“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” — Psalm 23
Max Brooks takes the fantastic extremely seriously. In 2003, he published The Zombie Survival Guide, a meticulously researched how-to manual to manage everyday life among the undead. Three years later, he wrote World War Z, an oral history that became the basis for Brad Pitt’s hit movie about the zombie apocalypse. So it’s no surprise that the author who treated zombies with a historian’s eye for detail had a somewhat similar approach to Shadow Walk, the new graphic novel he created with writer Mark Waid (Daredevil) and artist Shane Davis (Superman: Earth One). The Valley of the Shadow of Death is a Biblical reference, long assumed to be a metaphor, but Brooks was tasked to create a world where such a place really existed.
In Shadow Walk, a team of soldiers and academics are sent into a mysterious hell-hole that American grunts have stumbled upon while fighting in Iraq. Within its borders awaits one nightmare after another, and the crew is tested in every way: physically, mentally, spiritually.
Brooks checked in with EW before the book goes on sale on Wednesday, Nov. 27, to discuss how this collaboration came about, what he loved about working for Legendary Comics, and whether Shadow Walk has a future on the big screen. Click below for an interview and six exclusive pages of Shadow Walk.
You’re credited as a co-creator of Shadow Walk. How did this work as a collaboration?
You know, they say it’s one part inspiration, nine parts perspiration? All I had to do was be inspired. The rock stars on the golden chariot are Mark Waid and Shane Davis. They did the perspiring. But it all starts with the chairman of the board, Thomas Tull, who is a genuine fanboy who wants to produce the kind of media that he would want to consume. He came up with this idea. He called me into his office and said, “What if the Valley of Death was a real place? What would be the science behind it? What would be the history behind it? So build me a defensible, honest, practical world around this place.” That was my marching orders. So I went and I hit the books, and I built a world around that.
So you go and research and then hand over some giant binder of art and ideas and characters. How does that then become a story?
Well that’s the hard work. That’s the real work. I just pass the torch. Not only did Mark do a great job [crafting the story], he threw in these tiny little nuggets of truly brilliant insight into the human condition. Just the little throwaway line of the difference between a skeptic and a cynic. That the cynic is looking to disprove the theory; the skeptic is looking for the evidence to back it up. I thought, “Wow, what a great psychological distinction.”
I was also blown away by, for lack of a better word, the sheer cojones of the project. Because I put stuff in there when I was building character bios that I would’ve bet you anything never was going to make it in. There’s a scene where a good ol’ boy — you know, “Rebel by birth, Yankee by choice” — urinates on a Confederate flag. Because he’s smart enough to know that the Confederacy wasn’t him. It was a bunch of freakin’ slave owners. His people were poor country boys. So he hated the Confederacy. I wasn’t putting that in there to slam the South, and that character, Judge, he loves the South. He loves it with all his heart and soul, and that’s exactly why he hates the Confederacy. And I thought, you know what, that’s something I feel strongly about, but ain’t no way that’s making it into the [comic-book]. So literally, I open the book [for the first time] and a Confederate flag is being urinated on. What guts! And the credit for that goes to Thomas, because every other medium I’ve worked in, you always come up against the Department of Fear. The Department of Fear is always, “Oh we don’t want to get letters,” and they always cut you off at the knees. It’s like “Wow, Thomas!” What a freakin’ way to lead from the front. Because you know we’re going to get letters from that. You know people are going to get mad at that. Pissing on a Confederate flag!? A Southerner pissing on a Confederate flag!? Oh yeah.
Not to put you on the spot, but are you a religious person?
I don’t know. I would like there to be an afterlife. I think it’s a great idea. I sincerely hope that my mother just got on an earlier flight and didn’t just pass into atoms. It sure would be nice if the deeds you commit in this life, you’re either rewarded or punished for in subsequent existence. That would be nice. But the truth is, I have no proof either way. I don’t know.
So you’re a skeptic, but not a cynic.
Exactly. And I’ve had many theological arguments. I once actually dated a very religious Christian girl who was the daughter of a pastor, and we used to get into it. I used to say to her, “Look, I try to be a good person. I don’t lie or cheat or steal. I’ve never consciously tried to hurt anybody. But in your mind, I’m going to hell because I haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as my savior.” And she just didn’t have an answer for that. She’s like, “Well, you know, it’s not too late.” And I think that’s the great thing about Shadow Walk: it doesn’t presume to answer the questions. It just wants to open the door for debate.
Not to dwell on the superficial, but it also looks gorgeous. Some of those beasts and demons are from the darkest wells of imagination.
Oh my God, those creatures… the sirens who basically have eyes for breasts and teeth-mouths where their lady-bits are? I don’t know where that came from. Maybe Mark put that in the script or maybe Shane thought about it on a bender one night, I don’t know. But… wow, that’s an image.
Legendary has a large footprint in the movie business as well. Do you envision Shadow Walk on the big screen?
When Thomas Tull brought me into his office and told me he was starting Legendary Comics, he said, “I’m not starting a pre-movie division.” Not everything can be a movie — simply for budget constraints. There are so many great visual ideas that are ending up as screenplays on shelves. There’s just a limit to how many movies you can make, but there’s no limit to how many comic books you can print. He said, “I want to make a true comic division.” Too many people are writing movie auditions in the form of comic books, and they’re not focusing on a comic-book. You can see that in the artwork, you can see it in the story. You can see how badly they’re trying to audition for a movie. It’s a crucial difference.
Your next book is more of a solo effort: The Harlem Hellfighters, based on the famous World War I all-black fighting unit. How long have you been researching that one?
I first heard about them 30 years ago, and I’ve been fascinated for 30 years. And 15 years ago, I tried to write it as a movie; nobody wanted it. I was ready to give up but I had a meeting with LeVar Burton, and he was like, “There’s a lot of Harlem Hellfighters scripts out there but yours comes closest to the truth so don’t give up.” Then, when I got into comic books, I said, “I can tell the story now. I have a medium. I have a vessel.” So I went back to the research, and I’m talking crazy details of war, details of African-American culture pre-WWI. Crazy, crazy research. I actually bought a WWI gas mask so I would know what it was like to look through the eye holes when I was writing about it.