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DF Interview: Jonathan Maberry pits brave scientists and soldiers against a genocidal conspiracy in ‘Pandemica’
By Byron Brewer
War is brewing in America. A shadow government is preparing to launch "purity bombs" for ethnic cleansing. A small group of scientists and former SpecOps shooters stand in their way. Join the resistance, save the world!
From IDW Publishing comes Pandemica, by New York Times bestseller Jonathan Maberry (V-Wars, Black Panther: Doomwar) and artist Alex Sanchez. DF wanted to know the full 411, so we went straight to the scribe, Jonathan Maberry.
Dynamic Forces: Jonathan, let’s talk about the genesis of this series. I understand it is very much a culmination of ideas you have been working through for the last 10 years. Tell us about how Pandemica came to be as a comic book series.
Jonathan Maberry: I’ve always been something of a science junkie. That began when I was a kid and got to know and be mentored by Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson. Long time ago, in the early 1970s. One Christmas, Matheson gave me a signed copy of I Am Legend. Aside from being a landmark novel of both science fiction and horror, it was the template for all subsequent outbreak stories, biohazard novels, and zombie novels. Even though it was ostensibly a vampire novel, the creatures acted more like the mindless living dead, and was later the direct inspiration for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The main thing that separated LEGEND from other SF/horror novels is that instead of alluding to the science – as Mary Shelley did with Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson did with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Matheson gave us the science. He took us inside the head and process of the protagonist, Robert Neville, as he studies the plague to try and understand and fight it.
That started me on the road to thinking about the practical hard-science backstory to my favorite monster books and movies. I’d seen Night of the Living Dead already (having snuck into the theater at age ten to see it on its world premiere), and spent a lot of time working through the logic of it. As I got older I began applying the science I learned to that plague and to other scenarios. Matheson also recommended that I read Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.
Much later, when I switched from writing nonfiction articles to fiction, I knew that I had to combine my love of horror with my passion for science. My fourth novel, Patient Zero, was a love letter to both Matheson and Romero, and a nod to Crichton. That was the first of my Joe Ledger thrillers, of which the 11th, Rage, debuts November 5. In each of those thrillers, I pit my hero and his team against terrorists who have ultra-sophisticated weird science weapons. I’ve explored weaponized versions of prion diseases, Ebola, rabies, pertussis, parasites and other pathogens. I do tons of research with real-world scientists to make sure that my ‘fiction’ is built on a solid scaffold of actual science. My V-Wars series came out of that research.
All of that paved the way for Pandemica, which uses some of the most realistic and terrifying aspects of modern science, like the CRISPR gene-editing tech and transgenics. I would love to say that the science in the comic is pure fiction, but it is actually much, much closer to what is – sadly – possible.
DF: Tell readers about the world you and artist Alex Sanchez are building here. Obviously, these types of genocidal plots by global leaders insane and sane have been considered and construed for most of the modern era. Tell readers what they will discover in the Pandemica world going forth from issue #1.
Jonathan Maberry: Pandemica starts with a bioengineered disease being release at a detainment facility. The disease is designed to target the immigrant population at that camp. It’s an ethnic-specific bioweapon but the government is claiming it’s a natural mutation. Good guy scientist Dr. Moses Katz doesn’t believe the lie and launches an off-the-books investigation. After attempts on his life, he brings in two former SpecOps shooters, De’Neesa and Chick, who have been investigators working with WHO (World Health Organization) teams overseas. Together they peel back the layers of secrecy to discover the truly appalling agenda of the people behind that plague – and many others being used against people around the globe.
Working with Alex Sanchez and colorist Jay Fotos is great. Alex really gets the story and characters and brings a lot of action, dynamics and complexity to them. And Jay colors the story in ways that bring out subtle elements of emotion.
DF: You’re obviously a caring writer because I understand you have been working with expert scientists to make certain the biological weapons in Pandemica are realistic. Tell us a little about what that research involved, and any other research toward the series by you or Alex.
Jonathan Maberry: We’re living in pretty troubled times. Racism and intolerance are on a steep and terrifying rise. Politicians aren’t even trying to hide the fact that they place greed, re-election, and party agendas over the common good. It’s like living inside one of those radical shadow-government conspiracy theories, except it’s not someone ranting about what can’t be proved – this is in the headlines every day. The authors of cautionary fiction – George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley – would be appalled that their fiction has become our day-to-day life.
Add to that the harsh truth that science has caught up to the isolationist and nationalist dreams of the Nazi Master Race program and Eugenics. We can actually design the next generation of children to fit our desires. On one hand, science like CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) will be able to edit out diseases like Tay Sachs and Sickle Cell, and maybe remove Alzheimer’s, ALS, MS, and other disorders. That’s amazing. That’s beautiful. On the other hand, the same science, much of which is open-source, allows for both designer humans and designer bioweapons. Pandemica, especially as we dive deep, shines a light on the moral complexities and potential harm.
Of course, we go a bit beyond that and explore some speculative issues about the dangers of these bioweapons interacting in unpredictable ways. So far that’s just theoretical and we all hope like hell science doesn’t catch up to that part of our story.
DF: What is the basic storyline of Pandemica? Can you give us an extended elevator pitch?
Jonathan Maberry: A group of very wealthy people, including some scientists, think that the overpopulated world needs a reset. They want to eliminate what they consider ‘inconvenient’ people – the poor who are, in their view, a drain on resources. This group, known as the ARK, want to cull the population way down. And when the cutting is done, they want to grow a ‘better’ version of the human species. This storyline draws on a lot of what the Eugenics followers and the Nazis clearly believed. The core issue, though, is that there isn’t such a thing as ‘pure’ DNA. Especially in a racial and cultural melting pot of a country like America. ARK’s people disagree with any science that tells them otherwise, and will go to great lengths to force their view onto the world. Science, however, has no politics, no bias. Nature has no flag. And that’s where a skewed worldview like ARKs will collide with reality in catastrophic ways. And, in each issue, we get a glimpse of the worst case scenario toward which we’re hurtling.
DF: Introduce us to some of your protagonists, if you will.
Jonathan Maberry: The three main good guys are Dr. Moses Katz, a very smart research physician working for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control). He sees the patterns of these new outbreaks and risks everything – his job and his life – to get the truth out to the public. His first ally is De’Neesa, a tough and cynical woman recently retired from Special Operations with the United Nations. When things escalated, De’Neesa calls in one of her former teammates, Charlie ‘Chick’ Weed, whose laid-back farm-boy appearance hides a more broken and brutal nature. Together they form a resistance group of scientists, technicians and social media experts called Pandemica.
On the other side are the Galtons – a corporate mogul father and his scientist daughter. They are funding their own private Eugenics project by making and selling designer pathogens to any group around the world who want to eliminate any inconvenient ethnic groups in their political sphere. They are aided by a completely ruthless field agent known as Loverboy. And he has some history with Chick and De’Neesa.
DF: As you are writing this wonderful book, do you ever stop a minute and think how terrifying it is that so much of what you are writing about is probably possible in today’s world? Makes you thankful for folks like some of your characters who take a stand.
Jonathan Maberry: I write Pandemica because I am truly terrified by what’s happening in politics, in the corporate mindset, and at our borders. The world keeps getting more frightening, and scenarios like the one at the core of our book should – truly should — be so ‘way out there’ that they couldn’t possibly happen. However, the more I talk to my scientific advisors, the less ‘fiction’ this science fiction becomes. On the other hand, Moses, De’Neesa, and Chick are based in whole or part on people I know or have met. People who have both the moral and physical courage to stand up and push back. People who balance their own cynicism with a battered but still functional optimism.
DF: Talk a little about the art of Alex Sanchez and Jay Fotos.
Jonathan Maberry: This is the first time I have worked with Alex, but I’ve been a fan for a while. Loved his Star Wars: The Old Republic and other books. He brings that balance of ultra-realism that I love with very human character movement and a real eye for character ‘acting’. I tend to include emotional notes in my scripts and he captures them and even goes a step further. He’s aces.
I knew Jay Fotos’s work from Joe Hill’s brilliant Locke & Key, and have worked with him on a bunch of projects. He’s truly amazing. He brought so much richness to my books, V-Wars and Road of the Dead: Highway to Hell, that I tend to write with his color style in mind. He knows when to dial back in order to let dialogue have center stage and when to drench the panels with cinematic color washes that tell a deeper part of the story. I’d work with Jay on absolutely anything.
DF: Jonathan, I would indeed be remiss if I did not give you a chance to discuss whatever you can about your vampire apocalypse book series, V-Wars, being produced as an original TV program by Netflix.
Jonathan Maberry: V-Wars is another passion project of mine, and it will be my first TV series. It debuts later this year on Netlfix, starring Ian Somerhalder (Lost, The Vampire Diaries), Adrian Holmes (Arrow), Lura Vandervoort (Bitten, Smallville), Peter Outerbridge (Orphan Black, The Expanse) and Kyle Breitkopg (The Silence). Like Pandemica, it also deals with weird science, identity, racism and politics. I started it as a series of ‘shared world’ anthologies, for which I’d write a large framing story and then bring in other writers to do ‘field reports’. The premise is that melting polar ice releases an ancient disease that triggers a dormant gene that codes for vampirism. It’s a purely science-fiction take on vampires. Nothing supernatural. And as people begin transforming, there is an inevitable culture clash between the Bloods (vampires) and Beats (humans), resulting in all-our war. We did four volumes of the prose anthologies and I wrote the comic book. The latest comic was V-Wars: God of War. Netflix will be dropping a ten-episode first season soon!
DF: What other new projects can you tell readers about?
Jonathan Maberry: I’m always juggling a bunch of projects. Next up is Rage, the latest of the Joe Ledger thrillers; Lost Roads (February), the 7th book in my Rot & Ruin series of young adult post-apocalyptic zombie novels; New Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (a tribute anthology I’m editing for Fall 2020); and Ink (also fall 2020), which is about a psychic vampire who feeds on tattoos that are tied to precious memories. I’m also the newly-minted editorial director of the relaunch of Weird Tales Magazine; and my job is to not only scout for top talent, but to insure that we celebrate diversity by bringing in powerful voices in horror and dark fantasy from all over.
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Jonathan Maberry for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. Pandemica #1 from IDW Publishing hits stores Sept. 11th!
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