Melanie Florencio illustrates a weekly webcomic about zombies called Undead Norm. So it came as a surprise when, partway through the second chapter of the series, fans started raving about a berserk housecat that she had drawn in as part of a minor subplot. With fangs bared and green eyes aglow, the kitty looked every bit as fearsome as the zombified owners whose bludgeoning the cat sought to avenge.
Florencio consulted with series co-creator and writer Christine Brunson, and together they decided the cat would have to stick around. "A lot of webcomics don't do that," Florencio says. "It's either the writer or the artist's way, or the highway. But with us, we like to be more interactive with the readers."
Brunson and Florencio, both of Summerville, will travel on Friday to Columbia for Cola-Con, the second annual hip-hop and comics convention held at the Columbia Museum of Art.
Florencio speaks in an unflappable deadpan at once reminiscent of Daria Morgendorffer, of late-'90s MTV cartoon fame, and Rebecca Doppelmeyer, Scarlett Johansson's disaffected character in Ghost World. It's after 11 p.m., and the last of the students have filtered out of the classroom at Trident Technical College where Florencio teaches Sequential Drawing 1. As part of the course, the students get to work on storyboarding and comic design with a real Marvel comic-book script for She-Hulk. ("Yes. She is a lawyer, but then she becomes the Hulk," Florencio explains drolly.)
Undead Norm is pretty far removed from the traditional superhero comic, though. There is no villain, no buxom damsel, and no musclebound übermensch to save the day. The closest thing to a hero is Hunter, a jort-wearing doofus with a beer gut, or perhaps Desdemona, a dry-witted realist who somehow gets her hands on a medieval-style mace.
"[Hunter is] definitely this rednecky guy that you probably wouldn't hang out with, and yet he is the hero," Florencio says. "Even Norm, before he becomes a zombie, he's kind of just this dull guy, nothing really fancy."
The most obvious influence in Florencio's work is Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butt-Head — although she prefers his work on King of the Hill. "I like the grittiness and sort of the raw quality of his work and his people," Florencio says. "They're not pretty people, and I kind of like that." In Undead Norm, there are echoes of Hank Hill and the gang in the lumpy physiques and subtle grotesqueries of even the non-zombified characters.
Florencio and Brunson have been working on their comic since January, although they first met at a 2011 Halloween party hosted by Soundwave Music and Movies, a Summerville comic store. Florencio had earned an MFA in sequential art from the Savannah College of Art and Design earlier that year, and now she was living back in her hometown.
Once they settled on a topic — zombies are kind of a no-brainer these days — they started churning out content every Monday and Thursday at undeadnorm.com. Typically, Brunson sends Florencio a script for a page, and Florencio uses a pencil to sketch out the panels. Then she scans it into Photoshop, blows it up on an 11x17 piece of Bristol board, inks the lines, and e-mails the image back to Brunson.
Brunson adds flat colors and shadows in Photoshop and sends it back, and Florencio wraps up the process by adding dialogue bubbles and narration in Illustrator. As for the piecemeal, web-based delivery method, Florencio says it's par for the course when it comes to independent comics these days.
In the first chapter of Undead Norm, which the pair will be selling in hard-copy form at Cola-Con, some of the first people to see the zombies coming down from the hills think it's all just street theater. They're gathered for a kitschy zombie parade, and they assume the lurking green freaks are just method-acting — until the newcomers start chewing on people's flesh. "I think part of Christine's reasoning behind writing this, I think that there is a bit of truth in it," Florencio says. "Especially where the whole zombie theme is so popular right now, most people wouldn't take it seriously."