Although wars have been fought in virtually every part of the world, there are some places that have served as battle grounds more than others. After all the trials and tribulations of Afghanistan going back long before the U.S's current operations there, it received the unenviable moniker of ‘The Graveyard of Empires’ – and in a new series coming up from Image Comics that term is being taken to a literal extreme.
Launching June 15th, Graveyard of Empires is a war comic like no other, taking elements of horror and current events and putting it through the meatgrinder of armed combat. In this full color series, the U.S. Marines and the entrenched Taliban fighters are put back-to-back trying to fend off their fallen comrades who come back to life as zombies.
For writer Mark Sable and artist Paul Azaceta, Graveyard of Empires is a long-overdue follow-up to their first project together, Grounded from 2005. That first collaboration put them in the well-worn genre of super-heroes, but this new team-up puts them in the trenches on an even older genre of comics – war.We recently spoke with the creators. Newsarama: Mark, Paul, what can you guys tell us about Graveyard of Empires?
Mark Sable: The term “The Graveyard of Empires” is what historians use to describe Afghanistan, where armies from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Red Army were brought low by simple tribesman.
The comic Graveyard of Empires is a war/horror comic that takes that term literally, as the dead from the most recent conflict return to life, forcing Marines and Taliban to band together to fight the undead. It’s been described as Hurt Locker meets the Walking Dead. Graveyard of Empiresis one on the more realistic modern war comics you’ll find, but should still be the thrill ride you expect from survival horror.
Paul Azaceta: What we tried to do with the book is bring zombies back to its roots with a real story about real issues. I think people forget that the original Dawn of the Dead was a commentary on American consumerism. Also, the one that started it all, Night of the Living Dead, was more about how the characters dealt with this crazy situation and not about how cool zombies are (although there's no arguing that). That's what we wanted with our book.
Nrama: The young Marine lieutenant at the center of this – tell us about him.
Sable: The LT, fresh off the successful surge in Iraq, is sent to the remote Combat Outpost Alamo. He’s there to replace the recently killed C.O. of an undermanned Marine squad, and he thinks he can apply the lessons of the surge – making strong shows of force to increase security while winning over hearts and minds - to a far more hostile environment.The locals are caught between a rock and a hard place. The Taliban are forcing them to grow opium, while the Coalition Forces are burning their fields for doing so. The Taliban take their boys as child soldiers, and their girls as child brides. The Afghan National Police rape anyone they can find. They are at best indifferent to the Marines, and at worst secretly aiding the Taliban. Winning them over is a dicey proposition.
When the Taliban aren’t busy extorting the locals for their cut of the opium crop, they are constantly shelling the outnumbered Marines and setting up ambushes and IEDs.
The Marines the LT finds are worn down and wary about leaving the wire. The only Marine who does want to engage with the local populace is an overly aggressive Sniper who is constantly challenging his authority.
These are the threats the LT and his Marines faces, and that’s BEFORE the dead start walking the earth.
Azaceta: That kind of in-fighting was key for us. Hopefully, we've thrown in different points of view of the war in the book so it's not just the good ol' Marines taking out the bad Taliban. I think we have a nice blend of characters so at the end of the day it's not a cut and dry view of the real war, which is anything but.
Nrama: This takes place in Afghanistan in the middle of the current war. What kind of research did the two of you do to get the setting and the story right?
Sable: I read almost everything there is to read on the topic. I spoke with veterans and members of the intelligence community who were very close to events on the ground. And I watched hours and hours of unedited combat footage. The latter is surprisingly easy to find if you know where to look, but along with the accounts of soldiers it took a real emotional toll on me.
I can never fully express my gratitude not only to those who helped me with research, but to every man and woman who is serving. Whatever one’s political viewpoint, I don’t think anyone can disagree with the fact they and their families are sacrificing a disproportionate amount.
Azaceta: I could have let Mark do all the heavy lifting but I really wanted to get a sense of what goes on over there before I delved into the art for the book. I read some books, War by Sebastion Junger is a fantastic book that I think everyone should read, watched some documentaries, Battle For Marjah is a recent one HBO did that was great, and looked up countless photos on the web and in books. It was actually hard to do after awhile because there's never a happy ending. It's can get pretty depressing and I think what I've really learned is I thank god for the men and women who can do that job because I certainly couldn't.
Also, it was important to get into the Afghan culture a bit so I've been researching that as much as possible too and hopefully we don't misrepresent them. I think it's easy to get caught up in what our military is doing and you forget that the Afghans have their own views and beliefs that don't necessarily fall into the box of "religious zealots".
Nrama: This is a war comic, but I’m getting a hint of the supernatural in this. Can you tell us about the decision to mix the two genres?
Sable: I don’t want to comment on the “supernatural” aspects because how the zombies in Graveyard of Empires were created – whether by scientific or supernatural means - is a mystery.
Although people might think I sat around thinking of a new way to capitalize on the zombie craze, it’s actually the opposite. To try and top The Walking Dead or World War Z would be a fool’s errand.
I’ve wanted to tell a war story, and horror was a way in. You can see it me touching on war in things as varied as my Teen Titans: Cyborg mini-series, which dealt with the question of why disabled soldiers in the DC universe weren’t given cybernetic limbs when teen heroes were, to Unthinkable, where the worst case terrorist scenarios that the protagonist envisions comes true, and his failure to stop them lead to full-fledged wars.
This isn’t just a genre “mash-up”, though. Without getting too heavy, there’s a metaphorical reason zombies in Afghanistan works. In counter-insurgency circles, there’s something called “insurgent math”. Basically, you kill one insurgent, and you create ten more by pissing off his friends and family.In Graveyard of Empires, if you kill someone, they come back as a zombie who can then turn ten of your buddies into the undead. I don’t think we’ve ever seen zombies used as a metaphor for the unintended consequences of war before.
Azaceta: Mark is right when he says we don't view it as a "mash-up". It's first and foremost a war story and our goal is to tell a story that maybe has a little more going for it underneath the shell of it's genre (or genres). My favorite horror movies are never about the monster and much more about the characters or the subtext. I always say you can divide a movie loving audience into two groups by asking which is their favorite Alien movie. No one says 3 or 4, but you'll get some that say the first one and some that like the second one. I always loved Alien, the first one, more. For me the fun is getting a great cast of characters together and watching them having to deal with an external threat. You get to see what's really at the core of the people and how they break down or not, as a group or not, under these circumstances. Those are the kinds of stories that turn me on.
Nrama: Although there is long history of war comics, there hasn’t been that many as of late. Why do you think that is? What’s the challenge that has driven away so many?
Sable: It's amazing to me that, despite the fact we're involved (at least) three wars, there's not only a dearth of war comics, there's a real lack of war comics covering current conflicts. There have been some great war books lately. Jason Aaron and Cameron Stewart’s The Other Side stands out as a modern masterpiece, and if you are not reading Garth Ennis’ Battlefields you are missing his best work, in my opinion. Again, they deal with wars
It think you can chalk some of that up to the fact that it's hard to get ANY comic that's not a super-hero or licensed property made. For creators, sometimes there’s a feeling that time needs to past before we can have historical perspective. And for everyone, there’s at fear of tackling touchy subjects. While our book isn't overtly political, you can't write about war without pissing off one side or the other.
But if - movies, video games can deal with modern warfare, there's no reason comics - which has always been ahead of other forms of popular culture - can't. Comics, because of the relatively, fast turnaround, has always been able to deal with difficult issues with a sense of immediacy yet to be matched by any other medium.Image deserves a lot of credit for putting this book out. While Graveyard of Empires got a "high concept" very few publishers would let us take the kind of chances we did.
Nrama: This isn’t your first time teaming up -- but it’s far different from your most popular work Grounded. How’d you two settle on this idea to be your next collaboration?
Sable: I’ve been wanting to work with Paul since Grounded, but he had to go and get all Amazing Spider-Man big on me. I’ve been pitching him ideas for five years, and – Paul, I’d actually be curious to know why this one grabbed you.
Azaceta: As for this particular story, I think it reminded me of the kind of horror story that I always loved. It was also an idea I felt I could do a lot with. Something that I can inject my own sensibilities into and Mark could really run with.
As for why now, it's all timing. I know that as my career took of somewhat and I didn't have to worry about what to do next I veered further and further away from comics that I had a real stake in. I love working on mainstream books and, like all artist who get into the field, I'll always have a nostalgic bond with characters like Spider-man or Batman. But I was in a place where I was asking myself what I wanted out of my career long term and it came down to telling stories. My stories. I'm working on getting some work out there that's all me and I think this is the first step in that. This book is a chance to stretch my other muscles of story telling from the ground up. Don't get me wrong, I have had some great people to collaborate with over the years but Mark has been super generous in letting me really get into the story side or this and let me shape what the book is. This is what I got into comics to do.