Zombies attack the Wild West in "Rotten," the ongoing series from Moonstone written by Seattle Times columnist Mark Rahner and Robert Horton, illustrated by Dan Dougherty. But there's something even more sinister lurking at the edges of this series, which released its sixth issue this month. Politically-engaged readers will notice a certain familiarity in the situations presented here, from a mob of townspeople defining what it means to be alive to a group of forlorn soldiers amusing themselves with the walking dead. CBR News caught up with Rahner to discuss the series.
On its surface, "Rotten" is a zombie story set in the Old West, but there is a bit more going on--the dilemma at the heart of the series' first arc turned on something of a Terry Schiavo situation, and the second arc has echoes of Abu Ghraib. "We're going back to basics, in one sense," Rahner said of filtering current events through the lens of a Western zombie thriller. "A lot of stuff pisses me off, and I think it makes good fodder for edgy stories in a fantasy setting. George Romero's commentary was inseparable from his flesh-eaters, 'Battlestar Galactica' was great at reflecting current events in a nervy way and Rod Serling is on my Mt. Rushmore of heroes. I love zombie stuff, but don't understand why so much of it really isn't about anything. Especially when there's so much heinous material that presents itself in real life these days. There's some hardcore wish-fulfillment in 'Rotten' if you're tuned into what's been happening the last few years, and some hardcore action and horror if you're not."
Describing the series further, Rahner said, "the protagonist is a stop-lossed Army vet, sent against his will to fight a terror crisis the government's lying about. [It] seemed irresistible." The writer is referring to Agent Wade, who is joined in the quest by Agent Flynn, who is responsible for reporting their discoveries to the president. "The real dilemma at the heart of the series is fear, superstition, lies, and amoral predators trumping reason in a time of crisis. And with the living dead eating people."
Complicating the two federal agents' efforts are questions about the legitimacy of their authority, given the disputed election that put Rutherford B. Hayes in office. Rahner said that this has allowed him to play on the controversies surrounding George W. Bush's election in 2000 and 2004, as well as the current "birther" furor among those who do not believe President Obama was born in the United States. "'Disputed' is putting it kindly, by the way," Rahner said of Bush's electoral victories. "And the 'birther' deal is proof that comedians were wrong when they thought they'd be running on fumes when Bush was, uh, evacuated. It's something I thought was dryly funny at the same time as it was terrifying. As alone as Wade and Flynn are in the 1870s, without the benefits of modern science, weapons, or communication, the fact that plenty of people they're trying to help won't even cooperate with them just adds to their misery. Which is considerable."
When all is said and done, the existence of zombies might present certain problems that would not be covered in the living-centric cultural debate, but Rahner said such questions would still have implications for the living characters. "After the immediate moral quandary of not getting eaten, the rest do involve the living, with the undead as a vehicle," Rahner said. "The 'Tracy Shilo' arc involved a town in an escalating controversy about putting down a girl who was only alive by the narrowest definition. In the following 'Frostbite' arc, Agent Wade was enraged about the way the things are treated, because no matter what they are, we have to remember what we are.
"As a newspaper reporter, I've found that crappy situations always show what everyone's made of," the writer continued. "Zombies just amplify that, carrying you and the douchebag in the next cubicle to some fantasy extension of reality. One running theme is that these agents keep encountering disgusting things that they say surely won't exist a century or more in the future when America is more advanced."
Political aspect aside, there is also the suggestion that multiple forms of zombies exist in the "Rotten" world. "By now, it'll be clear to Wade and Flynn and the readers that they're encountering different species wherever they're sent. They're kept off-balance, and citizens are freaked the hell out," Rahner said. "In the 1870s, it could be anything from the apocalypse to some bizarre Darwin thing, a Pasteur germ thing – you name it. And their quest to find the reason for it is going to be filled with ugliness, but it's an ongoing mystery that has an ultimate – and satisfying – answer. We thought it was a way to throw a new wrinkle into the zombie genre. As much as Horton and I love zombie stuff, it had gotten kind of ripe."
Rahner said that his heroes Wade and Flynn served in the Civil War together, where they "experienced plenty of other horrors, and have since developed a sort of kinship. "They're like estranged brothers," the writer said. "Wade is an angry, haunted, loose-cannon type who became a Pinkerton detective in Chicago after the war. Flynn is a career Army man of insatiable curiosity about everything, much more of a play-the-game guy. He knows what Wade's capable of, which is a constant source of both confidence and dread.
"He doesn't know what Wade's going to do, but he'd follow the dude into Hell. They answer directly to the president – or rather, Flynn does – because it's an important covert op that could involve untold death and panic."
After the second arc wraps up this month with issue #6, Rahner said there will be a brief intermission before beginning the next three-issue story which he said "takes things to a different nasty level."
"Wade's learning curve is active, and he goes to his next mission in a Pacific Northwest logging town with some new, brutal gear that he's made," Rahner told CBR. "We wanted to turn the comic-book-hero thing on its head for the first six issues – for godsakes, he's in bed injured in the second and third issue, and without the use of one arm in the fourth, fifth and sixth! In issue seven, he is a fully-formed badass, but nobody can be prepared for what he's going to face, and what ensues is grueling. Meanwhile, Flynn looks for answers at a university in Chicago where a professor is under siege for teaching the recent work of Darwin, and a familiar-looking demagogue is whipping up protestors into a violent frenzy.
"Also, the making of sausages plays a key role."
"Rotten #6" is in stores now, with a trade paperback of issues #1-6 to come in the summer.