Kyle Starks and Gabo Talk Oni Press’ Dead of Winter Comic

From the tabletop smash hit comes this new series starring beloved characters from Plaid Hat GamesDead of Winter, written by Kyle Starks, and illustrated by GABO.

In the pantheon of heroes, none are more lovable and loyal than everyone’s beloved good ol’ dog, Sparky. Surviving in the wintery apocalypse of the undead, this former TV star turned zombie killing machine just wants to make friends and be a good boy. As his fellow survivors scavenge for supplies in the frigid wasteland, will Sparky be able to protect his companions from threats both undead and not yet undead?

I got a chance to talk to Kyle and Gabo about the series, board games, and a certain dog.

Graphic Policy: Dead of Winter is based on the hit board game, are either of you board game fans? Had you played the game before coming on to the comic?

Kyle Starks: Almost exactly a year ago, Oni Press invited me to Gen Con to promote my work on Rick and Morty and to sort of underhandedly pitch me on this book. Gen Con was my introduction to modern board games, in fact, no joke – the first board game I played was Dead of Winter: The Long Night and I was blown away. I’m way down with board games.

Gabo: WHO ISN’T A FAN OF BOARD GAMES? I mean, we grew up on this stuff right? There’s so many games out there now that are brilliant, but I’m always glued to my desk drawing, so honestly I didn’t get a chance to play Dead of Winter until shortly after I started the project, and it was damn amazing. I’d played a few games here n there with roomates, but I feel this one is so much deeper than anything I’ve seen. SO MUCH SNEAKIER.

GP: How’d you both come on to the comic?

KS: I’m pretty sure we’re the team, along with Brian Hurtt on covers, that Oni wanted out of the gate. I know, for me, Oni wanted someone who had a unique vision, someone who would bring something besides Another Run Of The Mill Zombie book. And I think the same can be said for Gabo. This isn’t another been there-seen that zombie story – Sparky is a Superstar – and you need the right people for that.

Gabo: Okay I love drawing funny dogs doing silly crap. Charlie knew this. So naturally he hopped on the phone and woke my ass up to tell me about this project. HOW COULD I SAY NO? TO A DOG? FIGHTING ZOMBIES? And Kyle is writing it? AND HURTT IS ON COVERS? I’d be insane to say no.

GP: With it being a board game, it has a theme and look, but the focus is the interaction and mechanics really. As creators how do you go about adapting that as opposed to a book, movie, or television show?

KS: I think first and foremost the most important thing with any fiction is the story, so that definitely came first, but if you know the game, you’ll see over the four issues, it definitely plays out in a sequence that homages the game. The way the characters act, where they go, what they do – all comes from the game. I legitimately love the Dead of Winter franchise. I love the play mechanics, the characters, the locations – so getting the chance to bring that to life was a dream. AND we put a ton of Easter Eggs in there.  It’s a love letter to the game.

Gabo: I think Kyle has done a remarkable job taking his love for the game and written scripts that echo that. I’m not as familiar with the game but I’ve been studying its visual aspects, really trying to immerse myself in the universe these people might be in. I’m just hoping the Easter Eggs we tossed here n there aren’t too obscure for people!

GP: The game itself has a look as far as art which the comic differs from. When it came to the look of the comic itself, how was that decided?

KS: You’d probably need to talk to editorial about that – I know our editor, Charlie Chu, wanted Gabo from the beginning. And it’s different from game artist Fernanda Suarez sure, but for comics you need a sequential artist who can build a world and Gabo not only brings that to the table, he breaks that table with it.

Gabo: It was a bit of a struggle trying to figure out the right balance at first, Fernanda Suarez’s work is gorgeous and beautifully rendered, so I had basically break that beauty down to a very basic level. Lord knows I would have loved to of painted the entire book, but that would have taken months per issue! We decided on a very simple look, but still managed to capture the essence of all the characters, and even brought to life some new ones that I think fit beautifully into the world. For those familiar with the game, I think you’ll love the guest appearances! KEEP YOUR EYES PEELED!

GP: The game has locations but beyond that the world is really in the mind of those playing, when it came to fleshing out the look of the world, what were some of your inspirations?

KS: I think Gabo will agree – the locations depicted in the game are the hugest of inspirations. The game has an entire fleshed out world that makes it easy to play in. I alluded to it earlier, but the for the purposes of writing the book, for me, “going places to get things” is a huge repeated plot device in the book the same as it is for the game.

Gabo: The locations in this project have some art already designed for them in the game, but the insides of these places we had to rummage around our noggins and try to figure out what you might actually find inside them. A lot of my inspiration just came from personal experience and a lot of photo reference haha.

GP: One of the big things of the game is that each player has their own win objective and that may not be in the best interest of the rest of the players. Is that something you thought about when developing the series?

KS: What’s great about Dead of Winter is that it does these narrative things without having a ton of in game narrative. Aside from the Crossroad Cards it’s a lot of implied narrative – but those objectives are just characters motivations for story purpose. All of my characters are doing what they do for their own reasons and I think you’ll find they line up with those cards you’ve had in your hand. The Fireman, Gabriel Diaz just wants to save people. Annaleigh Chan, The Lawyer, has a curious mind that needs fulfilling. So on and so forth. Is there a Betrayer this game? Well, you’ll have to wait until the end of the game, right?

GP: Sparky is a big part of the comic and game and have a dog be the star in many ways makes the series stand out. When writing Sparky, how difficult is it to write for a dog. It’s not like there’s dialogue where you can convey things. Are there challenges to that as an artist?

KS: It’s a challenge for sure, but a thrilling one. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I just though, what if John McCain was a dog and off to the races. Sparky is the Most Heroic character I’ve ever written. The purest, the bravest, the most indomitable. So it was a treat. It was great.

GP: Was there anything that surprised you two in adapting a board game?

KS: I was shocked they wanted me to create new characters since the world they have is already inhabited by such great full ones – but, also, like, I’m going to jump  on the opportunity to make something that could end up being a playable character – and it happened which is literally just mindblowing to me. The Ruckus promo card is going to exist, albeit in very small quantities, but still being able to add to the GAME too? Amazing.

Gabo: Holy hell yes, creating new characters for the series! That was a curve ball and I think we might have a grand slam on our hands. Kyle has written some pretty great new characters that I think will most definitely make the game that much better– that’s if you can get your hands on a Ruckus promo card heheh.

GP: There’s obviously a lot of zombie comics out there, how much discussion was there to make this unique in story, characters, and look?

KS: I don’t remember if at that initial meeting the discussion was, right out the gate, to include Sparky, but I’m almost positive it was, so I think the moment someone thought, “Let’s do a zombie book but with a dog as the hero” it checks all those boxes. I know, for my part, I knew we were going to do an action-comedy zombie movie with a canine lead and so it’s going to be different, it’s going to be unique. And Oni put together a team with Gabo and I that by nature is going to be different than everyone else’s take.

Gabo: I’m just thrilled that this book isn’t going to be nearly as drab and depressing as most of the zombie books on the shelves. I understand the situation all those people are in when this stuff goes down – but man, can we get some dark comedy in here for once? WELL YOU GOT IT. AND HERE’S A DOG FOR GOOD MEASURE. HE’S A GOOD BOY.

GP: What else do you all have coming out that fans should check out?

KS: Oh man, I’m a busy boy, so a ton. I write Rick and Morty for Oni Press every month, and draw it every fifth issue or so. I have my current series with Image Comics that I write and draw with colors from Chris Schweizer called Rock Candy Mountain who’s first trade comes out at the end of September. Also at the end of September, Oni is printing my original graphic novel Kill Them All which is like Die Hard and Moonlighting smushed together with a huge John Woo influence. Lots of good stuff. Everyone tell your local comic store you want it!

Gabo: I’m losing my mind over here with the truck load of stuff I have coming out of and through me right now. The fourth and final volume of THE LIFE AFTER just came out, it’s illustrated by me and written by Joshua Hale Fialkov- published of course by Oni Press! I also illustrate an all ages  webcomic that has received Harvey nominations in 2015 and 2016 for best webseries, AlbertTheAlien.com. Beyond that, I’m working on growing my Patreon, so if you’d like to support my work please check that out. AND, if you’d like to catch a sneak peak of new pages I’m working on for Dead of Winter, I stream Wednesday’s starting around 4pm CST!

GP: Thanks so much for chatting!

Read our review of Dead of Winter #1 now!