28 Words Later - A Series Retrospective
with Michael Alan Nelson
by David O'Leary
With the final issue of one of comics standout books of the last two years shipping in June, I thought it a good time to revive 28 Words Later one final time to have a retrospective talk with 28 Days Later writer Michael Alan Nelson. It has been a rollercoaster ride for creators and readers alike. The book surprised many with its character driven drama and exceptional storytelling and art. Now, as the book draws to a close, the time seems right for a look down at an amazing two years in which Michael Nelson cemented his place as one of comic's best storytellers.
David O'Leary: Hi Michael, thanks for taking the time to have this retrospective about the series and letting me revive the column one last time.
Michael Alan Nelson: My pleasure. I can't believe it's almost over!
DO'L: With the release next month of the last issue in the series, it caps off an amazing two years where 28DL became one of the most talked about horror books of recent times. Now that you are finished the book, what can you sit back and take from it?
MAN: Writing this series was an incredible learning experience for me. It was my first time writing a licensed property. And even though I had written several other projects that were the brainchildren of other people, writing a licensed property goes a bit beyond the This-is-my-story-idea-now-go-do-your-thing. This universe had specific rules, the tone of the story was very exacting, and the one thing everyone involved couldn't stress enough: character, character, character. It's one thing to play in someone else's sandbox, but this was like playing in someone else's Zen Garden. It was not only terrifying, but very, very exciting.
This series also helped me with my long-form story telling. I had written epic series before (Fall of Cthulhu), but this had to move along at a faster clip as well as be segmented into smaller stories that pieced together to tell the larger one. As with anything, the more you do it, the better you get. So this series taught me quite a bit about this style of story telling that will, hopefully, improve any future ongoing series that I write.
DO'L: The book became known for some of the best characterisation in comics, something you don't generally get in large doses in horror books. What challenges did you face trying to get a balance like that in a genre book?
MAN: Like I mentioned earlier, character was very important to all involved. Which is wonderful because the whole reason we read and enjoy stories is because of the characters within those stories. Otherwise it's just images of gore-porn in between splash pages of things blowing up. Who cares? That said, you still need to have that sense of threat, of the horrific. So the trick was finding a way to make these characters well-rounded while putting them in deadly situations. It's easier to do in an ongoing series because you have time to develop those characters. Though, it was a little more difficult with characters whom I knew would only be around an issue or two.
But I think this speaks to the whole reason horror as a genre works. The more you care about a character, the more you can sympathize with that character, and the more you can share their experience. And you come to relish the down time because you know that just around the corner something awful is waiting for them.
The original creative team of Michael and Declan Shalvey
DO'L: Selena's story of course central to the book. Was the fleshing out of the character all your own or did you have some kind of mandate from the license?
MAN: Alex Garland had written up an outline for what the series should be. So going in I knew that Selena would be in a refugee camp, that she would be approached by an American reporter, and that she would ultimately agree to be his guide so that she could bury her husband. At the other end of the spectrum, I also knew that the last story arc would take place alongside the events of 28 Weeks Later with Selena and the journalist eventually falling in love. The broad beats for the beginning and the end of the series were there, but I had to come up with the details of those beats and the connective tissue that brought it all together. I had the framework, but it was up to me to build the house around it as well as furnish it and give it a nice coat of paint. Which meant I had a TON of room to play. I had to figure out how Selena's husband died, how she got her machete, even what happened to Jim and Hannah.
As far as Selena's character, I knew I had to have her start off hard as nails and eventually soften to the point where she could be in a place to fall in love. But it was up to me to figure out exactly how to do that. It's interesting though since that is pretty much her arc in the film. So I had to figure out a way to do it again without it feeling as if we were seeing the same thing all over again. It was tough.
DO'L: For a zombie book it was a highlight of the series that some of the most prominent threats to Selena and Clint were not from zombies but from other humans, factions, armies etc. What made you think in the first pace to divide the threat to the main protagonists like you did?
MAN: Part of that was simply the nature of the universe I was playing in. There was a very specific timeline that I had to work from. According to that timeline, most of the Infected had pretty much died off due to starvation by the time Selena and company made it to the heart of Great Britain. We still wanted infected in the world and as a constant threat (as well as the constant threat of infection), but I also wanted to explore the other side of the equation. Who else survived? They would have to be as tough as Selena to do so (or very, very lucky), but unlike Selena, they didn't escape. They found a way to LIVE amidst the Infected. How does that change a person? There's a moment in the film when Major West asks Jim, "Who did you kill?" The Major knew that no one could have survived without killing someone. So imagine carving out an existence in the middle of this apocalypse. What would you have had to do? That was something I felt Selena just had to confront.
DO'L: For me, a standout moment in the series and honestly there were a ton of them, was the Douglas death scene. From the build up to it, to the dialogue to the outstanding structure of the art pages it was a golden moment. What for you was your best moment?
MAN: First, let me say that that moment of Douglas' death was all Declan Shalvey. We were hanging out at the BOOM! Booth at C2E2 and discussing Douglas' impending death when I asked Declan if there was anything he wanted to draw. He said that he had yet to draw someone actually BECOMING infected and then described what he would like to do if given the chance. It was perfect! I think that when I wrote the script I actually put something in like, "Remember our conversation in Chicago?" And that was it. What came back was one of the best pages in the series.
As for what I think is the best moment, that's a really tough question to answer. There are quite a few moments that I'm really proud of. It's hard to choose which is the best. I like the camera flash in the elevator, Douglas freaking out after learning that it's life-as-usual outside of England, Douglas' death, Trina's back-biting, Selena risking her life just to watch the black-ops site burn, Derrick's sacrifice, the Mannequin, Clint drawing a bath for Selena, Stiles' speech about the bloody eagle, Clint and Selena's kiss in the river Thames, not to mention a few scenes coming up in the final issue. Honestly, I really couldn't say.
DO'L: At no stage were you ever afraid of killing characters if seems, no matter their prominence. A fan favourite character like Derrick, whose death was heroic really pulled at the heart strings, but was there a death you created for a character that you wish you could have had remain in the book?
MAN: Derrick's death was the only one that was put forth in Alex's original outline. So I knew going in that he wasn't going to make it to the end. Part of me wishes he could have stayed around a little longer because I really liked the relationship that he had with Selena. They were antagonistic and, in Selena's case, resentful. But there was a sense of respect between the two. Derrick was dealing with demons of his own from his time as a captive in Afghanistan and that was the one thing that Selena understood about him. Life-altering, apocalyptic trauma makes strange bedfellows. So underneath their frustration was a mutual respect. They just never really showed it. And I think that's what makes Derrick's sacrifice so powerful. When it came down to the wire, all that bickering and frustration took a back seat to the stark reality of what needed to happen. That's when we get to see, just for a moment, that small glimmer of respect between them.
So, yeah, it would have been nice if Derrick had made it. Same thing with Douglas, Hirsch, Trina, and the others. But not everyone can have a happy ending.
DO'L: 24 issues is a lot of pages to fill, but was there something you would have wanted to include but couldn't or something you feel wasn't developed enough?
MAN: During the development stage, I came up with some story arc ideas that never made it into the series, either because they weren't approved or we just didn't have the space. So there are definitely some things that I had wanted to put in that I never got the chance to. One of the first ideas I had that was shot down was about a group of survivors who have had to resort to cannibalism. The note that came back on that idea was that it sounded like a bad 70's B horror flick. Which, in fairness, it did. But I still think that I could have done it in a character-driven and entertaining way. I think there's a sociological aspect to that scenario that would have been fun to explore. But at the end of the day, I feel the series is just fine without it.
One thing that I wish I had more time to develop, however, was the death of Captain Stiles. I wish I could have found a more clever way for Selena to get rid of him. As it is, it relies on the reader's knowledge of the film to make sense. If the reader hasn't seen the movie, then her solution just seems to come out of nowhere. I wish I had set that up properly.
The cover to the final issue on sale in June
DO'L: From the get go the book was as well known for great art as well as great writing. You literally over saw the beginning of the US based careers of Dec and Ale. Looking back on the run what are your thoughts on the artists contributions?
MAN: Look, I can't sing their praises enough. I've been so fortunate to have had such talents on the books. Now, I must admit that I was heartbroken when Declan left the series to go work for Marvel (happy for him, sad for me). But then Ale showed up and stepped right into the breach and has been doing a simply fantastic job. In fact, I did a little dance when I recently saw the art for issue #23. It is SO good! I couldn't be happier with the art for this series. Just look at these books! There are so many great, iconic images within those pages, we could spend hours drooling over them. Seriously, how lucky am I?
I also think Ian Brill needs a special shout-out for not only finding these amazing guys, but also making me write the best series I possibly could. Believe me, I would love to take credit for everything, but Ian is the one who really put this show together.
DO'L: Have you said all you want to in the two years or if given the chance would you return to the property should the opportunity present itself?
MAN: The 28 Days Later universe is so rich that I could tell stories within it for years. So, if they came to me and said they wanted to do more, I'd be there in a heartbeat. But as far as Selena's story is concerned and the series over the past two years, yes, I've said everything I think needed to be said. I'm happy with her story. We're telling the story we set out to tell. It's not being cut short or truncated in any way. So if I never get to return, that's okay. This series is complete and can stand on its own. And I'm proud of that.
Michael Alan Nelson
DO'L: Michael, thank you for two great years of storytelling and all the best for the future, I'm enjoying Malignant Man and Insurrection V3.6 and hope we see more of you.
MAN: My pleasure and I hope you'll be seeing much more of my work in the future as well.
My thanks as always to Michael for having a chat with us and that brings to a close this column and to two awesome years of a great book. The series is collected in trades available everywhere and as always I thoroughly recommend that you pick it up if you haven't. You can follow Michael Nelson in his two new books out of BOOM! in Malignant Man and Insurrection V3.6. Dec Shalvey is at Marvel on Thunderbolts and is working on the Fear Itself tie in. Ale Aragon is probably taking a well earned holiday after the final issue is finished and editor Ian Brill is now editor at the new Planet of the Apes book that shipped last week also out of BOOM! Thanks for reading.
Name: David O' Leary
Bio: David has been with CR since June 2008 and started out as a reviewer and has expanded to do a couple of columns for the site also; starting with 28 Words Later with artist Declan Shalvey and later 5 Minutes With... where he talks with the industries best and brightest from Kubert to Moore.
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