Interview with ZOMBIE RANCH creators Clint & Dawn Wolf!

27 Mar

by Mike Hansen

2010-04-06-issue2-version2The zombie genre has exploded in the last few years thanks to the success of The Walking Dead and hit movies like 28 Days Later and the Dawn Of The Dead remake, but the concept as envisioned by creator/director George A. Romero has had plenty of bad stories and ripoffs and surprisingly few stories that stretch the concept into new directions (such as Max Brooks’s fantastic Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z).

ZOMBIE RANCH is a terrific, long-running serialized webcomic from creators Clint & Dawn Wolf that places the modern zombie in an entirely new venue: the American desert of the future, with Big Brother-like “reality show” floating cameras recording the story’s events. Following in the classic Romero tradition of focusing on the survivors (not the monsters) and commenting on modern society, what sets Zombie Ranch apart is that its story starts long after a zombie apocalypse has ended. The mark of a good story is having it start as late as possible, and this ballsy approach has paid off: After its launch in September 2009, ZR has found a dedicated following, thanks to its clear and entertaining storytelling, a deceptively simple “animation cel”-style of artwork, regular updates, and frequent west-coast convention appearances. Over the last few months, I exchanged an email Q&A with the Wolfs. Enjoy (and as always, CLICK to make the artwork bigger):

2009-11-04-06_donthurtthemmuchWhat made you want to do a webcomic?

DAWN: I’d been doing an occasional webcomic strip called Bits of Nothing for years, but I always wanted to draw an actual story comic. I had a lot of false starts with other writers, including a comic that almost went to print but got rejected. Clint and I had been married for a long time but he’d never really tried to write anything for me, but then I drew that picture and it really fired him up. It was shortly after I’d been taking some web design and comic design classes, too, so I thought it would be neat to go with the web.

CLINT: Webcomics are the ultimate self-starter scenario. If you’ve got a story to tell and the passion and patience to see it through, it’s an unequaled way to connect with the widest possible audience at the lowest possible cost. Also, you don’t need to impress anyone with a resume, just with your output.

2009-12-09-pg11_nothinbutmeatHow did you come up with Zombie Ranch?

CLINT: Dawn drew a crazy picture at 3 A.M., and the rest is history. It might not have gone anywhere had she answered me that her shotgun-totin’ cowgirl was a zombie hunter rather than a zombie “rancher,” but once that happened, the idea ate into my brain as surely as if a hungry ghoul had gotten hold of me. I’d say another big piece of the concept came from the modern trend of dangerous-job reality shows such as “Deadliest Catch,” to the point I already mentioned it in the comic itself. The gal wearing a belly shirt started me thinking of setting it in the future instead of the past, and in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse that had come and gone. You just didn’t see too many stories exploring how things might be ten or twenty years down the road, when all the running and screaming was over.

2010-01-06-13_firstimpressionsI don’t know how much where we live influenced the theme so much as the fact that the concept started with Cowgirl-Ranch-Zombies, and two of those three concepts are pretty solidly “Western.” It doesn’t hurt that Dawn grew up on a farm out in the desert, so she has insights on how things might go from day to day.

DAWN: Some of the pieces I draw that get the biggest responses are the ones I do in the wee hours of the night after Clint’s gone to bed and I’m left alone with my weird ideas. I wanted to do something different than the usual “zombie-hunting” art and decided she would be a rancher. Clint thought that was a really neat idea, and then we ended up selling the original at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con Art Show for the most I’ve ever sold a piece, and there was a bid war. So we figured we might be onto something.

2009-09-25-onthezombieranchSo how do you explain Zombie Ranch to someone who’s never read it or heard of it before?

CLINT: The simplest answer would be “Cowboys & Zombies”, but we’re not the first to come up with that idea. Plus that falls pretty short of communicating the details I think make our story unique. Usually I’ll start by telling people that this is set many years after the apocalypse has come and gone, and people survived and adapted and rebuilt, and not only that, discovered a way to profit off the new reality of the walking dead. Then I tell them that Zombie Ranch is about the daily lives of the men & women who wrangle those undead for a living.

If they haven’t wandered off by that point, I might move on to talking about there’s a new Wild West feel to the proceedings, mixed with some high-tech media satire. And, of course, zombies… though we have several readers who enjoy our comic even though in general they aren’t zombie genre fans, so if I get a “zombies are icky” vibe I might bring that up, too.

So yeah, in 3 years of doing this I’ve never quite refined everything down into a 60 seconds or less “elevator pitch”… but I’m also not obsessed with doing so. Zombie Ranch is a layered story that unfolds at a relatively slow pace, so if you’re not the kind of person who’s willing to take some time to listen after you’ve asked me what it’s about, then it’s entirely possible you wouldn’t like reading it anyhow.

2013-03-13-159_sprayandprayHumor strips tend to end on a quick punchline, even when they’re part of a continuing story; you’re doing more long-form work, one page at a time. What are the challenges of releasing Zombie Ranch like this?

CLINT: Humor strips go for the punchline, like you say. Long form is more based around getting the reader into a continuing anticipation of “What happens next?” That doesn’t mean humor strips can’t have a storyline or long form can’t occasionally go for the funny, but a comic like Zombie Ranch is all about providing a satisfying update from week to week which also progresses the larger tale.

I almost feel like “long form” may be a bit of a misnomer compared to calling it a dramatic serial. That’s really what long-form web comics are, the digital descendants of such works as Terry and the Pirates or Prince Valiant or even Mary Worth, while the humor strips can look back to Peanuts or Pogo. Both styles have been around for decades and both had their masters of the art, and it’s important for any long form creator to know that if they get stuck for inspiration, there are people like Milton Caniff to look to for guidance. Heck, they didn’t even have readily available archives, which meant their first panel usually had to be a recap! Seeing how they managed that and kept the story flowing, often in a daily of maybe three or four panels at most, will give you a lot of insight into effective storytelling.

2011-05-23-episodecard

Dawn, are there any specific experiences from growing up on a farm that you’ve incorporated into Zombie Ranch? And what kind of farm was it, anyway? I don’t know anything about farms: what do you grow in a desert?

DAWN: Corn, chili peppers, tomatoes, lots of fruit trees… it wasn’t a very big farm, but it was enough to support some goats and chickens and other livestock. Some of our neighbors had cows. The bit in the first Episode/Issue where Uncle Chuck talks about feeding a cow a hamburger is a true story from when I was a little kid, my brother and I did that. Clint was equal parts fascinated and horrified and decided to use it. Because it was a desert there were occasional floods when it rained hard, and I recall our goats getting on top of the roofs and we couldn’t figure out how. Oh, and I had a pony named Popcorn, who I came home from school one day and found my dad had sold off without my knowledge. That was a sad day, but Popcorn in the comic pays tribute to his memory.

When are we going to see more Bits of Nothing material? I get the impression that those are a creative way for Dawn to stretch her artistic muscles and try more experimental work. I especially dig the most recent one, with the realistic-looking cat and the cartoony insects. Reminds me a bit of Lewis Trondheim’s “La Mouche” (The Fly)…

CLINT: Bits of Nothing has no set update schedule; it’s just a matter of inspiration and also the time to exercise it. If you hang around our table at conventions, you may get the chance to see Dawn concoct one of her hand-drawn sketch cards, which come from a similar place of strangeness. Yes, BoN is definitely a place for Dawn to experiment and also just “let off steam,” artistically speaking, since I keep her on a bit of a choke chain where Zombie Ranch is concerned. We did a filler comic just a few weeks ago where the audience got a taste of what things might be like if she were in the writer’s seat. It was…interesting.

A recent Bits Of Nothing strip.

A recent Bits Of Nothing strip.

Selfish question: I’ve got a few webcomic series I want to launch – what services do you use to publish your work online, and what makes them work for you?

CLINT: Our host service is Hostmonster, and then we have WordPress with ComicPress. Hostmonster has wonderful tech support, and Dawn is a web designer by day which helps out a lot with any of the “softer” configuration issues.

Does Zombie Ranch have a planned endpoint, or do you see it running indefinitely?

CLINT: “For the foreseeable future” sounds like a good answer. I think I’m perfectly comfortable admitting that there’s no planned endpoint at this time. There will be story arcs, naturally, but dramatic serials aren’t the same thing as novels or even graphic novels… Did Lee Falk have an ending in mind for The Phantom when he started in 1936? Maybe, but if he did he chucked it in favor of continuing the adventures of The Ghost Who Walks up until the day he died in 1999.

I doubt we’ll be doing Zombie Ranch for quite that long, but there are still plenty of stories to tell within the world Dawn and I have conjured up. It’s an interesting place, full of interesting people…all of whom are living (or unliving) in what the Chinese would definitely call “interesting times.”

Anything coming up in Zombie Ranch you want to tease readers about?

CLINT: There are quite a few teasers scattered throughout the comic itself so far. We have things we brought up in Issue 1 that are only now becoming truly significant, and we have other things (and characters) that haven’t even been revisited yet. In time, they will be.In a more recent sense for anyone currently reading– if you think you’ve seen the last of Muriel McCarty, I don’t think it’s a big spoiler to say you are mistaken.

Print copies and digital downloads of full issues of Zombie Ranch can be ordered here.

Clint and Dawn will be at WonderCon Anaheim this weekend at booth SP-70 as Lab Reject Studios.

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