In the end, death comes to all. This summer, death comes to you.
Death Head is a fantastic tale about the Burtons, a modern family who bring an ancient force, known as the Plague Doctor, into their lives after a fateful camping trip. Brothers Zack and Nick Keller have crafted an intricate tale about urban myth, the nature of death, and strength of family. I recently had an opportunity to talk to them about their story.
Alex Lu: CraveOnline has covered a lot of ground on Death Head, but for readers who need a refresher, what’s the basic concept of Death Head?
Zack: Death Head is about a doomed family called the Burtons. The parents are broke and having another baby, their teenage daughter is in love with a troubled girl, their son has only one friend who turns out to be…well, different. Compounding these issues, the parents return from an ill-fated camping trip in the woods and become haunted by a Plague Doctor for reasons they don’t yet understand. The Burtons must band together or this black-cloaked villain will not only break them apart, but put them in their graves. Genre doesn’t exist in real life so that’s why Nick and I mix up horror, suspense, comedy, drama and anything else we need when the situation calls for it. Songs need different notes to really rock. Same goes for stories.
Nick: At its core, we deal with the family’s journey to shed their own masks and confront evil.
Nick, you say that the members of the Burton family, like the Plague Doctor, each wear their own mask. It’s said that people wear masks to hide their vulnerability from others because they’re scared that the people they care about will reject them if they reveal their true selves. In stories, monsters are usually used to give physicality to something we fear, such as death or guilt. Would you say that the Plague Doctor represents this fear of vulnerability?
Nick: Absolutely. Many people fear being vulnerable more than anything else which is fascinating. In today’s world, it’s a default to hide behind something. The Plague Doctor, in a metaphorical sense, forces the family to confront their internal struggles. He’s there to kill them, which is definitely a tangible fear. The threat of death makes us more vulnerable than anything else. We’ll see how the Burton Family reacts.
Lu: Growing up, were the two of you interested in urban myth? If so, what were some particularly unsettling or notable ones for you?
Nick: I was very interested in urban legends growing up. The one that sticks with me to this day is about a babysitter. She goes upstairs into the kid’s room before bed and sees a life-size clown doll standing in the corner. Think Pennywise from IT. When she comes back upstairs to put the kid to bed a few hours later, the eyes in the doll move and look straight at her. She calls the police and when they get there, they rip open the doll to find a man (or murderer) waiting inside. I heard this at a sleepover when I was ten and still haven’t forgotten it.
Zack: With Death Head, we’re introducing a new urban legend: the Plague Doctor. This villain is based on actual doctors who showed up in bubonic plague infected towns in medieval Europe. Wherever they went, death followed…so their appearance in the Burton’s home town can’t mean good things.
Nick: We hope people start telling their friends about Plague Doctor urban legends once Death Head is out.
Lu: I totally remember that story about the clown! It scared me half to death when I first heard it, and I think the interesting thing about that story was that it didn’t end with anyone dying, unlike the end of many other urban myths. It was that anticipation, that closeness to death, that really made the story stand out for me. Zack, Nick, what is your relationship with death?
Nick: The scariest part about that clown story is what could have happened. You could have been in there sleeping with this murderer waiting for you. That’s almost scarier than being confronted. It’s the unknown of what might happen if you go to bed. I’d be lying if I said I have never looked into the corners of my room when I turn out the lights. In regards to death, it’s not something I think about often. However, I do think about how life is not something to be wasted because of death. It motivates you to look inside yourself and say “Am I wasting my short time here?” I’ll ask myself that often and I think these characters start to do that too as the story continues.
Zack: This story is more about the characters than the body count. “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic,” as they say, so we’re making every death counts. Our goal as writers is to make sure that the readers understand exactly what is at stake for each character in every scene so you know what they have to lose. The Burtons are in trouble before the plague doctor ever comes to town, but people can do incredible things in dire circumstances.
I am afraid of death in all its many forms, though telling this story has allowed me to explore exactly why that is. Death stares you in the face when writing a horror story because so many of the genre’s tropes are about whether or not the characters will survive. In Death Head, we see several different generations—kids, teenagers, adults—all dealing with the same reality: some day you will die…so what are you going to do while you’re still alive?
Lu: Going back to an earlier point, Zack, it’s interesting that you bring up the historical reference for the plague doctor. I always found it ironic that the people paid to save plague victims were and are still seen as harbingers of death instead. Is there a similar sense of contradiction in the Plague Doctor we see in Death Head? Is there the possibility that it may not be as malevolent as it appears to be?
Zack: We don’t want to give anything away, but that theme is certainly dealt with. Everyone is the hero of their own story, even the villain. The only way to create believable characters is for them to have strong motivations and truly believe what they are doing is right. No one is evil just to be evil.
Reading the history of plague doctors gave us an endless wealth of ideas because of this contradiction. These “doctors” showed up in bubonic plague infected towns to do good, but how you could not be frightened of black cloaked, white bird-masked creatures appearing at your front door? Not only are they terrifying looking, but worse than that, if you see them it means there’s almost no hope for survival. During the Black Death, no one knew why the bubonic plague was spreading or how to stop it. As we know, the fear of the unknown is the greatest fear of all. Nick and I think Plague doctors are the ultimate horror villain so we can’t wait to unleash one upon the Burton family, and the comic world too.
Lu: Even though the premise for this story is centered on the Plague Doctor, it seems like what really will make it run are the relationships between the members of the Burton family. What are those relationships like as the story begins?
Nick: When we meet them, the Burton family is at a crossroads. In Issue #1, each storyline begins independent from the other family members but they weave together as the series continues. The relationships are tested, not only from the haunting visions the mask brings, but also pre-existing issues between the Burtons. We take our time establishing our characters so the reader can connect with their motivations. It makes the threat much stronger.
Zack: The best stories are about honest characters who readers care about because that’s the only way to give true meaning to conflict. We wanted to create characters you’ll root for no matter the circumstances. At home. At school. At work. Their troubles with life and love. If you really do care about the Burtons then nothing could be worse than an ancient Plague Doctor coming to kill them. We hope readers will be burning through pages hoping the Burtons will survive.
Lu: I just finished reading This One Summer, which is a story about two young girls as they begin their awkward steps towards womanhood. Are we going to see a similar coming of age, albeit a more grim and gothic one, with Maggie and Bee?
Nick: At its core, this story is about self-discovery. I think everyone goes through several coming of age transitions in their life, and we’re hitting a few of them with Maggie and Bee’s stories. Bee deals with bullying in his elementary school and learns that friendship comes in many forms. Maggie, on the other hand, tries to break down the walls that her parents have set for her. She’s becoming her own person defined by her rules, not her parent’s.
Zack: We also touch on how people wear masks in their daily lives. The secrets they keep, the false faces they put on, and how that can consume you if you’re not careful. This theme manifests itself in the mask-wearing Plague Doctor who hunts down the Burtons as they’re simultaneously hunting for answers to an ancient mystery. It’s a two-way cat and mouse game that means trouble if either side wins. You’ll have to read the series to find out what that means!
Death Head #1 comes out on July 15th, 2015.