Q&A: Comics vet Jeff McComsey talks “ULTIMATE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD”Books/Art/Culture,News Ken W. Hanley
To longtime lovers of horror comics, Jeff McComsey is a name known all too well. An acclaimed one-two punch of illustrator and writer, McComsey has become a staple of chilling graphic novels with his work on AMERICAN TERROR, FUBAR and now, Double Take’s ULTIMATE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. And with the latter series expanding upon George A. Romero’s seminal scare flick, McComsey spoke to FANGORIA about filling Romero’s shoes, recreating Barbra and Johnny, and in what disturbing direction ULTIMATE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD will twist history…
FANGORIA: How did you first get involved with ULTIMATE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD?
JEFF MCCOMSEY: Well, as far as I go, I had been working with Double Take on some of their comic properties initially. After we finished on those, they had mentioned that they were looking to develop a more substantial NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD universe, and since I had a background working in comics anyway, it happened naturally. Luckily, I was able to get in on the ground floor of this project.
FANGORIA: How important was the relationship between the 1968 film and this iteration of the story?
MCCOMSEY: Well, I would have to say it would be building on Johnny and Barbra’s story, which is the flagship story. That was the most important bridge between the comics and the film. The other issue was trying to stay accurate to the film, which is really interesting because it really only follows one night but there is so much established in terms of the timeline that we were able to go back and reference. So we really wanted to stay accurate to the timeline set up in the film.
FANGORIA: Should we expect ULTIMATE to retread the same material from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD or perhaps go somewhere completely different?
MCCOMSEY: Some of the stories really deal with the subject matter of the film while others not so much. There are some issues that deal with isolated families in various situations. But for the two issues that I wrote, the film was a very important starting point. One deals with Johnny and Barbra and what happens immediately after they’re attacked in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and the other issue, Z-MEN, deals with Washington’s response.
At the very end of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, what happens in Z-MEN is at least hinted at in some of the newscasts, like small scenes in Washington that we see. So Romero’s original film was important to my contributions, and it’s a kernel of something that we took and expanded upon,
FANGORIA: So, in that case, the comic series still takes place in the ‘60s, correct?
MCCOMSEY: The first arcs of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD are taking place alongside or directly after the 1968 film. So it all takes place in the ‘60s, and a lot of it takes place in the same place or at least the same town. We joked about calling it “MORNING OF THE LIVING DEAD” or “THE DAY AFTER NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD” for a few particular stories. So I think all of the stories, at least their first issues, take place in the ‘60s and primarily in Pennsylvania.
FANGORIA: Was it important that your story work in tandem with the other stories or was this a more loosely connected shared universe event?
MCCOMSEY: It was definitely made clear early on that Double Take wanted all the stories to jive together. It was important that it was to feel like this big, interconnected world in the same way Marvel is, so a lot of the stuff we did at the beginning was just making sure everyone was on the same page in terms of what happens to who and when things happen. So questions like “What time does the National Guard show up?” were answered pretty quickly for everyone so that it all jived and felt like a shared universe.
FANGORIA: How does your treatment of Barbra and Johnny in RISE differ from that of Romero in the ‘68 film?
MCCOMSEY: The interesting thing about the version of Barbra in the 1968 film is that she’s a pivotal character to the story but spends most of the film somewhat catatonic. She doesn’t really say much or do much, so one of the fun things to do was expand on her and Johnny, who is really on screen for 5 minutes at the beginning and then for 5 minutes at the end. So not only are they our lead characters, but they are also like blank slates.
So it was interesting to play with them and add to their personality, especially because most times in comics, when you have a male and female lead, they’re normally love interests. Here, they are brother and sister, so it was a completely different dynamic. It was a lot of fun to create these alternate versions of Johnny and Barbra and how they react to what they go through.
FANGORIA: With zombies now such an apparent part of pop culture, was there any pressure to “modernize” this version or make it more referential?
MCCOMSEY: Like you said, zombies are so ingrained in the zeitgeist that, on a practical level, it does a lot of our work for us. So we didn’t need to spend time retreading how to kill a zombie and how one becomes a zombie and things of that nature. Instead, we got to spend more time dealing with people’s reactions and how they deal with these zombies. So we got to do something different than the standard zombie chatter that people see over and over again in every movie and every book.
Even though we leave that stuff on the table, we did talk about how, down the road, we would want to turn that on its ear a little bit. I don’t want to give too much away, but what if these weren’t just “zombies”? What if they were something else, and this is just the first permutation of that? What if they are becoming something a little more interesting?
FANGORIA: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was also a product of its time; there’s a lot of social and political commentary underneath the scary stuff in the film. Will that be mirrored in ULTIMATE NOTLD?
MCCOMSEY: Out of the ten issue first run, the two stories that I wrote, RISE and Z-MEN, capitalizes on the metaphor of Vietnam that Romero had on his film. So, if anything, that aspect actually helped more. So with regards to what that war meant to [Romero], we specifically take aim at the war, especially in terms of Washington’s response to the zombies considering they’re getting bad information and are making decisions based on bits and pieces of what was coming out of the area. As far as the metaphor goes in those stories, I think so far, so good.
FANGORIA: You mentioned Z-MEN takes place in Washington; will all the Government figures be completely fictional or should be look forward to your take on real figures from that time period?
MCCOMSEY: We’re definitely pulling figures from history, and I’d like to feel that the characterizations are somewhat accurate. With LBJ, there’s so much stuff written and reported about him that I feel that I’m giving his character an accurate voice. But I also don’t want to let that get in the way of a good story, either, so they also have to be fun characters to write, too. But there’s so much to pull from regarding that administration that it’s easy to work in the fictional story angles into that.
FANGORIA: Has there been any talk about where ULTIMATE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD will be heading from here on out?
MCCOMSEY: I think right now, any characters that we haven’t killed off yet, we can assume they’ll make it into the future. I mean, any character who survives past issue #3 is going to be a pivotal character moving forward. Particularly, Z-MEN has been a lot of fun for me to write, so I’ve been talking to Double Take about how some of these characters will play a role down the road.
Everything is kind of under wraps, but you can assume that how the Government reacts to everything that has happened will eventually spiral out of control. It’s cool seeing how this thing that comes out of Pennsylvania will eventually alter American History in ULTIMATE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. As of now, the series isn’t quite in the “historical fiction” genre but after issue #3, it almost becomes something like historical science fiction, if that makes sense. That should be a lot of fun, and I think fans of the original film are going to enjoy it.
FANGORIA: Do you have anything else currently in development?
MCCOMSEY: Outside of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I’ve got FUBAR, which is a horror anthology, as well as MOTHER RUSSIA, which is my first stand-alone book about World War II Stanlingrad being defended against a zombie apocalypse. Aside from that, that’s about it; I’ve been neck-deep in zombies for the past few years.
All ten issues of ULTIMATE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD are now available on shelves and digitally via Double Take Comics.