Mark Sable And Paul Azaceta Bring Us Taliban Zombies in ‘Graveyard of Empires’April 27, 2011
When Mark Sable and Paul Azaceta last worked together, they were on the cusp of the “superhero high school” trend in comics. Now, they’re riding the zombie wave with their new book Graveyard of Empires. But like Grounded – which had it’s own unique spin on the genre – Graveyard of Empires has a great hook: what if the War in Afghanistan became a war against the living dead?
In order to find out more, we chatted with Sable and Azaceta about their approach to the book, just what kind of zombies we’re in for, and how it’s similar – and different – from a certain other zombie series from Image:
MTV Geek: So Mark, when you sat down to come up with this project, was your first thought, “What else can I write that will get me pulled over by airport security?”
Mark Sable: Great, just when I finally thought the word “TSA” would stop showing up whenever someone Googled my name, you bring up the UNTHINKABLE incident again. It’s funny, since my detention I’ve been flying with a lot of books on the Taliban as research for GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES, and I haven’t been stopped once. If I’m stopped for carrying issue of GRAVEYARD, then I’ll know it’s artist Paul Azeceta’s fault. It was his cover for UNTHINKABLE that caught the TSA’s eye in the first place.
Geek: Seriously though, if you and Paul could talk a little bit about the genesis of Graveyard of Empires, that would be great.
MS: The germ of GRAVEYARD started while I was reading HP Lovecraft during the invasion of Iraq. I made this connection in my head that The Necronomicon (used to create zombies in The Evil Dead movies) was written by a “mad Arab” after visiting the ruins of Babylon. The museums in modern day Babylon (Baghdad) were being looted. I wondered what might happen if someone got their hands on a copy, and Marines had to deal with the consequences.
When Paul became involved, two things changed. The “War on Terror” shifted back to Afghanistan, which created a more isolated and dangerous situation for our fictional Marines as well as those in combat there now. And without giving the ending away, we decided on a different origin for the zombies, one that better reflects the themes of our story.
Paul Azaceta: For me, I was immediately intrigued with the visual of US soldiers battling Taliban zombies. The only sticking point was I felt it should stand on it’s own. I thought the idea had real potential and tying it down with Lovecraft wasn’t necessary. Once Mark agreed we were off and running.
Geek: You guys are co-collaborators on this. How does that work? How are you splitting the writing duties (since Mark, I’m guessing you’re not busy inking pages or anything)?
MS: Is co-collaborators an actual word? Paul was a collaborator like the French were in World War II, only this time it’s worse, since he’s helping the Taliban.
In all seriousness, as a writer it’s always scary when an artist wants to have a say in the story. You worry that they just want draw pirates or ninjas and then you have to find a way to fit them in. But Paul truly helped shape this story. I’d send him scripts and he’d give me notes as tough as any editor. It was important to him that, in a comic that features something fantastical, everything else felt as real as possible. He kept me honest, didn’t let me take any shortcuts and pushed me to become a better writer.
PA: Working with Mark again has been great. I think over the years we’ve developed a pretty good friendship and he made it easy to voice my opinion. As Mark said, my main concern was keeping the book grounded. A great writer once told me that when you have people running around with powers, or in this case zombies, you have to build the world around them with as much reality as possible. If you do that all of a sudden Superman flying becomes an amazing feat.
Geek: You guys have worked together before, on what I believe was your first project ever (could be wrong on that)… What’s it like, reuniting now? How has the collaboration changed over time?
MS: Paul indeed drew and co-created my first comic, GROUNDED a few years ago, and I’ve been dying to work with him ever since.
I’d like to think I’ve become a better writer during that time, giving Paul what he needs to tell a story but learning to trust him, get out of his way and let him do his thing.
While both our careers took off after GROUNDED, Paul’s hit the stratosphere, especially his run on The Amazing Spider-Man with Mark Waid. It says a great deal about Paul’s commitment to pushing himself as an artist on creator-owned work that he’d take the time away from a high profile gig to work with me on a passion project like this again. It says even more about him as a person that he’s remained the most humble creator in the industry.
PA: Working with Mark that first time was a real learning experience for both of us. Even though I had done a bit of work I had no idea what it took to put together a book. Being able to do our separate thing, learn about the industry and , more importantly, grow as artists has made a tremendous difference in this new collaboration. This time we have a much clearer vision about what the book should be and a real handle on how to make that become a reality. We also know each other better and that means we can give our honest opinions and not worry about offending the other person. It’s the kind of back and forth that hopefully translates to the book so it feels like one vision instead of a jumbled mess of ideas.
Geek: Back to Graveyard of Empires, what makes these zombies different? Or are they the classic “BRAAAAAINS” variety?
MS: Well for one thing, they don’t speak English, so they’d be saying “? ?? ?????” (that’s Pashto for “brains”.
Seriously, it’s the characters and setting that distinguish these stories more than the zombies. It’s a case where if ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The last time someone tried to tinker with vampires, for example, they wound up having sparkly chests and flying through the woods, and we’re all paying the price for that.
We’re using zombies not because it’s cool to see them blown up by professional soldiers with big guns (although thanks to Paul, it will be). They are representative of an enemy of unknown motivation. One that comes in wave after wave, barely needing to eat or sleep.
I was just told of a story of Taliban being drugged up by their leaders as they tried to overrun an outpost. They were so high that they kept rushing forward despite taking multiple gunshot wounds. It makes you ask who the real zombies in Afghanistan are.
Geek: For Paul, what’s your visual take on zombies? How do you make them look distinct from, say, the ones in The Walking Dead? Or is that not a concern?
PA: I definitely wanted to do “my own” zombie for this book. I looked at the Walking Dead and Sean Phillip’s zombies and even stills from some classic movies, but when it came down to drawing them on the page I just went with my gut. My favorite zombies are the ones that look half decayed with missing limbs so I approach each one with a “how bad off can I make this guy” attitude. So far so good.
Geek: Let’s talk about the human component… Who do we meet in this series?
MS: GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES starts when a young Marine Lieutenant arrives to take charge of a remote combat outpost whose beloved commanding officer was recently killed.
He finds the winning over the locals an almost impossible task. Afghans are at best indifferent to the Marines, and at worst secretly aiding the Taliban. The Taliban force the local farmers to grow opium, while American policy is to burn their fields for doing so. The Taliban take the locals’ boys as child soldiers, and their girls as child brides. The Afghan National Police rape anyone they can find.
When the Taliban aren’t busy extorting the locals for their cut of the opium crop, they are constantly shelling the outnumbered Marines and setting up ambushes and IEDs.
The Marines the Lt. finds are worn down and wary about leaving the wire. The only Marine who does want to engage with the local populace is an overly aggressive scout sniper who is constantly challenging his authority to the point of mutiny.
We also follow a drug-addicted Explosive Ordinance Disposal (E.O.D.) team member who needs heroin to deal with the stress of dismantling IEDs, and a Female Engagement Officer who’s there to bring hope to women suffering years of oppression. Add a double-dealing Afghan police officer and a doctor forced by the Taliban to surgically implant explosives in suicide bombers and I think you’ve got the most original cast in comics.
Geek: And practically speaking, when you set down to do a zombie comic, how much consideration is there to, “Okay, we have to have enough cannon fodder so some people can die, or become zombies themselves?”
MS: That’s actually a big challenge. You need a big enough cast that characters can die, otherwise there isn’t a sense of consequence. At the same time, you want to keep the cast small enough so that you care about everyone that does die.
PA: In reality there can be thousands of Marines to any given base in Afghanistan. For some Outposts there can be hundreds. Some smaller Outposts maybe as low as 50. It became a bit of an issue because we can’t have 50 Marines running around and still expect the reader to know who anyone is. So getting a good number of Marines together so it feels like a lot but isn’t overwhelming was something we really took time to nail down.
Geek: What drew you to the war in Afghanistan in particular?
MS: To me it’s the big elephant in the room that nobody’s talking about. Tens of thousands of Americans fighting an uphill battle there, but walk around this country and it’s like it’s not happening. What’s really strange to me is that, despite a history of comics tackling war, there are very few war comics being published these days, and even fewer dealing with the war we’re fighting.
PA: Both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are very unique. People always make the comparison to Vietnam but they really are pretty different situations. It’s a new kind of war going on over there and it’s something that has confounded even the experts of our day. We have the most modern military with the biggest guns but that means nothing when you have to fight your battles in towns and populated areas. It’s be easy to just go in an destroy. We’re great at that. The problem is the cost of civilian life isn’t just the life that’s ended but with the new enemies it produces. For each mistaken death that can lead to hole towns joining the other side. And that’s only one facet of the war and the problems we face. It’s a complex and ultimately fascinating look into modern warfare.
Geek: Have you visited there? Or is this just intense study on your part?
MS: The closest I came was an invitation to attend the first comic convention in the Middle East, which was postponed indefinitely due to the unrest in the region. I still hope to make a trip to the region.
But both Paul and I did extensive research. Not just reading books and watching films. I talked to veterans of this and other wars as well as intelligence officers very close to what’s happening on the ground. I also mainlined hours and hours of raw combat footage. All of it took it’s toll in it’s own way. I always do a lot of research, but this was the most emotionally affecting research I’ve ever done.
PA: It can get pretty depressing when you realize that every story or piece of information you read ends badly. It actually pushed me to try and be more accurate so I don’t offend anyone involved, American or Afghan.
Geek: For Paul, what do you think characterizes the landscape, artistically, in the series?
PA: It’s definitely not like the cities I’m used to drawing in my past work. I think a lot of people want to think of Afghanistan like Iraq but it’s not. In northern Afghanistan, where we set the book, it’s actually quite a beautiful place. It’s a mountainous region and it’s greener than even I thought. While researching the book I found myself wanting to take a trip out there see all those wonderful mountains. Maybe one day in the future when I can be sure I won’t be beheaded I’ll make the journey.
Geek: There’s clearly a lot of zombie content out there. Did that ever give you pause going into this project, or was the idea too captivating to turn down?
MS: I had two concerns. The first was that Image wouldn’t publish it. It’s to Image and The Walking Dead creators’ great credit that they weren’t worried about, well, cannibalizing the market.
The other was that the reaction would be, oh no, not another zombie book. Which would be silly -if there were twenty more zombie books, this would still be a medium dominated by super-heroes. But I feel confident that our approach sets this apart from any other piece of zombie fiction out there.
PA: I definitely have a concern that people will write it off the minute they hear zombies, but I always try to explain it’s not really about that. We put a lot of time into getting it accurate and putting the war first. It’s really a story about war and in particular this current war. I think that’s what sets it apart. It’s not zombies for zombies sake. I think once people see the first issue they’ll realize it stands on it’s own two feet apart from other books it’s in genre.
Geek: Robert Kirkman told Image that if Walking Dead lasted until issue #75, it would turn out aliens were behind the whole thing… And he delivered. What did you guys promise would happen in issue #75 of Graveyard?
MS: We promised that if GRAVEYARD hit #75 events in the real world would eventually catch up with the books. Meaning there would be a zombie outbreak in Afghanistan. We showed them some pretty startling evidence and hinted that if they played their cards right, we might help them survive. It was less a pitch and more “come with me if you want to live”.
PA: I promise that by issue #75 zombie camels would have taken over the Middle East and would argue at the U.N. to be recognized as new nation. I see no other way for the story to go.
Geek: Okay, more to the point, is this a limited series, or an ongoing?
MS: It’s a limited with ongoing potential. Our plan is to do self-contained volumes that tell a larger story, like Hellboy or Criminal. The next series would be like Season 2 of The Wire, where we shift the focus to new characters and while we continue to follow survivors from the first series. If there are any, that is.
PA: I honestly originally viewed this as a self contained thing but Mark’s brain has been working overtime with new ideas for more stories. I have to say I’m just as excited to do the next one.
Geek: Lastly, sell us on Graveyard of Empires. What tease will make people need to pick up the book?
MS: I think our two taglines sum it up. The first is “GRAVEYARD literally rips the face off of modern warfare. With all due respect to others’ work, I don’t think you’ll find a more realistic, hard-hitting story about the war in Afghanistan.
The other “Even Hell Can Get Worse.” If you’re a fan of zombie fiction, you haven’t seen a group of more highly trained, heavily equipped characters this badly outmatched before. Afghanistan is called “The Graveyard of Empires” because it’s brought the world’s greatest armies to its knees. Think of all those centuries of war dead…it’s the absolute WORST place in the world for a zombie uprising.
PA: Taliban zombies. Do you really need more than that?