They didn’t know about zombies yet in the 1870s, so imagine their confusion.
Early in the zombie- Western comic book series “Rotten,” one poor guy, a would-be miner who hopes he’s on the trail to the town of Shimmer, spots a gray- skinned, sore-covered figure staggering in the distance.
“You look like you need help, friend,” the miner calls.
The landscape is parched. Buzzards circle. The figure walks closer, insects hovering above his head.
“Hey, you’re gonna be all right,” the miner insists, even as the wounded figure reaches his hands toward his victim’s throat.
The zombie sinks his teeth into the miner’s cheek, tearing out a chunk of flesh, and it finally becomes clear nobody’s going to be all right. The pair hit the ground in a cloud of dust, more fleshy chunks presumably soon to go.
It was the innocence of the era – at least in terms of the living dead – that appealed to Mark Rahner as the comic book series’ creator and co-writer, with Robert Horton. The 1983 graduate of Shadle Park High School, now a Seattle writer, will be at Spokane Comicon on Saturday to meet fans and talk pop culture.
The “Rotten” series, launched in 2009, has garnered attention and fans for its originality, its strong writing and, zombies aside, its historical accuracy, said Nathan O’Brien, who founded and runs Spokane Comicon.
Rahner is a lifelong fan of zombie stories on print and screen who fondly remembers a “Night of the Living Dead”/“Eraserhead” double feature at the Magic Lantern that led to a month of nightmares. He’s been disappointed by the genre’s recent offerings.
“I wasn’t seeing anything that wasn’t just a copy of a copy of a copy,” Rahner said. “It was all a bunch of survivors in a modern-day apocalypse, just a survivalist fantasy.”
Setting a zombie story in the post-Civil War era freed him – and his fans, he hopes – from the burden of modern pop culture. People understood little about germs, much less the virus Rahner’s 1870s victims suspected had infected their flesh-seeking brethren. They had no mass communication.
“So something like dead people getting up and killing would really freak people out like crazy,” Rahner said. “In 2013, we’re so jaded, and it’s such a part of pop culture – I wanted to kind of put people in a frame of mind where that was all stripped away, and they could feel viscerally, ‘Good Lord, even though we’ve had 40 or 50 years of zombie culture or thereabouts, at its core, this is one of the most horrifying things you can imagine.’ ”
Zombie media today also seems to lack the “statements” he admired from zombie-film makers such as George Romero, whose “Night of the Living Dead” has been viewed by critics as a subversive critique of 1960s America and “Dawn of the Dead” as a satire on consumer society.
A former pop-culture writer for the Seattle Times, Rahner says the series has allowed him to comment on the George W. Bush presidency and Iraq War in ways he couldn’t as a reporter.
At the start of the series in 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes had won office amid a dispute over electoral votes, and Democrats were calling him “Rutherfraud.” The main character, an Army veteran, is sent to investigate a terrorism crisis – what turns out to be a series of zombie outbreaks.
Besides “Rotten,” Rahner’s work includes a satirical “Vampirella” trilogy and comic books based on stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of the Mars adventurer John Carter and jungle adventurer Tarzan.
And Rahner has an “idea drawer” full of work in various stages of completion. Maybe some of it will get published. The comic book industry is more conducive than it used to be to publishing independent work, Rahner said, outside of the mega-publishing companies and tried-and-true, licensed characters with decades of history.
And he thinks readers are more conducive to embracing comics.
“It’s more acceptable to be a nerd these days than it used to be,” Rahner said. “I don’t think people remember that. I used to have to sneak comics in through my basement window, because it was a shameful thing.”