Stranger Things became an instant phenomenon when it debuted on Netflix in 2016. The ’80s-set sci-fi series about a group of high school students in the town of Hawkins, Indiana, released its third season last year, and posted record viewership numbers during its first weekend on the streaming service. Now Dark Horse Comics, which has produced comics based on the series since entering into a licensing agreement with Netflix in 2018, has brought Stranger Things to a new audience with the release of Stranger Things: Zombie Boys, the first all-ages graphic novel set in the world of the series.
Creators Greg Pak, Valeria Favoccia, Dan Jackson, Nate Piekos, and Ron Chan are behind the new book, which is set after the events of the show’s first season and finds Will Byers struggling to deal with the trauma of what happened to him in the Upside-Down, and adjusting to being back at school. Zombie Boys deals with some heavy concepts, from the desire for acceptance to coming to terms with your greatest fears, and it handles them all while still retaining the energy and charm that makes Stranger Things so much fun. With the book in stores now, The Beat chatted with Pak and Favoccia about their work on Stranger Things: Zombie Boys, and what it took to bring the hit Netflix property to a younger audience.
Joe Grunenwald: How did each of you come to work on this project? What was each of your familiarity with Netflix’s Stranger Things beforehand?
Greg Pak: I’d been watching and loving the show, so I was thrilled to get a call from Dark Horse editor Spencer Cushing about writing a comic book tie-in. And since I’d been writing the Mech Cadet Yu all ages comic for BOOM, I was super intrigued about the idea of writing a Netflix Stranger Things comic that would be accessible to younger readers in particular.
Valeria Favoccia: I’ve always wanted to work for Dark Horse since I love what they do, and when Spencer (my amazing editor) proposed that I do some samples for the Stranger Things series I was so excited! When I was chosen for this project I simply couldn’t believe it, it was an incredible opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I watched the first season of Netflix’s Stranger Things when it first aired and I loved the characters and the visuals, I thought it was a great show. My flatmate was a very big fan herself and I still have a Stranger Things poster up in my room (even after she moved).
Grunenwald: What is it about the world of Hawkins, Indiana, and this story in particular, that appeals to each of you as storytellers?
Pak: I was born in 1968 and grew up riding my bike through the suburbs, hiking in the woods, watching Star Wars and Spielberg movies, and playing Dungeons & Dragons. So the show basically hit all my sweet spots. With Stranger Things: Zombie Boys, I was particularly excited for the chance to spend more time with the kids when they are young, just after the end of season one. The show’s doing a tremendous job of growing with the actors and taking on more mature themes with each season. But there’s a special magic to the relationships between the kids in that first season, and I’m so happy we’re getting a chance to explore that and bring them to life through our comic book.
Favoccia: I think that atmosphere is everything! Hawkins is a small town with a big forest, lots of trees and unique cottages with yards, there are a lot of bikes and this ’80s vibe all around that makes everything colorful and joyful. However, Hawkins has its extraordinary mystery and dark vibes that come through in the story that are really interesting and fun to draw!
Grunenwald: You introduce a new character to the Stranger Things universe in young filmmaker Joey Kim. What did each of you have in mind as you were developing Joey, both in terms of personality and storytelling potential and the visual look of the character?
Pak: When I was bouncing story ideas around with editors Spencer Cushing and Konner Knudsen, we talked a lot about the way the show digs into different aspects of nerd culture of the period and how much fun that was. But since the show already explored video games and Dungeons & Dragons, we wanted to find another hook to play with. And as a filmmaker and film nerd, I thought about movies — and in particular, horror movies of the seventies and eighties. So Joey came together as a new kid who could bring in the idea of making a horror movie with this exciting new Betacam technology.
We were excited to introduce Joey Kim, the new Asian American character to the cast. It gave us a fun way to learn about what’s going on with the boys as Joey does. And of course Joey’s big, brash attitude felt like a great, creatively disruptive addition to the dynamic between the boys.
Favoccia: For Joey I was given a lot of hints and directions from Greg. I was so honored to work with him and I wanted to make Joey as close to Greg’s vision as I could. I got a very clear idea of him and I was so happy that our ideas matched up. The Stranger Things kids are all so iconic that I wanted Joey to be just the same as them, so you can spot him even in a crowd. He has these Spielberg vibes and this swag that I really loved bringing to life. Since he doesn’t have a real actor to have in mind for his features or attitude, I was a bit more free to let him move as I’ve pictured in my mind. I always introduce him to my friends as “my son”.
Grunenwald: I really enjoyed how accessible Stranger Things: Zombie Boys was, with a bit of recap cleverly delivered in the opening pages via Will’s homemade comics. Greg, what went into the decision to deliver the information that way?
Pak: Thanks for the kind words — I’m so glad it worked for you! One of the great details the television series gave us was that Will’s an artist who draws about his experiences in metaphorical ways. That was such a great gift for us for the comic book — it allowed us to efficiently summarize a pretty complicated backstory in a way that put Will’s emotional experience in the forefront. And in terms of our new story’s plot, Will’s comics lead directly to Joey’s horror film project. So it felt like a great, organic thing to explore all around. And Valeria absolutely knocked that art out of the park.
Grunenwald: Valeria, what different techniques did you use to achieve the homemade look of Will’s comics?
Favoccia: To tell you the truth, it was challenging for me, maybe the “hardest” part of the book. I joked about letting my niece draw them for me! I studied Will’s drawing in the show and tried to match his style, trying to imagine how a scared 12-year-old boy would draw his own stuff. Once I’ve found a way, (helping the readers by adding notebook textures in the background and a pencil blur to make them look more realistic) I was happy with the outcome and that fans of our comic enjoyed them.
Grunenwald: You’ve both worked on numerous licensed projects before this one. How would you say working on Stranger Things: Zombie Boys compares to those other experiences?
Pak: Every licensed project presents the challenge of finding a fun story that adds something compelling to existing continuity without stepping on or spoiling the stories being told in the original series. Working on a Stranger Things: Zombie Boys comic book has some even bigger challenges because there’s so much mystery in the main storyline — so there’s a lot we just can’t dig into or even really touch on in the comics until it’s been revealed in the television series.. But the show’s glory is that it combines that extraordinary mystery with incredibly compelling emotional stories, and there are plenty of interesting places in the narrative where the characters go through emotional growth that we’ve gotten the green light to explore in the comics.
Favoccia: Since I’m a huge fan of a variety of stuff, it’s always easier for me to work on something that already exists because you have a lot of references to pull from and a settled world to move in to. Zombie Boys was my first time with real actors though and it was really interesting. Also I love drawing spooky things and kids, so it was just perfect for me!
Grunenwald: Greg, this is the first Stranger Things: Zombie Boys story that’s intended for young adults, and you’ve written a few other books intended for a younger audience in the past. What do you think is the key to writing a book that connects with younger readers?
Pak: I think we got off to a great start just because the source material is about a group of young friends having a huge, high stakes, emotionally compelling adventure, which is eternally compelling to young readers.
In terms of the writing, I didn’t really think too much about limiting vocabulary or themes for a younger audience; I just tried to tell the story of these young characters as honestly as I could and trusted that that would be compelling and appropriate for young readers. We did, however, know that the book would entail slightly smaller dimensions than a traditional comic book, so I tried to keep the panel count per page down and not overdo it with the dialogue, which encourages really clean, efficient visual storytelling. I think that’s a great thing to do for all ages of readers, but it might be a special virtue when making books for younger readers.
Grunenwald: Valeria, you do a fantastic job capturing the physicality of the characters and their appearances without it looking heavily photo-referenced. How do you thread that needle as an artist between actor likenesses and storytelling?
Favoccia: Thank you so much, I’m really glad that you like my take on the characters! I knew they are all loved and well-known so it was essential for me to capture them as perfectly as I could. As you can see, I’m not a hyper-realistic kind of artist, so if I always had portraits of them, it would look bad and quite unnatural to the story. Luckily all of them have their own unique features (hair, clothing, facial expressions and so on) to work with so it felt natural for me to move them through the story and I’m pretty happy about it because I didn’t want to affect the flow of the story, but instead create my own version of Netflix’s Stranger Things world!
Grunenwald: If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time the two of you have worked together. What do you each feel the other has brought to Stranger Things: Zombie Boys?
Pak: Valeria is tremendous at drawing everyday people and making them fun and compelling and real. This is a story with a bunch of kids running around in jeans and hoodies, not superhero outfits. So you absolutely need an artist who knows how to draw real people. She’s also got a great, fluid line that gives these young characters tons of energy — but at the same time knows when to pull back and show the quiet, unspoken emotional moments. We’re so lucky to have her! This is also an opportunity to give thanks to our incredible colorist Dan Jackson, letterer Nate Piekos, cover artist Ron Chan, and editors Spencer and Konner for all their hard work & talent in bringing this comic to life.. Everyone working on the book is bringing a special sensitivity and joy to the story that’s been such a thrill to see.
Favoccia: As I said before, I was so excited when I read Greg’s name the first time. Obviously I’ve grown up reading his work and want to do my best to match his name (and talent). He’s a very nice person, he helped me through the story and every time I had any questions or doubts he answered me and gave me all of his support (thank you so much!). I love the way he wrote because he gave me enough freedom to picture the story the way I wanted too, but he also gave the right amount of details so I knew exactly what he meant and what was going on in terms of emotions and actions.
Grunenwald: Is there anything else you want readers to know about Stranger Things: Zombie Boys?
Pak: You know, we’ve talked a lot about how the book works for younger readers, but it’s worth noting that adult fans of Netflix’s Stranger Things should get a huge kick out of it as well! Nothing’s dumbed down; it’s an in-continuity story that matters to the characters and should be of interest to any fan of the show. Hope ya dig!
Favoccia: I think that if you love Stranger Things and the friendship between Will, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas, you should read this book to see them in an unusual, passionate and compelling adventure. I love that behind this story there is a message for everyone, I hope that it will pass through the readers as well!
Published by Dark Horse Comics, the all-ages Stranger Things: Zombie Boys graphic novel is available physically and digitally now.