Today saw the release of the Graveyard of Empires trade paperback, collecting the popular zombie mini-series from Mark Sable and Paul Azaceta. We recently had a chance to talk with the two of them, and learned about the research that went into the story, the reaction the book received from the military community, and the possibility of a Graveyard of Empires movie:
About Graveyard of Empires: "Afghanistan. U.S. Marines face a never-ending onslaught of Taliban. But even hell can get worse. The dead are coming back to life in The Graveyard of Empires, and only together can both sides of the today's conflict survive tomorrow's undead assault. Writer MARK SABLE (Unthinkable, Two-Face Year One) reunites with his GROUNDED co-creator, PAUL AZACETA (Amazing Spider-Man) to tell this critically claimed, controversial tale of terror. Featuring an all-new story created by Paul Azaceta in his comics writing debut!"
Thanks for taking the time to talk with Daily Dead. Can you tell our readers about yourselves and your work in the comic book industry?
Mark: Thank you! For readers that aren't familiar with me, I've done a good amount of work for DC like Batman: Two-Face Year One, Supergirl and Teen Titans and Marvel's "What If?" But I'm mostly known for the creator owned work I've done with Image Comics in general and with Paul Azaceta in particular, starting with our take on teen super-heroes with GROUNDED back in 2005, and most recently with GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES, our most recent collaboration.
Paul: I've been jumping around on a bunch of different title over my career. Most people probably know me from Amazing Spider-man, B.P.R.D. 1946, Punisher Noir and recently X-Men. I've also laos done Northalnders from Vertigo and am currently in the middle of a stint on Conan with Brian Wood.
Although the original George Romero "Dead" movies had a political/social message, many modern zombie movies have done away with that. Did the idea for Graveyard of Empires come from a desire to tell a zombie or a political story first?
Mark: It was always both. The genesis of the idea centered around the idea that the Necronomicon - the evil of book reanimation - at the center of both H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos and Sam Raimi's Evil Dead was written in the Middle East. When I saw that museums were being looted in the opening of the Iraq war, I wondered what would happen if insurgents got their hands on it and started creating undead suicide bombers.
By the time I pitched the story to Paul, the war in Iraq was winding down and we thought a book set in Afghanistan would be more relevant. As much as I love shooting zombies in Call of Duty, I felt there needed to be both a logical and a metaphorical reason for Marines to be fighting zombies in Afghanistan.
The logical reason became the title for the book. GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES refers to the idea that from Alexander the Great to The Soviet Union, empires that have attempted to conquer Afghanistan have not only failed - their failure played a role in bringing about their demise, earning the land its nickname. All those wars also meant Afghanistan is the worst possible place to be if the dead started to rise...you've got literally millennia of war dead from almost every nation on earth.
As for the metaphor...we came across something in our research called "insurgent math". It's a counter-insurgency theory that basically states that if you kill one insurgent, you'll create ten more because you've pissed off his family and friends. It seemed to me that in a world where the dead are coming back to life, you'd face a similar dilemma. Every time you killed one of your enemies, he'd come back as a zombie who could infect more undead than you could possibly kill. That's the dilemma at the heart of the War on Terror.
Still, if it works right, you should be able to enjoy the story on a visceral level with all the above going on in the background. The last thing we want to do is to lecture or preach at anyone.
Paul: Exactly. We never wanted to just make a statement. As much as we wanted to bring some light on the current situation in Afghanistan we knew it was still a comic and had to be fun. So by wrapping it all in a genre we thought it was away in for readers and a way to point to these events without getting on a soapbox.
How did the two of you meet and decide to work on this book together?
Mark: I first met Paul almost 10 years ago when I wanted to do my first comic, and I asked (then X-Men editor) Mark Powers whether if he knew a talented artist willing to take a gamble on a first time comics writer's creator-owned book. He introduced me to Paul, who co-created GROUNDED with me.
It was clear to me I'd struck lightning with Paul even before the first issue of GROUNDED sold out. Ever since then, I've been trying to get Paul to work with me again while his career took off with runs on books like The Amazing Spider-Man and Hellboy's B.P.R.D. GRAVEYARD was the book he responded to with the most enthusiasm.
Paul: I have to admit that getting to draw Taliban zombies sounded like the most fun I could have. If only I'd known how many I'd have to draw. Mark and I have been friends for a long time and I'm not sure there was ever a conversation that didn't involve us doing something together. Things finally lined up and we were able to put this book together which I think is some of the best work we've both done.
It seems like extensive research went into this story to keep it authentic. Can you tell our readers about the research process and what it took to bring this story to life?
Mark: It started with a lot of reading and watching of films and war footage (it's scary how much of the latter is now on YouTube). One of the early moments where things really clicked for us was watching the documentary "Restrepo" by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, about life at a combat outpost in the Korengal valley of Afghanistan. We saw that movie together and that immediately became the gold standard of realism we aspired to - even if we knew we'd be adding zombies to the equation.
But it quickly became apparent that we had to do more than just read or watch. I made it a point to speak to journalists as well as people serving in the military and intelligence communities. People who'd actually been there.
One of the highlights of that was getting a chance to talk to Tim Hetherington, who not only shot Restrepo but was one of the world's most reknowned war photographers. He was able to point me in the right direction while researching The Taliban, something that was almost impossible to do. The Taliban and Al Qaeda are more known for beheading journalists than speaking to them. Sadly, Tim was killed in Libya before GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES came out, and the book was dedicated to him..
Paul: I said from the beginning that the way we pull this off is by making the war side of the book as accurate as possible. Comics have a way of making the fantastic seem ordinary or commonplace. My feeling has always been that if you spend the time to ground your story in reality as much as possible then that element of the amazing will seem that much more so. I wanted to try and make the reader actually be afraid of seeing a zombie instead of treating it as just an accepted truth in the story.
Afghanistan has been a hot-button issue in the US. Were you concerned about the story possibly being misunderstood or receiving a negative reaction?
Mark: It was definitely a concern for me. Although Image Comics was our first choice, speaking to other publishers I could see a lot of trepidation, even from those who'd earned a reputation for putting out "edgy" material. That's a shame, because from Captain America to Blazing Combat to The Nam, comics has up until recently had a history of dealing with war in a more immediate way than almost any other medium. Image deserves a lot of credit for embracing that tradition and taking a chance on us.
Paul: I never saw it as something that could be negative as long as we got it right. My worries were always about misrepresenting what is actually the reality over there. AS long as we kept to the research and the facts then it would be up to others to decide what they think about it all. We can only control our side of the story.
Since it has been released, have you been happy with the issues' commercial and critical success?
Mark: Given that we were touching on a nerve, I had no idea what to expect. But the first issue sold out and the others were strong, and we even gained readers after the second issue, which is almost unheard of. Although I'm not allowed to say more about it, GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES is beginning its journey to the big screen, so I'm hoping that will mean even more attention for the upcoming trade paperback collection.
Paul: I always go into creator owned comics with the bare minimum of expectations. The fact that we were able to sell out and hold our numbers pretty well is fantastic and with the future of the project looking so good I'm completely happy.
Is there any feedback in particular that surprised you? What have you found that readers are taking away from this story?
Mark: San Diego has a large military community, and when we debuted the book at Comic-Con we had a lot of veterans and active duty service members come up to us. If there's one thing members of the military and comic fans have in common it's that they aren't afraid to speak their mind, so I braced myself for the worst. I could have imagined them pissed at us for trivializing their experiences.
Instead, they thanked us for calling attention to the fact there's a war going on, something you might not know from walking around the U.S. right now. And they shared their stories, which were heartbreaking.
For me, the most moving reaction was a request from a vet who wanted to use Paul's cover from the first issue - a helmeted skull with a poppy plant running through it - as a tattoo. He wanted to ink the names of his fallen comrades in the roots. To this day that remains the best interaction I've ever had with a reader.
So it's been particularly rewarding that people who served in Iraq or Afghanistan were not only okay with what we were doing but felt we did a good job of capturing what they'd experienced.
No word from the zombies yet, though.
Paul: Like I said above my biggest worry was was somehow getting it wrong. Having someone in the military read it and feel the book somehow captured their experience is amazing. It's something that became the most important thing about doing the book. Those reactions from actual military in person at conventions was as rewarding or more than anything else in my career.
A graphical novel collecting all four issues will be released soon. Will there be any new content for those that already own the individual comics?
Mark: In addition to the usual extras like sketches and an afterward by me, Paul not only drew but wrote a 12 page story exclusive to the trade. It's his comics writing debut, and quite frankly I'm worried he's going to put me out of a job.
Paul: It's my first published writing. I'm very excited bout it. Although this is a short story I have been trying to transition my career into what I really want to do in comics. Getting to write and draw my own book has always been the ultimate goal and I never saw myself as just a cog of the big machine. A creator and not just a pencil for hire. I have a few stories in the works and hopefully this is only the tip of the iceberg of what's to come.
What projects are next for you? Are there any plans to return for another undead tale?
Mark: I'm currently doing a Kickstarter campaign for my next book, DRACULA: SON OF THE DRAGON. It's a prequel to Bram Stoker's Dracula chronicling Vlad Draculas transformation from Impaler to Vampire. Readers can check it out here:
I think it makes for a great follow-up to GRAVEYARD because it combines war and the undead...it's just set about 500 years earlier and has vampires instead of zombies. But I'd love to return to The Graveyard of Empires any time Paul is ready to.
Paul: In doing all the research for the book we definitely have a ton of ideas we couldn't fit in this book. It's one of the reasons I did the short for the trade. But we'll have to carve out time to get it together and currently I'm knee deep in barbarian blood. So Conan from Dark Horse with Brian Wood for now but look out for my next foray into writing which I already have written but it's too soon to say more.
For readers that would like to follow your work, where can they find you online?
For more details on the series and individual issues, visit: http://www.imagecomics.com/series/133/Graveyard-of-Empires