Simon Spurrier is not the type to shy away from a harrowing journey. His densely cerebral work often confronts difficult corners of the human experience. And, with Marvel Zombies, his upcoming Secret Wars tie-in with artist Kev Walker, Spurrier may be moving into his most challenging work yet.
Showcasing bloodthirsty, undead versions of many of Marvel’s most famous characters, the Marvel Zombies franchise has ballooned in popularity since its first mini-series in 2005. Now, the Secret Wars tie-in sees monster-hunter Elsa Bloodstone taking center stage as she traverses the territory known as the Deadlands when the series drops on June 9.
Newsarama spoke with Spurrier about his entry into the Marvel Zombies canon, delving deep into his influences, what kind of nightmares lie ahead, and his take on why such a simple concept has endured so well.
Newsarama: Marvel Zombies has been around for some time now, and has become kind of a cultural phenomenon. How does it feel to be a part of that?
Simon Spurrier: Feels great, naturally! For a high-concept which, let’s be honest, feels kinda niche the first time you hear about it, MZ’s proven to be a wonderfully flexible franchise, and given us a lot of genuinely high-quality tales. Previous iterations have covered the whole gamut of genres and tones from the apocalyptic world-shaking scale down to the very personal, and from the deadly-serious to the fabulously farcical. We’ll get onto the whys and wherefores of that in a moment, but for an ideas-junkie like me the opportunity to carve my own name onto that dribbly, rotting, groaning slab of meat is a total gift.
Part of the beauty of Secret Wars, of course, is the chance to revisit these fabulously popular event concepts and test the f***ers to destruction.
Nrama: What makes an idea as simple as Marvel Zombies such a long-lived concept, with so many iterations?
Spurrier: Layers, basically.
On a super-simplistic level it’s a combination of two perennially popular tropes: super-heroes and zombies. Chocolate and bacon. (I say “tropes” rather than “genres” because, well, let’s not get into it too far, but suffice to say I have Views – capital V – on the use of that awful awful restrictive term, and all its dreary formulaic taxonomies, and prefer to chuckle at it as it flutters aimlessly past me.)
On a more interesting level MZ as a notion permits access to all sorts of really juicy themes and perspectives – notably mortality and morality, though there are many more – which shine a revealing light onto the nature of heroes (and villains). We’re seeing the simple moral twotone of mainstream spandexery being utterly overthrown by far more primitive drives. In the case of our titular shuffling brain-guzzlers it’s simple hunger, but you could easily do something similar with an infectious strain of any other moral inadequacy: avarice, rage, sloth, even lust. With the possible exception of that last one (nympho-obsessive heroes, hrm) they don’t give you quite the same opportunities for visual fun, but you get the point. It throws into stark relief all the moral decisions which regular, un-zombified characters make, not to mention giving us a new internal struggle for infected personalities to try and overcome.
There’s also something really joyous to be had in the simple creativity that comes from re-imagining recognizable characters in a new form. That’s what drives fans’ fascination with the whole What if?/alternate version phenomenon, I think. It speaks to a fundamental human excitement for variation, transgression, speculation. Hence part of the joy in something like MZ is providing inventively-realized versions of well-known characters. That’s something I’ve had a looooot of fun with. Sometimes that manifests as simple sight-gags (zombie Blob heaving his moldering rat’s-nest of a body; zombie Carnage becoming a crusty scabrous mass, etc), other times it becomes a far nastier plot-point… none of which I’m going to spoil here.
Nrama Tell us about Elsa Bloodstone, the hero of Marvel Zombies. What can we expect from her in this series?
Spurrier: She’s a bit of a dream character, really. Again with the layers: on the top she’s a fiendishly snarky asskicking splendorbitch with a soft centre (fans of my Doctor Nemesis will, I hope, fall as madly in love with her as I have). She’s the sort of lady who waxes lyrical about the wonders of Earl Grey tea while nonchalantly kicking off a necromantic pest’s head (she calls ‘em “rotters”, natch). But delve just a fraction deeper and there are some really turbulent storms raging. One of the main angles my series takes is exploring her childhood with her long-since-dead father – (in)famous monster hunter Ulysses Bloodstone – and the way his drives and obsessions shaped her.
“They f*** you up, your mum and dad.” And all that jazz.
If I have an aim with this story, beyond the usual “make it awesome and moving”, it’s to show people just how amazing this woman is, and how she really deserves to be a waaaay bigger character.
Nrama: Other than Elsa Bloodstone, who are some of the other mortal characters we’ll see in Marvel Zombies?
Spurrier: Fewer than you might think, oddly enough. The core concept of this series is remarkably (and un-Spurrierishly) simple: Elsa gets stranded two hundred miles from home, deep in the Deadlands. Our story is about what she does next. (McCarthy’s The Road is obviously a major influence, lit-fans.)
So we’ll meet a bunch of lifers at the very start, where we’ll get a glimpse of Elsa in her regular context: working as a section-commander on the Shield, which separates the hahahahanoreally civilized parts of Battleworld from the infectious horrors of the South. Several familiar faces there.
But she’s quickly transplanted to the center of undead bumblef*** nowhere, and doesn’t come across many other living people for quite some time. There are two or three exceptions – I can’t say much about that, but look out for a rrrreally cool appearance in eps 2 & 3, which typifies the “inventive horribleness” thing I was talking about earlier.
The other big exception – we’ll come back to this later – is the mysterious “child”, who she encounters out there in the wilderness, and who she takes with her on her journey.
Nrama: Will we see any familiar Marvel characters in the sea of undead faces?
Spurrier: Oh-ho yes. Very much so. As I mentioned before, some of those are brief and exceedingly violent cameo-encounters. Others are far more challenging, and become story-drivers in their own right. I can’t give too much away, but around the mid-way point Elsa comes across a crew of aberrantly smart zombies, whose braininess is a source of deep mystery and deep consternation…
Nrama: Other than hordes of zombies, what will we see in the Deadlands, the territory where the story takes place?
Spurrier: Horror! Grimness! Desperation! Rejuvenation!
One of the really fun twists the story takes – I don’t think this is giving too much away – lies in the motive force which keeps Elsa moving. Goes without saying that in a traditional zombie story the major goals are survival and getting to safety… but this is me, so it’s way darker than that. To cite The Road again, there’s a point at which survival becomes so utterly unlikely that characters are obligated to set aside their measure of rationality and find other reasons to keep going.
Nrama: What can you tell us about the child Elsa is trying to rescue from the Deadlands?
Spurrier: Not much! Elsa bumps into this scared, bald little rugrat the moment she becomes stranded. The kid remembers almost nothing: name, backstory, nothing. Elsa’s instantly suspicious – you would be, right? – but the kid seems so entirely helpless Elsa grudgingly takes on the role of protector.
Goes without saying the kid’s identity is a bubbling part of the plot.
Nrama: We know that the Deadlands lie beyond the Shield, and that the zombie threat extends beyond just one title. How does Marvel Zombies tie into Secret Wars at large?
Marvel’s done something rather brilliant with this suite of books which tie-in to the Secret Wars event. They’re dancing between the raindrops of continuity and originality, satisfying both drives at once. I’ve said before that – at its best – interconnected continuity should be a reward to those who care to seek it but never a hurdle to those who don’t. That’s the key vibe here. Elsa’s story is plugged-in to events in the wider Battleworld context – give and take – but it also stands as a pure showcase for the Marvel Zombies concept in general and this remarkable, bewitching woman, Elsa, in particular.
Nrama: What does artist Kev Walker bring to the table?
Spurrier: Geniusness and geniosity. Pure storytelling brilliance. Spectacle and intimacy conjoined. I could go on.
Look, I cut my teeth in comics over at 2000AD, where Kev’s work shaped some of my earliest adoration for this incredible medium. This is a guy who chooses to insert extra panels, to get the most of out of a sequence, rather than cutting them out to get the most out of big cheap splashes. That’s like hen’s teeth, in comicky circles. And yet and yet and yet, even when he’s intuiting added beats and beautiful quiet character moments, pages never feel crushed or overly dense. And then when he does go for the big glorious moment – oh my god.
His zombie Juggernaut is one of the finest things I’ve ever seen. And Elsa acts.
Nrama: What can longtime fans of the Marvel Zombies franchise expect from this Secret Wars version?
Spurrier: All the horror and wraparound groaning disgustingness we’ve all come to adore and expect of the franchise, with an added emphasis on the thoughts, drives, emotions and hi-octane asskickery of our incredible protagonist.
Oh, and zombie Doc Ock trying to cop a feel, then getting his stupid rotting face battered-in.
No! Bloody! Touching!