‘World War Z’ author Max Brooks shares ‘Shadow Walk’ inspiration

Nov. 26, 2013 | 1:22 p.m.

With his novel “World War Z,” author Max Brooks won over a legion of readers, weaving an epic tale told from the perspective of the  survivors  of a global pandemic that saw the dead return to life. Now Brooks is bringing his realistic approach to fantastic storytelling to a paneled page with “Shadow Walk.”

Available Wednesday, the new Legendary Comics release, co-created with comic creator-writer Mark Waid and artist Shane Davis, supposes that the Valley of Death from the Old Testament’s Psalm 23 does in fact exist, and it’s a place where anyone who ventures there is confronted by his or her deepest fears.

In the first issue, John Raines, a soldier who allegedly killed his entire platoon after entering the Valley, leads a group that includes a priest and an astrophysicist back to the mysterious locale. Armed with two arcane artifacts, the unit must try to determine if the road to hell has opened on Earth.

It was Legendary Comics executive Thomas Tull who initially approached the creators with the basic question, What if the Valley of Death was not just a figurative term, but a physical place? Brooks, a history major, took the idea and ran with it.

“He said, ‘What would be the science? What would be the history? What would be the culture?'” Brooks recalls of his conversations with Tull. “‘Build me a real world around this place that has become mythologized as the Valley of Death.’ So I went to work building him a world, then we passed that torch on to Mark Waid — who did the real work — and Shane Davis.”

Hero Complex caught up with Brooks to learn more about his “Shadow Walk” approach and his thoughts on the comic’s religious underpinnings. (Click here to read our earlier interview with Waid about the project.)

“Shadow Walk” No. 1. (Legendary Comics)

“Shadow Walk” No. 1. (Legendary Comics)

HC: What did you do to try to bring this world to life?

MB: A lot of homework. You have to start with logic, answering some of your own questions. So, it’s a real place — where would it be? You look around and you say, “Well, yeah, Mesopotamia or Iraq.” Then you have to go through the history of it and say, “Who has been through this country? Who used to own it? Who used to fight over it?” Then you just study the histories of these peoples and that gives you the idea of how to build a world around it. So, Mesopotamia. Before it was Muslim it was a Roman protectorate, then the Muslims became Islamicized. Oh, and it was part of the Turkish empire, then the European powers came in and took it away from the Turks.  Then it became independent and fought a war with Iran. That’s fertile ground for doing world-building.

HC: Was there any one specific thing that helped the concept really take shape in your mind?

MB: There’s one specific compass needle, and I think this drives Thomas a lot. He loves looking at myths and legends and the actual root of the myth. Where did this come from? Like … We go back to the story of the Cyclops.  The Greeks would dig up woolly mammoth skulls. They didn’t know what they were. All they saw was this giant skull with what looked like one eye. They didn’t know that there was cartilage separating them. If you didn’t know anything about science and you dig up this giant skull with one eye, you can see how that can morph into the legend of the Cyclops. I thought there was one thing that Mark Waid did that was so brilliant. If you take nothing away from it — there was once subtle piece of a realization — one of the characters said, “You gotta realize that in an era before science, everything was supernatural. So what would shock us as a miracle back then is no more of a miracle than lightning.” I thought, oh my God, what a great insight into the psychology of a pre-science people.

HC: We asked this question of Mark Waid as well, but assuming that everyone sees different things — their worst fear — when traveling through this Valley, what might you see?

MB: Well, that’s easy now that I’m a parent: My son in rehab 20 years from now. I mean, when you become a parent, everything changes. I don’t know what my nightmare would’ve been before, but now that I’m a dad and every minute of my life is spent trying to craft a human being? Yeah, I think that’s every nightmare of every parent, your [child] going into rehab.  There’s your 30-year-old kid with bandages around his wrists and he looks right at you and says, ‘Yeah, this is your fault.’  I don’t know what parent hasn’t had that nightmare.

“Shadow Walk” No. 1. (Legendary Comics)

“Shadow Walk” No. 1. (Legendary Comics)

HC: What was your biggest obstacle in trying to build this world?

MB: I think it was in trying to walk the line between what makes an interesting story and what makes a credible story. Like this guy Raines who invented all of these super weapons [in "Shadow Walk"].  If you don’t have some kind of real-world justification for that, it looks like it’s just plastered on. They call it the deus ex machina kind of thing, just bringing in stuff that’s convenient. Justify it. Then I suddenly remembered a story my mother used to tell me of a guy named Carbine Williams, the guy who invented the carbine engine, in his head, in solitary confinement. When I was a kid, my mom showed me that movie. So, yes, it is possible. As a guy who studies history, I found out that the best way to justify something that might happen is to prove that it already has.

HC: Are you a religious person?

MB: I don’t know. I literally don’t know. I’d like to think there’s an afterlife, and that when my body turns to dust, that there’s another world beyond this. I’d like to think that my mom just got on an earlier flight than my dad. But the truth is, I don’t know. I’ve neither found proof for or against.

HC: Do you think that this graphic novel, religious but grounded in reality, could usher in a wave of others like it?

MB: I don’t know. Religion is part of our society. I think there’s nothing wrong with questioning it. I’m not saying it’s good or saying it’s bad, I’m just saying that we need to embrace the debate. Religion is not a museum. Religion is a living thing. It moves, it changes with the time, it changes with the people and the cultures, and we have to embrace the debate. You can’t just put it on the shelf and let it gather dust. It’s gotta be taken down and taken apart and put back together again, and I hope people embrace the debate when they read this.

– Jevon Phillips | @LATherocomplex

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