Zombie Awakening

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The creators of Archaia’s critically acclaimed so-called “existential horror” discuss how they breathed new life into the zombie genre with their series, Awakening.

Launching almost two years ago, with a lot of other well received titles, the unique 10-part Awakening series was put on hold after three issues when the publisher, Archaia went through a restructuring process. However, the first few issues have now been collected in Volume One, with two new issues to boot, and the creators are keen to share the word on their British Eagle Award nominated series. For the uninitiated, this handy trailer will set the mood for the story quite nicely. Essentially Awakening is a new spin on the walking corpses invading pop culture today, and while that “fresh approach” description may be used a lot in comics, it definitely applies to the work of writer Nick Tapalansky and artist Alex Eckman-Lawn.

With an art style that would please fans of Ben Templesmith and Bill Sienkiewicz and a slow burn approach filled with suspense and thrills, Awakening is an honest look at how the undead affects a small town known as Park Falls. When people go missing and dismembered bodies turn up, Cynthia Ford seems to hold the clues. Unfortunately her belief in zombies and status as the town crazy isn’t helping her cause, but former cop Derrick Peters soon discovers that she’s telling the truth, and the unravelling of the mystery begins.

BROKEN FRONTIER: Zombies seem like the craze that won’t die, fittingly. Did you initially struggle to find new ways to spin the classic genre?

NICK TAPALANSKY: I love the classic zombie standards. I’m a big Romero fan, love The Walking Dead, and think they do everything that they do well. For me though, Awakening came from my wanting to read something different. With the success of The Walking Dead, the Dawn of the Dead remake, and 28 Days Later (not a zombie movie but certainly plays around in the genre concepts) in the early 2000s, though, it seemed like anybody and everybody wanted to ape the hell out of those with limited variations therein, like they were beholden to some archaic stone tablet where the “rules” of zombie fiction were engraved. Finding new ways to spin the genre wasn’t any harder than looking at those rules and decided to break them. Chief among them, and the one with the most impact, I think, was eliminating the massive uprising and instant spreading of whatever it is that’s causing these ‘awakenings’ to occur. Everything else spun naturally out of that, including the story’s mystery/noir narrative and “existential horror,” as it’s been called.

ALEX ECKMAN-LAWN: Yeah, from the very start it seemed to me that Awakening was about telling the zombie story differently. Beyond Nick just breaking a couple of the rules, he’s dealing with some really different themes and ideas from what I’ve seen in zombie stories before. He can’t say this stuff ‘cause he’s so modest, so I feel I should put it out there.

BF: Awakening seemed to generate a lot of critical praise when it initially came out. Has that led to more job offers for you?

NT: Haha! Well, the book is my first. Because of that I hadn’t received any job offers before those first three issues were serialized so all the gigs that’ve come up since then would certainly qualify as more.

Kidding aside, the book has offered a bunch of really exciting opportunities, including writing a two-part back-up story for my buddy Todd Dezago and his book, The Perhapanauts, as well as being asked to submit a short story for an upcoming volume of Popgun. Both of those were illustrated by Alex and a blast to write. The Perhapanauts back-ups are scheduled for February and March of next year and, if you’re not already reading the book, I encourage anybody who digs paranormal adventure to check it out.

AE-L: Ha! Yeah I think “opportunities” is a good way to say it. The book has definitely opened a lot of doors for us, and probably most importantly it’s made us a part of the business of selling comics. I’m young and impressionable enough to be excited by that alone. That said, if you want to offer us some jobs I think we’re pretty open to the idea…

NT: Totally open. 100% wide open.


BF: The books moves at a slower pace than what we’d expect from, say a zombie movie. Why did you choose to pace the series that way, rather than an all out action-fest?

NT: That goes back to wanting to do something differently. The story is a horror infused mystery and, with mystery being the driving genre, it’s more slow-boiling than your average “run-and-gun” survival book. It’s about the characters first coming to grips with what appears to be happening in the city of Park Falls, trying to find answers, and ultimately reconciling their own pasts and shortcomings as the situation continues to escalate. That existential crisis, along with the mystery surrounding the murders and missing persons in the city, were best explored with a sort of noir sensibility and, for the most part, your Phillip Marlowe’s and Boston Blackie don’t do all out action.

AE-L: The pace is actually one of the qualities of the script that I really liked initially. I’m pretty into the mystery and noir side of things and it’s nice to see a way more subtle and realistic reaction to this kind of situations than the usual gore-fest. I’ve seen that story already, you know what I mean? Plus, this way when there is an action sequence, it has a lot of weight and power!

BF: Derrick and Cynthia are two very well-rounded characters. Are they inspired by particular people?

NT:  Derrick, I suppose, is a composite of your classic noir protagonists, like the aforementioned Phillip Marlowe, but I didn’t realize it at the time he was first being written. I had little-to-no experience in that genre prior to writing the first volume of Awakening and it wasn’t until Alex said “hey, you should check these out – I think you’d like them,” that I got deep into that stuff. I guess you could say he was retroactively inspired by that type of character, if that makes sense. He’s your quintessential, down on his luck private eye.

Cynthia is based entirely on somebody I saw in a book store once. Stringy unwashed hair, wild eyes, and surgical mask – the version of Cynthia in my head, which Alex brought to life, was ripped from real life. The personality is a shameful stereotype born on external observations of that same person. Of course, since she was ranting to herself at the time I guess it was less stereotype and more of a continued extrapolation and exploration of character.

AE-L: Nick’s just being polite. Cynthia is based on me.

BF: Why are comics the best art form to bring Awakening to life?

NT: I think it’s being able to collaborate with Alex, honestly. The story might have been fully formed before I met him but his work is what brought it to life. He was able to pick my brain, interpret my scripts, and bring the story to life.

I’d like to think it’s the best because it’s how the story was conceived and it’ll always be the first but I guess the jury is going to be out until there’s another presentation of the story in the world. Hear that, movie guys? Prove me wrong!

AE-L: Nick you big softy! This interview is just a big fat love letter to me isn’t it? This is a pretty tough question since, as Nick said, it only exists in one form so far, but I think Awakening is well served by a comic book presentation because the story really deserves a chance to be taken in, to linger and grow on you. I feel like sometimes other visual media can sometimes just wash over and blow past you.  That said, it would also make a brilliant and lucrative film, bound to be celebrated by audiences and critics alike…


BF: Would you like to revisit the world of Awakening at some point?

NT: I think we have to! People are gonna get pissed if we don’t get Volume Two out to finish the story! Don’t worry guys, next summer/fall you’ll get your second volume of zombie noir and existential horror. After that though, that’s probably it for Awakening. It was always planned as a finite story with a pretty clear beginning, middle, and end. Never might be too strong a word but it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll be diving too far back into the world once we’re done with the second book.

BF: Alex, do you take a camera and sketchbook with you wherever you go?

AE-L: Yup, just about. I actually broke the screen on my last camera ‘cause I carried it around in my back pocket all the time. One day, while climbing around an old bridge to get reference pictures I took too big a leap and my fat ass cracked the screen.  I haven’t learned my lesson.

NT: Fat ass? He weighs fourteen-pounds soaking wet. Seriously folks, buy our book so the guy can eat something!

BF: Your style fits Awakening’s story like a glove. Was there a lot of discussion with Nick as to your approach, or were you given free rein to adapt his scripts?

AE-L: Well first of all, thank you! That’s really great to hear. I got really lucky in that Nick chose me because he thought my style was perfect for the book (or so he says). So I’m really just doing what I do. That said, Nick did have to cajole me into trying sequential pages. I was way opposed to the idea at first. Now I think we’ve struck a pretty great tone of cooperation with the pages. Neither of us is afraid to tell the other when we think something different would work better and Nick is REALLY open to my ideas, which is so great I can’t even tell you. It really feels like a partnership, not a job.

NT: I guess there are probably some writers who are really anal about their scripts and expect them to be followed to the letter – I’m not that guy. I mean, my scripts can be super-detailed but in the end, if Alex can get what I’m trying to convey onto a page in a more successful way, I’m all for it. Like he said, he and I will sometimes go back and forth on the best way to attack a page but that’s the best part! In the end we wind up with an amazing page we both were fully immersed in creating and that’s really exciting.

BF: How does your mindset differ when creating album covers or t-shirts rather than comics?

AE-L: Hmm, that’s a really interesting question! I guess the first and most obvious thing is I’m thinking less about visually communicating a strict story or action. I can feel free to do more iconic, less literal work. And or course I have to put on my design hat as well. With Awakening I’m aware that text will need to fit in there, but that’s really Thomas’ job. With CD art and t-shirt design, I often have to make an image that works with the logo or layout lyrics pages with tons of type. Design is something I find really interesting so it can be exciting for me to deal with these things.

Also, and probably most importantly, when working with bands you really want to be conscious of who they are, and what art fits with their sound. Derrick is always Derrick and Awakening is always the same book, but every band is different, even if they’re all in the same genre. Six grind bands will have six different aesthetic preferences. Finding the right kind of look and approach for each band is one of the most exciting and challenging things about that kind of work, and it means I get to do a really wide variety of things which is really great for someone as impatient as me. 

Volume 1 of Awakening is available now for $19.95 and includes the first five issues, plus an extra 15 pages of bonus material.

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