“I was down on my luck and I just started knocking on doors,” Bruce Campbell jokes about how he ended up writing Sgt. Rock vs. The Army of the Dead for DC Comics. “If you got any work at all, anything I can do, I’ll sell you sell your comics on the street corner.”
The beloved actor and cult legend isn’t being serious. The reality is that DC Horror editor Katie Kubert, coincidentally the granddaughter of Sgt. Rock’s legendary co-creator, reached out to him thinking he’d be a good fit to write a horror comic. But despite Campbell’s superhero-ready good looks, and all the ways he’s flirted with the genre on screen during his career, wasn’t a comics expert. After looking through a DC encyclopedia breaking down potential characters, he was immediately drawn to the badass World War II hero of Sgt. Rock.
“Sam Raimi was reading Spider-Man comics [growing up], I was reading Sad Sack, a really silly World War II, loser guy,” he tells us during an interview for our DC Standom podcast. “Sgt. Rock is the antithesis of that, and I really liked it.”
When you think of Sgt. Rock, you don’t necessarily think of a guy fighting the undead. Created in 1959 by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, Rock spent decades fighting World War II in the European Theater in the pages of DC Comics. A muscular, laconic fighting machine leading his unit Easy Company on page after page of beautifully illustrated, Nazi-slaughtering adventures.
“He’s the best soldier we got,” Campbell says of Sgt. Rock’s appeal. “He has no superpowers, except the fact that he’s courageous, loyal, and smart. He thinks on his feet, and he has an incredible band of dudes that he can take to hell and back and…they love it when they’re in the thick of it…They’re just the right team to put against a bad adversary.”
When asked if he brought any cinematic inspiration to Rock, Campbell recalls his love for classic movies.
“Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, those are all my guys. And so Sgt. Rock, to me was the most old school. He’s low tech. He’s a door kicker. He’s a he’s a face puncher. You still gotta have those guys to win wars. It can’t all be pushing buttons from drones…But in this case, if you want to defeat Hitler and an army of the dead, you’re gonna have to roll up your sleeves and get dirty.”
Campbell, whose career is built on a foundation of horror and other genres, saw an opportunity to put a horror stamp on the character by tying him to one of history’s genuine monsters, as Rock and Easy Company will finally get their shot at Adolf Hitler himself. Campbell looked to Hitler’s known pharmaceutical addiction and his creepy real-life Doctor Theodor Morell, for inspiration on bringing in the more fantastic elements of the story.
“Hitler had probably about eight to 10 drugs pumping through his system… they’d give him amphetamines to give a speech and then had to knock him down to get him out,” Campbell says. “That guy was a walking pharmaceutical. And this quack, Doctor Morel…part of his job at the time was to feed the soldiers amphetamines, so it was no secret that they could fight in battles for two, three days. And they then went over the Ardennes into France in three days, because nobody slept and the other the other soldiers were like ‘what the fuck, we have to stop and take a shit every so often.’ So I just clicked it into overdrive. Hitler’s losing the war. He’s desperate. He’s got nothing but dead bodies lying around. How can we use these resources? So it’s a combination of Hitler and his drugs, with new technology, maybe a little chip to keep the neurons firing. But you know, these are zombies.”
Campbell is paired with Eisner-winning artist Eduardo Risso, whose moody sensibilities are a perfect match for the weird, gonzo violence of the book’s central premise.
“It would not be as dark or edgy or creepy as moody if this wasn’t a horror book,” Campbell says of what Risso brings to the book. “It’d be gritty. But because you’re going into horror, this is where he brings it to the next level. What you don’t see is as important as what you do see. He loves shadow. He loves contrast and mood. That’s what this whole thing is about. You’re in a fucking war zone. The deepest, darkest part of one of the worst wars our world has ever known. He totally embraced it.”
Campbell is also discovering the joy of comics as a medium without the budgetary constraints of movies.
“I wrote it like a Michael Bay movie,” he says. “What if you don’t have to pay for all these explosions? What if you could have massive structures falling over and, you know, just smash into the ground and wiping out an entire colony of of Nazi goons? What would that look like? I want Michael Bay to read this comic book and go ‘I want to do that movie.’”
Of course, some fans might see some parallels between a square jawed hero fighting hordes of zombies with another hero Campbell once played on screen, but the actor is quick to wave that away.
“Rock has a lot more sense than Ash,” he says. “I would hire Rock over Ash any day. You know, Ash does mescaline, he drinks too much, he smokes reefer like crazy. That’s not Sgt. Rock. He probably has a good stiff scotch on the rocks, something. He’s pretty square.”
Sgt. Rock vs. The Army of the Dead arrives on Sept. 27 from DC Comics.