Bruce Zick has worked on some of the most successful films in Hollywood including the Lion King, Inside Out and Wall-E throughout his 30+ year career. Even though animation may be what he’s best known for, comic books will always be special for him. We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Bruce about his career, the relaunch of The Zone Continuum and some of his upcoming projects.
SB: To begin, I have to admit that I didn’t know how much of your work that I’d actually seen. A lot of shows that you worked on, Thundarr, Visionaries and Jonny Quest – that’s stuff that I grew up watching.
BZ: Yeah, it’s kind of interesting because I did some podcasts and interviews a year or so ago when I was trying to launch the Kickstarter program for the Zone. I was meeting a lot of people much younger than myself and they all had their favorite shows that they grew up on that I had worked on and they were just sort of amazed. For me, I just sort of forget about it because it was so long ago. It’s nice to know that people enjoyed that stuff because it was a lot of fun to work on especially Thundarr the Barbarian. It was an amazing series.
SB: How do go from working behind the scenes in animation and transition into comic books?
BZ: Since I grew up loving comic books it was just something that I always wanted to do. I was there buying the first Marvel Comics – Fantastic Four #1 and Amazing Spider-Man #1 and I just got so swept away with what those stories were all about and seeing it grow that I just wanted to do comics. In reality it wasn’t what I was skilled at so I got into the animation business working as a background designer. I wanted to be a character designer but they didn’t like my character drawings so I got to be in the background department. That was how I could make a living and earn income but I always wanted to do comics. I kept trying to get a little bit better doing figure drawing and then one day I went down to the San Diego convention with some sample pages that I’d just drawn up and met the people from Dark Horse and another comic company called Comico. I got a couple of comic book gigs and that slowly opened the door. In between animation work I’d work on some comic books and once I had those come out I could send that artwork around to other publishers. I started to get a gig or two at Marvel and then I got The Zone Continuum up and running along with a few other things. It just happened slowly but it was always something I just hoped I would get into. Unfortunately as you know, the pay is so terrible in comics that you do it because you love it but then I’d have to get back into animation to pay the bills. I’d go back and forth as I needed to.
SB: Is there a difference working on a cartoon where you’re working on the backgrounds or character designs and then going to the solitary life of being a comic book artist? Is there a difference in work environment or process?
BZ: Well, yes and no. When I started I was working in the animation studio so it was a very interactive, collaborative and social experience. After a while I got to the point where I could start freelancing and didn’t have to work in-house anymore. At that point you’re isolated in your own office or apartment and then it’s not much different from doing comics in terms of being on your own and not really being around people.
SB: Then you came up with the idea for The Zone Continuum. Give us a little bit of the background on how you came up with the concept for the initial run of the comic book.
BZ: I think that because I was doing a lot of backgrounds for different TV shows like the Ghostbusters that would take place in a New York City environment that I would always have to do a lot of research of architecture. It always stuck in my head how cool rooftops were. I think that some of the early Spider-Man that Steve Ditko was doing – he could do really cool rooftops – appealed to me and so I just kept studying water towers, chimneys, vents, pipes, penthouses and building crowns and thought that someday I’ve got to do something that is the setting of a story. Then one day I saw a very cool picture of a guy in a Japanese trench coat leaping through the air and I thought now there’s an idea for a character. So I sort of took that design idea of the character and plugged it into my favorite idea of doing rooftops. That was the genesis of The Zone Continuum, a race of characters who are ancients who lived on the rooftops of New York City. The story kept growing from there to develop the mythology of who these people were, where they came from and the whole construct of what the Zone Continuum was. The main story takes place in one zone, Zone 27, which is in the heart of New York City. It started with a couple of small ideas and then it just kept expanding outward in concentric rings. I got to put the headquarters of the main characters in an abandoned water tower. I thought well that’s a cool thing. Water towers are so neat, they’re everywhere but what if this is where some people lived and operated some secret operation from?
SB: What’s the main idea behind The Zone Continuum?
BZ: The world is made of electromagnetic zones. Some zones are big, some zones are small, some zones are on the ground and some are higher above the ground. An ancient race of people called the Dar, over time became tuned to their environment and their electromagnet signature became identified to that one zone they lived in and were unable to leave it. If they passed through the zone’s boundary they would die. This caused them to be stuck all over the world in their individual pockets. As humans evolved and became more technological they started polluting the environment creating electromagnetic interference with microwaves and satellites that bombarded the planet with different electric waves that caused the zones to become unstable. They started shrinking and changing and warping and created strange phenomena that would erupt out and destroy these ancient people. Their world was being impacted by human interference and they had to develop a technological leap to create devices that would allow them to combat the instabilities of their zones. It got to the point where they had to face the question of whether or not they should allow humans to keep living on this planet because if they allowed things to continue the zones would become so unstable that all of these people would die. In New York City, in Zone 27, the impact of the zone instability has caused the boundaries of Zone 27 to rise higher and higher in the air to the point where these ancient people can never go back down to the ground again. They could only live higher up in buildings and in the rooftop environment and they can’t exist below the 15th floor and that’s the general concept.
SB: So the original comic came out in 1992 and lasted for four issues…
BZ: Right. It took a couple of years to do the four books actually, but like we were talking before I needed to get back into animation. I started doing other books back then too. I was penciling on Thor for Marvel for a while and did some other Dark Horse books and just never got back to the Zone again although I always wanted to. Other priorities just took over for many years.
SB: In the Interim you’ve worked on some standout movies like Finding Nemo, Wall-E and most recently Inside Out. So going into the animation/film world how did The Zone Continuum call out to you again?
BZ: The funny thing is it sort of never left me. I’ve always felt it was a perfect idea. Of all of the projects I’ve ever created I’ve just felt like the Zone was special. I was getting these amazing letters from the readers and one of them was from a professor who taught English and comic books at some university. I developed a little following and created a fan club called The F.O.T.Z.E.R.’s, which stands for Friends of the Zone, and I would do monthly newsletters and send out buttons and bumper stickers. I just felt like their enthusiasm told me that I was onto a good thing that I should never give up on. But it just took years and years of not having the time and then having the time but then not having a publisher who wanted to do the Zone. Then it came back around that I was pitching it to Dark Horse a couple of years ago and they basically said yeah if you’ll do it we’ll publish it. So that’s how it came back but I always wanted to get back to it.
SB: So for the new and old fans of the Zone, what is the new comic going to be about? How will it continue the story?
BZ: For the new readers I needed to reintroduce the whole concept. I looked back at the original series, which was the origin story, and thought about how I needed to retell parts of that to get people oriented to the concept. I did go back to the original series and took bits and pieces that I thought were essential to start the new story with and I interwove that into all new elements and the story just took off from there. There are four chapters in the new book and each one is 24 pages long. In Chapter 1 there’s a fair amount of old material, maybe 25-30% that introduces the story and is pitched into the new material and by the time we get into the second chapter there’s maybe 5-10% old material. Chapters 3 and 4 are 100% new. I needed to keep the parts that were important to new readers and I think the old readers will enjoy seeing how I changed the origin story to be a little more compelling and immediate. Hopefully it’s better (laughs). I’d hate to find out that people like the original books better than the new books (laughs).
SB: (laughs) Well as long as they’re passionate, that’s all you want as a creator.
BZ: Yeah, for sure.
SB: Do you have any plans for books past The Zone Continuum?
BZ: The Zone Continuum will be followed later in the year by the reprinting of the four original books. Dark Horse is going to do a second graphic novel in the fall and I’m excited about it because the printing wasn’t very good with the four original black and white and duo-shade books that I did. I think they could be quite beautiful now because with high quality printing you can get such solid blacks and crisp whites, so I’m just really looking forward to seeing it printed up nicely. I also have a series called The Legends of Lemaria which will be in Dark Horse Presents hopefully later this year. Then I’m also doing stories for Mandala which was a Dark Horse book and that’s going to be out sometime in the next year in Dark Horse Presents. I’ve also got an art book coming out featuring my animation and illustration work sometime in the spring or summer. Calibre Press is also going to reprint a series I did for Dark Horse years ago called Terminal Point as a graphic novel in the fall.
SB: Welcome back to the world of comics.
BZ: Thank you! I’ve been talking to Dark Horse about The Atomic Legion and they want to print new stories of The Atomic Legion in Dark Horse Presents and also maybe reissue the book that came out two years ago. It came out as a 250 page oversize, hardbound graphic novel that cost $29 and they want to downsize it and make it a lot cheaper so that it can reach more people. So we’re looking at getting The Atomic Legion rebooted in the next year and it’s such a fun, sweet, epic story that never found an audience. I think if people really get introduced to The Atomic Legion they will really be surprised with what it’s all about.
SB: Well congratulations and it sounds like you’re going to be really, really busy and might not be able to get back to animation anytime soon.
BZ: That would be okay! I would love to keep cranking it out in comics and doing more Zone books and I’ve got some other projects that I’m looking for publishers for. Nothing would make me happier than if I was just doing comics 100% of the time.
SB: I can imagine. It’s a great medium.
BZ: Yes it is!
SB: Just to wrap this up, do you have any plans to hit any of the conventions to help you publicize what you’re doing with The Zone Continuum and your other projects?
BZ: This weekend I’m going to be at the Wizard World convention in Portland and I’ll be premiering The Zone Continuum there. I love meeting people and talking about books. I’m such a nerd about the whole thing. That’s especially true when I meet old fans of The Zone Continuum. I feel like the original readers are like lost family. I want to hug them and find out everything that’s happened to them. They’re such good people.