Zombies, cowboys, and politics. What more could you ask for?
Moonstone’s Rotten has quickly earned a loyal following since it launched last year to raves from the likes of Ed Brubaker and Mark Waid. In the old West, William Wade has been dragged out of retirement by the U.S. government – “stop-loss,” they call it – to investigate a plague of the undead with J.J. Flynn. And things have gotten ugly so far – including a zombified girl whose family wouldn’t let her die and a fort full of troops who’ve posed zombie corpses in some…unflattering ways.
Getting some allegory here?
Co-creator Mark Rahner just caught up with us about his latest arc, “Survival of the Fittest,” which started in issue #7. If you haven’t read the series yet, don’t worry – you can catch up at www.rottencomics.com and check out the collection Rotten Vol.1: Reactivated for less than the cost of the back issues. So sit back as Rahner takes us through a new tale of brass kuckles, evolutionary controversy and a very, very familiar-looking zombie…Newsarama: Mark, how do you feel about the reaction to the book so far?
Mark Rahner: Critics have been even more generous than J. Howard Marshall to Anna Nicole Smith. Which conjures up an image more repulsive than anything in Rotten. Anyhow, we’ve gotten a lot of great reviews, but we still have to pound the pavement to get the word out to readers and retailers.
In this case, you, Zack, are the pavement. Newsarama called Rotten one of the best-kept secrets in comics, and we don’t want it to be a secret anymore, damn it.
Nrama: Come up with a clever one-liner to describe Rotten. "The Walking Deadwood" makes it sound like...something very, very inappropriate.
Rahner: How about: “It just keeps getting more unpleasant.”
Usually, “Zombies in the old West … hunted by secret agents” gets people’s attention right away. Then, when they read the book, they see there’s more to it than that, and bears scant resemblance to The Walking Dead, Deadwood or much else they’ve seen. It also gets people’s attention when I tell them, “Oh, you wouldn’t like it at all.”
Nrama: Tell our readers about your current arc.
Rahner: In “Revival of the Fittest,” Agent Wade is finally recovered from the injury he suffered at the end of the first issue. He’s decked himself out with a couple of new self-made weapons to fight the undead, he’s furious and ready to use them. He’s sent to investigate an outbreak in a Seattle logging community and quickly realizes he’s not as prepared as he thought.
What follows is brutal and grueling. I can’t wait for readers to get a load of the action we’ve cooked up in all three issues. Anyone bored with the same old shoot-‘em-in-the-head stuff is going to get some dead-wood. Ahem. You started that.
Anyhow, Agent Flynn goes to Chicago looking for answers about what are now clearly different species of undead, from a professor teaching a controversial new book by an English dude named Darwin.
Flynn agrees to protect the professor from death threats, as a hate-monger who bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain Fox News gasbag stirs up anti-evolution protestors who resemble Tea Party idiots. And a restaurant that specializes in sausage-making figures prominently – which is disturbing enough on its own.
Nrama: In your current arc, you deal with issues of mob rule and fundamentalism. What made you want to focus on these topics?
Rahner: They piss me off, because I’m rational.
A running gag of the series is the two agents seeing people acting like ignorant assclowns and taking comfort in the thought that a century in the future those problems will be gone because of learning and science. Ha!
Know-nothings and fanatics have an alarming amount of influence in America now, and we’ve become an embarrassingly anti-intellectual country to the rest of the civilized world.
Rotten’s hardly the first to use fantasy to satirize and comment on real-world stuff that horrifies us. But we hope to be the most objectionable.
Nrama: Wade's gotten to be quite a bad ass. How'd you devise his gear?
Rahner: I wanted it realistic and something a resourceful guy could either make or have made. No ridiculous steam-punk or Wild Wild West Jules Verne contraptions – although I love that show.
Nrama: I’m more of a Brisco County man myself.
Rahner: Wade’s taken a pair of brass knuckles from his Pinkerton detective years and had nasty spikes welded into them. He calls ‘em “knuckle bolts.” And he’s had a leather coat treated to be bite-resistant. He’ll rig himself with other weapons down the line, all crude and brutal.
I’m glad you also noticed that it took Wade up to the seventh issue to become the badass he is. We wanted his own evolution to be plausible, and not introduce him as some unbeatable Man with No Name cowboy cliché. In fact, he isn’t even a cowboy and he’s not crazy about the outdoors.
Nrama: Is that supposed to be a zombie Western Sarah Palin in issue #7?
Rahner: As a zombie, it’s smarter than Palin. But the resemblance is intentional. Andrew Sullivan posted a link on his Atlantic blog that said, “A comic book goes there.” Wade dispatches her in what readers will find a very satisfying way.
But attention lawyers: it is not named “Sarah Palin,” and satire is protected by the First Amendment. Violent, brutal, feel-good satire, with a line we hope gets repeated a lot.
Nrama: What of the mysterious fellow who's causing all this zombie-ness? His presence is being felt in this...
Rahner: Aubrey, the man an Indian woman referred to as the white man who brings death. He’s been an enigmatic presence at the undead outbreaks, and he kicked Wade’s ass pretty handily in the first issue. But the boys don’t have him even close to figured out.
To Flynn’s surprise, he turns up in Chicago looking for answers of his own. How Aubrey ultimately develops is going to be memorable, and not what you’d expect.
Nrama: You're packing a bit more story and action into each issue than your average comic. What are the challenges of writing this and working with an artist on it?
Rahner: Paying the artist is a challenge. It’s also been a challenge to cram the stories we want into the pages we have. There’s nothing I’d like more than to do an expanded version of “Revival of the Fittest,” and nobody’s even seen it yet!
Also, we’re sticklers for detail, from action choreography to period clothing, because we want everything in Rotten to ring authentic, aside from that one small matter of the living dead. Lots of research, lots of patience from Dan Dougherty as he depicts it all.
Nrama: What initially drew you to the era depicted in the book?
Rahner: There were some fun parallels to be drawn. Like Bush, Rutherford B. Hayes really did steal the presidency. And an Army vet stop-lossed back into service against his will made a compelling protagonist. It also seemed like a time that would help wipe the zombie slate clean and feel fresher.
People didn’t know much then, about germs or other science we take for granted today. They didn’t live as long. No mass media or instant communication. Took a long time just to get anywhere. Faced with a dead person reanimated and hungry, your average person in 1877 would promptly crap himself and wonder if it’s the apocalypse.
Nrama: You touch on some modern allegory, including stop-loss, right-to-life, Guantanamo, etc. Why did you take this approach, and what are the challenges in incorporating these elements into a horror/western?
Rahner: We wanted Rotten to be about something. We love zombie stuff, but too much of it’s just a band of survivors in a zombie apocalypse, and that’s not just tedious, it’s a waste that merits a spanking from George A. Romero.
Comics occasionally have individual issues devoted to Very Special Topics, but we wanted to take a stab at doing a comic that made controversies integral to the ongoing story.
If Rod Serling were alive, he’d never run out material now. Battlestar Galactica fans know all about looking at hot-button current subjects in a far-flung setting. The fun part is folding that into stories that that are scary and disturbing, so that if you don’t give a damn about that layer, you’re still in for an exciting ride.
Nrama: For that matter, what are the challenges in scripting a series where the antagonists, well, have no brains, they just prefer eating them?
Rahner: It’s always about the people. The zombies are never the real antagonists. Although ours have different manifestations – which may be heresy to some zombie purists – so they’re keeping everyone on their toes.
Nrama: What's your collaboration with Robert like on the writing?
Rahner: I slide a metal food dish into his cell every day, and if he does good work the dish contains less of the Special Ingredient the next time.
Horton brings a thoughtful, literate layer to the whole deal, and it’s just fun to write with him. We write Wade and Flynn more or less in our own voices. I’m the angry one with the filthy mouth. We take my laptop to a bar and hash out the plot over pitchers of beer.
This can require multiple trips to the bar, as we are both professionals who strive for thoroughness. Then we go our separate ways, I write Wade, he writes Flynn, then I translate Horton’s screenplay-style script – he’s a movie critic – into comic panels and pages.
Nrama: What's the strangest thing you've discovered in your research of this era?
Rahner: Researching cannibalism, we ran across one man who cooked and ate human flesh, and described it as tasting like veal. That may not be the strangest thing, but if I was already avoiding veal for ethical reasons, it didn’t help.
Nrama: How long do you see Rotten running?
Rahner: Until I get capped by an angry teabagger. Barring that, a finite run like Y or Preacher or Chew. It’s all plotted out to an ending, and the effect should be like a balls-out HBO series.
Nrama: Any interest from other media?
Rahner: I’m not making this up: some time ago, the company that made Queer Eye for the Straight Guy wanted to develop Rotten as a series. Maybe that would have involved Wade and Flynn critiquing how the zombies dress. We’ll never know.
Nrama: What else are you working on?
Rahner: I made a Rotten music video! Fever Ray gave me permission to use their haunting song, “Keep the Streets Empty For Me.” Go check out “Rotten – The Comic Book Music Video” on YouTube or on the main page at www.rottencomics.com. If you’re just diving into our repugnant world, it’ll give you a sense of the story so far.
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
Rahner: Help us spread the word! Please follow @rottencomics on Twitter and hit “like” for Rotten Comics on Facebook. It’s a guerilla operation and we can’t do it without fans and friends who’ll proudly tell people, “I’m Rotten.”
Get Rotten with Mark Rahner and friends in comic shops now, or from www.rottencomics.com.