Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers is a comic series about a special ops team lead by a centuries-old female zombie whose teammates are ancient Chinese warrior spirits inhabiting human hosts. Together they battle all manner of monster and demon that threatens humanity. Issue 1 is the first part of a 5-issue arc entitled “Odyssey”, explores who Z-Girl is and lays bare the constant struggle she has with her innate zombie nature.
All of this while the team discovers an ancient scroll that just may foretell of the coming Apocalypse.
That’s the question this unique comic series poses. Unlike any other apocalypse fare I’ve ever read, Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers is a story with layers of complex fantasy and sci-fi, as well as horror, wrapped in Asian mysticism. The artwork is kick-ass and the story is entertainingly cerebral.
I tracked down the creators, Kirk Manley (illustrator) and Jeff Marsick (writer), and got them to spill the beans about their undead blue heroine and her ass-whooping team of elite soldiers. Kirk and Jeff discuss the story’s origins, the creative process while making comics, and about collaboration and the apocalypse.
Why did you decide that the protagonist was, not only a girl, but a hot, sentient ZOMBIE girl? Tell us about creating this character and the 4 Tigers.
Kirk: Its a natural choice, woman are cool. We both have strong intelligent woman in our lives, our spouses and our daughters and we enjoy reading comics and watching movies with strong women in it so it was no surprise to us that we would make our lead character a woman. We also wanted to create a comic that would be in the zombie genre but would appeal to a much wider audience. By making Z a woman and treating her in a mature and responsible fashion, we would bring in woman readers as well as men. And we have seen that happen in the way Z-Girl has been received at conventions. I would say easily 1/2 if not more of our readers are woman.
In terms of how we created Z and the rest of the cast, Z-Girl and the 4 tigers writer and co creator Jeff Marsick and I wanted to create something that was filled with action and adventure as well as horror and a touch of super hero. Something like Hellboy. So we began brainstorming ideas. I often design characters and creatures that just pop into my head and I fill sketch books with them. I brought a bunch of these character sketches to one of our brainstorming meetings. One sketch was of a female zombie warrior that I had designed years before. When we started looking at the sketch we both immediately started dreaming up this whole world and team. Jeff has a great love for history and for ancient Asian culture. He suggested the 4 ancient Chinese warrior spirits who take human host and work with Z, and we were off and running.
Jeff: Z-Girl originated from Kirk and I sitting down and saying, “We should do a book together, but what should we do?” I took a gander at Kirk’s portfolio and saw some intriguing ideas—sci-fi, western, alien—but then I flipped the page and there she was: A bad-ass looking female zombie in a bandolier bra, thigh-high boots, and an MP-5 assault rifle in hand. “THAT,” I said, “Is our character. We NEED to do something with her.”
Kirk and I are both fans of the zombie genre, but everything seems to be the same old retread of The Night of the Living Dead. Me, I’m always looking for a direction to go that no one has gone before, and I thought, hey, what if we make her a GOOD guy, and put her in charge of a special ops team, and together they PROTECT humanity. A zombie’s never been on the side of the angels before, so we both thought this was a unique way to go.
As for the Tigers, well, I’m a myths and legends nerd; I love that stuff. And I happened to be reading some ancient Chinese stuff at the time—which is a fascinating era of monsters and gods and demons—and again, Chinese and Asian mythology is relatively unheard of in comics, so I suggested we do something along that line.
Yes, those are monkey-demons with machine guns!
There are definite religious and mystical overtones in the story. Can you tell us about its influence, and how it is used to mold the story.
Kirk: I think Jeff will do a better job for answering this one. But in my opinion though we use a lot of mysticism and religious overtones its really a story about human nature and self actualization. The human spirit and our consciousness are key to our humanity, but they really are still very much a mystery to us. I think we are able to really explore this mystery through the experiences of an individual that isn’t living in our understanding of living. She has no soul. And yet she lives a life of good and heroics because of her free will and because she has been taught its virtues by her sensi Master Lao Tsu. He has instilled in her that which makes her human, self control and a desire to do right. So we use mysticism and religion to really make a statement about the fact that being a good person has nothing to do with either of those things, but rather it comes from inside ourselves.
Having the dead come back to life really plays in that grey space between magic and science, and in my opinion, zombies lend themselves to the mystical, what with their origins in voodoo. When it comes to mythology, few pantheons are as kooky as the Asian and Hindu varieties, which again, seemed to be apropos for what we wanted to do here.Add in the legend of the founder of Taoism, Lao-Tzu, and suddenly we’ve got this ancient wizard-type who finds these individuals—one of whom was in the throes of being hanged as a thief and murderer—and brings them all together, explaining to them that they are united through Tao and together they’re destined for great things. Of course, they’re each like, “Riiiiiiiiight, sure we are.And Taoism isn’t a hard religion, but more of a philosophy to guide how one should live in harmony with what is around them. Which is a fascinating—I think—when you then throw a zombie into the mix.
The overall story arc– was this a collaboration? Please tell us about working together. Is there a definite line where each of you ends and begins from a creative point of view?
Kirk: Jeff and I work together to create the greater story arc. From that Jeff creates an outline for the arc. We toss that back and fourth refining it further together. Once we have that nailed done Jeff writes each books script. We will bounce that back and fourth as well for a while till we get it where we want it.
Then I start roughs. The process is pretty much the same. As I do roughs I send them to Jeff and he kicks back any changes, ideas, suggestions or problems he sees. We do that until all the pages have been visually roughed out and we are happy with it. Then i start penciling. We will also bat each penciled page back and fourth as well. Once a page is penciled and we are both happy with it i will letter it. lastly because we are indie creators we have no editors. And as much as the Image comics revolution taught us “Artist good, editor bad” the truth is every artist and writer needs an editor. A third party to look at the work more objectively and to catch the little things. So Jeff and I have a small group of friends that we trust and that we ask to review the pages looking for typos, mistakes and layout issues. Once the book is penciled and lettered i will color it. At some point in that process i design and illustrate the cover and then build the mechanicals for each page and release to print. Its a long process and I’m sure it could be done faster but we have evolved this way over 5 issues and it works well for us.
Jeff: I always say that when the day comes—always a ‘when,’ never an ‘if’—that I’m writing books for a big-name publisher, it might be jarring because I’ve been spoiled from my collaboration with Kirk. We’re co-creators so that means we’ve each got 50% of the pull on the project, and communication is key.From outlining the story, to writing the script, to editing the art, it’s a constant back-and-forth of discussion. I’ll hand Kirk a script and he’ll find what he doesn’t like, what he doesn’t think works, something I’ve overlooked, and I go back and fix it until it’s at the point where we both are happy with it. He’ll then rough it out in thumbnails and send it to me so that I can see the pacing and flow. Then comes another version with light pencils. Then another version with heavier lines, which is about 90% of the way there. So I’ve got at least 3 opportunities to find something that doesn’t look right, or doesn’t flow, before he goes to coloring. And if I find something that doesn’t quite work at that point in the game, I REALLY feel like a heel if I say, “Hey, I think that panel needs to be cut or redrawn.”I think what works so well in this relationship is how neither of us is infallible. I know that a comic book is a visual medium, that someone’s buying the book because they like the “movie” of it. If they wanted my words, well, they’d read my novelization of it. So I’m fine if I script a 5-panel page and Kirk does it in 3—just so long as the story gets told well, I don’t care if it can be done more economically. And 9 times out of 10, that’s pretty much what happens.
The color choices used in the comic compliment Z–Girl‘s marine-blue color. Tell me about those choices, including her and the other Tigers’ colors. Why wasn’t she called Blue Tiger, or colored yellow?
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Kirk: The color choices, do you mean for the tigers or for the book in interiors? In terms of the Tigers Jeff picked those colors and they tie to the bios of each warrior spirit. I’m sure he can better answer that question. In terms of the page interiors issue #1 and #2 where colored by an extremely talented artist that is a friend of ours named Euan Mactavish. When we started this project I knew I wouldn’t be able to do everything artistically in the begging. At least not till I got a little faster and more comfortable with the process. So I asked Euan, who is an amazing illustrator, colorist and Caricature Artist, if he would color Z for us. To save time we decided to use my finished pencils and not ink the pages traditionally. So we needed to develop a style of coloring that would compliment the pencils and not look unfinished. Euan used a very painterly approach to the colors and they really worked well with my pencils. He also used color in a way that actually brought out the weird and mystical aspects of the book. A perfect example of that was his choice in issue #1 to go with a red sky and purple coloring for the big battle sequence at the temple Angkor Wat.
After doing issues #1 and #2 Euan’s schedule just wouldn’t permit him to continue to work with us on Z. By that time I was feeling more confident timing wise and decided to do the coloring myself. Though my style has changed the coloring slightly I try very hard to maintain the same feeling and style that Euan established in the first two issues when I color. So I have to give credit to Euan Mactavish for helping us establish the color approach to the book. Jeff: That’s an interesting question about Z. The thing of it is, though, is that it all relates back to that Chinese mythology about their celestial beings. Z is the sun about which they all revolve; if they don’t have a center, they’re not as effective. And though the others are named by colors, each is actually bound to a connection with earth and the universe through Tao.
I felt the artwork and color got bolder and more confident as the series went on (as if you were settling on a specific style). How do you feel?
Kirk: I’m not sure the art has gotten bolder as the story progresses, but Im certainly trying to be more adventurous with it. As i get more comfortable drawing the characters I find myself more focused on what else is happening on the page, so i think that’s a good thing. I have always wanted to be a comic book artist. But until Z-Girl I had had only a few small jobs in the business and never worked on a multi book story. So I think just simply by creating pages on a more regular basis my sequential story telling is probably improving. Also with Z-Girl I made an artistic decision to keep the page layouts simple and on a grid format. I think this too has helped the book read better and has helped me improve with each book on how i tell the story visually. By sticking with a grid for each page the focus is on each panel and what is happening in that panel. Less distraction for the readers eye. Mike Mignola is a big inspiration for me and I remember reading a quote from him once in a book called Panel Discussions. (Great book by the way for any one interested in creating comics). He said “sometimes in comics you see the panels that are counter-clockwise or clockwise and then you see the triangular panels, that sort of thing. I hate to generalize, but more often then not, that’s the guy trying desperately to make his shit interesting. To me that’s distracting.” Ha! That made me laugh and has stuck in my head ever since. It might be a bit harsh and there certainly are super incredible artist out there that have made amazing comics with out a grid approach like J.H. William’s Batwoman to name one great example. But its a valid point I think when it comes to page layout design.
Jeff: I want to weigh in on this a moment. Not to put Kirk’s head to much a-swell, but I think his artwork has gotten so much tighter and more dynamic from issue to issue. You just wait until issue 5!But in all honesty, I think the thing that’s helped Kirk so much define his style are the scads of sketches he does at every convention. Each book has a blank page in the back, and if you buy a book, Kirk will do an original sketch for free. And these aren’t just stick figure sketches, either. I think because he’s done so many over the years, I think that’s a form of working out for him.
Can you tell our readers a bit about what’s in store for Z–Girl?
Kirk: Whats in store for Z-Girl? Well issue #5 is on my drawing table as I write this. It will premier at NYCC in Oct and will wrap up the first Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers story arc Odyssey. A lot of questions will be answered and a lot of new questions posed. The plan is to collect the 5 issue story into a oversized trade through a Kickstarter campaign and add a bunch of new and original content to it. Then start the next full story arc.
Jeff: Right now, we just have to see if she makes it out of this first arc in one piece. Kirk and I have been tossing around ideas for the next arc, and now that she and the team are “defined,” we can move ahead and put more focus on saving humanity from the monsters and demons trying to wipe it out, really amp up the adventure and thrill quotient.
Z–Girl has movie and especially video game written all over it. Anything like that in its future?
Kirk: Absolutely! We would love to develop other media based on Z-Girl and the 4 tigers. Video games, movies and animation. Not to mention statues or resin model kits. And all of that is on the table and in the plan. Its just a matter of money, time and gaining the interest of the right companies or people.
Jeff: Kirk and I both believe that Z-Girl is destined for bigger things than merely a comic book. We’d love to partner with a game maker and create a board game, an app, even 3D print action figures and statues. I think she’d look amazing in a cartoon, especially in the stylings of Afro Samurai, but that takes some serious coin to do well, so we’ll see.
Check out Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers at ZGirl.org