Back From the Dead
Stephen Romano cheats the grim reaper to launch Eibon Press
"The boat can leave now. Tell the crew."
– Zombie's iconic Dr. Menard
By all rights Stephen Romano should be among the dead himself, albeit the non-ambulatory, intravenous juice-box sucking sort. His own personal incident on and off a North Lamar road notwithstanding, the multi-hyphenate, multimedia author, artist, screenwriter, and musician has added one more tooth to his ceaselessly creative chainsaw: vehicular Romanslaughter survivor.
Despite that and in many ways because of that near-death experience, he and his creative partner Shawn Lewis, of Black Devil Doll and Rotten Cotton fame, have just unveiled Eibon Press, an online-only comic imprint dedicated to bringing the horror films of Italian maestro Lucio Fulci and original work into the slick crimson comic book medium, at long last.
Let's backpedal: On April 18, 2014, Romano was hit by a truck and very nearly killed while walking on that Lamar sidewalk. The universe, ever keen on gallows humor, made sure that literally moments before impact Romano had been sealing a lucrative deal on his cell phone with a member of the Disney contract department – Romano and then-partners Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton had sold a series based on the trio's novel Black Light to ABC. Then life went into turnaround.
Two tons of burning rubber, twisted steel, and cubically razored shards of Saf-T-Glass shattered and punctured bones, bladder, and more, instantly landing Romano into a painful new reality. It's a real-life-cum-literary cliche and then some – shout-out to Stephen King here – but Romano's real life was dangling by a spiderweb for a while there: Days, weeks, months, and years of both mental and physical rehab followed.
Romano has always been one tough mofo. I've known him since he staged his first Lucio Fulci Fest at the original Colorado Street Alamo Drafthouse back on Halloween weekend, 1999. But still, not knowing if you're ever going to walk again? For most people, that would be a dream-killer.
Romano, instead, used the two years it took him to recover to resurrect an old passion of his: comic books based on horror movies. He'd pervasively worked on a "flawed" but goddamn brutal – by his own admission – comic adaptation of Fulci's The Beyond back around Halloween, 1998.
That was mere months before Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder Pictures distribution arm re-released Fulci's masterpiece. You may have seen it at the Dobie Theater. Soon after, he teamed with friend and artist Mike Broom to press a sweet, sick comic version of the Italian horror legend's Zombie, which ultimately limped out of the gate in early 2000. "I was really happy with the art, but the final product just looked like shit," says Romano now, adding, "And then 15 years passed."
"Everybody thinks they know something about the bad stuff. But nobody knows shit, man. Not until you're there. Not until you're at the bottom."
– Bottomfeeder, issue one
"I was lying bleeding on the sidewalk for five hours," recalls Romano. "They had to do surgery on me right there to even get me in the ambulance. I woke up in the hospital and I was a mess. Then they put me back together and I asked the doctor, 'Am I ever going to walk again?' And he wasn't sure. It was a very tough couple of months I spent in the hospital."
No kidding. Two months? Romano spent two years putting himself together again, both mentally and physically. Salvation, of a sort, came via a phone call from his old friend and eventual Eibon Press co-founder Shawn Lewis.
"Shawn called me and asked me to come help him with a comic we'd been kicking around called Bottomfeeder" – Romano has described it as Humanoids From the Deep meets Bad Lieutenant – "because he just didn't know how to be an editor, how to do lettering, how to do all of that stuff well. I think he probably could've pulled it off, but I said, 'Shawn, not only will I do it, I won't charge you a nickel for it.' I didn't know it at the time, but I realize now that doing this project saved my life. I had a lot of stuff going on at the time, but there was also a lot of stuff falling apart. I knew that I needed something constant in my life and I knew that Bottomfeeder would be something I could work on constantly. And this went on for two years, me pulling myself up out of the bed, getting in the wheelchair, and going to supervise the creation of Bottomfeeder."
Romano's prior comics work in the late Nineties had been strictly analog: "X-Acto knives on rusty, beer-stained drawing easels," he says. In the interim, prior to the accident, he'd written a slew of incendiary dark novels: The Riot Act, Black Light, Metro, and his sexy death coffeetable fake-out, Shock Festival: One Hundred and One of the Strangest, Sleaziest, Most Outrageous Movies You've Never Seen, a massive, grimily illustrated alternate history of grindhouse cinema. What can we say? The guy doesn't appear to sleep, bloodied, unbowed, or broken. Rumor has it he devours Serb-imported Wheaties, the ones with the "Have You Killed Me?" pics of missing kids on the box instead of the usual ultra-athletes.
Bottomfeeder has yet to be released, but his return to the comics medium rekindled both Romano and Lewis' idea of starting their own comic book imprint, hence the recent and altogether gore-ific birth of Eibon Press.
Romano: "We were just trying to get a comic book done in the best possible way. And we knew there was going to be a problem getting Bottomfeeder out because it's extreme, it's gory, some might say it's misogynistic, and the main character is an irredeemable scumbag, not a good guy at all.
"Shawn and I did go to a couple of major comic publishers, and they were much more interested in resurrecting our version of Fulci's Zombie. Long story short, we took a look at the comic book business the way it's currently structured in terms of distribution and we realized that signing with any publisher meant we were only going to sell a [limited amount of comics]. When you break that down into monetary return, it's pretty grim. If you're offering the book at $6 apiece to the public, you have to cut that cover price in half with your publisher, which means $3, and ultimately to be making any real money in the business of comic books, you have to be Spider-Man.
"So Shawn and I were sitting around licking our wounds. He was drinking a little bit of Scotch and I was drinking my kale smoothie, and we just started crunching the numbers. I said if we publish a couple of thousand copies, on our own, and market those directly to the fans, then we could make more money for a much better product than anyone was doing. And we're not having to charge too much more. Our books are $9 apiece and what the fans are getting for that extra $2 is this beautiful collector's item which comes in a special album cover sleeve that I designed myself, it's all shrink-wrapped by us with stickers on the outside just like a classic album, right? And yet they are only available on our website exclusively."
The resulting title sold out its entire initial print run in a matter of hours. Lavishly designed with some truly ghastly art and cover work by Mike Broom, bullet-to-the head inking by Derek Rook, and Chris Hall's backspatter colors, Zombie's first issue – there's three more in the series to follow – captures and, thanks to Romano's scripting, expands on Fulci's film. The zombies aren't the only monsters on hand here, and every character is wounded in their own unique way long before the voodoo hoodoo kick-starts the walking dead. Ambitious doesn't even begin to describe it.
But why Fulci? Silly question, but still.
"Lucio Fulci's movies were the first films like that that I was exposed to," explains Romano, "and Zombie was the first one I saw. When I say films 'like that,' I mean grotty exploitation films where you're not getting something clean and sanitized at all, but instead you're getting a very rough-around-the-edges product with bad dubbing and cheesy lines. Something that was obviously created by people from another country trying to make an Americanized product but the translation is really bizarre.
"The biggest appeal of Fulci, to me, was that watching his films was like looking through 20 layers of bizarre to see the genius beneath. As a kid, I'd been watching these movies the wrong way. Fulci is a genius. I don't know what kind of genius he is, but it's genius nonetheless because I found myself to be in a completely alien land where monkeys are howling and dead people are appearing. Zombie is a weird fucking movie, but they're all like that. Some of them are just bad, sure, but the older I get the less tolerance I have for people who don't think that anything can be art. I mean, you can find art on a dark smear on the sidewalk. It's a great philosophy when you're into movies like [Luigi Cozzi's] Starcrash."
So here Stephen Romano is, alive and well, and bringing the sublimely surreal Euro-horror of the late, great Lucio Fulci into the comic book medium, with all the crazy intact. And there's plenty more to come. Last week, Romano announced yet another comic series based on semi-classic VHS shockers of the early Eighties. You can try and kill Romano, but other than a shot to the proverbial noggin, nothing seems to – thankfully! – work.
Ultimately, says Romano, "Eibon is just me and Shawn. I do all of the creative stuff, the layout work, almost every single thing about the artistic content, and then Shawn and his family do all the mail-order. Shawn and I do a lot of brainstorming, too. We come up with insane ideas. It's a real DIY operation. We're putting every penny we make straight back into the company. You know, blood, sweat, and tears. But mostly blood. Like the poster said, 'We are going to eat you!'"
Head on over to www.eibonpress.com to check out Stephen Romano's work.