Comicpalooza 2011: An Interview with Terrance Zdunich

Comicpalooza is a festival taking place in Houston, Texas that focuses on film, comics, and anime. The event takes place at the George R. Brown Convention Center over Memorial Day weekend, May 27-29, 2011, and this year’s event features a number of celebrities. On hand are Tony Todd (“Candyman”), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca from the “Star Wars” franchise), Edward James Olmos (Admiral Adama from “Battlestar Galactica”), and a gentleman I had the pleasure to interview recently, Terrance Zdunich, the co-creator of “Repo: The Genetic Opera.”

SL: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. If you don’t mind, we can start off with “Repo.”

TZ: Of course, “Repo” is my gateway drug, typically.

SL: It started out as a one-act stage show with you and Darren Smith. Talk about the two of you creating it at the very beginning?

TZ: The funny thing is, I’m not really even sure when we started, that a stage show was even in the script. Darren and I both are musicians and when we met each other, we were both frustrated musicians. We both have a thorough background of playing in bands and doing the more typical rock and roll approach about going on and playing, building up a fan base and so on and so forth. We were both frustrated with our experiences and wanted to do something very different. Creatively, we weren’t trying to fit the mold.

We talked a lot about movie scores and the notion that music could not only be a three-minute song but be part of a bigger story, a bigger world, a bigger experience. We started, basically, writing short stories put to music so it was more like performance art than theater. It was the two of us doing this in places that we had no business doing something like this, like a typical rock club. We would be squeezed between some folk singer and some speed metal band and we’d be doing this wacky, quasi-theatrical thing.

SL: It has become a cult phenomenon with a Rocky Horror Picture Show style fan base to it. How surprising is it when you go to shows and conventions and people show up dressed as characters that you created?

TZ: It is completely surreal because frequently I will see people coming up dressed as the character that I played, a character I was doing ten years ago in clubs that no one cared about. It is weird that it has become almost normal now when I go out to expect to see people donning Repo costumes. It is always surreal and always flattering and I think, as an artist, which is primarily how I identify myself, it is really the pinnacle to have people, mainly strangers, motivated by my art work and motivated to the point where they are inspired to create themselves, whether it is a costume or a theatrical reenactment or performing the songs live. I think, as an artist, it is a huge achievement and one that I hope I can top.

SL: Was the Graverobber a character you created personally for the story?

TZ: I did and, in fact, the original ten minute opera that eventually grew into “Repo” was one of those short stories with the music that Darren Smith and I played together way back in the day. The one that grew into “Repo” was born out of the idea of this Graverobber, acting as a narrator, basically was hiding in the dark and shadow and outside of the law, able to observe the actions of everyone in society, from the elite down to the bottom, and comment on them. I think that initial idea of how the underbelly of society actually comments on it really stayed true from day one and the Graverobber is that character I birthed.

SL: It seems to me that the way you play the Graverobber in the movie blends in well with your motif of cockroaches. It seems like you brought some of the traits of the cockroaches into the character of the Graverobber. Did you think about that when creating the character?

TZ: I didn’t. It’s funny because it is so on-the-nose when you bring it up. I sort of adopted the cockroach as a motif as an artist after “Repo.” I was working on a piece at the time that involved bugs and I was wondering what my work was really about as a whole, not just “Repo” or my comic, “The Molting.” I liked this idea that something that was dark, that’s in the shadows a bit, but is tenacious and misunderstood like the cockroach, is a great icon for that. I sort of adopted it and then, after the fact, realized I was really on the money. That is exactly what Graverobber is and I suspect that sort of personality fits into all the characters that I sort of adopt.

SL: Before Repo, you worked in Hollywood. How did working in that environment as an artist-for-hire help you when it came to making your own projects?

TZ: In ten years as working, in my case, as a storyboard artist, you get pretty good with drafting skills and you get really good at telling a story with visuals. When we were doing “Repo,” for an example, I created scores of sketchbooks and storyboards of what I thought the world should look like. I handed it over to the production designer on the movie and said “this is just food for thought because I want you to bring your own take on the world and hopefully do better than anything I could do.” It was cool to see how they showed a real reverence to those drawings in concept. The comic book sequences that exist in the film that stitches parts of the story are actually my drawings. My years of storyboarding suddenly paid off in that. It wasn’t something I was originally going to do. It was actually like something that came out of necessity for the film because we didn’t have the budget. It was one of those things like, “does anyone know anyone who can draw?” I was sort of like, “uhh, I think I can do this.” And I’m glad it happened because the drawings for “Repo,” I think, are some of my best work. They were really done in such a rushed and pressure filled environment. I think my years of storyboarding allowed me to get through that and, not only get through it, but do some good work. It all ties together and now I am entering into comic books so I assume I am a visual storyteller at heart.

SL: Thanks for taking the time to talk. I look forward to seeing you when I come out to Comicpalooza.

TZ: Oh, good! Please come by and say hi. It’s been great talking to you and I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.

Terrance Zdunick will be appearing at Comicpalooza in Houston, Texas over Memorial Day weekend promoting his new comic book series, “The Molting.” To learn more about his ongoing comic book series, visit his website at themoltingcomic.com.