On the drawing table, amid the inking brushes, pencils and sketches of zombies about to be diced to pieces by a machete-wielding young girl, is a pink and black Power Puff Girls pencil case.
A self-proclaimed action/urban adventure geek, local comic artist Faith Erin Hicks isn't much into typically girly things. But she says her different perspective has helped put a spin on the zombie story in her debut graphic novel, Zombies Calling.
Beyond horror and gore, Zombies Calling is a John Hughes meets George Romero comedy. "I wanted to do a comic about these funny characters and how they respond to the situation that they're in," says Hicks, thumbing through the book. "It's almost easier to start with a cliche because then you have the audience saying, "Oh, I understand that. I understand zombies.' So, then you can go from that and develop characters."
The book is centred on Joss and her two dorm-mates at a nondescript Canadian university. Along with exams and student loans, Joss soon has to deal with a zombie outbreak on campus. But with a vast knowledge of zombie movies and the rules that govern them (such as never leave the mall), she starts kicking zombie butt.
The idea behind Zombies Calling came after watching the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Hicks couldn't understand how the characters knew nothing about zombies. "I found that strange and frustrating. We're beyond that as an entertainment culture. That story's been told. So, I was trying to tell the next story—of people who are aware of these kinds of monsters and react accordingly."
Hicks never imagined being a published artist. And until nine years ago she wasn't an artist at all. But in an act of "sheer bloody-mindedness" she tried to draw a short story she was writing for a creative writing class.
After her first try, Hicks kept practising and started voraciously reading online comics. She enrolled in Toronto's Sheridan College and began her own online comic, Demonology 101. When the popular online comic Mega Tokyo linked to hers in 2003, she soon had 5,000 people visiting her site every day. She received fan art and one reader dressed up as one of her characters for Halloween.
Demonology 101 finished in 2004. Soon afterwards, the Ontario native moved to Halifax to work at an animation studio. She's well into another online comic, Ice, but says Zombies Calling is a test to see if her fans are still out there.
"It is really nerve-wracking. The internet was free and now people are going to be paying for it. We all went down to Strange Adventures and my friends held up my book—it's over 100 pages but it's not a long book—and they were comparing it to the new Scott Pilgrim book, which is over 400 pages. And I was so embarrassed."
One thing that's common among Hicks' stories is a strong female lead. It's a conscious decision to make up for the lack of female leads in comics. She even named her cat Clarice, after Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs. "I don't really buy the idea that guys won't read about female characters...Guys will read about lead female characters as long as they are presented as real human beings with real problems and maybe fighting a zombie or two."
Embracing her love for action films, Zombies Calling is over the top in a Michael Bay fashion. But unlike Bay, Hicks's characters are grounded in reality. "The book is ridiculously over the top, but at the same time, there's violence going on and people getting hurt. And Joss as an action movie heroine and action movie fan doesn't register that until the end. I guess it's my way of saying I love action movies, but I'm a big ol' pacifist."
Hicks is itching to start a new graphic novel and is waiting to hear from publishers about two other stories. Although by the end of Zombies Calling she was sick of drawing zombies, Hicks might be willing to revive the undead.
"They're really fun characters to write. They're goofy Canadian kids having their goofy wild time. There's a small part of me that hopes it's successful so I can make a completely unnecessary sequel. I'd call it Zombies Calling 2: Electric Boogaloo or something."
Faith Erin Hicks, Saturday, November 24 at Strange Adventures, 5262 Sackville, 2-4pm.