Zombie Hunting in the 19th Century: Mark Rahner on Rotten

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Mark Rahner and Dan Dougherty are having a great time making some Rotten comics. The first issue of their new miniseries, Rotten, hits stores on May 27th. Published by Moonstone Comics, Rotten has already earned rave advance reviews from the likes of Ed Brubaker and Mark Waid.

Set in 1877, Rotten introduces readers to William Wade, a new secret agent for U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes. Along with his partner, J.J Flynn, Wade must investigate some outbreaks of a decidedly undead nature…each one more evolved than the last.

“I’m a lifelong zombie, uh, consumer, and you’d think the genre would have been strip-mined by now,” Rahner says. “But my co-writer Robert Horton and I wanted to write the kind of thing we hadn’t seen before and would want to read ourselves.

“So what makes it different? A gutload. There’s the genre-combo and a current-events angle – which I’ve always been amazed that there hasn’t been more of in comics. But wait, there’s more! The hero and his partner encounter different species of zombie from one adventure to the next – for a truly evil reason that’s gradually revealed in the ongoing story.

“There’s also a lot of variation in the types of stories and vibes in each one – intrigue, gothic suspense, balls-out zombie action. Like the poor hero, you will be kept off balance.”

Rahner, a Seattle-area journalist, had the idea for Rotten a few years ago. “I wanted a Western with zombies, and I envisioned a set-piece with a man locked in a barn full of the hungry things,” Rahner says.

“I like to put people in tough spots and think my way through action scenes. That one’s in the first issue now, and it was great fun to write. Anyhow, I’d sort of gotten constipated with the overall story and asked my pal Horton if he wanted to join in. He’s a fellow movie critic in the Seattle area and I’d gotten him to humiliate himself in some Halloween horror-host spoof videos I’d done for the Seattle Times.

“So along with the fact that he’s a much more thoughtful person and contributed things that never would have occurred to me, we also role-played writing the characters – me as the bitter, violent vet Wade and Horton as his more cerebral and slightly older partner, Flynn. It made the writing even more of a hoot, and gave us lots of opportunities to give each other crap. ‘I see Flynn as rather effeminate in this scene,’ etc.’

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“Anyhow, then I realized that there was all sorts of horrific real-life news that had been infuriating me, and I’d been a fool. Why wasn’t I using it? Rod Serling’s a hero of mine and I learned nothing from the guy except how to hold a cigarette? I hate being lied to, no matter who’s doing the lying, and since Rotten’s Wade hates that, too, he finds himself alone most of the time.”

Dougherty, best known for the comic strip Beardo (www.beardocomics.com ), was next to come on board. “My good friend and collaborator Rafael Nieves was the initial connection,” Dougherty says. “He knew a guy who knew Mark, and told me where to send my work.

“Oddly enough, I was working on a zombie project already. Even stranger, that project was also set around the time of the Civil War. That project folded before it ever saw print, but it meant that I had plenty of samples of the undead devouring cowboys and soldiers to seduce Mark with.”

Dougherty’s style has evolved throughout the project. “We have five issues drawn already, and I actually went back in to the first issue and redrew some parts to make this book as consistent as can be from start to finish,” Dougherty says. “I don't think any of the moves I imitate from my favorite artists are very obvious in the final product, but I'm a big fan of guys like Eddie Campbell, Tim Sale and Paul Pope. Lately, I've been digging Sean Phillips’ work as well. I didn't know much of him when we started, but I think future issues of Rotten will definitely be influenced by him.”

So, why does everyone love zombies? “Uh, they’re cheap to depict onscreen,” Rahner says. “But there’s a gutload of other reasons. Audiences are more sophisticated now – in some ways, at least – and zombies aren’t as preposterous as other monsters. They tap into our hard-wired primal fear of being eaten, sure. They can be people you know and love who’ve changed into something horrible.

“And if that isn’t metaphorical enough for you, there’s the prospect of being absorbed by a group and being changed into something you thought was evil. Also, they don’t run off at the mouth.”

Adds Dougherty, “I think there's more room for interpretation with zombies. They don't have a specific history or rulebook, so the possibilities are wide open. You'd think the genre would be picked clean, but Mark and Robert have added a new layer of evil to the undead. “

And what kind of research was needed for this project? “I tasted human flesh,” Rahner says, joking (we hope).

“And without bogging you down with citations, I’ll say the research was extensive and ongoing. Cannibalism. The Old West. Autopsies. We even read those Time-Life Old West books in the hand-tooled saddle leather, for godsakes. As a lifelong martial-artist, wrestler and thug, I also wanted the action and violence to be well-choreographed, too.”

In addition to Rotten, Rahner and Dougherty have a number of other projects in progress. “I want to see Rotten get going – it’s plotted to its eventual end – and then I’ve got another original series – also co-written with Horton – that I want to spew all over readers called H.E.L.I.X.,” Rahner says. “It’s set in the present-day, yet still repugnant and exciting. I think I also have a ‘Clown Tales’ horror story coming from Boom! soon.”

Dougherty’s got a second collection of Beardo coming out through Lightning Source, and has a graphic novel with Nieves entitled The Apocalypse Plan. “The premise is simple, ‘Satan takes a vacation from Hell's corporate office, and Heaven's office decides this is the perfect time to wage war.’” Dougherty says. “We're shopping it around right now to a few publishers, but it's coming out one way or another this summer.” You can check it out here: http://www.komikwerks.com/comic_title.php?ti=132

In the meantime, the team is eager to see how fans receive Rotten. “Rotten is a labor of love that has endured two years of tinkering, retinkering, rejections and near misses,” Dougherty says. “All we've wanted from the beginning is to have a chance to tell this story, and Moonstone has been gracious enough to give us a home.

“For those of you thinking about ordering this book, consider this. This story is broad in scope and chock full of interesting characters and terrifying similarities to the world we live in today. The concepts are both fresh and eerily familiar, and it is unlike any book you are reading right now. We already have 5 issues done and more in the works, and that's just the beginning of the Rotten saga. What this means to you is that you will have a new chapter every month. All we ask is for your support and consideration. Buy Rotten!”

Rotten staggers into stores with a 56-page first issue on May 27th. For more on Rotten, visit www.Rottencomics.com

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