Gone Zombie: Interview with Web Comic Creator Stephen Thor

In the comic world, people like zombies. That is, people like zombies eating people. I talked with Stephen Thor about his web comic Gone Zombie, an independent comic with a storyline revolving around a religious cult seeking spiritual fulfillment by becoming undead themselves. As the story begins, Kurt is on a search to find his sister Nancy and her son Billy who have joined a religious cult commonly known as “end-timers.” Kurt must evade the militia, zombies, and zealots to save his family.

Christine Purcell: Where did the idea for Gone Zombie come about?

Stephen Thor: One of the great things about survival horror is that it gives you a canvas on which to address many different issues: war, science, religion, family, medicine … issues that are part and parcel of your everyday news cycle can all be addressed in a well-written survival horror story. I had a few of those topics I wanted to explore and this is a way I could do that while playing in a pretty cool sandbox — one filled with zombies.

CP: Why a Web comic?

ST: I’ve long been a comics fan, and planned for the longest time to release Gone Zombie as a print comic. But the longer I kept considering a Web comic, the more comfortable I became with the idea. The Web is the world’s greatest distribution system, just sitting there daring you to exploit it. I couldn’t say no. And now with the growing popularity of devices like the iPad — and there will be a dozen iPad competitors on the market this time next year — I really feel like I made the right decision. What’s the old Wayne Gretzky quote? “Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it is.”

CP: Gretzky’s always been a wise man. Speaking of quotes, are there any zombie books or movies that influence your writing?

ST: I feel almost contractually obligated to mention George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead. A lot of horror movies rely on over-the-top gore to elicit a response from the audience, but that opening sequence — with the zombie lumbering toward the brother and sister in the cemetery — still freaks me out. There’s gore in Gone Zombie, but we don’t slather it on; Romero proved in that sequence that you simply don’t need to.

CP: Makes me wonder how Alfred Hitchcock would do comics. Other than reigning in the gore, what are the challenges of self-publishing a Web comic?

ST: Any time you step away from a traditional 9 to 5 environment and try to do something on your own, the challenge is always the same: holding yourself accountable for getting the work done. It’s easy to produce when you have a boss leaning over your desk yelping about deadlines. But when you’re the boss — and the secretary, and the janitor, and everyone else — making sure what needs to get done actually gets done can be tough. I feel pretty good about what we’ve been able to do with the strip, though: despite taking a week off here and there, Gone Zombie has debuted a new strip each week.

CP: That’s no small feat! Why are zombies so fascinating? Do you have any insight why they have become such a central part of pop culture in recent years?

ST: I don’t think there’s any single reason why zombies have really exploded into our collective psyche. I think there are several. Here’s one: despite the ubiquity of cell phones, e-mail accounts and tweets, it seems at times as if we’re a society comprised of people who feel cut off from one another. We walk around in these big crowds, but we’re separated from the guy or gal walking right next to us by our iPhone or Blackberry. In centuries past, your very survival depended on you working alongside your neighbors. Now? Now, our neighbors are inconvenient hassles we occasionally have to deal with. Remember that self-help book from years back, called, I’m Okay, You’re Okay? If they tried putting something out like that today, it’d be called, I‘m Okay, You’re Not Okay. And if you’re the one normal person surrounded by a bunch of folks who aren’t normal, it’s just one tiny step to turn you into one normal person surrounded by a bunch of zombies.

CP: Interesting insight. There are a number of zombie comics on the web right now. What to you makes Gone Zombie stand out?

ST: I read exactly zero zombie comics, on the Web or in print. For the longest time, I veered from watching any zombie movies I hadn’t already seen. I’m terrified of becoming unduly influenced by anyone else’s work, and so I just steer clear of all of it. For all its critical and commercial success, you’d think I’d be a fan of The Walking Dead, yet I haven’t read a single issue, and I won’t watch the show. It’s a bummer to think about, but I just think I have to do it. When I think about Gone Zombie, I actually don’t think about it as a zombie comic. It’s a comic about a family that finds itself in a pretty rough spot, and how they work out of it. In some ways, the zombies are the least of their problems. Hopefully, the strip stands out because of this emotional element. And lest you think this is a dodge — some writers run from any sort of genre label — please note that the word “zombie” is actually part of the title.

CP: What do we have to look forward to in the coming weeks of the strip?

ST: Carnage and the aforementioned human element. But, yeah, plenty of carnage.

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