Jeff McComsey Talks Ultimate Night of the Living Dead & the Zombie Genre

Zombies, man: They just keep coming, no matter what you do. The hordes of shambling dead are as popular today as they've ever been, largely thanks to the massive popularity and cultural ubiquity of AMC's adaptation of Robert Kirkman's longstanding comic book series The Walking Dead. Granted, the zombie genre tends to cycle through peaks and valleys of relevance every few years, of course, but that show's runaway success has wrought a handful of video game titles and the newly-aired spin off Fear the Walking Dead; on top of that, Cooties, the Elijah Wood-led kid zombie flick, hits theaters today as we roll closer to the Halloween season. Zombies aren't going away anytime soon, in other words.

If you need more proof of their staying power, just check out Double Take's ambitious and collaborative project, Ultimate Night of the Living Dead, a ten title property that brings together a slew of writers and artists to tell a range of stories in the George A. Romero zombieverse. The comics launched on September 18th, each covering different tales against the backdrop of the rising zombie outbreak in Romero's horror landmark Night of the Living Dead. It's a huge endeavor in scope, scale, and ideas.

Screen Rant was lucky enough to have the chance to talk to Jeff McComsey, one of the writers on board with the project since its early beginnings. McComsey has his name on two comics in Ultimate Night of the Living DeadZ-Men - in which two secret service agents head to Western Pennsylvania at the behest of the Oval Office to investigate a spree of mass murders - and, most of all, Rise, which follows the sibling duo of Romero's original masterwork, Johnny and Barbara, from a new perspective as they try to survive the night (of the living dead). McComsey had a lot to say about the comics themselves, his past comic book work with zombies, why zombies have stayed relevant in pop culture for decades, and why they'll remain that way for years to come:

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Let’s talk about the project, Ultimate Night of the Living Dead. That’s a pretty huge undertaking, with a number of different artists and writers, and I was curious what led you guys together to collaborate on this?

Initially, Double Take was created to make comics, and I had been brought on very early on - I think the middle of last year - to work on a few of the properties they were considering developing at the time. Those didn’t quite work out and they decided that they wanted to do an expansive Night of the Living Dead relaunch, and I was just lucky enough to be there when they decided to that right from the beginning.

It’s also coming out at a time when The Walking Dead is coming back, and Fear the Walking Dead is making some waves. Is this meant to be that timely? It’s shown up right at the right time.

Well, you know, I’ve done some other zombie projects in the past, what, five or six years? It seems that these cycles are constantly happening. I think it’s luck, you know what I mean? Like, The Walking Dead has been, and probably will remain for another few years, a pretty big cultural thing, regardless, so every time it comes back around, it’s a good time to get involved. But I think it was just a happy accident, that we’re launching right now kind of at the peak of it.

Gotcha. Yeah, it’s funny, every time it seems like the zombie genre is dying off, something happens to reinvigorate it, which I guess is appropriate. You can’t stop zombies in zombie media, and you can’t stop zombie media, either. Do you ever see the well, so to speak, drying out on these creatures? Are we that fascinated with them that we’ll just keep telling zombie stories for as long as we can?

You know, I think - to me at least, as a fan of the media - there’s just something visceral about zombies, and while they don’t change, we do, you know? For instance, when I first started watching zombie stuff, you have your initial reaction of, like, “Oh man, how would I survive, what would I do, would I make it?” And as I get older, I have kids now, and one of the things I think is most visceral and effective about The Walking Dead is that it now becomes, “Well, how will I protect my children in a zombie apocalypse?”

So they can remain they same whereas I think we change, and it begins to mean different things to us. I imagine that when I become an older man, if I get there, that I’ll wonder about the zombie apocalypse in terms of, “What kind of world are we leaving behind us?” So while it doesn’t change, we kind of do, and I think that helps keep it fresh and that’s why I think it’s able to reinvent itself every two years.

We’re just one issue into each of these titles so far. What sort of questions do you hope to tackle later on as Rise and Z-Men go forward? Are there other ideas that you personally had in mind when writing them?

For Z-Men definitely, the fun in that title, for instance - I love historical fiction, and I love the opportunity, number one, to put these characters in 1966 Pennsylvania, and I also get to write from the Oval Office point of view. So it’s a lot of fun to put words in the president’s mouth. You don’t get to do that very often, I suppose.

But with Rise, I guess it’s a little more visceral in the respect that, while we won’t be initially asking those kinds of questions, we sitll put them in kind of a survival instinct, and right now I think that the characters are in that first permutation, you know, “Will I survive this? How will I get out of this? But the legacy, and things like that, those are things that we want to deal with as we move into the second miniseries for the stories.

Speaking of legacy, did you find it intimidating at all to take a cultural touchstone like Night of the Living Dead and put your own stamp on it? That movie is about as iconic as zombie fare gets.

Right, absolutely, absolutely. With me, I’m happier to have it as kind of a Rosetta stone for ideas. Of course, I am m curious how people will receive it once it’s all out there, but as a writer, I’m just happy that we have such a strong source material to pull from. It creates a bunch of different opportunities for us. And I’m a big fan of the film. Not to take away the fact that it’s the iconic first zombie movie, but I love the fact that you have an independent person who does an independent project, and I love what George Romero was able to do with so little. You know, I mean, the budget and different concerns that he had to deal with, he took what little assests he had and made a fantastic movie out of it. So for that reason, to me, it’s a huge success, and like I said, just, you know, pulling morsels from that has made this whole job a lot easier. I’d like to think that people who are big fans of the film will enjoy the comics.

I think it’s very interesting to see the new perspective on what we know of what happened with Barbara and Johnny in the original movie. I don’t want to give anything away for the readers, and of course we’re only one issue into each of them. The thing I think is really neat is that this is sort of the inverse of what AMC has done with The Walking Dead. They took a comic book and turned it into television, and now we’re seeing this project, which is taking a movie and translating it into a comic book, into a whole other medium. What are the challenges of going from one medium to the other, from a medium like film to the page?

One thing that I deal with often is how viscerally important sound is when you’re watching a film and hearing a character’s voice. You obviously don’t get that in comics, but you have an opportunity to rely a little more on showing than telling. So, for instance, with Johnny when he wakes up in our book, we try to travel along with him, but it’s more or less wordless for a few pages while we kind of travel along with Johnny, and we see what he sees. That’s also cool, because you have so many more opportunities because it’s a comic, and we have ten issues we can tell these little nuance parts that we didn’t get in the film, like what the heck happened to Johnny between when he woke up and when he grabs Barbara at the end of the movie. We get to kind of fill in those blanks a little bit.

It definitely creates a lot more opportunities, where with film, everything is so plot dependent. You have to move everything from here to here to here to keep everything on track, because you’ve only got eighty minutes, two hours at the most. So we can expand a little bit more and take our time with comics, which is really cool.

Yeah, and that’s also the advantage that something of, not to beat a dead horse, something like The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, too. I found it really fascinating, there’s a softness to the artwork both of the titles, especially Rise. I know you’re the writer, but you collaborated with the artists, and I wondered if they really tried to give it that soft touch, and if so, what the reasoning behind it was. I thought it was really effective.

Definitely. Well, I mean, it’s not that it’s soft subject matter per se when it starts out. It’s still your zombie apocalypse stuff more or less. But it’s something that we wanted to have so as the title moves forward and things get a little darker than where they are now, then we can kind of reinforce that with the art and the color. The stuff that we got back, we’re very, very excited about. I’m also an artist, so I’m excited, too, from a technical standpoint because they did a great job.

It all looks really lovely, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the art evolves from here as the series go forward. I’ve asked you about the intimidation factor of tackling Romero, and the challenge of going from film to comics, but what are the other major challenges you have telling a story like this, especially when zombies are so popular right now? What are the big things you’re hoping to achieve?

One challenge we had, because this is one of ten number ones coming out through this world, was not just to keep everything organized - which is a concern - but to make sure that in doing so, we don’t waste opportunities to have things cross over in little ways. So on one hand, it’s an organizational thing, and Double Take has been really good about keeping the story viable, about what happens when, who’s where, and who are backup characters at the hospital that our other characters can bump into if they end up in the hospital. Those are definitely big assets moving forward.

And you know, there are a lot of other interesting things to go into. I think just also, having somebody, like [Double Take GM] Bill Jemas, who has handled expanded universes, is important. Because I know early on - I was there from the beginning, so I kind of started with my two stories, and as other writers came on board I fleshed it out. It never really got out of control as these things usually do. So that’s one thing.

The other thing is too, like...Johnny and Barbara as characters really aren’t that fleshed out in Night of the Living Dead. I mean, Johnny is on screen for maybe five minutes, and Barbara is kind of out of her mind for most of the film. On the one hand, yes, they’re very well known. On the other hand, there’s a lot of opportunity there to inject personality into these characters. They’re brother and sister, which is an interesting dynamic you don’t really see often in film. Normally it’s a love interest type scenario between the male and female co-stars. So the fact that they’re brother and sister created a lot of fun stuff, picking on each other, things like that.

I’m looking forward to seeing that more as the comics keep coming out. Talking about the zombies themselves, the behavior, what we can expect from them...I thought, not to spoil one of the more fun moments in Rise, I kind of like the fact that they’re distracting zombies with candy. That’s not something you usually see. I’m hoping we can expect more tweaks like that.

Definitely, definitely. And their behavior, and their personality, and the evolution of the zombies themselves are going to be a lot of fun, because a lot of it deals with our reaction to seeing them. One of the things we’re gonna play with is the fact that they’re also reacting to how we react to them, if that makes sense. You know what I mean? So when we attack them, they attack us, and the more we think about it, the more we realize that the behavior has a purpose. It makes things a little scarier.

That sounds really cool. I’m looking forward to it. I know you’ve worked on other zombie titles before - what are you doing to differentiate your work on those, Jesus Hates Zombies and, I believe, Fubar, or am I putting my foot in my mouth?

No, that’s right. Jesus Hates Zombies was quite some time ago, but Fubar, I’m the publisher and editor in chief on that one. For me, with Fubar, because that’s really been the big overarching project I’ve been working on the last couple of years, is different because it’s a historical anthology, a collection of short stories from a bunch of different writers and artists. So aside from the theme of that particular volume, which is, you know, it’s a fun subject - there was World War 2, and then American history, and then world history - that series, to me, was about more collaborating with a bunch of different artists and writers, who are friends of mine. It’s also about helping people get their work out there. So aside from the subject matter, there’s a bunch of other stuff that goes into it that makes it fun for me. I love World War 2 comics. My favorite comics are old school black and white World War 2 books. So that was an opportunity there, to inject zombies into it, have some fun, and also make it kind of viable in a modern market, which is a thing that black and white World War 2 comics kind of aren’t at the moment, or at least when that book came out.

But a lot of it, with the stuff that we’ve done with Double Take, that’s a different kind of collaboration but it’s a fun kind. It’s something that we never really did in Fubar. We had some stories that had threads that connected, but nothing in terms of being close to what we’re doing with the Double Take stuff. A lot of it to me, what keeps it fresh, is just the opportunity to do different collaborations.


The first ten issues of Ultimate Night of the Living Dead are now available for purchasing.

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