There's nothing enjoyable about taking a trek through an isolated desert, particularly when you're completely lacking survival training and the salivating members of a cannibal cult are hot on your heels — but that doesn't mean such an experience isn't enjoyable to read about. Writer Jeff Mariotte ("Zombie Cop," "Cold Black Hearts") and artist Daniele Serra ("Pray For Death," "Teenage Timberwolves") are exploring that very setting in "Fade to Black," their upcoming horror miniseries from Image Comics' Shadowline imprint. CBR News spoke with Mariotte about his latest twisted tale, and has an extended preview with five exclusive pages from the first issue.
"Fade to Black" focuses on a group of five young men and women that are seemingly stranded in the desert and on the run from an enigmatic creature, but it doesn't take long to realize that these folks aren't quite what they appear to be. "The story is about five young people who, at first glance, appear to be participating in an Outward Bound style wilderness survival adventure, but we quickly learn that they are in fact spoiled young Hollywood actors who know nothing about wilderness survival except what they've read in their script," Mariotte told CBR. "When they become the targets of a cannibal cult, that turns out to be an unlucky fact, because they're on their own in the desert and survival is far from certain."
Over the course of the miniseries, readers will come to learn that these Hollywood outsiders might share the same profession, but their personalities and backgrounds couldn't possibly be more different. "The five actors are Hollywood heartthrob Troy, born rich and handed everything in life on the proverbial silver spoon," the writer said. "Kira, the sexy scream queen who keeps working because she screams well and looks good naked; Mario, the only one of these five who was actually born into poverty and acted his way into the fast lane; Angelique, an innocent and supremely talented actress; and Doug, who gets all the 'gangsta' parts because he's African-American, even though the closest he's been to the ghetto is driving his Hummer past South Central."
Even though these actors come from the hills of Hollywood, the story of "Fade to Black" takes place entirely within the desert without flashbacks to the characters' Los Angeles lives. "I live in the high desert and have been a desert rat for decades," Mariotte said of his interest in the book's setting. "In addition to the natural beauty of the desert, there's a sense of isolation there that plays into 'Fade to Black.' It's not hard to be completely cut off from the world — there's no cell phone service, for instance, no busy streets, no other people for miles and miles. These five actors have agents and managers and entourages, people around them constantly, but not here and now. Here, they're entirely on their own. Also, there's a certain aspect I love about setting terrifying events not in darkened alleys or gloomy mansions, but in the brightness of the desert where the sun is inescapable."
Escape would be a nice option for the group of actors, as they soon realize that they're not alone in the desert — the enigmatic Brother Juniper and his cannibal cult known as the Children of the Radiant Night have their sights and appetites set on the stars of "Fade to Black." "The Children of the Radiant Night are a cannibal cult, holed up in the desert and engaging in cannibalism for reasons that will be explained in the issues," said Mariotte. "They've got their hearts set on our five heroes for a very specific purpose. Including eating, but, you know, another purpose."
This specific purpose is just one of the many twisted turns that "Fade to Black" takes, as Mariotte's intention is to confuse both the characters and the readers. "Nothing is what it seems," he teased. "You can't know people by outward appearances. At first we think the five actors are legitimately on a wilderness trek, but obviously, they're not. In fact, that's just the first of several reversals, which is why I don't mind revealing that surprise — because there are plenty more to come."
The fact that Mariotte's heroes hail from the film industry helps to serve the story's exploration of deception and reversals. "On the literal level, the film they're making is the reason they're in the desert, and without giving too much away, there's yet another twist involved with that," he explained. "On the metaphorical level, it's another layer of the theme. We see people on screen and we think we know them; we confuse them with their characters. We even see them in magazines and TV shows and almost come to believe that there's a relationship with our favorite actors that doesn't really exist. Those actors are showing us mask after mask, not their real lives."
Mariotte said that the idea for "Fade to Black" percolated in his head for quite a while before he committed it to paper. "The main concept — watching people we think are wilderness survival experts who turn out not to be that at all, put into a dangerous situation where that knowledge would come in handy if they in fact had it — is something that I've just been looking for the right platform to tell," he said. "I didn't know if it would be a novel or a comic book or what. I started down one path with an artist and publisher as a graphic novel but that didn't work out, and I abandoned it until I met Daniele Serra."
The involvement of Serra as the artist on "Fade to Black" is one of the reasons that Mariotte is so excited about the book. "I think I'm most excited by being able to showcase Dani's art for the general American comics audience for the first time," he said. "Dani isn't known in the United States for comics work, but he is well known and highly regarded as a book illustrator. When we first started talking, I was hoping to find some book project to work with him on, but then this came up and we decided to do this together. His specialty is dark horror, and he doesn't flinch away from showing whatever needs to be seen. At the same time, he's a natural storyteller who knows how to keep the action moving."
As a story filled with twists, turns, reversals and reveals, "Fade to Black" is certainly a project that Mariotte has a lot of confidence in. "I think the story is a compelling one — certainly it has stuck in my head without letting go for a long time," he said. "I guess [readers] won't be surprised when they discover that the five characters are really actors, but they will be surprised by other revelations that occur along the way … anybody looking for a suspenseful, frightening story that's also full of action, a quick, can't-put-it-down kind of read, will be happy with it."
Jeff Mariotte and Daniele Serra's "Fade To Black," a five issue miniseries from Image Comics and Shadowline, debuts on March 17, 2010.