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INTERVIEW WITH EIBON’S STEPHEN ROMANO

INTERVIEW WITH EIBON’S STEPHEN ROMANO

On June 6th, Eibon Press unleashed its much anticipated comic book Zombie, an amazing graphic rendition of the late Lucio Fulci’s classic 1979 film. We had the privilege to interview the brains behind this crazy project, Stephen Romano, to find out what it took to bring this thing to life after all these years!

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What is your background and that of your partners?

My background is in writing, music, film production and graphic design. I’ve had a strange and eclectic career. I started professionally by doing audio books for Image Comics, actually. We did these really ambitious and elaborate “Audio Comics” based on the million selling SHADOWHAWK and THE MAXX titles that were so big in the early 1990s. Later on I wrote the first episode of Showtime’s Emmy-winning MASTERS OF HORROR series in 2005. I did the script for that, based on Joe Lansdale’s short story INCIDENT ON AND OFF A MOUNTAIN ROAD. Then I created something called SHOCK FESTIVAL, which was this super-ambitious sort of grindhouse tribute book, where all the movies I talk about are fictional. I had to create all these films and design actual memorabilia for all of them—over 600 fake movie posters and “behind the scenes photos” and stuff. That was where I really came into my own as an illustrator and designer, and I was able to bring those skills into play when we started Eibon Press. I’m also a novelist, blogger, Blu-ray commentator—I just do every damn thing! (Laughs.) My partner Shawn Lewis is an old buddy from way, way back, and a true maverick in the horror entertainment business. He’s been running Rotten Cotton Graphics for 16 years, the most killer T-shirt company, like, ever. And of course he made BLACK DEVIL DOLL, which is a pretty notorious movie. I worked a little with him on the sidelines of that. I did the novelization. Which was insane.

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How did you guys get together?

Well, I bought some t-shirts from him! (Laughs.) Seriously, that’s pretty much how everyone meets Shawn. I sent an order in and introduced myself and showed him some stuff that I had done. I sent him my audio comics and a novel I had just published. This was back in 1997. Shawn was producing a Lucio Fulci tribute album with all sorts of cool bands doing cover versions of the great music themes from Fulci films. He had fucking Gwar doing the theme from ZOMBIE! I knew immediately that Shawn was a guy I wanted to work with in some form or another. He was a real doer. We were both so young and crazy at the time—anything seemed like a good idea! (Laughs.)  So I got a band together and did some tracks for his album. We did a whole tribute suite based on Fulci’s CAT IN THE BRAIN. And that led to us doing the first-ever Fulci comic book, which was THE BEYOND in 1998.

So I got a band together and did some tracks for his album. We did a whole tribute suite based on Fulci’s CAT IN THE BRAIN. And that led to us doing the first-ever Fulci comic book, which was THE BEYOND in 1998.

Actually, at first, Shawn just wanted us to do a soundtrack album release with my band doing bonus tracks and stuff. I suggested adding the comic book part. I’m a little nuts. I had just finished working with some really talented comic artists on a couple of other wild projects, so I said. “Hey, let’s do the first ever comic based on an Italian horror film!” And so we did. THE BEYOND was being released for the first time in theatres uncut in 1998 by Quentin Tarantino, so the time was right. We got the license and went and did it.

How did all of this make Eibon Press happen?

Well, I have ten years experience as an editor and graphic designer, having self-published my first short story collection in 2006. Plus, before that I’d done a lot of comic stuff, both published and unpublished. So over the years I’ve kind of learned what to do and what not to do. Plus, my main gig is that I’m a writer. My novels are published by Simon and Schuster. I’ve written dozens of movie scripts. So I have a unique perspective as a creative person that a lot of other’s don’t. I’m basically a roomful of creative people! (Laughs.) Shawn’s background is in running a successful mail order business—and he’s real creative about marketing and ideas and such. He’s amassed a huge following though Rotten Cotton over the years. So the two sides fit together really well. I’m the head of creative development and Shawn handles the order fulfillment, and we both decide what projects we do. Shawn does some writing too. He created one of our upcoming original books. And Eibon Press was basically his idea. A way to reach fans DIRECTLY with our books, bypassing the usual channels of book and comic distribution. We’re hoping it works. So far the groundswell of support has been overwhelmingly positive.

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So the comic book ZOMBIE has been basically 16 years in the making — sounds pretty insane! Can you give me more details as to why it took so long to bring this project to fruition?

As I mentioned before, we started all this nonsense in 1998. After we did the graphic novel of THE BEYOND it was time to do another one, and we decided it would be ZOMBIE. I worked my ass off on that damn book. We brought in some new blood to do the art. It was a great project. We worked on it all through the year of 1999 and we were really happy with how the pages came out. But then we ran into some trouble.

After we did the graphic novel of THE BEYOND it was time to do another one, and we decided it would be ZOMBIE. I worked my ass off on that damn book. We brought in some new blood to do the art. It was a great project. We worked on it all through the year of 1999 and we were really happy with how the pages came out. But then we ran into some trouble.

The first so-called “release” of ZOMBIE was super-limited and it looked like crap. The printer totally fucked us. Some of the units came back completely unusable, with the pages printed in the wrong order! We couldn’t afford to re-print, so we just chalked it up to a learning experience and moved on to other things. Shawn got busy creating his Rotten Cotton brand.

I started working with Don Coscarelli, the creator of PHANTASM. I had many other things I wanted to do, stories of my own I wanted to tell. That worked out really well. To be fair, I DID hang in there with the comic book thing for a few years after ZOMBIE. I even managed to do a really killer PHANTASM comic book with Coscarelli’s blessing . . . but at the time I wasn’t really someone who had the proper know-how to run a comic book business.

It was all sort of doomed. During that time, I started a GATES OF HELL series, based on Fulci’s CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD series with a fellow named Derek Rook, who was one of the inkers on ZOMBIE. But GATES never really saw the light of day. We managed to squeeze out one pathetic issue—but, again, it just look like crap. I mean, Derek’s work was terrific, but production-wise, the whole thing was just really fly-by-night. I struggled another year or so with Derek to get the comic thing going, but in the end, we all just scattered to the four winds and went off and got busy with our real careers. Funny thing was, though I kept in touch with Derek over the years and he kept working on that GATES series. It was something he was gonna finish, by god—just something he HAD TO DO, you know?

We didn’t even have a proper license for the underlying movie rights or anything; Derek just completed the series on his own time because it was something he believed in. Derek also wanted to re-release ZOMBIE, and at one point I gave him my blessing to do so. But that never happened because . . . well, reasons. 16 years is a long, long time and a lot happens in 16 years. As you might imagine, there were a great many mitigating factors.

Oh really? So what was the biggest hurdle to getting this thing off the ground?

For me, it was just having the interest in doing it. I was doing all this other stuff, publishing with big imprints like Simon and Schuster, and the whole indie comic book experience had left a fairly ugly taste in my mouth. I had gone into debt to make those silly books! (Laughs.) I was far more interested in doing original projects like SHOCK FESTIVAL. But then again, it can all be kind of a rat race, you know? I actually was working on a movie with Shawn Lewis called BOTTOMFEEDER, which was this pitch black horror thing that was basically HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP meets the BAD LIEUTENANT. And we could never get anyone interested in financing it because it was just so out there, you know? So Shawn decided to do it as a comic and hired me to script it and be the editor and all. We got this amazing artist to come on board and he did some killer work. It was going really well, and at one point Shawn brought up the subject of the Fulci comics.  ZOMBIE and GATES OF HELL had never really been given their due—and there was still some terrific work there that needed to be seen by human eyes. So we shook hands and got back to work on it. I got excited about it again.

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I have to tell you that this was due in no small part to a terrible tragedy that occurred in my life around that time. I was run over by a truck and nearly killed. I spent two years learning how to walk again. Working on BOTTOMFEEDER basically saved my life. It was a project I worked on very regularly during those years, and it pulled me back to the world in this really cosmic way that’s difficult to describe.
Doing coming lettering and editing is very time consuming, very therapeutic, if you happen to be stuck in a wheelchair. It requires intense focus and artistic commitment. It requires a total understanding of the medium. I took myself back to school, you know? Read a lot of comics—saw what people were doing. Got right in the thick of it again. Coming back to the old unfinished Fulci stuff was just a natural extension of that—and it seemed really right. A way of going home and correcting certain things that were wrong. After we made the decision to do this thing, it was just a matter of clearing the movie rights and making everyone on the creative team happy. I had some conditions of my own going in. But it all worked out.

How were you able to get your hands on hi-resolution (digital?) copies of the comics (for the re-birth of these comics)?

Well, I’ve had those ZOMBIE pages in storage for 16 years because I created those pages.  I want to it make really clear that WE were the makers of all this stuff back in the day. Those were our projects.

I want to make it really clear that WE were the makers of all this stuff back in the day. Those were our projects.

With GATES OF HELL, as I mentioned, Derek has been working on the pages for a decade. I scripted the project and he went off and did his art. When we decided to do the new Fulci Comics, we were able to use Derek’s art finally. He’d already scanned the pages and even had started some amazing color work on them. We finished that up and it all came out great.

 

Can you tell us more about the process of recreating these comics with such vibrancy?

With ZOMBIE it was a top-to-bottom restoration process. I had the original hand-drawn art pages scanned at a high level of resolution, so I could really get in there and do some work on the pages. ZOMBIE was originally intended to be a black and white book, and so there were all these gray washes and what’s called “Zipatone,” which are transparencies artists glue onto their original art to create fields of dots that simulate gray scales. Those were all over the original pages and I couldn’t physically remove them before the scans were made because they are literally glued to the art. It would have destroyed the pages to try and pull them off. See, back in the 1990s, we were working completely analog. We were total punk rock. I wanted the new comics to be absolutely state of the art. So I loaded the raw scans into Photoshop and manually removed each and every “Zipatone” dot from those pages using a brush tool. An example of a typical panel restoration might be an image of a guy getting attacked by a zombie, and the zombie is wearing a gray shirt. Well, I had to blow that up really big on the computer screen and paint out all those dots that made his shirt gray, while keeping the line art intact. There are no computer programs I know about that do that sort of thing automatically so I was it! (Laughs.) Obviously, this took some time and patience. And that wasn’t all. I digitally re-lettered and re-edited each and every page, fixing things that had always bugged me, re-orienting certain panels, even re-drawing some stuff. But it was always in the service of creating the best possible version of ZOMBIE: THE COMIC BOOK.

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I didn’t just look at pages and say “Oh, let’s draw that over” for the sake of being cute. It needed a lot of love to bring it all into the digital age. With GATES OF HELL, the process was a little less complicated. I did some edits here and there, but mostly I was pretty happy with what Derek did. Some things were changed a bit. I had Derek add a page to one scene and I reworked a few panels.  It all just looks killer now. And you know, there’s a sort of organic “warmth” to our process. A lot of comics seem really cold to me, particularly in the lettering and coloring. I’m able to bring a few tricks to bear that help us get a really “old school” look to our books, while keeping it super vivid and striking in a very modern way.

It all just looks killer now. And you know, there’s a sort of organic “warmth” to our process. A lot of comics seem really cold to me, particularly in the lettering and coloring. I’m able to bring a few tricks to bear that help us get a really “old school” look to our books, while keeping it super vivid and striking in a very modern way.

I also want to point out that the printer we use is state-of-the-art as well. We’re a very small boutique outfit, but we absolutely do NOT skimp on quality. We don’t use print on demand digital printing, which is what most indies do. We use the real pros. And they’re making our books look just incredible. Plus we’ve added some super-special packaging to our books that make them truly innovative in a way not seen before. Each issue of every book released by Eibon will come sealed in a special album jacket style sleeve that makes them just like vinyl record albums. It’s kind of insane because we’re doing things even people like Marvel have never thought of in years of putting out gimmicky books!

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Why comic books?

I love comic books. I’ve been reading and making comic books since I was a kid. I think most people who are into horror movies—or really any kind of “genre” film—have some sort of love for comics. You kind of have to. They are very similar mediums. It’s why you see so many movies made into comics. THE WALKING DEAD was, of course, a comic series before it was the number one TV show in the world. High art snobs who think comics are juvenile probably have not been paying a lot of attention to what people like Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis and Alan Moore have been up to for the last 20 years or so!

High art snobs who think comics are juvenile probably have not been paying a lot of attention to what people like Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis and Alan Moore have been up to for the last 20 years or so!

(Laughs.) And those guys are just the more well-known faces. Here are thousands of creators out there doing incredible work. It’s just an amazing medium with so many creative possibilities. As I mentioned before, it’s also a great place for your un-produced movie scripts to land. That’s kind of the mantra these days: If you can’t get your movie made, make it into a comic book! I think that’s just fucking awesome.

Why even attempt this project in the first place?

Well, why NOT? (Laughs.) Seriously, I had ALWAYS wanted to do a ZOMBIE comic book as a kid. I started drawing one when I was like 12 or something. I think I still even have those pages somewhere. The idea of movies into print in any form has always fascinated me, because it’s kind of weirdly tacky on the surface. I mean, a movie based on a book actually makes sense. Someone read a good story and thought it would make a good movie, right? But when you show me a novel based on an exploitation film from the 1970s like SQUIRM—you start to wonder what the fuck people are smoking. But it’s also really awesome in this cheapjack John Waters-like way of thinking. There actually is a novel for SQURIM, by the way, and it actually begins with the words “The night was sultry.” I think Waters would love that! (Laughs.)

I have over 3,000 movie novels in a giant book shelf that fills up one entire wall in my living room. It’s a pet obsession of mine. But I think a lot of people are similarly afflicted. You see a lot of comics these days based on movies or inspired by movies, like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and such. It’s natural fit. At the end of the day, the films of Fulci are really kind of disreputable in and of themselves—which is a whole other discussion, really—but it makes sense to make them into these lurid over-the-top horror comics. Also, these storylines are just ripe for adaptation. There’s so much there to work with. You’re not just getting a retelling of a classic film. It’s a new version that is very reverent to beloved source material, but also very much its own thing.  With ZOMBIE, the story and characters are really expanded and GATES OF HELL is straight up batshit crazy! Just wait’ll you see what we did with that one.

With ZOMBIE, the story and characters are really expanded and GATES OF HELL is straight up batshit crazy! Just wait’ll you see what we did with that one.

Fulci promoted Zombie (Zombi 2) as the unofficial sequel to Night Of The Living Dead. What are you thoughts on that.

I’m not sure it was actually Fulci who said that. Sounds like something one of the producers might have said, like Fabrizio DeAngelis. They were literally calling it ZOMBI 2 in Italy, which would have made it a “prequel” to DAWN OF THE DEAD, which was just fucking HUGE over there. Dario Argento, who was the co-producer of DAWN, of course, tried to sue them over the title, but the laws are different over there. I think Fulci was actually going for something a little different with his film. What he really wanted to do was make a more “old school” zombie movie, with all the voodoo stuff at the core of the horror, but the producers had other ideas.  That’s one of the reasons why I expanded the story of ZOMBIE and brought the voodoo sacrifices and witch doctor stuff really into the foreground. Fulci would have loved that. It’s brutal and unflinching, just the way he would have done it. We have dead babies on page 3.

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What would you want to ask Fulci if you had the opportunity.

You know my partner Shawn actually DID meet Lucio Fulci when he was still alive. It was at this snowed in NYC Fangoria convention in 1997. Shawn and his nutty gang cornered Lucio in the bar and made him feel like a rock star. Apparently, Fulci wasn’t in very good health, but he kept stealing shots from Shawn’s whiskey glass when he thought Shawn wasn’t looking! Shawn kept the glass. He still has it in his office. Just a few months after all that, Lucio died.

He was very sick, but he was also pretty old, you know? That’s a thing some people don’t realize about Fulci. His career was basically over when he did ZOMBIE in 1979. He’s already been a “young” director before that—a writer-director auteur with great success. He’d worked with some real legends in the biz. ZOMBIE was a commercially-concocted project and Fulci wasn’t even their first choice as director. He only came in when Enzo Castelliari dropped out. I’m not saying Fulci was washed up—far from it—but these were his twilight years. And, ironically, he did his most remembered and celebrated work during that time. Incredible.

Favorite scene in Zombie — the movie and/or comic book (and it can’t be the shark scene)

My favorite scene in the comic book is the attack on the boat at the start, with the big bald zombie eating the cop, then getting blown away.

We were able to re-invent that sequence in a way that is truly cinematic and colorful and layered with additional depth. You see that the voodoo is “controlling” the zombies and that it may be infecting the heads of the people who are being eaten. The victims are forced to remember terrible moments of death they have experienced, just before their own death. It all really came together in the final rewrite of the script and with all the awesome new colors and editing that was done. It just kicks ass. My favorite scene in the film has always been the first 30 seconds, when Doctor Menard fires the shot into the zombie’s head and says, “The boat can leave now. Tell the crew.” It’s just perfect pulp cinema storytelling, with the somber voice and the dark silhouette in the door, and then it cuts to black and we get Fabio Frizzi’s amazing main title music. We put that scene on the variant sleeve cover of issue 1.

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If you could pie in the sky for a moment, what would you like to see recreated in the comic book medium?

Well, there’s a lot that can be done with the type of sleaze horror films I love. In fact, you may be seeing some of that pie in the sky very soon.

Oh really? So there’s other projects on the horizon?

You’d better believe it. Once we’re done with the 4 issue film adaptation of ZOMBIE the series will continue indefinitely with a sequel arc that picks up during the zombie takeover of New York. And we’ve got the return of Doctor Menard and a showdown with an insane Army sergeant named Louis Fulci! We’re actually bring Lucio back from the dead to play a major role in the sequel to his own film!

…the series will continue indefinitely with a sequel arc that picks up during the zombie takeover of New York. And we’ve got the return of Doctor Menard and a showdown with an insane Army sergeant named Louis Fulci! We’re actually bring Lucio back from the dead to play a major role in the sequel to his own film!

That’s on the drawing board now. And of course there’s GATES OF HELL, which is a 3-issue limited series that will roll out in 2017. And THEN . . . oh, man . . . have we got some bloody treats in store for YOU . . . just a whole slate of really cool stuff, based on awesome 70s and 80s horror and science fiction films. I don’t want to spoil it until we’ve made the official announcement, but let’s just say we’re securing some pretty heavy properties and you will NOT be disappointed. And also you’ll see BOTTOMFEEDER. That will just blow your mind. You can keep up with all the upcoming stuff in our quarterly preview mag THE BOOK OF EIBON, which is available in Dread Central’s Box of Dread. The first issue with be in the August box, and it’s LOADED with exclusive pages and art and stuff from ZOMBIE and GATES and BOTTOMFEEDER. So yeah . . . we’re here to stay for a while. We really hope the fans dig what we’re putting out, because we’re really doing it for them. This is sort of a by-the-fans-for-the-fans thing. Each issue of every title has all the love and twice the blood.

Stay tuned for our bite for bite review of Eibon Press’s comic book release of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie!
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