Mark Rahner Talks Rotten

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As the wave of zombie appreciation continues to ebb and flow, fans have already begun their search for the next phase of undead stories. The “siege” mentality (“They’re at the door trying to break in and eat us… what do we do?”) has become such a well-trodden road that many fans find themselves on a quest for the next idea. Some writers are already ahead of the curve and have been able to think outside the box, creating a new chapter in the living dead mythos. Mira Grant’s exemplary book Feed is one. Mark Rahner is another with his Moonstone comic series, Rotten. The ongoing comic takes the undead nightmare and sets it in the Old West amidst a thrilling backdrop of intrigue and adventure: think equal parts Joe R Lansdale’s Dead in The West and Deadman’s Road and the 1965 CBS television series Wild Wild West… but with zombies.

Rahner is a longtime critic, interviewer and pop culture writer whose work has been in The Seattle Times (he was on the team that won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news), Wired, Fangoria, and Stars And stripes. His media appearances include Headline News, MSNBC TV, numerous radio shows, and the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame (“Rahner’s Rotten Rentals”).

Rotten is the tale of an Army vet who is recalled to service so that he might investigate an unusual crisis by a President in office without the popular vote. The soldier is William Wade, Civil War vet, reluctant secret agent answering to President Rutherford B. Hayes… and zombie-hunter. Wade and his partner, J.J. Flynn, are sent out West where a mysterious plague has infected the populace. Once there, they find mysteries and intrigue… and, yes, the living dead.

Dread Central sat down and talked a bit with Mark about working in comics, where influences & inspiration come from, and Rotten.

Tell me a little about how you broke into comics and what your writing background is.

I was a newspaper pop culture writer for a long time, and comics were part of that – not because an editor assigned it but because I’d been a lifelong comic reader. I thought it was insane that there wasn’t much consistent mainstream coverage of comics. I’d also been a movie critic, written tons of features, humor, you name it – and had generally wrung everything I could out of the newspaper biz before it seriously began spiraling into extinction.

I started socializing with comic people completely by accident. By “socializing,” I mean drinking. The husband of one of my reporter colleagues was a comic writer, and a surprising number of them infest Seattle. Connections were made, friendships were formed and one filthy thing led to another.

What drew you to working in the comics medium?

I’m a man-child and a poor businessman.

It’s also a great way to tell a story. Any kind of story. Exactly the way you want. I used to grab newspapers off the rollers as they were coming off the press, and it’s even more of a thrill to see a new page of art and lettering, every single time.

But I’d been complaining that mainstream comics were getting stale and cumbersome, and in a little pipsqueak independent way, ROTTEN is an answer to that. We’re throwing some new wrinkles into the zombie genre, adding some edgy commentary with it, and – for instance – avoiding comic conventions such as exposition boxes and thought balloons like the plague.

From where do you draw your inspiration?

A couple of areas: horror that’s genuinely disturbing for adults and isn’t tongue-in-cheek. We weren’t seeing enough of that. And from things in the real world that call out for the kind of satire or commentary you don’t see in the news – and that I wasn’t able to do in a newspaper. In other words, things that piss me off.

Who are some of the comic writers who influenced you?

I think more along the lines of Serling and Romero as spiritual influences for ROTTEN. They told entertaining, well-crafted stories that were also about something – and showed real guts in doing so – sometimes subtly, other times bluntly and necessarily so.

How about artists?

Dan Dougherty has his own style that reminds me a little of Eddie Campbell sometimes. I like Sean Phillips and Steve Epting for contemporary artists whose work isn’t at all cartoony, and Rob Guillory’s exceptionally cartoony work on “CHEW” is hilarious.

But I guess those aren’t influences. Gene Colan would be on my Geek Mt. Rushmore. Steranko. Gil Kane. Frank Mazzuchelli.

How did ROTTEN come about?

I had developed – and damn near sold – ROTTEN as an HBO-type of balls-out, epic TV series with Robert Horton. Years before anyone had breathed a word about a “Walking Dead” show. But it didn’t work out and we turned it into a comic book that was preposterously ambitious for a couple of comic noobz like us.

What drew you to the material?

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD disturbed the shit out of me when I was young, and I wanted to do a zombie story, but not the same thing, not an empty fanboy copy. And with an ongoing protagonist and big, overarching conspiracy mysteries that those didn’t have. Why are the undead – or “revenants,” as Agent Flynn calls them – appearing in different species everywhere in the 1870s? Is it the End Times? A virus? That “evolution” stuff from some British guy named Darwin?

Setting it in the old West was a chance to wipe the slate clean as well as make things tougher in every sense. No phones or TV, little awareness of germs, evolution and the like, limited weapons – you get the idea. For a rational, skeptical, independent thinker like our reluctant agent hero, Wade, it’s beyond awful, especially given the fear and superstition of your average civilian in a terror crisis. The latter’s one of the many parallels we draw to current events, which was another appeal. Like Bush, the president in 1877 seized office without the popular vote, and in our story he’s stop-lossed an Army vet back into service for him.

And hey, it’s just a genre mash-up that kicks ass: zombies … in the old West … with a secret agent! We’re trying to create what we’d devour, ourselves.

The book has always reminded me of a sort of ‘Wild Wild West with zombies.’ In your opinion, is that a fair assessment?

I love that show, but ROTTEN should only bear the faintest surface resemblance to it. WWW was heavy on Jules Verne-type fantasy, with static heroes, no continuity, and it was intentionally cartoony starting with its title sequence. With the notable exception of the undead, everything about ROTTEN is meant to be miserably realistic and well-researched, the main characters suffer the cumulative effects of everything that happens to them, gadgets are kept to a minimum, and there’s no singing dwarf villain. It’s dead serious. It all builds to something.

How did you hook-up with Robert Horton?

I knew him as a fellow movie critic in the Seattle area. He’d come over with a couple of other friends for regular drunken bad horror movie nights. I’d roped him into other nonsense, including some Halloween horror host spoofs called “Rahner’s Rotten Rentals.” You can find a couple of those on YouTube. We had similar sensibilities but completely different personas. I’d gotten some distance putting ROTTEN together before I asked him to collaborate, and he fleshes it out nicely. We write the characters of Wade and Flynn in our own voices, which is fun.

How did you find Dan Dougherty?

I was frustrated after a couple of previous artists didn’t work out, and then a friend introduced me by e-mail to Dougherty, who lives in Chicago. He sent some pages that he’d already done of – I think – Civil War zombies. He got it. And no less important, he could also meet a deadline and follow a script.

At a time when comic book sales are suffering, how do you feel about the move to “eComic Books?”

Cautiously optimistic. I’m for anything that makes it easier for people to find and read comics wherever they are. Whether it’s hardcore comic people whose shop is sold out or non-geek civilians who don’t go to shops, digital comics help solve the most frustrating problem: people who actually want to read your stuff but can’t get it.

Comics look fantastic on the iPad. They even look and flow well on iPhones, believe it or not. At a buck or two per digital issue, it’s an easy purchase. And collectors can still buy the “floppies.” I was never comfortable with that term, and we won’t dwell on the reason.

Related: I’m hoping digital comics will help mitigate the second most frustrating problem: the growing number of people who tell me they just wait for trade paperbacks. That’s a killer, especially for indies.

Will the series continue to be on-going or do you have a definite end in sight?

There will be an ending, and it should be a very satisfying one that counts for something and has an impact. It will be memorable. And getting there is going to be a harrowing ride.

Is there anything you can tell me about H.E.L.I.X.?

We’ve had that fully developed and on the back burner for a long time now, and it’s the next creator-owned comic I want to do, now that I’m out of the newspaper sausage factory. It’s a disturbing, fast-paced science fiction/action/horror series set in present-day Seattle. In other words, no more research! Not that spending time researching “clysters” isn’t fun. But “H.E.L.I.X.” ought to be a real clyster-squeezer.

For more information on Rotten, visit Mark‘s website and on Facebook. Also look for Rotten Vol. 1: Reactivated in comic and book stores now!

Mark Rahner Talks Rotten

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