Eugene can be a contradictory place. Some find numerous opportunities here, seeing Eugene as a community full of music, culture, good food and outdoor adventure. Others characterize the city more prosaically, as a nice place to live, but maybe a little … lacking in diversions.
Count cartoonist Michael Allred in the former category. “Growing up in Roseburg, Eugene was always the exciting place to go,” he says. Allred, creator of the independent critical-darling comic book Madman, moved on to college in Utah (where he met his wife, comic-book colorist Laura Allred) and eventually lived for a time in Eugene. He later relocated to various points all around the country, and even to Europe. But Eugene always held a special place in his heart.
Now Allred is the artist of a comic book series that is not only set in Eugene, but also embraces the line our city walks between the everyday and the extraordinary.
Published by DC Comics’ imprint for adults, Vertigo, iZombie follows the adventures of Gwen Dylan, a UO dropout who hangs out in a diner, makes her living digging graves in an eco-friendly cemetery and who just happens to be an undead zombie.
Gwen, helped along by her friends Ellie the ghost and Scott the were-terrier (yes, you read that right), solves supernatural mysteries, eats the occasional brain and dodges an ancient order of monster hunters … all punctuated by routine trips to the diner for chocolate and coffee.
Comparing his work to a cross between Archie comics and Scooby-Doo, iZombie series writer and New York Times best-selling author Chris Roberson, who lives in Austin, Texas, says that balancing the mundane and the fantastic sides of Eugene is one of his goals. Roberson’s stories cleverly subvert the standard monster-movie formula by showing how the undead spend their down time.
“It’s almost required that the moment that someone becomes one of these supernatural beings, they become angsty,” Roberson says. “If I became a werewolf, I’d still be the person I am now, I’d just have some personal hygiene issues once a month, or have some self-control issues.”
Roberson, who has never visited Oregon, relies in large part on online street views to inform the sense of place inherent in his writing. But his collaborator Allred just moved back to Eugene after a stint on the Oregon Coast. Having one half of the creative duo based in the city where the story is set has its advantages.
Besides advising Roberson on details of Eugene geography and daily life, Michael Allred incorporates real Eugene landmarks into the comic’s illustrations, which are in turn brought to colorful life by Laura Allred.
In the Eugene of iZombie, vampires troll for dates at the Downtown Lounge. A UO science lab is used as a staging ground for communing with extra-dimensional beings. The Shelton-McMurphey-Johnson mansion at the base of Skinner Butte doubles as the home of a centuries-old Egyptian mummy. And the diner where Gwen and her spooky friends hang out is modeled on Fins Drive-In in Springfield.
But the parade of Lane County landmarks doesn’t stop there. Versions of real-world locations like Smith Family Bookstore, Nostalgia Collectibles, Taylor’s Bar & Grill, Ya-Po-Ah Terrace and even the Camp Putt mini-golf course all appear in the first two collected paperback editions of iZombie, which encompass the first twelve issues of the series.
Allred says he takes special pride in issue 23, slated for release in March, in which characters will meet at the top of Skinner Butte.
“I would encourage people to take that issue and go to the top, and try to figure out where all the characters are,” Allred says with a grin.
Despite his own current lack of Oregon bona fides, Roberson will soon enough have a chance to see in person the locations he has been writing about. This summer, Roberson and his family are moving from Austin to Portland, sight unseen. Roberson says that one of his first orders of business will be a trip down I-5 to hang out with his comic-book partner Allred, and to check out the town where Gwen the zombie hangs her gravedigger’s cap.
Prior to starting work on iZombie, Roberson says, “I really knew of Eugene only as the place that Ken Kesey was from.”
“It’s a mysterious town to outsiders,” Allred posits. “Other than Animal House being filmed here and the Pre legend, pop culture has pretty much ignored Eugene.”
In fact, it was Allred’s teenage hunt for Animal House film locations that convinced him, in part, that Eugene would be a good place to set a comic book series.
“I went out of my way to find all the locations, and that was a huge thrill for me,” says Allred. “I’m hoping people reading in Eugene will do the same thing.”
The first three iZombie collected editions are available now, priced at $14.99 each; info at cdcomics.com
He’s a successful writer, a novelist more than a dozen times over, but even Chris Roberson admits to being a bit starstruck when his editor at Vertigo Comics paired him with Michael Allred for iZombie.
“I’ve been a fan of Mike’s since 1992, 1993?” Roberson struggles to recall. “It was difficult for me to get my head around the idea of collaborating with him. I still will occasionally drop into fan mode, and remind him of something he did in 1994,” he says.
But how did the collaboration result in a comic set in Eugene, specifically?
“The reality is that the series editor, Shelley Bond, tricked us both!” Roberson says. “The series was originally set somewhere else on the West Coast.” That “somewhere” was Colma, Calif., a community founded to serve as a collection of cemeteries for nearby land-strapped San Francisco.
Bond says he knew that Allred was more likely to sign on for the comic if it was set in his favorite Oregon town, and the DC editor indicated to each creator that the other wanted Eugene as the stage for iZombie’s horror-tinged hijinks.
“For the better part of a year each of us thought it was the other guy that wanted to set it there,” Roberson remembers.
It seems to have worked out just fine for Allred. “I love this business,” says Allred, an industry veteran. “Working with Chris on iZombie has definitely been one of the best highlights of my career.”