Exclusive: Nick and Zack Keller Bring Death Head To Dark Horse Comics

The Keller brothers tell us what to expect in their new horror comic book miniseries, Death Head.

Blair Marnellby Blair Marnell

Today is the first day of Emerald City Comicon in Seattle, and Dark Horse Comics will be unveiling a number of new projects this weekend. CraveOnline is proud to present one of the first Dark Horse ECCC announcements: Death Head.

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Written and created by brothers Nick and Zack Keller, Death Head follows Niles and Justin Burton, a married couple who go on a trip without their kids and stumble across something malevolent in an abandoned village. But when the couple escape from the village with a plague doctor’s mask, the real horror begins… and it extends to their teenage daughter, Maggie and their young son, Bee. Somehow, the Plague Doctor has followed the Burtons home and the family’s survival is in jeopardy…

The Keller brothers are best known for their work on the hit YouTube animated series Dick Figures, and the subsequent Dick Figures animated movie. The artist for Death Head is Joanna Estep, and the miniseries is set to debut in July 2015.

CraveOnline was given a chance to read the first issue of Death Head (and I can personally recommend Estep’s terrifically creepy artwork) before speaking with the Keller brothers about their new project.

CraveOnline: Zack and Nick, how long have you been creatively collaborating?

Zack Keller: Nick and I are brothers so we’ve been telling each other stories since we were kids, but our professional collaboration started about five years ago. I co-created an animated series called Dick Figures—it’s about two stick figure friends who are jerks—and needed a composer.

Nick had just graduated from USC’s music school so I sent him the pilot episode which had an epic Muse riff in it. I asked him, “Hey, can you make a song that sounds like this?” Nick jokingly replied, “You mean one of the greatest rock songs of all time? Sure.” From there, we worked on fifty-one episodes and a feature film for this crazy animated show.

Nick Keller: Now we’re writing a comic, YouTube series, and feature film together. It works out well because we’re brothers… so we really can’t fire each other.

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Tell us about Death Head. What’s it about and who are the characters?

Nick: The story starts with Niles and Justine Burton on a camping trip in the woods when they discover an abandoned town. They find a cursed Plague Doctor mask and from there things go south for the entire family. Their two kids, Maggie and Bee, are brought into the fray when the mask comes home and they realize something’s not right with it. The Plague Doctor, the owner of this mask, begins hunting them down to get it back.

Zack: Characters are the soul of a story so we focused on writing a family that you’ll root for. Though Death Head sounds like horror, we’re blending genres between fantasy, supernatural and even comedy. We initially pitched it as The Ring meets Breaking Bad.

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From the first issue, I see how Niles and Justine got themselves into this situation. Why are their kids, Maggie and Bee also drawn into it?

Nick: I’ve always related to the younger characters in stories for their innocence and sense of discovery. We wanted Maggie and Bee (ages 18 and 9, respectively) to have their own journey figuring out their lives while connecting them to the larger threat of the Plague Doctor.

Zack: What starts out as four separate stories for Niles, Justine, Bee and Maggie eventually weaves together even as the family is falling apart. Issue by issue, you’ll see how the discovery of the mask ripples throughout all their lives.

Is the Plague Doctor actually pursuing the family in multiple locations?

Zack: There are many haunted locations, but only one Plague Doctor. Like an urban legend, everyone knows about the creature wearing the white beaked mask. However, no one truly knows what it wants, where it comes from or why it so often takes the victim’s head. These locations—the cemetery sewer, an abandoned town in the redwoods—are real places near where we grew up that have scared us since childhood. By writing this story we’re exorcising our demons and passing them on to you.

Nick: Speaking of the sewer, it exists in an Oakland cemetery. It’s littered with graffiti that’s different every time I go down there. I’ve never had the guts to go all the way in and see what’s around the bend…

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What inspired this story?

Nick: Zack and I were hiking on a trail while thinking about story ideas we wanted to write. We happened upon a manhole cover over a concrete pipe buried in the woods and thought “You’d be screwed if you fell in there…but what if you survived and brought something even worse back?” That simple idea sparked the whole series. It’s what we see in the first issue with Niles and Justine finding the Plague Doctor mask. The theme of the mask is central to our story, and how people wear masks in everyday life.

Everyone in the family is hiding something. Plus, we’d never seen Plague Doctors used before and they’re the perfect horror villain! I’ve pranked several people standing outside their window with my own Plague Doctor mask and they flip out every time. That’s how I knew Death Head would be scary.

How did you end up bringing it to Dark Horse?

Nick: We were introduced to Dark Horse’s President, Mike Richardson, through our agent. We met Mike last year at San Diego Comic-Con to pitch him the story and he loved it. We’ve been so fortunate to work with Dark Horse and their amazing team. We’ve both been reading Dark Horse comics for a long time so we’re honored that Death Head has found a home here. Our editor, Jim Gibbons, has been incredible at helping this comic come to life. He’s an editing wizard.

Zack: And he makes us look educated by fixing tepos. (*typos. Thanks, Jim!)

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Talk about working with your artist, Joanna Estep. Her visuals in the first issue were very striking and creepy.

Nick: Joanna is an amazing artist. Our top priority was having realistic, expressive characters and her art brings the Burton family to life. She nails every challenge we throw her way so we’re very lucky to have her on board. Rounding out the team, we have Kelly Fitzpatrick coloring the series, John J. Hill doing the lettering, EM Gist creating all our covers and Spencer Cushing batting clean up as the assistant editor.

Zack: We’re blown away by the pool of talent that we now have the pleasure of swimming in. One great thing Joanna said early on was, “No one ever lets me draw gruesome stuff like blood and guts so bring it on!” After all the horrific things we’ve asked her to draw maybe she’s reconsidering…

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How many issues will Death Head run? 

Nick: Right now, we’re signed on for six issues, but the full story of Death Head is much longer.

Zack: This is only the beginning for the Burton family. There’s so much bloody fun and ancient lore behind the Plague Doctor that we hope readers will be dying for more. Death Head will be released monthly starting in July so thank you in advance to everyone who picks it up!

Any closing thoughts for potential readers of Death Head?

Zack: Even though “Death” is in the title, this is a story for everyone. It’s a page-turning read about a family shedding their masks and becoming who they really are when they come face to face with evil. And for horror fans, there will be buckets of blood too. We’d love to hear your thoughts on Death Head, so come say “hello” on Twitter (@ZackKeller_ and @NickFKeller) and find out more at www.deathheadcomic.com!