Some comics build intrigue with an enigmatic title, a name that suggests an idea or theme which builds and changes over the course of a three to five-issue series; others tell you everything you need to know right up front. Writer Chris Ryall and artist Ashley Wood's "Zombies vs. Robots" and the miniseries that followed are of the latter variety, yet the universe they have created is far more than a simple, endless conflict of unstoppable, inhuman forces. Ryall and Wood (as well as several other artists in a recent anthology miniseries) have created a desperate world in which hope is all but dead, yet humor remains -- these are funny comics, if darkly so. "ZvR" is not shy about playing up its own absurdity: these zombies can actually infect and feed on robots, upping the stakes for the titular conflict. CBR News spoke with Ryall, who in addition to scripting "ZvR" is IDW Publishing's Chief Creative Officer and Editor in Chief, about "Zombies vs. Robots: Undercity," a four-issue miniseries debuting in April, as well as Sony Pictures' plans to bring "ZvR" to the silver screen.
"Zombies vs. Robots" has been at the heart of the publisher's current "Infestation" crossover, with both factions (though primarily zombies) making their way into the "Transformers," "Star Trek," "G.I. Joe" and "Ghostbusters" universes. But, Ryall said, readers picking up "Undercity" need not be familiar with the franchise's history. "It picks up after the end of 'Infestation,' but there's no real need to read anything that came before this to follow the story I'm telling. Hopefully there's a want, but not a need," Ryall told CBR. "The story references 'Infestation' at the beginning and then completely diverges and becomes its own thing. I had this story in the works before 'Infestation,' so I didn't want to mess with its stand alone nature and make it too directly a part of a big event."
This series finds survivors of the zombie-robot apocalypse heading underground, a trope which has been explored in many different ways in science fiction, but which almost always signals a retreat. "UnderCity is the world's worst-case scenario come to life: as the series opens, the surface world is pretty well going to hell. So the world's leaders play the final card in their deck, which is gathering a chosen hand ful of survivors and heading underground," Ryall said. "Enacting the UnderCity initiative basically means aband oning the world and any other remaining survivors to a gruesome fate."
In "Zombies vs. Robots," this last bastion of hope isn't going so well, either. "It's set up as the world's final society. As you'll see in the series, UnderCity is essentially a mishmash of the world's best architecture and cultures, a way to preserve parts of the world that is now being forever overrun by zombies," Ryall said. "It's like a tackier, underground version of Las Vegas. It's this gigantic, cavernous, underground world, but even as big and impressive as it is, it still becomes a prison to the survivors. Hopefully it's at least a secure prison, free of zombies. But then again, if it stayed that way, this wouldn't be a 'ZvR' story."
With humanity on the verge of being wiped out, men of a certain mind see the End Times at hand -- perhaps a reasonable response -- and make their own plans either for survival or deliverance. "As much as this group of survivors heads underground to ensure the survival of the human race, not everyone left behind is so ready to write off the world above. And one such person is a certain Reverend Ironwood, who is actually chosen to go below and he opts out," Ryall said. "He thinks he sees what's really going on here with the whole zombie plague -- it's the start of the Rapture, and he decides the best way to earn a trip upstairs is to help hurry things on its way, using his force of Godbots to hasten the end of mankind.
"Like all the robots in the 'ZvR' world, they're pretty task-oriented and Ironwood's whole task is to earn a spot in Heaven by doing what he thinks is the Lord's work -- helping end the sinners who've been left on the planet."
Throughout the various "ZvR" stories, Ryall has made "things go awry" the rule of the day. While that will continue to be the case in "Undercity," the writer suggested that some otherwise-doomed characters might get a reprieve this time around. "It occurred to me recently, as I was actually sparing a couple characters I intended to kill but ended up liking too much because of Mark [Torres]'s art, that pretty much every human character in the 'ZvR' world has met a bad end. And things indeed go badly awry again in this series. While some of it might be pretty devastating, I think I actually decided to give some characters a small sense of hope in this one," Ryall said. "Then again, I'm not done scripting the whole series yet -- that might change again. The mole men in issue three might just see to that."
Though his influence has already increased the survival rate in "ZvR," Torres will be taking up full artistic duties in this universe for the first time "Zombies vs. Robots: Undercity," following a pinup for the previous "ZvR" anthology series, "Aventure." "Mark had sent me a few images back when I was doing the 'ZvR: Aventure' series and between those and some things I saw him do on books like 'Fear Agent,' I could see how well-suited he'd be for a full 'ZvR' series," Ryall told CBR. "I really like that he does his own thing -- and he's fully doing his own thing here, hand ling art and colors -- but there's a certain 'Ash-ness' to his layouts, a kind of balancing of playfulness, absurdity and gravitas that seemed especially well-suited for this series.
"And all that was before I saw him do any pages on the book itself. Now, after he's completed issue one and is into the second issue, I'm even more convinced. His layouts, the different color schemes he's chosen for the different storylines and his development of the new ‘bots and UnderCity itself make getting pages each day a real pleasure," the writer continued.
"As with the movie news hopefully bringing new eyes to the 'ZvR' world itself, my biggest wish with 'UnderCity' is that it really exposes Mark's art to as wide an audience as possible. He's really going to do good things in comics, starting here."
Regarding that movie news -- the announcement late last month that Sony Pictures had acquired the movie rights to "Zombies vs. Robots" -- Ryall said he is "So damned excited. Seriously, it's just great.
"I mean, this series got started back when Ash lived in America and was in the office and we just one day decided we should do a series where zombies fought robots. That was about the extent of this book's early origin," he continued. "So from that kind of goofy, humble beginning to get to a point where an esteemed studio like Sony Pictures wants to develop it. I mean, Sony -- home to 'Ghostbusters,' 'Spider-Man,' 'Men in Black,' 'The Karate Kid' -- they make great, crowd-pleasing flicks and here we are, a part of that family now. And Platinum Dunes and Michael Bay -- who sure as hell knows robots -- developing it? Yeah, it's been an amazing process so far, and it hasn't even really started yet."
The script Sony has purchased, however, is quite different from Ryall and Wood's original series -- "which is smart," Ryall said. "I mean, the first 'ZvR' series is maybe the least commercial live-action movie idea ever: it features only one human -- an infant! -- and ends on even that single human, well, not quite making it through unscathed. Plus, worldwide nukes. So I can see how changes might need to be made. So Sony gets the 'ZvR' world, but the script they bought definitely re-interprets the concept in a more audience-friendly way. Although I would love to see someone make a blackly comic, fully nihilistic straight adaptation of the comic, too -- but I'm likely the only one who'd want to see that."
First with Ashley Wood, then with several other artists in "Aventure," "Zombies vs. Robots" has always been a visually striking comic. Asked how and whether these stylistic elements might transfer to film, Ryall said that he'll be interested to see what direction the movie takes. "My fondest hope is that the filmmakers really strive to bring Ash's designs to life. His robots are so unique, so stylized and perfectly suited for this kind of world that I think it'd be a huge boon to the project if his look is incorporated into the film version," Ryall said. "This series would be nowhere without Ash's unique viewpoint and his stylized art influenced the direction of the stories and really made this project something unique beyond what could've been just another 'vs.' comic."
There will doubtless be other changes to the tone and style of "Zombies vs. Robots" during the transition from comics to film, as well -- but again, Ryall keeps everything in perspective. "I doubt it'll have the same overwhelming sense of nihilism that the comics had, since a movie where every human character meets a bad fate isn't the norm (in America, anyway; in Belgium, it's not as out of the ordinary)," Ryall noted. "But let's be honest -- at its core, the idea of zombies (who eat brains and organic tissue) fighting robots (who have neither of those things) is fairly ludicrous. And my response to that was to embrace the lunacy and try to take it to illogical extremes. From the draft of the screenplay I read, that same overall tone prevails, even if it moves into different areas. I think that's important. This is pretty much the definition of a genre flick (and we tried to save the studio lots of marketing dollars with the title, too. No one's going to be asking '"Zombies vs Robots?" What's that about?'), and I think the only way to bring that to life in comics, movies or otherwise is to embrace that genre-ness. But as long as lots of robots shoot the hell out of lots of zombies with the fate of all humanity at stake, all will be right with the world."
Even if his "fondest hope" isn't realized, Ryall is happy to see what Sony Pictures makes from his story, letting the moviemakers do what they do. "My plan at this point is to sit back and watch it all unfold with detached bemusement," Ryall said. "At the point where the property is acquired, they've pretty much gotten what they needed from me and Ash -- they got the world, and I was involved along the way, commenting on the various treatments, suggesting this or that. But now, they're off and running and hopefully have a spot in mind for me as a background zombie. Barring that, if it all goes horribly awry, I'll just sign everything over to Dave Gibbons. But I can't see that happening."