Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead may be the talk of the town these days but it isn’t the only zombie comic book on the shelves. From Archaia Comics, Nick Tapalansky and Alex Eckman-Lawn’s Awakening stands out from the proverbial shambling horde by giving us something that’s certainly unique – Zombie Noir. And it just so happens that Volume Two is hitting stores this week.
“What I wanted to do was utilize the zombie backdrop in a meaningful and slowed down way, something which would allow the characters to first have to come to grips with what's happening, and then search for a cause and solution while the pressure slowly increased,” said Tapalansky, writer of Awakening. “It allowed us to get deep into these characters' heads to see where they were coming from, what they believed, and how issues from their pasts were impacting how they dealt with what was in front of them.”
Awakening centers around Private Investigator Derrick Peters, who stumbles upon strange happenings in the town of Park Falls. At first it’s just strange disappearances and murders but before long the entire town realizes something very dangerous is happening, but zombies? No way. Can’t be. “I worked pretty hard to choose some staples, present them, and debunk them in ways that the characters, and hopefully the readers, would have to evaluate as they came to some conclusions about what was happening in Park Falls,” said Tapalansky.
Volume One of the story takes place over five months, in Volume Two we see how the rest of the year plays out. “We left Derrick, and all of Park Falls really, sort of teetering on the brink, and in this volume, everyone gets shoved off,” says Eckman-Lawn, artist of Awakening.
“The investigation has, in a way, hit a bit of a wall. Coupled with that, the attacks have been on the increase, meaning that somehow, whatever's happening is spreading,” said Tapalansky, “Oh, and then there's Derrick's ex-partner Charlie, who's come back to Park Falls after successfully convincing a jury of his peers that he isn't guilty of a crime Derrick seems sure he committed.” Volume Two has the cast dealing with all the madness while also confronting some of their own sordid pasts.
As you can see, Awakening is a lot more than just zombies. Tapalansky explains why. “The inception of Awakening was two fold: First, it was a vehicle for me to explore some conflicts I was curious about, digging into a ground-level science versus religion conflict set against a noir background. Second, it was a response to the glut of zombie fiction which cropped up in the 2003 - 2004 season of books and movies, most of which were decent but, you know, cookie cutter.”
With all the media coverage of zombie stories recently, you’d think the comic had a leg up. Not so says Eckman-Lawn. “I actually feel like we've had to fight against people's zombiexhaustion.”
Tapalansky agrees. “I don't think they're quite what they were, largely because there’s probably been too much of it,” he said, “When talking to folks about the book at cons or signings, you could definitely see when people just switch off and stop listening after the word zombie slips out. And then you have to scramble with the ‘No no, this one's different!’ and hope you can bring them back around.”
“Though there were definitely a few who picked up the book as soon as they heard zombie,” said Eckman-Lawn, “It's our gift, our curse.” Tapalansky chimed in, “Nobody expects a zombie noir, existential horror, or the Spanish Inquisition. Little known fact.”
It’s obvious the Awakening creative team certainly have fun when they’re together (there were several moments during the interview that, while hilarious, weren’t fit for print), but they’ve also developed an excellent working relationship.
“Talking about the collaboration, I think we really did find the right balance where we both had our freedom to experiment but we both knew when the say to the other that something either was or wasn't working,” said Tapalansky, “For us, I think, we really make the most of having a creative partner and the book, now that it's done, is a product where we didn't just stick to our pre-set roles but, rather, worked together to make the best story we could.”
If you want an example of their jibing nature, when asked about Eckman-Lawn’s artistic process for Volume Two it was Tapalansky who answered first, “Well, typically Alex will bathe in the blood of a lamb, and then play really soft Kenny G to get in the mood.”
Eckman-Lawn’s real answer was, “My process was pretty crazy and rarely the same in Volume One. Sort of the opposite of a process actually. In Volume Two I feel like we hit a stride where I was able to work a bit more quickly and consistently but still fit in the little bits of experimentation and a few different approaches to suit each individual page.”
“I try to choose my technique based on what’s going on,” he continued, “There are a few flashbacks in Volume Two, and for those we went with fully digitally painted pages, with a more traditional pencil/digital painting combination for the present time stuff. There are some sections where I used more collage, lots of photos and paint.”
Similar to DVD releases, Archaia has a habit of adding a good amount of extras into their graphic novels. What can we expect to see in Awakening Volume Two?
“For us I think the most important thing was to include material which would either enhance the story or be interesting for folks who really want to know what went into making the book,” said Tapalansky. “We've got a short prose story which takes place throughout both volumes, a great guest pinup gallery, a making-of art section and the full script for the penultimate chapter, complete with supporting pencils. It's the sort of thing we, or at least I, really dig seeing when I'm loving a book. I want to know where it came from, you know?”
“Our readers should be excited to see some embarrassing concept drawings that I did in junior year of art school,” said Eckman-Lawn.
Still being relatively new to the comic scene, Tapalansky and Eckman-Lawn take inspiration from some established sources. “For artists, I love Dave McKean, Ashley Wood, Kent Williams, Phil Hale, Mike Mignola, all the guys you could have probably guessed but can’t deny are amazing,” said Eckman-Lawn.
“For me, I don't know. I mean, I know what I read and what I love, but I think it's harder for me to pin down specific influences,” said Tapalansky. “I started reading Stephen King way too early so I'm sure there's something dropped into my fractured psyche.” He also cites comic writers Brian K. Vaughan, Jeff Smith, Joe Kelly, James Robinson, and, depending on the story, Alan Moore. “I'm looking at you, Swamp Thing, my darling,” he said, “I don't know if they're readily visible in what I do, but I've learned a lot about tone and atmosphere, story structure, pacing, and scene breakdowns from those guys.”
Even though Awakening is over, the team has several more projects already out or on the way including a short story in Popgun Volume Four. “If you haven't had a chance to pick it up you should, Newsarama. There's like, 50 plus stories in there besides ours,” said Tapalansky, “And our short in Popgun is one of the stories which will be collected in our next book, a collection of interconnected shorts set in this world which, by the way, is based on a world Alex created in a short story he wrote in college.” You can read a preview of the Popgun short on his website.
They’ve also got a short in Archaia’s Moon Lake anthology and will also have a hand in the next Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard. “I'm pretty honored slash terrified to be included in that! We're going to be sharing pages with some really great talents,” said Eckman-Lawn.
Hopefully we won’t be seeing any zombie mice as the two men are definitely fans of the undead. They considered their favorite zombie films but eventually decided on their number ones. “Tough one! Shaun of the Dead is a cop out answer, but I love that movie,” said Eckman-Lawn. “Hands down, no question, Shaun of the Dead for me too,” said Tapalansky “[but] I have to give it up for The Serpent and the Rainbow. Bill Pullman plus voodoo zombies equals amazing. It's in math now, so you can't argue with me about it.”
Even though they’ll continue to work together, Awakening is complete for the two men. How does that feel? “It's weird, actually. I feel like I'm watching a good friend move away or something,” said Eckman-Lawn. “Yeah, that's a great analogy,” said Tapalansky, “I already miss these guys. It does feel pretty damn good though. We started working together in 2006, so it's been the better part of four years that we've been chomping to see this book out, with a big chunk of that time spent waiting.” Tapalansky is referencing the time Archaia spent restructuring their company a few years ago.
“I've been living with this book for four years and it's amazing to see it all finally come together. I'm super proud of what we've managed to do, but I am gonna miss the guy,” continued Eckman-Lawn. “It's funny, the whole time we were working on it I was really nervous because it was our first book,” added Tapalansky, “Now, looking at the finished product, I'm really, really excited for people to read it. Proud is definitely the right word.”
Read the entire first chapter of Awakening Vol. 2 for FREE by clicking right here, then pick up the full story in stores now!
Where else could zombies work?