Whether it's the DEA, the ATF, or the CIA, the government has many alphabetized avenues to deal with any threat. Whether it's been through stealth or by force, Uncle Sam has always felt he's had the tools to combat any foe... But when the threat are bared fangs, weaponized infection, and immortal bloodlusters -- that's right, we're talking about vampires and zombies -- an old agency has to return from the shadows: FVZA: the Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency.
The Agency, based on the cult alternate history web site of the same name, examines a world where the epidemic of the century isn't swine flu or HIV, but vampirism and zombieism. With the first issue of this series being released by Radical Comics on Wednesday, Newsarama sat down with series writer David Hine on the return of Hugo Pecos, the mythology of the FVZA, and his favorite undead attack of all time.
David Hine: Okay, it goes like this: a few years ago writer Richard Dargan began recording the history of the Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency through the eyes of Hugo Pecos, former director of the agency who is now living in retirement in New Mexico. The site has detailed background on the development of the vampire and zombie viruses and the efforts of the agency to combat them. Apparently they were successful because the agency was shut down in the nineteen-seventies. But Hugo Pecos was convinced the Undead would return and used the web site to keep the people educated and aware.
The movie production company Contrafilm acquired the rights to the property and brought it to Radical to develop into a comic series and Radical came to me to come up with a pitch and then script for the three-issue series launching this week.
It’s unusual for a web site to be the origin for this kind of project but it makes a lot of sense. There’s such a wealth of background detail on the site that I could easily write a half-dozen series using it as a springboard. The site refers back to vampires from medieval times, through the days of the Wild West, and nineteenth century Paris, up to the Russian use of nuclear weapons to destroy the town of Lazo in 1967 when it was overrun with vampires.
Nrama: In the past five or six years, zombies and vampires have gotten a big resurgence, whether it be 28 Days Later, Underworld, 30 Days of Night, Walking Dead, Marvel Zombies... well, you get the point. Could you tell us a little bit of what FVZA is about, and how you feel it differentiates itself from other supernatural horror stories?
Hine: Clearly that extensive alternative history is unique and continues to develop through the FVZA web site. It gives me a whole reference library to refer back to and makes the concept really solid and convincing. I have approached this project with a view to making the characters and events as realistic as possible. I want to know how it really feels to become a vampire or even more horrifyingly, a zombie. Traditionally a human infected with vampirism seems to automatically become an evil blood-sucking creature of the night and a zombie basically staggers around, moaning pathetically and trying to eat people. In our version of things the characters stay the same people they were before they were infected, so a basically decent human being becomes a basically decent vampire who may desperately resist killing to satisfy his or her bloodlust. There is a very high suicide rate among vampires, though we see that it isn’t that easy for a vampire to kill himself.
Similarly our zombies don’t become totally mindless walking corpses overnight. They retain most of their memories and personality for a period of time, only gradually losing their mental functions as the brain and body slowly rot. It’s a little like rapid onset Alzheimer’s. Short-term memory goes, then the personality gradually deteriorates, speech becomes confused, they lose motor skills and all this in a matter of days.
As well as our lead characters, we follow a zombie woman whose maternal instincts survive and we see her trying to continue caring for her zombie children.
Tess and Jules are a teenage couple who were Vamps – a Goth cult who romanticize vampires, wearing black clothes, getting fang implants and even sucking one another’s blood. When they are infected and become genuine vampires they discover the reality is unpleasantly sordid. Vampires are impotent, their hair falls out, their flesh withers and their lives revolve around the constant search for fresh blood. Theirs is a tragic story of doomed love – a kind of Undead Romeo and Juliette.
Hine: Landra and Vidal are the grandchildren of Hugo Pecos. Hugo opposed the closing down of the agency. Landra and Vidal lost their parents when they were very young and Hugo brought them up to be aware of the Undead threat. In fact he home-schooled them at his villa in the desert, training them in armed combat and the martial arts, as well as instilling them with an encyclopedic knowledge of the history and science of vampires and zombies. That preparation pays off when there’s an outbreak of a new super-strain of the zombie virus, and it turns out vampires are using the virus as a biological weapon. Landra is a natural warrior and jumps at the chance to join the newly reformed FVZA, while her younger brother is more reluctant. He misses having a normal teenage life and he’s bitter about the way their grandfather has robbed them of a childhood. Hugo is certainly obsessive but all his worst fears seem to be coming true as the vampire Mandrake sets out his agenda to turn the USA into a Vampire State with vampires taking control as the superior race.
Nrama: Considering that this story is part "alternate history," part black-ops, black-bag undead assassination, how do you prepare for such a wide breadth of possible stories? Did any of your past assignments help ease the way to FVZA? Could you walk us through what sorts of things you looked at to research for this book?
Hine: The web site is always my first port of call to check historical details and the science of how the diseases develop and spread. I’ve also done a lot of research on vampire mythology. This is something that already interested me. I introduced a race of vampires known as the Vrykolakas in the monthly Spawn comic. Vrykolakas comes from the ancient Greek myths of the Undead, but there are dozens of other variations from all corners of the globe. There are Sampiro and Kuzlak, Nachtzehrer, the Dearg-dul of Ireland. In Bulgaria the Krvoijac can only be killed by being chained to their graves with wild roses. I’d like to get into some of those other mythologies in the future. I already have plans for a second series set in Europe if this first series is a success.
The rest of the research is the nuts-and-bolts stuff of getting the settings and hardware right. If my characters are moving from one place to another I like to know how long it will take them to get there and what kind of terrain they’ll be traveling through. I haven’t traveled that much in the States but since most of my stories are set in North America I have a big map taped to my studio wall and a stack of travel guides and road maps. The internet is invaluable for visuals of things like the desert around Albuquerque, where Hugo Pecos is based.
Hine: Clearly the vampires are the big threat. They’re intellect doesn’t suffer from the virus. If anything, their brains become sharper. They may lose their moral compass as time passes and the hunger for blood becomes their over-riding obsession, but that just makes them more single-minded and dangerous. They are strong, they move fast and they are difficult to kill. A stake through the heart doesn’t work on our vampires, because their musculature is so highly developed that the muscle system actually works like a secondary heart, pumping blood through the veins even when the heart itself has failed. Incidentally that’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. There are cases of mountain villages where life-expectancy is increased partly because the constant walking up steep inclines has developed the skeletal-musculature to an extraordinary extent and does indeed help to keep the blood pumping.
Our zombies, on the other hand, don’t have much going for them. They are slow and their intellect rapidly deteriorates with the decay of the brain along with the other organs so you can always outrun a zombie. Their eyesight fails rapidly, hearing is impaired. However they do compensate by having a terrific sense of smell and they can sniff out a living human from several miles. They can also survive massive damage to their nervous system, their spines, even to the brain. There have been cases of zombies having three-quarter of their brain matter blown away and they still kept walking. Like vampires, their blood is pumped by muscular action and the blood itself is so viscous that they won’t bleed out no matter how badly wounded. And they have fantastically strong jaws. If they get their teeth into you, they are not going to let go.
Vampires can live indefinitely. One of our vampire characters has been around for over three hundred years. Zombies fall prey to all kinds of degenerative diseases and parasites. They are very lucky to last a year.
Nrama: Of course, you're not alone in this endeavor -- you have artist Roy Martinez and colorists Kinsun Loh and Jerry Choo depicting all the violence and gore. What's the back-and-forth been between you guys in terms of collaborating for this story? What do you think are everyone's strengths for this piece?
Hine: Roy is a terrifically talented storyteller. I’ve worked with him before at Marvel, on the Son of M series. I discovered that he has a particular interest in horror and zombies above all. You could almost say he empathizes with them. Roy’s drawing skills are fantastic and once Kinsun Loh and Jerry Choo have added their digital paints the result is heightened realism that a lot of people assume is photo based. In fact it’s purely down to Roy’s knowledge of the human figure and observation. His pencils are an absolute delight and I couldn’t be more pleased with the finishes that Kinsun has done. A lot of digital artist rely on the software without having the genuine drawing skills, but Kinsun and his studio are terrific artists in their own right.
I don’t have a lot of first-hand contact with the artists. Roy is in the Philippines and Kinsun in Malaysia. My scripts are very detailed so Roy has most of the information he needs. I see layouts from him and give my feedback before he goes to full pencils. I also give notes on the colors, but really these guys know exactly what they’re doing and don’t need too much guidance.
Nrama: Something else that's interesting about Radical is the fact that page counts are expanded past the typical 22-pager -- indeed, there's more than 40 pages in the first issue alone. How have you had to change your style to accommodate? Are there any advantages to the expanded format?
Hine: I think that’s 44 pages of story for issue #1 and we go up to 48 in Part 3. Issue #1 also has some extras. I think we have a 12-page preview of Rick Remender’s The Last Days of American Crime in there too for a price tag of $4.99. When I first pitched this it was planned to have that double-size first issue, then follow with four more 22-page issues, but the new policy was very welcome as far as I’m concerned. I’ve always found the 22-page comic far too restrictive. If you compare an issue of a comic to an episode of a TV show, one page of comics is pretty much comparable to one minute of screen time. Imagine Sopranos, Dexter, Mad Men or Dollhouse, broadcast as 22-minute shows. The result in comics is either excessively compressed stories, which I sometime find myself compelled to write, or a comic that is over and done in five minutes. Without that extra space there is no way I could have put all that backstory into the first fifteen pages of the first issue. I really wanted to explain the history and set-up of the concept and that wouldn’t have been possible with less space. 44 pages gave me time to set the stage and then get into the meat of the story. In subsequent episodes, I’ve had the space to let scenes breathe and develop. 44 pages seems like the natural length for a monthly comic and I can see other publishers gradually going for longer page counts too. Back in the old days, with pages crammed with dialogue and exposition you could tell a story in less time, but modern comics have brought a cinematic aspect to the page. Widescreen panels and decompressed action scenes need more pages.
Hine: I think probably the outbreak of zombieism at the Woodstock Festival, triggered by an infected Hell’s Angel. The FVZA moved in and canceled the festival just as Crosby Still Nash and Young were beginning their set, leading to a riot and the National Guard being called in to restore order. That alone would be worth a one-shot.
Nrama: Rock on. Finally, to wrap things up -- are there any moments you could tease that you are feeling particularly excited about? What would you say to anyone still on the fence for FVZA?
Hine: There are a few scenes that I’m particularly pleased with, especially those dealing with the relationships between the vampire lovers and the way the vampire Yaelis develops. She appears at the end of the first issue and we have a lot of surprises up our sleeves with her.
The there’s that zombie mom I mentioned, picking maggots out of her kids’ flesh. If you’re on the fence that should make you jump one way or the other…