Interview: Jonathan Maberry

jonathan_maberryJonathan Maberry may be best known in recent years to many librarians for his runaway hit in the YA field, the gripping Rot and Ruin series, but this year he’s gone back to another favorite monster, the vampire, in his miniseries Bad Blood for Dark Horse Comics. Check out a six-page preview from Dark Horse here. Bad Blood is currently available in individual issues from Dark Horse, and will be available as a trade paperback in December 2014

NFNT contributor Anna Call was able to snag an interview with Mr. Maberry to pick his brain* about his return to comics.  Read on to hear more about his inspirations, histories, and fears generated by the monsters, human and inhuman, that still give us nightmares.

-Robin Brenner

*Yes, I wrote that intentionally. I know. I couldn’t help myself.

BadBloodtpbNFNT interviewer Anna Call: Thank you very much for sitting down with me. I’ve read Bad Blood. I was very impressed, as I think a lot of your readers were, and I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about how it was to write Bad Blood verses some of your other material that readers may have been familiar with previously, the YA novels that you’ve written, the zombie books, and the stuff you’ve done for Marvel.

Jonathan Maberry: It’s certainly different than the Marvel stuff. I was writing mostly superhero stuff for Marvel, even when it was apocalyptic, like Marvel Universe Versus and Marvel Zombies Returns. But it was definitely a different approach. This was a darker story, there aren’t any conventional heroes in it, and it’s a bit more personal in some ways.

I had a friend, when I was in high school, or junior high school, who had leukemia. Going through it with him and trying to be his friend, you know, a good friend through it while he was dealing with what he knew to be a life-threatening disease, couldn’t be detached from it. I kind of have some of that back story built in, and I had planned to explore that dynamic as time went on. As far as my novels, comics are substantially different than novels. Even though with a five-issue arc, you get to tell a moderately complex story, but it’s a different type of storytelling. You get more personal very quickly. Bad Blood has that kind of vibe to it.

NFNT:  It is very personal.

JM: Yeah. What does it mean to be a hero, what does it mean to live forever, what does it mean to die? These are fairly complex questions for a person. The nature of hope, and the nature of hope being lost or betrayed are things you can explore pretty easily and pretty fully in the comic book because you get the artwork and the expressions of the characters to help tell the story in ways deeper than through just words. You get that extra layer of storytelling that comic art really does well.

NFNT:  What made you decide to make this a vampire story? We’re a very vampire-saturated culture and you’ve contributed a lot of very interesting, innovative stories to the zombie genre. This wasn’t a complete change for you, you’ve written vampires before, but what inspired you?

GhostRoadBluesJM: I was into vampires long before zombies. I did five nonfiction books on the folklore, myths, and legends of vampires. So I did quite a bit of research on the subject of what people actually believed in terms of vampires and vampire-like creatures. And also, my first three novels, Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man’s Song, and Bad Moon Rising, are vampire novels, so I was more into vampires before I got into zombie fiction. I’ve always loved the vampire as monsters. It’s a very interesting monster to write about because it’s so different than what people expect. Most people, the only thing they know about vampires is from Hollywood movies and pop culture, and those versions of vampires don’t in any way resemble vampires of myth and legend. So I kind of like playing with being new by being old-school, so to speak. Finding fresh new stories by tapping into older legends that people have, in this day and age, kind of forgotten.

NFNT:  Is that why you present characters who seem to think that vampires are almost this angelic being as opposed to the very dark creatures, the almost parasites that you present?

BadBlood1JM: Well, vampires become romanticized. It’s kind of hard in movies and TV to keep a monster purely monstrous and be able to tell a story that people relate to. When Dracula was brought to the theater, into early film, they made him a romantic, tragic figure so that it would kind of tie into Victorian, post-Victorian seduction elements, which were big factors in the culture of the time. So the vampire had to be a seductive character rather than just a pure monster. Pure monsters tend to be one-note. By giving the vampire complexity of that sort, they were able to bring something fresh to it. The thing is, when they stuck to that one note, it kind of became a problem, it became also one-note. The vampires became this kind of tragic, love-lorn creature that is misunderstood and is only looking for love in this horrible thing that they do. It became that same one note again. In folklore, there are a lot of different kinds of vampires, different reasons for people to become vampires, and not all of them are evil, not all of them drink blood, etcetera…I wanted to go back and explore the other possibilities.

NFNT:  Well it’s pretty refreshing after Twilight.

JM: Well, you know, it’s a funny thing about Twilight. A lot of people take punches at it and certainly a lot of my writing colleagues do. I don’t, for the following reason: I’m not the demographic for that. I’m not a 13-year-old girl, or an 11-year-old girl. Since I’m not the person it was written for, I feel that it’s kind of not for me to say that this is right or wrong. Stephenie did a great job in writing for her demographic and the success of the Twilight books and movies did quite a lot for the horror industry and vampires as a fictional trope that helped people sell books, comics, movies, whatever, so I don’t take any swings at it.

vwars_cover_hires_croppedThat said, because the vampires of that being moderately sanitized and sparkly and so on, people were looking for a darker version, a darker story, and there have been some responses to that. Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro did The Strain, Justin Cronin did The Passage, and of course I did Bad Blood and V-Wars, which was also darker, less happy vampires. That’s a response to what people wanted and to what we as storytellers wanted to say.

NFNT:  Previous comics that you’ve written have dealt with superheroes, sometimes focusing on people who are on the high side of normal human ability, like the Punisher, Black Panther, going up against enemies who would have no trouble taking down a god. In Bad Blood, your heroes are sort of taking that to the extreme. They’re just about as weak as they could possibly be, but they’re going up against, we find out, the killers of history. So is there something attractive about writing weak heroes? Is there something that makes them strong in their weakness?

JM: I think that’s part of the personal journey. I grew up in an abusive household with a very monstrous father, and I grew up in a rough neighborhood where the strong and violent groups took advantage of the weak, and I survived it. I went on to teach self-defense programs to special-needs groups, women, children, the elderly and the physically challenged. I saw a lot of successes in what can happen when somebody discovers when they are stronger than they think [I saw] … people telling them that they were weak …or were trying to make them believe that they were weak so that they could make them easy prey. I know that people of all kinds can be powerful and that power and strength come in a lot of different frequencies. So I like to write about people discovering their power and finding ways to confront different kinds of threat and darkness. And, it’s fun. It’s fun to write the stories where people tend to surprise not only the bad guys, but themselves.

NFNT:  Is this really a victory in Bad Blood? We find at the end that nothing is as it seems, so what does this bode for humanity? Can we look forward to a Bad Blood 2? Will Trick continue the fight?

BadBlood2JM: That’s being discussed. I really don’t want to give all the details, but it’s being discussed. I had originally pitched it as a five-issue standalone mini, and end it where it ends, but I’m certainly open to going further. I know what the story would be should we decide to go further. Even further, it’s still not going to turn into the feel-good comic of the year. Not all stories have happy endings.

NFNT:  That is true, but something I think it’s refreshing for a story to have a little bit of a darker ending.

JM: Yes, victory has its own costs. That’s something that we should learn in Bad Blood.

NFNT:  Will there be a cost to Jonas, who sort of disappears at the end?

JM: I have a feeling that I’ll be exploring the Jonas story. Also, that sort of fits with some of my political views. Sometimes, the bad guys don’t ever get comeuppance. Look at the bankers during the economic downturn. They never really got comeuppance even though they were responsible for the economic crash. It’s a political statement, but it’s a fairly provable one, that sometimes the bad guys do actually win. Doesn’t mean the good guys can’t win also, or survive or recover or whatever, but usually the world doesn’t have a very clean, final act where all villains get comeuppance and all problems are solved.

NFNT:  That actually brings me to another point that I thought about when I was reading this. These vampires seem to symbolize a lot of the ills of humanity. Is that something you were going for, then, that they symbolize some of our own darkest motivations?

JM: Certainly. In mythology, which is one of the things I draw on for this, vampires have been what we’ve used to explain bad things that have happened to us. A great example: in the clinical condition of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, SIDS, they would put a child to bed, and the next morning the child would have died. There was no explanation, they didn’t understand it, and if you’re going back even a century, there are people who just can’t imagine how God would let their child die. It was easier for them to believe that some kind of a monster came in – a ghost, a spirit, a demon, a vampire – and attacked the child, took its life, stole its breath, or whatever. That makes sense, because if there are monsters, then that helps prove the existence of God, because if you pray for protection from monsters, having seen what monsters can do, those prayers are often rewarded. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome rarely affects the same family more than once. So once the child dies and they pray to God for protection from this monster, this vampire or whatever, then their other children don’t suffer the same fate.

BadBlood3This is one of the ways in which faith was built: the fact that prayer appeared to give you protection against these types of events. And I’m not saying this as an attack on any religion, it’s just a phenomenon within the folklore of vampires that things like SIDS was explained away by the creation of monsters. It gives you a measure of comfort to know that if there’s a monster, then there’s a god trying to protect you from the monster and all you need to do is follow the tenets of whatever your religion is, and you’ll be protected.

If you look at werewolf legends, there are hundreds and hundreds of cases in Italy, Germany, France, and other places where people were arrested for being werewolves, and if you read the transcripts of those trials, which are available, what you find out is that these were serial killers, people acting like animals. There was no concept of what a serial killer was at the time. Believing a person was possessed by a demon or a monster made sense because we didn’t really understand abnormal psychology, sociopathy, or any of that. Monsters help us have a balanced view of the world. Sounds freaky, but that’s pretty much how it works out.

NFNT:  How do the vampires in Bad Blood – or do they – balance the world? They seem to think that they are apex predators, keeping the human population in check. Do they have a place, or are they just an evolutionary gaffe?

BadBlood4JM: We don’t really explain it too much in Bad Blood and I don’t really want to yet because if we did go into a second story, that would be kind of a factor. But the short version of it is that they are part of nature, but they’re part of a darker side of nature. Nature has a duality: one that’s positive and geared toward health, and one that’s negative and geared toward destruction. Both are necessary. Even cancer is part of nature. Vampires are to the evolution of predators what cancer is to the microscopic world. They have their place. It’s just that, unlike cancer, they develop awareness so that they are able to understand that their nature is predatory. Unfortunately, there are corollaries in humanity as well, people who realize that being a predator is more fun than being prey, so that they simply embrace that as what they’re supposed to be and who they’re supposed to be.

NFNT:  You’ve been prolific in both print and comics. Have any of your previous successes influenced Bad Blood at all?

JM: There’s an echo of it in my Pine Deep novels. There’s a character named Mike Sweeney who had his own issues with a doomed life and his own connection to vampires. It isn’t a direct connection, it’s just part of the process of thinking about what it’s like to be in a life where essentially you’re doomed. How do you go on living if you’re doomed? In this case, Trick in Bad Blood has terminal cancer, and in the Pine Deep novels, the character Mike Sweeney was destined to become something terrible that he didn’t want to be.

This also brings up another issue that is a factor in some of my writing: nature, nurture, and choice. We often look at that issue of nature verses nurture, but I actually believe that there’s a third element to that, which is choice. We don’t have to be what our nature or our environment has tried to make us. We can impose our will and choose to be who we want to be. Trick could just very easily give up and be nothing. He could let it all go and say,”It’s not mine to do.” And that isn’t his choice. Actually, he’s one of the most heroic characters I’ve written because he has no resources. He has no chance, no thought that he could possibly win. He just knows that he can’t die without having done something. He’s a fun character.

NFNT:  He was very easy to empathize with.BadBloodtpb

JM: It was a shame to mess with him so much, because he probably wouldn’t like me! But writers aren’t in the business of giving their characters a good time.

NFNT:  That is true. Lolly actually has very sad story as we learn more about her. Did you research her world, her subculture at all, or did you draw upon influences from anywhere else?

JM: That’s a little bit of personal experience too. I worked, for several years, as a bouncer in a very seedy strip club. I knew a lot of the girls who were dancers and a lot of them were people who were either lost or who were trying to make a buck. A lot of them were junkies. Some of them were single moms with no education, no resources, trying to make money to raise their kid and didn’t want to get trapped in the lifestyle. It’s a very destructive one. You see a lot of substance abuse, you see a lot of sadness. You see a lot of people who, if they just had one good break, would have a much better life, but life just does not seem to give them the break that they deserve. I drew a lot on that experience, the years working at that club. It’s a sad, sad thing that we have so many people pushed to the fringes of our society who just aren’t convenient for us to take time to deal with, so we marginalize them, forgetting that that means that we’re ignoring an actual life. There’s a lot that went into the character of Lolly.

NFNT:  Do you have anything big in store for the future? I’ve heard rumors that one of your series is on track to become a movie.

Rot-and-Ruin-us-editionJM: Actually, we have two books in development for film right now. The Rot and Ruin series is in development for film, that’s my post-apocalyptic zombie series for teens. And, I’m doing a new monthly comic on it for IDW that will launch in September, all brand-new stories set in that world, set between books two and three in that series. Also Dead of Night, which is one of my novels for my adult readers, which is also a zombie novel, is in development for film right now. We’re just a script phase for that right now. The other thing is V-Wars, which started out as a prose anthology for IDW.  V stands for vampires [and] the culture acquires vampires after a virus triggers junk DNA and people begin turning into whatever type of vampire is part of their ethnic background. So you have all of these different vampire species from around the world causing problems. The first anthology came out last year. It went really well. The second anthology is coming out in August and IDW asked me to write a monthly comic, which came out this past week. Plus we had a free issue come out on Free Comic Book Day on Saturday. That’s just been optioned for television.

NFNT:  It sounds like you have an awful lot going on.

JM: I’m having a lot of fun working on all these different projects. Right now, I’m in that gear where I’m spending half my time working on zombies, half on vampires, with just a little time left over for other things. I’m doing my adult thriller series, a couple new projects that I’ll be announcing pretty shortly, from outside my usual zone.

NFNT:  If I can ask you one last question before we go, I’ve been wondering, while reading your previous works, what brought you to zombies and vampires in the first place?

JM: The zombie part – I was always interested in horror and horror movies when I was a kid. My grandmother got me interested in the folklore of vampires and other monsters before I even started watching monster movies. She was really knowledgeable on the subject and told me quite a lot about world folklore and got me to read quite a bit about everything from archaeology to anthropology to mythology. So that kind of kicked that process off. Then when I was ten years old, a buddy and I snuck into the movies in Philadelphia to see the world premiere of Night of the Living Dead, back in 1968. That pretty much locked me in to being a zombie fan for the rest of my life. That movie absolutely scared the bejeezus out of me. I love the movie. I went back to see it over and over again, and have seen, as far as I know, just about every zombie movie ever made. One of the fun things about writing this sort of stuff is that I also get to know and become friends with the people who write zombie books. Robert Kirkman, Jim McKinney and so on, we all get to know each other and share in the very strange world we’re procreating.

MarvelZombiesReturnNFNT:  I saw your work in Marvel Zombies. That must have been a lot of fun to work on.

JM: Yeah, that was originally supposed to be Marvel Zombies 3 or 4, but I decided to call it Marvel Zombies Return. Seth Grahame-Smith, David Wellington, and Fred Van Lente, we each took turns writing different chapters of that story. It was so much fun. I got to do Zombie Wolverine and Zombie Spider-Man, and now I have a Zombie Wolverine statue on my bookshelf here. It’s a very cool statue. But yeah, Marvel Zombies was always a favorite of mine. What a lot of people don’t know is that the Marvel Zombies characters were originally created by Robert Kirkman, the guy who created The Walking Dead. It started with the Ultimates, which is where the zombies showed up. He’s a much bigger influence on zombie pop culture than people know from Walking Dead. It was fun to play with those characters, see what we could do with them.

NFNT:  Do you have a favorite character? You mentioned that you’ve never written anyone quite as heroic as Trick in Bad Blood, but how does he rank in your personal pantheon?

JM: Of my characters, or of all the characters out there?

NFNT:  Of course your characters.

JM: My favorite character is Joe Ledger, the main character of my thriller series. He’s actually the opposite of Trick. He’s the ultimate badass. He’s also a smartass and he’s an awful lot of fun to write. Trick is probably the one I feel the most sympathy for and wish that I’d been able to give a happier ending than I gave him, but it is what it is. Trick was a lot of fun, and there’s a lot of subtlety and in-jokes that we throw into Trick that people may catch later on. Some of the visual sight gags and so on have nods to other things in pop culture. Trick was a lot of fun. He’s one of the characters I’ll always remember, probably one I’ll return to.

 

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