When I penned a list of the ten best Horror/Westerns for IFC a while back, I contacted Mark Rahner and Robert Horton, writers/creators of the (at the time unreleased) comic book Rotten, for some comments and insights. Rotten is a set in the American West just after the end of the civil war, where two American agents are sent to investigate an alarming phenomenon: dead folks are rising from their graves as flesh-eating ghouls. That’s right, it’s a zombie western, strewn with influences ranging from the sixties TV series The Wild, Wild West to the political history of the past eight years.
“The first issue is an over-ambitious 52 pages and the rest will be normal-sized and around 22 pages or so,” Mark wrote me at the time, still awaiting the release of the first issue. “It’s also worth noting that this is a creator-owned title, which entails creative independence you don’t tend much to see with big companies and their licensed characters—not to mention a financial roll of the dice.”
In the interest of full disclosure, let me state up front that Rahner and Horton are both friends of mine and colleagues. I’ve known them both for many years and have watched them develop this project for the past three years. I couldn’t be more thrilled that it’s finally crawling out of the soil and stumbling out to hopefully take a big meaty bite out of the comic book culture.
The Q&A was conducted via E-mail, the preferred format for these writers, over a couple of weeks in April, 2009. The comic should be released this week. As of this writing, I’ve only seen a few sample pages, but I like what I see.
Why a horror western?
Mark Rahner: It was a mash-up of my favorite genres that I hadn’t seen much of — with secret agents thrown into the mix, along with a good dose of social commentary that any fan of Battlestar Galactica, The Twilight Zone or the original Star Trek would dig. In other words, the kind of thing that my co-writer Robert Horton and I would have enjoyed reading if someone else had written it.
The steam-punk aspect also appealed to me as a new twist on zombies — which have been strip-mined in recent years. Throw a character into a miserable situation with no cell phones, cars, or even much understanding of germs or evolution. There were also some great parallels. The main character is a stop-lossed vet, his president took office without the popular vote, and the government’s lying about a terror crisis. But the hero’s a vet of the Civil war, not Iraq; instead of being installed by the Supreme Court like Bush, Rutherford B. Hayes took office in what was called “The Corrupt Bargain”; and the terror crisis … well, it’s not Middle Easterners with planes. It’s different incarnations of the living dead.
As you say, zombies have been strip-mined in the comics, especially with the gruesome Marvel zombie heroes, which play like some perversely grim in-joke. How do you bring it back to something threatening and interesting?
Robert Horton: By playing it straight. This thing isn’t a spoof. That’s one of the reasons the violence is so violent. The material is alarming, and my co-writer and I were in no mood to undercut it. With any luck, when “Rotten” is funny, it’s because it comes out of character. Also I think you play it straight by sticking to the rules of the two genres. We did a bunch of research on the Old West to try to get things right. Those old Time-Life Naughahyde-bound volumes on the West really came in handy.
What kind of westerns did you turn to – fiction or film – to help you find your evocation of the late 18th century western frontier? Zombies don’t seem too far removed from the horrors of Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.”
MR: There wasn’t any specific film we drew from for inspiration, although I’m huge fan of Hammer’s Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, which I think is essentially a Western. But there are nods to different things in each issue. For instance, you’ll see hints of The Molly Maguires and Yojimbo in the first issue.
RH: McCarthy has that element at times, for sure, although I didn’t really think of his work while writing this. Peckinpah’s films would have to be considered a touchstone, not just because they used violence so pointedly but just because they were so good, and so tough, and you could see the flies buzzing around the decay. There are moments in John Carpenter’s films that were useful in keeping in touch with a certain blackness. There’s also a hint of The Wild Wild West in there (not the movie, the TV series), in the satisfaction of watching two different kinds of men working together, one a man of action, the other a sort of man of science. But the boundaries aren’t that simple, either—both the U.S. agents in “Rotten” think like chess-players, and both can bash in a zombie’s head with a shovel. Much of what we turned to for inspiration had nothing to do with fiction, but with news headlines. Not just story ideas, but the general sense of a society that is tilting dangerously toward superstition and fear, and away from rationality. Needless to say, it was easy to find story ideas in the last eight years or so.
What are your favorite horror westerns?
MR: I wish there were more of them. But how can you beat Billy the Kid vs. Dracula?
Why aren’t there more of them? And why are so few any good?
MR: I couldn’t possibly say why there aren’t more of them or why there aren’t many good ones. Mainly I’m happy that it leaves the frontier open for me. More to the point, that’s one reason I created Rotten in the first place. The horror-western genre is so untapped that simply having a protagonist who isn’t a cowboy, doesn’t talk in that bullshit patois and isn’t crazy about horseback and the great outdoors is unusual.
What do you think of films like High Plains Drifter and The Beguiled, not true horror films but westerns with gothic edges and allegorical demons?
RH: I like those films, but I can’t say they relate to the approach of Rotten. This piece is actually grounded in the Western, and mixes up horror with elements of, say, a Seventies paranoid political thriller. Except in this case, it’s the 1870s. So it’s not a horror story with a Western backdrop; it’s really a Western splattered with horror ideas. We don’t sneak around it, the horror comes at you right away. The first issue is pretty relentless.
Okay, so what makes the combination of western and horror so resonant for you?
MR: The short answer is that there’s more of the unknown and there are strong parallels to be drawn.
Is it just a gimmick, or is there something primal in the idea of monsters in the uncivilized west and the dangers of frontier life. Is it the revenge of the Native Americans or does the “civilized” culture bring their own monsters with them like psychic baggage?
MR: No gimmick. It’s a unique time and place in world history. Things were changing fast. People were encountering all manner of things, places and beings that were completely new to them. Why wouldn’t that also include assorted horrors? And if you’re aware of how modern-day horrors such as 9/11 have turned more Americans toward superstition — that is, religion — just think of what it must have been like back when people knew only a fraction of what we know about the world. And that’s one cool-ass hopeless situation to plop a self-reliant Western protagonist into.
We’ve been talking westerns most of this interview. How about horror films. George Romero essentially created the modern zombie horror with Night of the Living Dead. What kind of influence does that seminal work have in your portrait of the undead?
MR: You were just looking for an excuse to say “seminal.” Romero’s the godfather. I hope he doesn’t want any money from us.
Rotten is available at your neighborhood comic book shop this week. Visit the official Rotten website here.