Inside the Brains of DEATH HEAD: An Interview with Nick and Zack Keller

The world sadly has a dearth of good horror comics. I don’t know if its a hold over from the days when E.C. comics got shut down but the comic industry sometimes feels averse to publishing stories that haunt and creep. Luckily for us Dark Horse comics, along with Nick and Zack Keller have a new horror story to read on one of these hot summer nights. We sat down with the Nick and Zack to ask them questions about horror in general and their particular addition to the genre.

 

Jesse Quick-Rincon: This story has a number of different characters in it. Should we feel nervous that any characters might not last the next couple issues? What kind of connections between the characters should we be looking for? Will we meet any new POV characters?

Nick Keller: ​Our main characters, the Burton family, are brought into the mystery of the Plague Doctor after the parents discover an ancient mask in the woods in Issue 1. From there, the storylines of the family weave together as a Plague Doctor begins to not only haunt them in visions, but actually hunt them down with the intention to kill. the Doctor is a brutal killer who shows no mercy so readers should feel nervous for every character. However, with all the thrilling sequences, our main focus is these characters and their internal struggles. That’s the most exciting aspect of the story for me.

"Death Head #1" (w) Zack Keller, Nick Keller (a) Joanna Estep Dark Horse Comics $3.99
“Death Head #1”
(w) Zack Keller, Nick Keller
(a) Joanna Estep
Dark Horse Comics
$3.99

Zack Keller: ​As Nick said, the Burtons—Niles, Justine, Maggie, and Bee—are the main characters, but we do jump to other POVs when the situation calls for it. Especially to see what that pesky Plague Doctor is up to.

JQR: Serializing horror stories can be a tricky business. Horror has to have a sense of mystery to remain properly foreboding. Does this story have a definitive end you guys are working to? Do you have a bag of tricks to make sure the scary stays put?

Nick: ​We talk about that sense of mystery a lot when we’re writing. How much do you reveal along the way but still keep readers interested? Our job is to find the perfect balance between characters you care about and the larger mystery at hand. If you like the Burton family, our hope is that you’ll keep reading because you can’t wait to find out what happens to them next. If you care about them, the scary will always be there because no one’s safe from the Doctor.

Zack: ​As Nick and I come from a feature film background, we definitely designed Death Head with a movie arc. All six issues are building toward one climactic moment where everything comes to a head. We often discuss this story as a “double cat and mouse game” where the Plague Doctor is hunting down the Burtons while the Burtons are searching for clues to find out why they’re being haunted and, more importantly, how to stop it before they go insane. We make sure things get worse and more desperate for the Burtons with each turn of the page to enhance the feeling of impending doom.

JQR: Probably my favorite aspect of the comic is the way it feels like a urban legend. Sometimes it feels like through the codification of “rules” around monsters (i.e. shoot zombies in the head, sunlight kills vampires) that there is little mystery surrounding horror monsters. Death Head has an interesting character visually and he’s definitely shrouded in mystery. What is the creative process your team went through in creating this new horror villain?

Nick: ​This idea for this story all began with the Plague Doctor. We had never seen one in mainstream media before and knew it would make a perfect villain. I mean, just look at them: white beaked mask, black cloak, and they carried surgical tools. Plus, if you saw them, it likely meant you were infected with the Bubonic Plague and had no chance for survival. What’s more terrifying than that?

Zack: ​In creating this world, we drew inspiration from real accounts of plague doctors during the Black Death in Europe and found an endless wealth of creepy details, imagery and facts to play with. As you delve deeper into the comic, however, you’ll see that we took a stab at expanding this mythology into more fantastical arenas. They aren’t just one dimensional murderers though—every character needs a strong motivation for what they’re doing, even the villains. As the mystery unfolds, you’ll realize there’s much more to these plague doctors than you initially thought.

JQR: On a lighter note, who went to Catholic school and how much did they hate it?

Nick: ​That’s very funny because neither of us did! I went to an after school church group for a few years as a kid and I never really understood religion. I still don’t think I do. When everyone else was praying to God, I just had my eyes closed while I was trying to figure out how to do it. I think that bleeds into this story. Readers will meet Maggie in Issue #1 whose parents put her into this Catholic school in hopes of getting her on the right track. Religion can be a motivator to become a better person, but it doesn’t always work. We tried to put both the good and bad side of religion into Maggie’s story.

Zack: ​Even though Nick and I didn’t go to Catholic school, we went through the whole process of baptism, first communion, confession, and confirmation for the first eighteen years of our lives. I was just going through the motions though. I never believed in it, not even when I was young. I remember they had us do this exercise in Sunday School—I was probably eight or nine—where we were supposed to draw our vision of God. I left the page blank and told the teacher “God is invisible because he’s everywhere.” She was very impressed with my answer, but she didn’t know that I was just incredibly lazy and didn’t want to draw. When I went to receive first communion, I had this huge bloody bandage on my hand because I fell on the playground. The priest literally put the body of Christ onto my blood­soaked palm. That was a bad omen for my short future in the Catholic church.

JQR: Generally speaking what should we be looking forward to from Death head? What are you most excited to show us?

Nick: ​I think we’re most excited to show people that Death Head isn’t a story that will hold your hand. It throws you into the mix and puts you right into the lives of these characters. We’ll give you the pieces of the puzzle, but you need to put it together. Very astute readers will notice even more mysteries on their own and realize that everything is connected. We agonized for months tying the threads together into a cohesive story with lots of help from our fantastic editor Jim Gibbons who showed us the way when things got crazy!

Readers should look forward to twists and turns that make it impossible to not pick up the next issue.

Zack: ​If you’re a horror fan, there are plenty of bloody deaths and horrific images to keep you turning the page. If you like mystery, you’ll be uncovering clues and trying to piece it all together right beside the Burtons. But what I’m most excited about is the introduction of a new villain into the horror genre, the Plague Doctor, who we think fans are going to love. You just better hope he’s not coming to your town.

If you’d like to learn more about Death Head, come check out www.deathheadcomic.com or follow Nick (@NickFKeller) and Zack (ZackKeller_) on Twitter.