The creeps and creatures of horror cinema have always endured cycles of popularity, and although some monsters make frequent comebacks, we've been living in a world of undead walkers for some time now. The zombie resurgence has brought hordes of flesh-munchers ambling through our theaters and television screens — thanks to shows like The Walking Dead. The reasons can be hotly debated, but one only needs to look at the underlying uneasiness and tension of the past decade for a possible explanation: Y2K, the anthrax attacks, uncertain economic times, the 2012 phenomenon, war, epidemics like SARS and the bird flu, and panic about flesh-eating bacteria are just a few of the crises that have flooded our collective anxiety. We have resurrected the living dead.
Tim Seeley and Mike Norton have too, in their new comic Revival— and while the horrifying face of the zombie pandemic has been rotten to the core, the duo presents a twist on the undead trope that Hollywood is wringing for cold, hard cash. Seeley and Norton's "revivers" are mysteriously returning to life, but they aren't the monsters we're normally presented with. In many ways, they're more terrifying, because of their ambiguity and ability to assimilate. The recently deceased residents of a small town in Wisconsin are walking off the slab and back into their everyday lives, and the chilling phenomenon finds the frightened citizens of Wausau quarantined from the rest of the world.
"There's something in the air around it right now, and we hit it just right. Part of it is The Walking Dead interest, but that kind of fear has been carved into people for a while," Seeley told me during our recent interview. "When we started out on Revival we knew we wanted to do it, because we had a good story to tell, and we both felt like we were guys who had sort of been pigeonholed. There's also something about the hook of, 'Oh it's a zombie story, but it's also a crime story in a small town, and the zombies aren't really zombies,' and when we put all those things together it just somehow really added up. Or, people are just really big fans of Wisconsin," he joked.
Most horror cineastes will recognize Seeley's name from his long-running series Hack/Slash, featuring the writer's beloved, ass-kicking, snarky heroine Cassie Hack, who hunts horror film villains known as "slashers" (le duh). Although Revival has a horror-loving heart, its inspirations are vastly different from the scantily clad shenanigans many associate Seeley with. His work on Witchblade — a comic with a rep for cheesecake — hasn't exactly detracted from these perceived exploitive notions.
"The weirdest response I've gotten [to Revival] is people being like 'Well, I didn't know you had it in you,' but I'm not sure why people are so quick to pigeonhole me. Hack/Slash was created, because I love those kinds of stories, and I wanted to see something like that in a comic book that I wanted to read," he explained. "The notion that's all I'm interested in, or that's all I'm able to do on a creative basis… it's kind of weird to me. I guess people tend to do that. They need to categorize stuff to understand it better. I'm not ashamed of Hack/Slash at all. It's exactly what I wanted it to be, and I'm really happy that it's lasted eight years. And I'm so happy that we have loyal readers. I'm constantly surprised by reactions. Maybe in the future people will be more willing to accept that I can do other stuff."
Revival peers at its readers from the underbelly of America's heartland, embracing the moodiness and isolation of the rural landscape. Seeley and Norton have been describing it as a "rural noir," reminiscent of writers like Cormac McCarthy and even the work of David Lynch, and Nick Cave. Revival's characters feel naturalistic and evocative of their surroundings — something that came easy to the native Wisconsin writer. "Wisconsin has a weird, dark history to it. It's got Ed Gein. It's got Jeffrey Dahmer. So, there's something to it, and it's also one of the most friendly, cool, quiet places in the entire country. It has a duality to it, and that's the interesting part… A big, important part of Revival is making sure that you see the influence of the place on the people and the people on the place."
The writer also wanted to portray a sense of constraint upon his characters as they are forced to accept their friends, family, and neighbors back into their lives and cope with the quarantine trapping them — a reflection of the inherent anxieties of claustrophobic, small-town life. "I think anybody who has ever lived in a small town understands that feeling that your world has a border of about 30 miles around the way you live and that you can never escape it. It's something I wanted to play with in Revival and have it be the actual physical borders, quarantined in there… that fear of never being able to escape," he emphasized.
Seeley shared several bizarre and unsettling stories about growing up Wisconsin that informed his tale. Revival's "zorse" (yes, a horse and zebra hybrid) was something Seeley discovered existed in his hometown several years after he moved away. "They were raising these zebras, and it was such an odd thing, so I wrote it down in an idea book and said, 'I have to use this some day.'" He also related several morbid, real-life stories involving relatives, neighbors, and the murder spree of an entire family that dominated the media — at least until the events became so disturbing the news stopped covering it. "It's that weird presence of death… those are things that always surprised me and are things I will always want to come back to in a story… that weird stuff leaves a mark on you. We'd go home and watch crazy, goofy stuff with zombies in it and enjoy the controlled fear of something so impossible, but know that really weird, terrible things could happen in a place that was supposed to be this sparkly, clean, happy area."
While much of Revival's tone and characters were already kicking around in Seeley's head, he traveled back to his home state with Norton for a reunion. "I'd take trips up and then take photos. One of the first things we did when we started working on it was really nail down the locations, because Mike and I are both really into that. I think comics can do that really well, because a panel is worth the drawing in it." Seeley revealed that the actual "hook" of the story was conceived during a drive through Wisconsin in the middle of a blizzard. "I was driving, I thought of an idea, and I pulled over to this little bar — I don’t even know what city it was, because it was snowing pretty hard. I went into the bar and wrote down all these ideas, and I was like, 'Oh it's perfect.' It was over a beer at a crappy bar the day before Christmas." When it came to Revival's fantastic artwork, which is equally important to the story's tone and effectiveness, Seeley trusted Norton "implicitly."
Following in the tradition of Seeley's strongly written, deeply flawed, and realistic characters (namely women), the writer introduces us to Revival's Dana Cypress and her younger sister Martha. Dana's a single mom and police officer who has been jockeying for a promotion to detective, but her father — who also happens to be the town sheriff and hasn't forgotten her rebellious teenage years — has tasked her with heading up a special group to investigate the strange, undead occurrences. College student Martha doesn't struggle as much to prove herself to dad like Dana, but faces a different set of problems as the story develops. "I wanted to write a story about sisters," Seeley stated. "I have two brothers myself, and I really value those relationships. I always thought sisters were interesting, because they often seem to be the closest people on earth and also the greatest enemies." He also shared that he's tired of the boozy, badass cop trope. "I'm not interested in writing tropes I've seen a million times, and I'm not interested in writing characters that could easily be fulfilled in a superhero comic… We can do something that other people can't, because I have access to that kind of audience."
Focusing on female characters is a largely intuitive choice for Seeley, but he also "has an eye toward knowing that there's not an overabundance of strong, relatable women in the medium of comics — and pretty much in general." He finds horror writers to sometimes be the exception to that rule. "A lot of great horror writers do write great women, but I think a lot of men are afraid to put themselves in women's shoes… a lot of men can't get over what they want women to be and not what women are. On the other hand, I think the worst male characters I've ever read were written by women," he laughed — citing Twilight amongst them. "For some men, the characters tend to become a fantasy, or a wish fulfillment. You should struggle with your characters, find them frustrating sometimes, and try to understand why they do things." Seeley's female audience has been crucial in his characters' development. "They give me feedback… They tend to be more interested in the deeper stuff and not just continuity or what happened in an issue, or that I forgot something… I love that… I also like that women will call me out on bullshit."
Interestingly, that bullshit hasn't extended to Hack/Slash when it comes to his female audience. "The most vocal critics of Hack/Slash being exploitive were actually guys. It's almost never women," he revealed. "I think every once in a great while a woman will actually be part of the backlash, and most of the time it's guys who are either speaking for what they think women want, or they're so afraid of women they can't stand any sort of strong female character, or they're afraid of sexuality. I'm not sure if it's one, both, or all of them." Hack/Slash certainly contains a titillating component, but facets of Seeley's ongoing story undermine the lazy shorthand some people have unfairly pinned on it. For starters, Cassie's blurry sexuality and romantic life are filled with genuine confusions, doubts, and insecurities. "I don't think you can strike any sort of nerve with a story that is only about those sort of exploitive, physical, surface things. Those are the frosting on the cake. There's got to be something to it. It has to have heart. I think that's something we've been working on for years, and I know people who stuck around for it got to that realization."
Still, Seeley agrees that the best horror transcends elements of gender, race, and culture. "To me horror works best when it's universal… the most basic, frightening things to people are things we all sort of cringe at. I know the visceral moments in Revival, people reacted the same way to — like someone pulling out their teeth. The best scares hit everybody the same way." He's currently on "a Wire kick," but the writer counts horror-comedies amongst his favorite flicks to watch. "I still prefer Slither and Army of Darkness over Martyrs, or something. I understand the value in that stuff, but I just never enjoyed it much," he admitted. The comedy quotient of horror is still a delicate balance for Seeley, who says he loves "stuff that takes itself seriously enough that [he] really cares about what happens to people," but still deals with what's frightening and doesn't get "too cartoony." When it comes to Revival's cinematic influences, Seeley credits Fargo and the Coen brothers' oeuvre in general. "One of the things I love that they do is let their film and their stories have a little bit of room for life — things that happen, because life is so fucking ridiculous. They always remember to put that stuff in there." Italian horror fans will be pleased to know that Dario Argento's work has also been a big influence on Revival. "I watched Suspiria, because of the visuals and the feeling more than anything… for the sense of isolation, weird place, and weird community. I also watched Tenebrae, but I think Suspiria really stands out as being transcendent and the most interesting." Although he's not a huge fan of David Lynch's work, he thinks there's "a little" influence there. Seeley also shared he had horror stories that focused on "place and pacing," and old issues of Creepy in mind while crafting Revival.
Fans can look forward to more online preview content for Seeley's rural noir in the future and should keep an eye out for the writer's Dark Horse collaboration with Josh Emmons, Ex Sanguine, which hits stores in October. "It's serial killer meets vampire, and a vicious romance ensues." Seeley and Emmons aren't Twilight fans, but wondered what kind of woman a male vampire with enough ennui to choke a zorse might realistically be drawn to. A vicious murderer was the logical answer. Seeley's also toying with some ideas he wants to work on after Ex Sanguine is complete. "It's also a horror series," he revealed. "I want to do something that I write and draw."
People also seem excited about Sono Morti's EP "loosely inspired" by the comic, which plays on a gothic western and 1970's occult rock vibe. Imagine Jonah Hex meets the Misfits and Great Old Ones — particularly in songs like "Undying Mystery." It's another twist on Revival's weird and wonderful world where strange forest creatures, broken-down barns, and desolate fields are dark harbingers of terrifying things to come.
Revival #3 hits stores September 19. Enjoy an exclusive preview of artwork from issue #3, as well as a peek at the covers for issues #4 and #5.