Superheroes in a world gone to the living dead: what does being superhuman mean when the average person is barely surviving? Peter Clines explores this and more in an Ex-Heroes, an exciting new take on two well-worn genres. Clines spoke with me about this cross-genre horror-fantasy in the following interview:
Zombies and superheroes, huh? I smell uber-geek. Spill it: what are some of the geeky things you enjoy?
I don’t know… most of them? I was a huge comic book nut as a kid. Well, up until just a few years ago, really. I’ve loved Doctor Who since I was about ten and have hundreds of books and episodes. Star Wars, of course. Star Trek in its various forms. Giant monster movies. A few scattered anime shows, but not many. I thought CHUCK was magnificent, and my lovely lady and I are trying to fill that void with Person of Interest. I’ve got a pretty decent-sized LEGO collection, and a huge collection of little toy soldiers.
I’m assuming you’ve read Marvel Zombies. Mention zombies and superheroes and that’s not far behind. However your book is different, isn’t it? How?
I read the first series. I know I’m in the minority, but… I was disappointed by it, on a number of levels. I just felt like the story they told was a gigantic missed opportunity, and that it wasn’t even well-told past that. It wasn’t about superheroes fighting zombies, it was about ghouls wearing costumes and constantly flapping their tireless, undead jaws to remind us they were undead and hungry. And how does a zombie bite someone with bulletproof skin, anyway? I see holes like that and the story falls apart for me immediately. I won’t even talk about the ending, where they eat one of the three great cosmic forces in the Marvel Universe. I figured the second series had to be where they knocked out God with one punch, so I didn’t bother to read it.
Ex-Heroes is about the fight. It’s about actual heroes fighting the undead, surviving in the aftermath, and dealing with some of the issues that come up between heroic ideals and the reality of a post-apocalyptic world. It’s like The Walking Dead if Daryl Dixon was super-strong, bulletproof, and could breathe fire.
Who are some of your literary influences? What about cinematic? There has to be an interesting mix there.
Can I use additional pages as necessary? There’s just so many. When I was a kid I devoured issues of Amazing Spider-Man, Hulk, ROM, Micronauts, Ghost Rider, and more. Lloyd Alexander, Alexander Key, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Asimov, all the various Star Wars tie-in books (like the Han Solo trilogy, the Lando trilogy, and more…). When I got older and fell into horror there was Stephen King (who I grew up just south of in Maine), Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, Lovecraft. When I actually grew to appreciate the classics there was Hawthorne, Dumas, Steinbeck. I’m a huge Ray Bradbury fan. I love grabbing the latest book from Dan Abnett, Lee Child, Craig DiLouie, Neil Gaiman.
For movies… well, I grew up in a little tourist-trade town in Maine, so we had our own one-screen cinema that I could walk to. I just absorbed everything I could. Maybe too much… I think I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark at least two dozen times there the summer it came out. I love movies. The Marvel movies. Pixar movies. Lord of the Rings. Hellboy. And a lot of the classics, too, like Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon or the original The Day The Earth Stood Still. I’d actually love to see a smart remake of Creature From The Black Lagoon. I worked in the film industry for years, so a lot of that style of storytelling rubbed off on me.
Was it hard to come up with superheroes who aren’t established characters with the serial numbers rubbed off?
A little bit. Thing is, there’s always some level of repetition. When there isn’t, that’s when you end up with all those really odd eras of the X-Men comics when they were just adamant that nobody had the same powers. So instead we got mutant inventors, mutant translators, mutant robots, mutants with extra skin (or skin that peels off), and all those other bizarre ones. I think the repetition people notice more is the actual character and their personality. When every other character is a super-strong badass with hyper-reflexes and a sword or a huge gun or a tragic outcast who hates what their powers have turned them into… that’s when people get bored. I know I do. So I didn’t worry too much about “Oh, this character can breath fire… is there already a character who can do that? Damn. Okay, maybe he breathes clouds of superheated plasma…?”
I actually came up with a lot of the heroes in the book before I even hit my teens. I realized they all fell into various basic superhero archetypes (oooooh, five dollar word), they just needed a polish and a bit of an update from when I created them. But they’ve all got distinct, original personalities, so that’s why they feel fresh.
Who was your favorite character to write about? Would you trust him or her with your life in a zombie apocalypse?
They’re all kind of fun, even the bad guys, or I wouldn’t've been able to write about them. That being said, it’s awfully fun to write Zzzap when he gets his full geek on. I’d trust him, too, but it’d be tough to depend on him since he’s hard to interact with when his powers are active. I probably wouldn’t trust Stealth. She’s so big-picture oriented sometimes that she might make a few “practical” decisions that wouldn’t work out well for me.
What are the “zombie rules” in your world? For that matter, how do people get superpowers?
I tried to keep the zombies to the basic Romero rules. They’re slow, they’re mindless, if they bite you odds are you’re screwed. I didn’t want to waste a lot of time in the book coming up with some way of making them unique that served no purpose except to make them unique. “It’s not like in the movies–you have to shoot them in the gall bladder!” That kind of thing just feels forced to me half the time. And I’m also a big believer that the classics work. I’m not against new spins, but you don’t need a new spin to make zombies scary, you just need a good story. Soooo… hopefully I wrote a good story.
As for the superheroes… people get their powers in all sorts of ways, but I tried to make them a little more classic. Comics didn’t used to be so obsessed with realism and details–if the hero’s origin was a little silly, well, it was only one issue and then we got on with the stories. So I’ve got characters like St. George who was working in a chemistry lab that got hit by a meteor, Gorgon got a blood transfusion from a mysterious old woman, Cerberus built a somewhat-believable exoskeleton/ battlesuit, Cairax forged a magic amulet, and so on.
How do people react to their heroes in a world taken over by the undead? Are they disappointed that they weren’t able to save the world? Jealous that they may (or may not be) unscathed?
See, that’s exactly the kind of thing I wanted to see in Marvel Zombies. The resentment and the fear at being completely dependent on these people now. It’s bad enough knowing there’s a few million things outside the building waiting to bite you, but how much worse is it knowing that guy has bulletproof skin? Or that she’s always wrapped in three inches of armor? They’re not at risk at all. How creepy would it be that maybe you’ve seen these things tear apart dozens of people, but then somebody just wades through them like a crowd at a baseball game.
And, in turn, how do the heroes feel about all this? What happens when you’re the sterling, boy scout hero and you have to break up a family because mom was bitten on her way to the safe zone? What’s everyone else going to think when I go out scavenging with a dozen citizens and come back with nine? If you had your battle armor that keeps you safe, at what point would you never want to take it off? That’s the kind of stuff I wanted to talk about when the heroes weren’t battering the zombies around.
What’s next for you? Got another book coming out? Planning a sequel?
A couple, actually. Ex-Heroes was originally with a small publisher, Permuted Press, and the first sequel was already out before I moved over to Crown. It’s coming out just two months after Ex-Heroes. Now there’s a third book, Ex-Communication that’s going through edits, and then a fourth book that I’m working on right now which should be out sometime around Halloween. So it’s going to be a big year.
And after that… well, I’ve got a couple of other ideas.