What do you get when you combine the teen drama of a John Hughes movie with the terror of George Romero? Jason Martin, Bill McKay, andNight of the ‘80s Undead are out to answer just that question. The zombie comedy set in the decade of Ronald Reagan, Pac-Man, and slap bracelets blends the two genres and has a great time doing it. We spoke to series writer Jason Martin about the series, the genres involved, and the ‘80s in general.
————————————- Joe Grunenwald: Jason, you answered a lot of the easy-to-anticipate questions already in the excellent text piece in the back of the first issue – questions like ‘Why zombies,’ ‘Why the ‘80s’ – and you talk a little bit about choosing to embrace the zombie phenomenon. What do you think makes your take on zombies different from all of the others that are out there?
Jason Martin: Well, I think the concept of setting it in the 1980s but it being written from the perspective of today kind of makes it unique. It’s very much crafted or written to be like a genre movie from the ‘80s. Y’know, the story could literally be something that you would see from a 1980s VHS horror or genre film, but if it was created by somebody who had traveled back in time to do it, or forward and then back in time to have a different perspective on things. It really looks at horror genre schlock but it also blends John Hughes ‘80s rom-com story elements and certainly ‘80s action movie themes or situations.
JG: Yeah, you’ve got your Russian villains in there and you’ve got your heavy cocaine use.
JM: Yeah, and that there itself is a bit different. I’m not sure that I’ve seen a zombie story where the outbreak is based around cocaine.
JG: There are a lot of familiar faces in the book – a lot of celebrities make appearances. Do you think there’s a benefit to including recognizable celebrities?
JM: Yeah, all the names have been changed to protect the innocent, but I think it helps ground the story in the time that it’s set and also amps up the fun, comedic tone of everything. It’s definitely a horror comedy, it’s not straight-up horror. And like I said it’s got action and other elements to it, too. So I think that all just enhances that. And, to me, it just seemed, coming up with the concepts, it just seemed like a natural fit. To think of Night of the ‘80s Undead, you would just kind of visualize zombified ‘80s pop icons.
See how many celebrities you can name! Page 4 of Night of the ’80s Undead #1. Pencils/inks by Bill McKay. Colors by Jason Martin.
JG: Why did you black out their names?
JM: It’s just another little element to all of the in-joking and fun that’s being had.
JG: I didn’t know if there was any legal aspect to that.
JM: (laughs) Yeah, we got the book to the legal department and they redacted all the names.
JG: Music is a big part of the book. You’ve got a soundtrack in there that readers can listen to for free on Spotify, which I think is a really cool little addition. What do you think that adds to the series?
JM: Well, like you said, I just thought it was a cool little addition. I think it adds another level to it. Y’know, a lot of creators will add playlists or soundtracks to books and I just thought, y’know, when I was writing it I had certain songs in mind, and I just thought with the ability to actually create a playlist that I can share with the new streaming services like Spotify, that it’s just an easy, no-brainer addition to everything.
JG: I don’t know that it’s something that I’d ever seen before. I’ve seen comics with a list of the songs the creators were listening to when they were working on it but I’ve never seen an actual soundtrack for a comic. How did you pick the songs for it?
JM: Well, first, I don’t want to take credit for being the first to do that. I’ve seen other creators do that, like Rob Schrab for Scud the Disposable Assassin used to put soundtracks to each issue in all of his books.
But in terms of choosing the songs, I had, like I said, a few songs that I had in mind when I was working on the book, and it just kind of evolved from there. There was a series of mix tapes that I got in the ‘80s that had a lot of the alternative dance music of 1986-’87. There were a lot of big songs on those that were never on the radio of MTV or anywhere, and I just thought that they were songs that stood the test of time and that would make a good soundtrack. And also, I always – to me, I love comics and pop culture and movies, and a big part of movies is the soundtrack that can often be ignored either through the score or through the music that’s placed in the movie. So it’s just something that I kind of geek out on.
JG: Do you personally hear music while you’re reading comics?
JM: No, I mean, I read a lot of books but I couldn’t say that I hear a soundtrack when I’m reading other people’s comics. I certainly can have music on when I’m working or writing or drawing, I can certainly have music in my head.
JG: What kind of music do you listen to while you’re working?
JM: I mentioned Spotify, and since I’ve gotten that it’s just tripping through all the different artists that I’m exploring on there. It’s mostly alternative, electronic, rock, that kind of wheelhouse.
JG: Any recommendations?
JM: (laughs) Y’know, there’s a lot of good stuff out there. I really like, let’s see, a couple standouts. Tame Impala’s really good….yeah, there’s a lot of good stuff out there.
JG: Didn’t mean to put you on the spot.
JM: I’m terrible, I listen to so much and read so much and watch so much, I’m terrible at recalling anything but the last thing.
JG: Music and comics have become very intertwined recently, it seems, a lot moreso than they had been in the past. Why do you think that is? Is there just something about it that lends itself either way?
JM: Yeah, I don’t know, maybe with the movement of media to online and digital it’s kind of changed some things to where those can be incorporated more. But I think also that comics are kind of like music. They’re something that people discover and get passionate about and enjoy, and it’s kind of a creative outlet whether it’s just turning your brain off and being entertained or being active and creating stuff. They’re similar in those regards.
JG: Obviously the ‘80s are a big part of the series. It seems that we’re living through something of an ‘80s renaissance. A lot of the stuff from back then has made a resurgence, at least I’m thinking of a lot of cartoons, mostly. And it’s clear that you have a great love for the ‘80s that comes through in the series. What’s your favorite piece of obscure ‘80s ephemera?
JM: Well, like you mentioned, on the back page of the book, I talk about different genre movies of the ‘80s, and I think in terms of related to this it would have to beReturn of the Living Dead, the movie from 1985, one of my favorite zombie movies and one of my favorite genre movies. That’s just great. And there’s a whole list that I put in the book of other movies like that.
Another one, unrelated, would be Thundarr the Barbarian, the cartoon. I watched a couple episodes of that last year with some friends after a comic show, and it was just a trip to revisit those cartoons through adult eyes, because there’s some really bizarre stuff there.
JG: How does it hold up?
JM: It was great, I mean it’s still fun to watch, and Steve Gerber was one of the head writers on that, and Jack Kirby did some of the designs, so there was some certifiable talent doing things that weren’t necessarily, y’know it was clearly made for kids, but there was some bizarre, other-level stuff going on in that, too.
JG: I didn’t know that it had that pedigree, that’s great.
JM: Yeah, actually, I was always a big fan of Gerber’s comics, especially Howard the Duck, and then when he passed, in reading about him, I hadn’t realized that he was involved with that, either, and I was surprised because it was a favorite as a kid when it was airing.
JG: It seems like a lot of stuff from the ‘80s has had staying power – stuff like Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, a lot of the music and other pieces of pop culture from back then. How do you think that pop culture from the ‘80s has changed the pop culture that’s being produced now? What effect has it had?
JM: I think it’s a big one, because certainly, as you mentioned, it was sort of a golden era for blockbuster movies with Lucas and Spielberg, etc. And then you’ve got a generation now that are getting into media, directors and writers and such, that were inspired by all of that, people like JJ Abrams, people coming into power in Hollywood and entertainment that are directly inspired by all of the same kind of things that Generation X like I am grew up on. I think that has a big part in it. There were just so many touchstone popular films in that era.
JG: Do you think the cocaine use is going to make a return?
JM: Well, y’know, I wouldn’t know, I’m out of the loop on that. For all I know it has.
JG: You seem pretty knowledgeable in the comic.
JM: (laughs) I’m just making it up as I go. I can’t speak for the artist. Bill McKay is the artist, he’s the one that’s tasked with drawing all of the madness that I’m writing up for this series and we’re just having fun with a cartoon representation of ‘80s excess.
JG: How do you guys work? Is it a full-script thing or do you guys plot it together and go from there?
JM: It’s a full-script thing. I’m an artist myself, so I did a comic series, Super Real, a couple years ago, but as I was finishing that I had been coming up with ideas for other stories and I had started meeting lots of other artists and collaborating with other artists, so I’m branching out and collaborating more with other artists just to get more ideas created. Because I’m an artist it’s hard for me to do anything but a full script to where I’m kind of micromanaging every aspect of the page, and then with Bill I’ve tried to ease up a little bit and give him more freedom to do what he wants. But I certainly give him a full script and then he can go in and change some things to his tastes as well.
JG: Is this the first book that you’ve done with another artist?
JM: Yeah, this is the first one that’s fully released. I have a concept called Pulp Girls, which is a collection of grindhouse cinema-inspired female characters and there’s numbers of concepts for that that I have done and collaborated with quite a few artists on. Still working to officially release that.
And then I also did, on the book Super Real, it was a seven-issue series and I mentioned I did everything myself on that, but there were two special issues in the middle of the run where I collaborated with other artists. It was written by me and then each issue had a featured artist. One was Josh Howard, the other one was Jim Mahfood, and then a bunch of other cool artists as well.
JG: Night of the ‘80s Undead is a three-issue miniseries. I know you don’t want to give the ending away but is there any chance for more beyond the three issues?
JM: Yeah, certainly. The nice thing about this concept is, and it’s kind of similar to what I did with Super Real and my other concepts, is that it works on its own, it’s a self-contained story, but it’s open-ended to where there’s other stories to be told in that world and with those characters. Y’know, it could go in a number of directions. So yeah, without giving anything away, there could certainly be more. There could be sequels, not necessarily continuations of the story that we have here or characters, without giving anything away, but anything’s fair game. Characters or story elements could carry forward. But just by the name of it, it’s Night of the ‘80s Undead, so we could have Return of the ‘80s Undead or Night of the ‘90s Undead, etc, etc. It’s so much fun to explore the ‘80s, well enough time has passed where people are now nostalgic for the ‘90s as well, so that decade’s ripe for its own stories as well.
JG: Do you have any final push that you want to make to get a reader that’s on-the-fence to check out the book?
JM: I just would say that if you’re a fan of zombies, horror or genre movies, or fun comic books that entertain first and are just something that hook you and excite you, that are visually exciting, then check out the book. Like you said, the first issue’s out now, and people can get their comic shops to order it if they don’t have it on the racks. It’ll also be releasing digitally on Comixology, and then ComixPlus and other digital outlets as well, so you can get it digitally. It’ll also be on ActionLabComics.com, the Action Lab website. It’s part of the Action Lab Danger Zone imprint. Check it out!
————————————- Night of the ‘80s Undead #1 is currently in-stores and on Comixology.com. Issue 2 has a release date of August 28th.