediately.Nrama: Let's talk about the murder mystery, which holds all of this together.
Abnett: The central character is the last homicide detective at Scotland Yard, because there aren't really any murders anymore, with much of the population being the undead. And he is a vampire, and it's a terrible burden. He doesn't know what to do with his life.
At the beginning of the story, he's been presented with an apparently inexplicable murder to solve. And that's the story that you read in the eight-issue series.
Nrama: I assume when you were coming up with the story, you were emphasizing the difference between the classes with the way the different strata are broken down into different types of, essentially, monsters. It's almost humorous symbolism, isn't it?
Abnett: Yes, I think there is a great deal of symbolism going on there as well as humor. I think that for a story that is essentially quite serious -- I mean, it is a very artificially confection in terms of an alternate history, but it is meant to be taken seriously. Having said that, there are quite a lot of good jokes in there, mostly at the expense of the way society works. This idea of the upper classes being blood-sucking, you know. And the closest we get to zombies is this area that they inhabit called "Zone-B," which of course sounds quite a bit like zombies. So you can see how we had fun with this.
Nrama: Yeah, I thought it was hilarious how the vampires are called "The Young," and the zombie undead are known as "The Restless."Abnett: Yes, where that came from, I have no idea. [Laughs.]
But I think probably my favorite joke of all comes when he meets the suffragette in the third or fourth issue, but it's not the rights for them to vote. It's simply that they should be able to become vampires as well. And she has the slogan, "Throats for Women," which I guess is my proudest moment.
Nrama: Yeah, even though this is an alternate version of history, you were able to retain the society that was around at that time, with this supernatural echo of the class divisions in place at the time.
Abnett: Absolutely. I mean, of course, weirdly, in the course of writing it, I was seeing zombies everywhere in the media. And of course, The Walking Dead is a particularly good example of it.
And then whilst I was working on it, we had the popularity of Downton Abbey come along.
Nrama: The third season of Downton Abbey just started here in the United States, so it's at the forefront of water cooler discussion right now.
My original pitch should have been "It's Downton Abbey meets The Walking Dead." That would have gotten me in immediately! [Laughs.]
But there does seem to be this sort of zeitgeist thing right now for that period of time, with the fascination over the sinking of the Titanic, and maybe it's because it's the turn of the century. We are about as far into this century as we were at the time of the Titanic, just pre-first world war. It's very much that sense of "we've gotten over the fuss of it being a new century, and we're trying to work out what the century is going to be like." And there is that sense of upheaval. I mean, in the case of the 20th century, there was that massive upheaval of the world war. So this is an alternative upheaval [in The New Deadwardians]. It's another way of throwing things up in the air.Nrama: Getting back to the story, you mentioned the lead character, George Suttle, who has this mystery to solve. How would you describe him and the challenge he faces in the story?
Abnett: It's a very sort of "Sherlock Holmesian" mystery, in that they realize the victim is a member of the upper classes. That is to say, he's a vampire. But the vampire has not been killed by any of the three traditional ways that you can kill a vampire. So they have no idea how someone has managed to kill him. So it becomes a "how-done-it" as much as a "who-done-it." How have they managed to achieve this? And for what purpose? And that really is a kind of free ticket into an exploration of this society, because in investigating this, the George has to literally go around London and discover every aspect of every facet of society until he can put this together.
I think one of the things I expected at first was that Inspector George Suttle would be very much a cipher. He's be a detective that we would accompany, and his personality wouldn't really matter that much.
But one of the things that I really delighted in was that as the story progressed, he became a very powerful character in the story. It wasn't that I didn't want him to be, but I had no intention of making him quite so fundamentally central to the story.
He's a study of a man who has lost all the things that made him a human being. He is sort of rediscovering that by looking at the world around him. And I found that it made the story a lot longer. I ended up liking him enormously and sympathized with his plight.
Plus the fact that George is three-dimensional is very useful if we return to this world.
Nrama: Is there any chance we'll see more stories set in this world?
Abnett: There is every chance that we'll get to do some more. It is a world and a character that I think has great potential to do more. Ian and I have some great ideas about what would happen after that.Nrama: You mentioned that George is kind of discovering what it means to be human. It felt like one of the theme behind the comic was this sort of testimony to life, or what life is. Was that a theme that evolved as you wrote it? Or was that something you set out to do?
Abnett: That sort of emerged. The more I wrote George and his situation, I realized that, for a story where most of the main characters were "dead," it was remarkably life-affirming.
George sort of rediscovers things about himself, and there was a romance to that that was unexpected. And once we realized it was there, we made the most of it. I think it drove the story much more strongly than just a series of clues and reveals.
I constructed a plot for the purpose of exploring a world where, at the end of the story, the readers would say, "That was an interesting world. Thank you for showing me around." What we actually ended up doing was constructing a plot that was a message about life, and getting past obstacles to be yourself and be the best person you can be. You know, all those apparently trite, new-agey things. But it worked very well for this man. He's sort of reanimated in this story. And you see that in the interrelation with the others of his kind that he meets. So you see people at different stages of their relationship with the afterlife, and that was something very interesting that evolved from the story.
Nrama: The story has a very Edwardian look about it, which is enriched by the artwork by I.N.J. Culbard. How would you describe what the artist brings to the story of The New Deadwardians?
Abnett: You know, I had been aware of Ian Culbard's work for a long time. I wanted to work with him. And I contacted him to see if he was drawing this. And at that point, I didn't know him at all. But we became very good friends because we got on very well.
Ian brought a massive amount of the story. Every location in London in the story is a real place that he has researched. They're real buildings. So he brought his enthusiasm to it, and sometimes just the brainstorming that we did working a plot from issue to issue contributed things that I didn't expect when I was first putting together the story.
Nrama: I hope both of you do get to return to the world.
Abnett: I think the sales of the trade will be important to that decision, because in this day and age, obviously, a book needs to be as successful as possible to generate a second season. And we very much see The New Deadwardians as having a season two. And really, I think it hinges quite a bit on the sales of that trade. And if the word of mouth is strong enough -- and it seems to be, because I've had some extremely nice feedback -- then I think that bodes very well for us doing some more.