Eagle Award nominee Nick Tapalansky sits down with the Outhouse to discuss the conclusion to the hit graphic novel Awakening, the zombie genre's effects on society, and which president would survive in a zombie outbreak.
Nick Tapalansky is the Eagle Award nominated writer of Awakening, one of the most unique zombie comics to come out in the last twenty years. Nominated for the Favourite Newcomer Eagle Award in 2007 alongside Matt Fraction and Jason Aaron, Mr. Tapalansky was kind enough to sit down with the Outhouse to discuss his latest work, display his incredible knowledge of the undead and show why he's one of the more awesome independent writers in the industry.
The Outhouse: So first and foremost, how did you get your start in comics?
Nick Tapalansky: By being very lucky. Awakening is my first book, and when Alex and I began working on it we weren't exactly sure how to pitch it or who to show it to. Figuring it was better to ask rather than guess, we went to Wizard World Philadelphia in 2006 to solicit opinions on what publishers wanted to see. We bounced around from booth to booth, showing people our very meager collection of material (the first page, unlettered, character designs, and my written introduction and outline). We got varying responses, most of which were positive but none were terribly specific as to what we should be doing to make the whole thing presentable.
Finally we landed at the Archaia booth where we met Mark Smylie, that dreamy pirate of comics and mastermind behind both Artesia and, at the time, Archaia. We showed him what we had and he started asking deep, probing questions, like, "What's your sign?" and "Are you guys seeing anybody?" and we were powerless. He asked to hang on to what we had and, not three months later, after we finished our first issue, he offered us a contract.
OH: For the readers out there who haven't read Awakening, what's it about?
NT: Awakening is a zombie-noir. It begins as a murder mystery with an unreliable witness, Cynthia Ford, claiming zombies are to blame for the increase in violent crimes and missing people in the city of Park Falls, New York. Nobody believes her of course, both because she's had some pretty wild claims in the past and the idea of zombies is patently insane. Still, people keep dying, bite marks begin found near the worst of their wounds: human bites.
Out of options, Cynthia turns to retired police detective Derrick Peters. Derrick is now a private eye in Park Falls and has a bit of history with Cynthia, having not listened to her once before and regretting it. Giving her a bit more credence this time around, though not sharing her beliefs, Derrick dives into the mystery and starts to see that, in this case, Cynthia might not be as crazy as she sounds. With the arrival of federally sent scientist Dr. Daniel Howe and the discovery of attack survivor Sandra LaFayette, the mystery continues to deepen as the death toll rises.
The case must first come to grips with what's happening in Park Falls, and then try to find both a cause and solution to the situation before it's too late. We follow the city over the course of a year (half in Vol 1, half in Vol 2) as the situation slowly escalates.
OH: What were your influences in making Awakening?
NT: Oddly enough, it was mostly trying to avoid a lot of what had been done before. I'm a big fan of the zombie genre but I was also getting tired of seeing the same things over and over again–a handful of survivors, all stereotypes, running and gunning for survival, betrayal from within, blah blah blah. It isn't that the new stories following the formula were bad per se, they just didn't give me anything new to consider. There was no reason to read them versus what had come before.
With Awakening, I had a specific set of questions to present to the characters and, in exploring and defying zombie norms, the characters are able to address these issues and come to their own conclusions in a natural and unhurried way. When the first three issues of the book were being serialized back in 2007, Archaia referred to it as an existential horror series, which isn't off the mark in my opinion.
OH: You decided to focus on a pretty small cast of characters in a relatively isolated environment in Awakening. What led you to this decision?
NT: You know, I'm really happy you mentioned this -- the fact that you keyed in to this means we did our job.
The environment is less isolated, particularly at the start, than it appears. It's a fairly sizable city which is full of citizens going about their business. In fact, most are completely unaware of what's happening as the weeks and months go on, as overheard in conversations on the streets as Derrick and others move through the city.
That said, Alex intentionally created a city which stood on its own as a character. It's dark, looming, and in some cases, oppressive. It creates the illusion of isolation in an otherwise thriving environment.
Like many zombie stories, Awakening has something of a societal commentary. The illusion of being alone in a crowded city is a big part of that.
The cast, on the other hand, was entirely intentional. Each of the characters has something to bring to the mystery, something borne of both their pasts and where they are in their lives currently. They each present a unique and plausible response to the escalating issue, something I was interested in seeing play out as each was forced to reconcile their pasts before facing what was happening.
OH: How would you say Awakening differs from other zombie comics out there?
NT: Pace and tone are probably the biggest behind-the-scenes elements which help set it apart.
By defying most of the standard zombie conventions, especially the bite-and-infect, we're able to slow the process down and give the cast time for plausible deniability. Somebody might be walking around one minute, happy as can be, then the next they're on the ground. When they get back up, they're not breathing anymore and seem to want to eat people. But wait, the people they attack don't seem to be getting back up...
Presenting stereotypical zombie scenarios and breaking the other way with them kept me on my toes while writing and, hopefully, will get readers in the mode of expecting the unexpected.
Tone, both in art and story, present a different attitude from your typical zombie scenario. In story, I used elements of the noir genre which I think created a more realistic atmosphere. We were able to suspend disbelief regarding the seemingly supernatural by grounding the characters and atmosphere in a gritty reality.
And I may be biased, but the art is, hands down, some of the best and most effective I've seen in a zombie story. Even the safest of pages convey a feeling of oppression and, as you said above, isolation.
OH: It seems that zombies have been on the rise in pop culture as of late. What do you think lead to this resurgence of the undead?
NT: I'd actually argue that there's no "now" about it. At this point, zombie popularity has been a fixture of the first decade of the 21st century, a resurgence which I think owes a lot to The Walking Dead, the remake of Dawn of the Dead, and 28 Days Later, all of which embodied the best of the "classic" zombie mythos and the forward thinking of new takes on conventions of the genre. For the better part of the last 10 years, zombies have been a fixture of popular fiction, something which has in many ways hampered the genre due to oversaturation.
I think the big draw of zombie fiction is the human face on an overwhelming danger. Zombies, in the modern, post-Romero sense, aren't the monster in the closet, the hidden ghosts or ghouls that float in and out of view. Instead, zombies are almost always there and in your face (or, in the case of Awakening, lurking in the background). They're undeniable and their existence isn't limited to an individual adversary but, instead, they tend to exist as a nigh-insurmountable mass.
Then, of course, there are all those questions as to the "why" of it all. In Awakening we have an ensemble cast who all weigh in, each with a different background and opinion regarding what's going on. Is it scientific in origin? Is it a preordained act of God? Is it something else entirely?
Zombies are surprisingly versatile, more so than a lot of the genre's offerings let on.
OH: Alex Eckman-Lawn's style in Awakening is very different from the usually realistic and graphic artwork featured in zombie comics. How do you think this style of art contributes to the overall feel of Awakening?
NT: Like I've said, it's all about atmosphere. Every page is alive with the feeling that something might not be right. Alex creates more than just a series of panels which move the story along – he creates a living, breathing world, one which I'm not sure I'd want to live in. You can't help but feel like you're someplace familiar when you're looking at his art, but it's a familiar which isn't always so pleasant.
The book was never meant to be gore-porn. I'm not a big fan of it and, honestly, it didn't serve the story in any way. Alex's ability to convey fear, dread, and escalating terror without needing to splash blood on every page is a testament to his abilities as an illustrator.
OH: What can readers look forward to in Volume 2 of Awakening?
NT: Answers, of a sort. When we used to talk about the first volume, it was always with the disclaimer that it was a "zombie noir which may or may not involve zombies." By the end of that first book, and to be fair, probably much sooner than the end, we know that zombies or, at least something zombie-like, has appeared in Park Falls. Going into the second volume we start to get an idea that, yes, this is happening, and worse, time is running out. The cast spent the first few months of the story coming to grips with the truth that something strange has gripped the city, and now, as the pressure continues to escalate, we find our characters not only grappling with what's happening, but with violence of a different sort when folks in Park Falls start turning up murdered sans bite marks. Private dick Derrick Peters rejoins the PD to try and get some answers, both about the murders and the intentions of his ex-partner, Charlie Brute, who returned at the end of Volume One; attack survivor Sandra LaFayette is forced to confront her past in a way which leads her to her own conclusions about what's happening to the city, and the world; and Dr. Daniel Howe makes some dark decisions as he pursues his quest for a cause behind the "awakenings."
OH: How would you say volume two of Awakening differs from volume one?
NT: That's a tough one – for me, it's all one story. The series was pitched as a 10-issue series to be collected in two-volumes, but without a break in publishing the floppies. When Archaia went through its restructuring and we stopped serializing issues, we decided the best bet was to come back strong with two hardcover volumes only. The unfortunate part was that, while it was what was best for the end result, folks had to basically read the first half of a single book in Volume One.
I guess you could say that Volume Two is different in that all of the pieces have been set up. The mysteries have been introduced and briefly explored – now it's time to get some answers.
OH: Having read the second volume of Awakening, I was very impressed with the escalation in the plot. The final chapter in particular was one of the better endings I've seen in the zombie genre in general. Without giving too much away, how did you come up with the ending of Awakening?
NT: Thanks for the kind words. The ending was one part of the book that was always in place. While other bits have been moved around or evolved as I wrote, I always knew what the last 10-pages looked like.
It's hard to say how I came up with it per se – it was a natural evolution, even from the early plans of the series, and I can't imagine another direction for the ending which wouldn't have tread into basic zombie tropes. Hopefully readers agree!
OH: If you had to compare Awakening to the rest of the zombie genre, what would you say it most resembles?
NT: Hmm... That's hard, because I intentionally went out of my way to present some familiar items and then duck the other way. People have made comparisons to 28 Days Later, 30 Days of Night (not zombies, but nonetheless), and, in early days, Resident Evil and I think there are elements of each of those which have wound up in Awakening, though much of that was in presenting similar themes and debunking them.
I don't want to say too much here and ruin any of the surprises, but I think you can say that Awakening is a direct response to what's come before and does its level best to not be derivative while adding something to a genre steeped in some amazing stories.
OH: You were nominated for an Eagle Award in 2008, along with writers such as Matt Fraction and Jason Aaron. How did it feel to be grouped with such major players in the comic book industry?
NT: It felt like somebody had made a mistake! Ha!
Seriously though, it was pretty huge just to be included in such a prestigious list. Matt Fraction and Jason Aaron are two of my favorite writers and, being new to the industry, I would never have thought so highly of myself as to include my name with theirs on a ballot for anything (except maybe a sushi eating contest). It really was just a huge honor and incredibly flattering.
OH: Now that Awakening is finished, what do you plan on working on next?
NT: A few things, actually! First, Alex and I had a short story in Image's Popgun Vol 4 which came out this past February which we plan on spinning into a book of shorts set in that world. The world is based on a short story that Alex wrote in college and it's something we're both pretty excited about.
We also have a short story in the upcoming Archaia anthology Moon Lake and a two-part back-up story in Image's Perhapanauts which should be appearing in two-issues soon. Then there are all the OTHER books we've got planned... We've got a busy few years ahead of us.
I'm also working on a pretty exciting project with an amazing artist from Buenos Aries – we should be able to announce that one pretty soon so hopefully we can catch up more then.
OH: If you had to convince readers to read Awakening in twenty words or less, what would you tell them? (Bonus points if you do it in a haiku!)
NT: A zombie noir,
Such mystery and horror,
Don't read it alone
Finally, Mr. Tapalansky stared down the Outhouse's Lightning Round with all the boldness of a young Attila the Hun.
OH: Red or blue?
OH: PC or Mac?
NT: PC + iPhone = awesome
OH: Favorite tv show?
NT: LOST, with Fullmetal Alchemist and Venture Bros. coming in a close tie for second.
OH: What's your favorite type of tree and why?
NT: Chestnut tree, because they're perfect for climbing (and hiding bodies in the gnarled branches).
OH: Would you rather give a man a fish, teach a man to fish, or point him the direction of the nearest grocery store and explain to him that fish isn't a viable source of sustenance?
NT: Unless it's sushi or fried calamari, I'm not really a fish guy... Can I teach him to find a companion who can cook? Or show him how to make macaroni and cheese? Yeah! Mac and cheese... Mmm....
OH: What do you feel is the best weapon to take on a trip through a zombie-infested wasteland?
NT: Woody Harrelson
OH: Slow moving zombies a la Dawn of the Dead (the old one) or fast zombies like 28 Days Later?
NT: They both have their place, but I think zombies who have the capacity for speed equal to normal human movement, including running, are absolutely terrifying. And awesome.
OH: If Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Barack Obama found themselves in a zombie apocalypse, which one would be the last man standing and why?
NT: George Washington, hands down. Military expertise and devil-may-care attitude = zombie killer General SIR.
OH: If you had to choose death by rabid hyena or death by nonstop marathon of Roseanne reruns redubbed in Spanish, which would you choose?
NT: This is, by far, one of the hardest questions I've ever been asked in life.
I actually had to go to committee on this one and asked my soon-to-be wife and will-be sister-in-law. We were uncertain as to how one would die via Roseanne reruns, but then I explained that death would likely come from starvation and sleep depravation, since *I* picture this as a bit like A Clockwork Orange, complete with taped eyelids.
The sister-in-law came back with hyenas since they'd likely go for a main artery, but then wife reiterated that they would be rabid and couldn't be counted on to go directly for the kill.
I'd rather go via rabid hyenas, succumbing to the darkness as their claws ripped me to shreds, then listen to Darlene whine morbidly en español.
OH: What's your favorite comic on the stands right now?
NT: I'm sort of...er...A lapsed Wednesday customer, as it were. I've started reading trades almost exclusively, though I had been getting JOE THE BARBARIAN somewhat regularly, because Grant Morrison and Sean Gordon Murphy are my heroes.
The most recent trade I picked up, which absolutely amazed me, was the I KILL GIANTS: TITAN EDITION. That's a book that belongs in everyone's collection.
Nick Tapalansky's Awakening: Volume Two will be released October 10th at a local comic store near you.
Written or Contributed by: Christian Hoffer