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Marvel Zombies

Marvel Zombies Q&A: Jonathan Maberry

Wolverine feels the pain and does it anyway, with a little help from the famed zombie novelist!

By Jim Beard

Wolverine, martial arts, zombies and super hero action—sounds like a winning combination, right?

There’s only one writer who packs the literary muscle to hold such a tale together and make it one of the most intriguing Logan sagas ever, and that’s novelist Jonathan Maberry. The story appears in MARVEL ZOMBIES #3 this September 16 and you’ve got to see it to believe it: Wolverine fending off the walking dead in Japan is a sinister sight to behold.

Maberry’s the award-winning writer of such dark and foreboding novels as “Ghost Road Blues,” “Dead Man’s Song,” “Bad Moon Rising” and of course, his zombie epic, “Patient Zero.” That’s the one that won him the amazing approval of the House of Ideas and led him to his comic book debut in the recent WOLVERINE: THE ANNIVERSARY. Only logical that this 8th level black belt holder would then be asked to take the mighty mutant scrapper to the next level—down, that is. Down into the grave.

We caught up with Maberry and threw a few questions his way concerning his past, present and future. He threw a few answers—and a few judo chops—back at us.

Marvel.com: You’ve got such a rich background, Jonathan; how did your interest in zombies originally come about?

Maberry: Geez…set the WayBack Machine. I was sitting in the balcony of the Midway Theater on October 2, 1968 when “Night of the Living Dead” premiered. I was alone in the balcony and the film scared the bejeezus out of me. So…I sat through it twice because that’s the kind of warped little kid I was.

Romero messed with my head.  I’d been through the Universal and Hammer horror flicks, but I’d seen Van Helsing kick so much undead ass that I was already losing my fear of vampires. Mummies were kinda lame. And werewolves could only get you a couple of days a year. But the living dead? Holy crap! There were uncountable numbers of them, and they frigging ate you. I was ten. I was marked. I was hooked.

Since then I think I’ve seen every zombie flick and read every zombie story that anyone’s ever done.  I loved John R. Russo’s 1979 novel “Return of the Living Dead” - no relation to the Dan O’Bannon movie. It was a direct sequel to “Night of the Living Dead,” published before “Dawn of the Dead” was filmed. It was a scary book.

I also love the anthologies by John Skipp and Craig Spector, “The Book of the Dead and “Still Dead.”  Those anthologies probably did more to legitimize zombies as a valid and workable character for fiction than anyone before or since. They brought in guys like Stephen King, Joe Lansdale, Dan Simmons, Ramsey Campbell and a bunch of others to tell deeply imaginative and highly intelligent stories about zombies, while at the same time managing to retain all of the elements of horror. I’ve worn out several copies of those books. Certainly they’ve influenced my own writing, and I’ve written a bunch of zombie projects. Pardon the pun, but there’s a whole lot of life in the zombie storytelling paradigm.

Marvel.com: Wow! Okay, how about Mighty Marvel itself? What’s your introduction to the Marvel Universe?

Maberry: November 1967, I was nine years old and walked into a seedy little magazine shop in Philly and saw the cover of FANTASTIC FOUR #68. It was the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby story, "His Mission: Destroy the Fantastic Four!" I dropped my twelve cents and walked out with it. I read it standing on the street outside the store. Then I turned around and went back inside and bought AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #54, AVENGERS #46, THOR #146, and X-MEN #38...and also FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #5—which is as far as my allowance would stretch. I read them each a dozen times over the next week.
The thing that hit me then and sticks with me now is that the characters were human. Sure, they were super heroes, Norse gods, mutants, whatever…but at the end of the day the FF were a family sitting around shooting the breeze as real people. Spidey and the X-Men were troubled teens. The Avengers bickered like my own family. This was real life, and I could RELATE. I think that was the first time I felt that someone out there understood my experience because he was having a similar experience. That bonded me to the characters and it made me a lifelong Marvel fan.

Marvel.com: Then we can assume you were kind of happy when the MARVEL ZOMBIES RETURN project was offered to you?

Maberry: I did the Snoopy dance. Well…almost. I’m a huge fan of the entire Marvel Zombies run, and even before I started writing for Marvel I remember telling a friend that I’d kill to write a story for Marvel Zombies. I’d love to do a full limited series at some point if the opportunity ever presents itself.

Marvel.com: So, getting down to MARVEL ZOMBIES RETURNSWolverine's a mutant, obviously, but how does he shoulder both that and being a zombie in your story? Are the two "conditions" similar in their effect on him or vastly different?

Maberry: Zombie Wolverine is similar to normal Wolverine in a lot of ways. He’s still a killer, he’s still a warrior, and he’s still damaged enough psychologically to need to establish and reinforce the fact that he’s the best he is at what he does. Sure, he’s won thousands of battles, but there’s an old saying in war that you’re only as good as your last battle. Wolverine always needs to prove himself, whether he’s aware of it or not. Is there a bit of the Napoleon complex in there? Sure. So…zombie Wolverine needs to prove to himself that he hasn’t lost the qualities that made him Wolverine in the first place. Plus, he’s up against the real Wolverine, so who better to use as a litmus test to see if he really is the best.

Marvel.com: How would you compare and contrast Zombie Wolverine with your “Patient Zero” character Joe Ledger? What makes them both tick?

Maberry: They’re both damaged goods, but both of them know it and have found ways to use their damage as weapons. In “Patient Zero” I explore how Joe Ledger became a fractured person through personal tragedy; and in the second Joe Ledger novel, “The Dragon Factory” there’s a line that pretty much says it all: “What do you do when they turn out all your lights?  For my part, I learned to use the darkness.”

Wolverine’s life has been nothing but heartache, betrayal and loss. If he was not willing or able to take those forces and use them to refashion his own psyche, then he’d be dead meat, healing factor or not. Joe is the same. It’s a quality I admire, and one—from some of my own life experiences—to which I can readily relate. On the other hand, both Joe and Wolverine are aware that they are not exactly the people others think they are, so there’s a bit of self-effacement about them. That can be funny, and it can be insightful.

Marvel.com:  Looking at Zombie Wolverine as he’s appeared in the first few Marvel Zombies epics, what strikes you the most about the character as written? What’s memorable?

Maberry: He’s become “refined” in a way. His nobility has been stripped away, leaving only his aggression and appetite. Without moral restraints, Zombie Wolverine would probably have destroyed the whole world all by himself. With or without cosmic power. He’s become a pure eating machine. 

Marvel.com: What part does MARVEL ZOMBIES RETURN #3 play in the overall limited series?

Maberry: It’s a pivotal story because it also deals with Zombie Spider-Man’s agenda, which is at odds with Zombie Wolverine’s. Spidey wrestles with some pretty intense personal demons in the story, and we get a glimpse of the price he’s had to pay to try and control the unrelenting need to feed. That impacts the whole series, but to say more right now would be to give spoilers—and I’d rather be eaten by zoms than spoil the fun!

Marvel.com: We can imagine that a writer like you who invests so much of himself in both his prose and comics projects might have some insight into the differences between the two…

Maberry: Comics are more like movie-making. I have a background in art and a very strong background in theater. I’ve done stage and video work, so I understand the importance of visual storytelling. When writing prose it helps me select the images I will then describe; but in comics I get to share the visual aspect with the artist, and that allows me to be able to tell a more complex story with fewer words.
It’s also fun to be part of a creative team. When writing a novel you spend months essentially in solitary confinement, sharing your ideas with yourself before finally bringing a huge mass of words to the editor. With comics you go through the story pitch, the beat sheet—outline—the rough draft and then edits. There’s a lot more inclusion of other points of view along the way. I like the collaborative process in comics. 

One other really fun thing about comics is that the whole process is fast. A novel can take a couple of years from first word to bookshelf. A comic is much, much faster, and you get to see it grow through the stages of script, rough pencils, finished pencils, inks, color, lettering and then print. You stay involved all the way through and you never truly leave the book until it goes to the printer, and even then it’s on the shelves pretty quickly.

Marvel.com: And lastly, but certainly not least, what’s it like working with your MARVEL ZOMBIES RETURNS artist, Jason Shawn Alexander?

Maberry: Jason is a crazy man. He “gets” the weird, visceral, disgusting, and violent aspects of zombies almost too well. I love it! I’ve seen a little more than half of the finished art for the book so far and it blows me away. It’s not how I imagined it, but that’s okay because he took it to the next level and gave it a truly creepy spin that is unique to the project. He’s also managed to infuse the characters with tragedy, black humor and real personality. Outstanding stuff.

Now that I’ve seen his art for the book, I can’t imagine anyone doing it any other way. I guess that’s part of the magic of the comic book process. I’m hooked.

Marvel.com: And you’ve hooked us with your enthusiasm for the project, Jonathan. We’ll be looking for MARVEL ZOMBIES RETURN #3 on September 16and we’re gravely serious about that!


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