Dead of Winter board game comes alive in new comic series! – An interview with the creative team from Oni Press

Jun 4, 2017

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Dead of Winter has been an extremely well received board game property from Plaid Hat Games since it’s release in 2014. The game is ranked at 41 overall (out of tens of thousands of games) on Board Game Geek, one of the board game industries premier websites. Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game is touted as a semi-cooperative psychological survival horror game set in a remote far northern town, where players take on the actions of surviving colonist in a world where most of humanity is either dead or they are diseased flesh-craving monsters (Zombies!).  The game pushed the semi-cooperative ingenuity to a new level by combining heavy story telling elements that cause the players to deal with real emotional and psychological choices while still finding a way to work together fighting off outside threats, resolving crisis, collecting supplies, and keeping up morale. The game constantly has players making frequent, difficult, heavily- thematic, and wildly-varying decisions that often have them deciding between what is best for the colony and what is best for themselves.

Back in April 2017, Oni Press, Portland’s premier independent comic book publisher, announced DEAD OF WINTER would be a new comic book series based on the smash hit tabletop board game. The book will Feature the talents of writer Kyle Starks (Rick and Morty, Rock Candy Mountain) and artist Gabo (The Life After, Elephantmen), featuring cover art illustrated by Brian Hurtt and Bill Crabtree (The Sixth Gun, The Damned). I recently conducted an interview with Kyle, Gabo, and Oni Press’s Senior Editor Charlie Chu to find out more about this fantastic partnership.

Dead of Winter : A Crossroads Game

The Project initially came about Charlie said, “[because he] had been a big Dead of Winter fan since the original game’s release and struck up a friendship with Plaid Hat’s Colby Dauch at Gen Con.” They flirted with the idea of working together over the next few years. Then at Gen Con 2016, While Kyle was signing and promoting for Oni Press his passing interest in table top gaming grew immensely and he too fell in love with the Dead of Winter game. This lead to more serious talks that year.

I asked Kyle how much influence the game has over the comic. He said,

“A thing we wanted very badly with this book was to make something that was 100% true to the source material but also something that someone unrelated with that material could totally fall in love with it. If you love Dead of Winter, and I legitimately do, you’ll see this is a love letter to the game. You’ll see the characters, you’ll see background references to the game, you’ll see token symbols being used as SFX, and you’ll see sequences and bits and gags that all can only exist because the game does.  Keep your eyes open for all the easter eggs. But, if you don’t know the game, then what you’ll get is a super dope story about a group of people trying to survive something terrible and the most amazing dog in history fighting zombies with action and great laughs!”

That’s right, Kyle mentioned an amazing dog! Sparky, a canine stunt dog turned zombie killing machine, is a fan-favorite playable character in the board game and is also the main protagonist in the comic. When asked what brought about the decision to go with Sparky as the main character, Kyle responded by saying,

“I don’t think there was ever a question to use anyone else, honestly. Sparky is the … most interesting character in the game and it’s a refreshing twist (in my opinion) on a genre that’s been played really hard. I think as a fan of the game you’re stoked to see this amazing creature get a story and I think if you’re just seeing one of those awesome covers then you’re just like “Whoa what’s happening here?”. Both of those people are going to be rewarded with something fun and hilarious and gross and full of action and, in the end, I think a tale of these people’s journey and why this dog is [who he is]”.

Charlie went on to tell me that,

“As a massive Dead of Winter fan, Sparky is a character who is totally overpowered! I have yet to play a game of Dead of Winter where Sparky doesn’t end up loaded with night vision goggles, murdering zombies left and right, equipping every item under the sun, and generally being the good-est of good boys. It is amazing and cracks me up every time I play. As Kyle noted, there’s plenty of zombie stories out there in comics for readers to enjoy. Playing in Plaid Hat Games’ sandbox allowed us the opportunity to tell a zombie story in a space that has a diverse cast of characters, and having Sparky as our de facto protagonist lets us do something that feels a little left of center that’s new to comics fans, and also super satisfying for fans of the game. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read “Kyle Starks and Gabo do Airbud meets The Walking Dead?”

Dead of Winter comic preview page

I asked Kyle if we would see other characters from the game incorporated from the comics, and if so, how did he give personalities to characters who were previously just “standees”. He answered,

“Yeah, you’re going to see a bunch of dudes you’ll recognize and a couple new faces. In regards to how I gave them personalities, I think the game artist, Fernanda Suarez, did a really amazing job; I look at those cards and just feel like I know who these people are and how they would act. Those pictures really emote!”

The art was one of the aspects of the board game that made it so amazing. I asked if Fernanda would have any involvement in the comic series. Charlie raved that,

“Fernanda’s work on the game is absolutely phenomenal, as she crushes doing the zombie / apocalyptic vibe while not losing a pop sensibility with her colors and characters. But between the work on her plate for the Dead of Winter games and for Ashes [another popular game from Plaid Hat], our schedules didn’t line up, but we also were excited to be able to do the comics to be their own thing with our team doing an interpretation of the game’s sandbox. Fernanda’s art is the definitive version of Dead of Winter and hopefully we’ll get to collaborate in some form soon!”

I had to ask Gabo if the art from the board game influenced some of his character designs and overall style for this series? He told me,

“I think all of the designs I’ve done of new characters had to be influenced by the game’s art. For me to put some awkward looking characters in this book would just pull you out of the universe! After reading Kyle’s description for Ruckus, I took a really exaggerated approach, but after some talking with Charlie and Kyle, we agreed that these new characters shouldn’t be too over the top crazy. Ruckus, in particular, is based on the dudes I see walking around at Walmart in the middle of the night. I live in the middle of Wisconsin, so good references are always just a few blocks away. As for the style of the book, man I’d love to paint this whole thing the way the game artist Fernanda Suarez does, but that’d take years! I took a simplified approach and tried to keep that drab depressing look with splashes of really rich blood red here and there! I’ve got a feeling fans will still feel get the same warm, gooey feels that the game gives them!”

Still intrigued, I wanted to know more about Gabo’s artistic influences over his career. He gave an answer that I think makes this book even more special.  

I can’t deny that my biggest influence to date is Moebius. I try not to bite TOO much of his work, but the guy was just pure genius. Along the trail, I’ve picked up a lot of tips and tricks from my mentor Moritat, particularly when it comes down to digital coloring. Honestly, since the early 2010’s I’ve stopped looking to other artists to pattern myself. I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to look within myself for artistic growth. I feel this book is helping with that!”

Sparky wasn’t done being talked about just yet! When asked what has been one aspect of this project that they’ve really enjoyed that was new and fresh, Kyle responded,

“I mean, it’s absolutely, completely my first book where the protagonist is an animal. There was also the challenge of marrying a narrative and remaining true to the game and that was a lot of fun. This entire thing was a treat for me, I love the game, I love zombie flicks, I love dogs. I mean, look, I don’t know if there’s a Best New Hero award in comics but if there is go ahead and put Sparky on the list. Writing that sort of hero is a ton of fun.”

For Gabo, his response was,

Oh God, dogs!. Dogs are an incredible pain in the bum to draw, but I like that! I mean I’ve drawn dogs in the past, but when the main character is a dog? Well man, now I really have to put some elbow grease in! Also capes. I don’t draw a lot of capes. I don’t really draw superheroes, so this is new to me. Oh, and snow! I’ve done stories in rain, in hell, in heaven, but never in a snowstorm. It’s exciting to play with how light is affected by all that snow.” I asked them not to say zombies, but Gabo also said, “I know you don’t wanna hear it, but zombies. These aren’t normal zombies though!. They have boils and are slimy and stuff! [There is] so many cool things I get to do in this book, I’m super excited for you all to see them!”

Variant cover for Dead of Winter comic #1

Now that you KNOW that you WANT this book, make sure that you get to your friendly local comic shop by July 10th and have them order it for you! Both covers can be ordered and they have the same $3.99 price tag. For store owners and retailers, Oni Press is offering an incentive. If they order 15 or more copies of Dead of Winter #1 they will receive full returnability on their entire order. The book will also be available through ComiXology, Google Play, and iBooks. The release date for the book is Aug, 2nd.

Thanks to Oni Press and to Charlie, Kyle, and Gabo for taking the time to conduct these interviews and to Plaid Hat Games and (game designers) Isaac Vega and Jon Gilmour for making a great board game! If you haven’t played it, go get a copy and make that happen!