October 31, 2009

The Wacky Month of Zen Part XI

The Wacky Month of Zen Part XI
Interview with Zen writer/co-creator Steve Stern

Well Zen Heads, here we are with the final installment of The Wacky Month of Zen! It’s been a great trip throughout the galaxy with our favorite blue-skinned hero, and today we close the event with bang as Zen’s co-creator and top writer, Steve Stern sits down with for a little alien chit chat!

STERN1COMIC ATTACK: Ok Steve, lets throw this baby into hyperspace! Can you give us a description of where you were and what you were doing when the concept of Zen popped into your head?

STEVE STERN: Would you believe I was living in Manhattan back in seventies—yes, the 1970s—the last millennium—where I was working as a freelance comic-book writer  for various companies, like Countrywide and Skywald, that published black-and-white horror and fantasy mags with titles like Psycho, Nightmare and Witches’ Tales.  All of this was back before the Internet and such, so the way it worked was, writers would submit relatively brief story synopses to the publishers—say a page of typed copy–and then artists would drop by and select what they liked.  As a side note, I was very fortunate back then to have artists like William Michael Kaluta and Jeff Jones select and illustrate some of my stories.  As far as I was concerned, I was working with the best of the best from the very start of my comics career.  In any event, one of the story ideas I had was called, simply, ZEN—and it was about an alien encased in something akin to a carbonite obelisk that floated endlessly through space.  I was, I suppose, a bit disappointed when none of the artists latched onto the concept and it was returned to me from the publisher—but Fate obviously had another plan in store for it.

CA: Tell us about some of the early Zen concepts, and what may have changed from the idea in your head to what Zen ended up becoming.

SS: Well, as I stated above, the original ZEN concept wasn’t quite what it eventually evolved into, but when I first met my Zen co-creator, the very talented Dan Cote (see my answer to the next question) we batted ideas around with an eye toward creating an ongoing action-adventure superhero comic, albeit one that was far from a mainstream DC or Marvel book.  This was in the mid-1980’s—still back in the last millennium—and we were also jazzed by the “black-and-white explosion” that was happening, and books like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Up ‘till then, ZEN was still just ZEN.  But now he also became an “Intergalactic Ninja.”

CA: How did you meet Zen’s co-creator, artist Dan Cote?stern5

SS: Interesting story.  My wife Patti and I had moved up to the state of Maine in the mid-eighties, and I had relocated my advertising business, Stern Associates, to the town of Auburn.  While we were unpacking, the aforementioned one-page ZEN story literally flew out of a suitcase.  I picked it up, read it and thought, damn, that was a good idea.  Too bad it never got published.  A few days later, I’m meeting Nancy Cote, owner of a potential new client for my ad biz, Cote’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream.  Which was very cool, because Yankee magazine, the arbiter of what’s in and what’s not in New England, had dubbed Cote’s “the best damn ice cream” in the region.  While I was talking with Nancy, I noticed a very fanciful and detailed piece of pen-and-ink artwork on her wall.  I commented on it, and Nancy said, “My son Dan did that—and you can have the account if he does all my artwork.”  How could I refuse?  A couple of days later I met Dan, who said he had always wanted to work on a comic-book—and the rest is history.

CA: During The Wacky Month of Zen feature, we did an article showcasing some of your favorite Zen art. What are some of your favorite Zen stories?

SS: If you’re talking about stories I wrote, I’d have to say that Zen: Bounty Hunter is my all-time favorite… and this 52-page story can be read in its entirety at our website,  It’s also an extremely important part of the Zen canon, because it’s the story in which Zen literally grows his face—i.e., gets a nose and a mouth. I don’t want to go on and on about my own stuff—so I’ll just say that I’m also particularly fond—as I believe you are, Andy—of the prose story ‘Mistress of Chaos’ that appears in the trade paperback, Alien Hero.

CA: What/Who were your writing influences that may have helped incite the creation of Zen (if any)?

SS: My first writing ‘gods’ were Gardner Fox and John Broome, the DC writers who penned so many of the classic Silver Age JLA, Flash and Green Lantern tales.  And then, of course, came Stan Lee, who turned comic-books on their head.  Here’s a funny little story:  my uncle Sid used to own an appliance and electronics store in Hewlett, Long Island—and one of his regular customers was Stan Lee, who lived in the area.  I remember schlepping a heavy stereo into Mr. Lee’s house and reminded him of it when I met with him in his offices in Beverly Hills a while back.

stern2CA: Zen’s name is also a term closely associated to the Buddhist faith. Do you subscribe to any religious creed or organization?

SS: I’m Jewish and had my bar mitzvah, but only go to temple on the High Holy Days now—and not as ‘religiously’ as I should.  When I first wrote that ZEN synopsis, I was studying Zen Buddhism—more from a philosophical standpoint than a religious one.  One of my favorite books is Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel and I recommend it to everyone.  Zen is all about focus, and calming the mind, and living in the now.  The current ‘spiritual’ writer, Eckhart Tolle, is in my opinion basically restating the tenets of Zen for modern readers—which is a very good thing.

CA: The story line you wrote for the 2003 Zen series dealt with the issues of global terrorism. Do you have any theories about 9/11?

SS: Honestly, I don’t.  I just have strong convictions that violence is never the way to change history, although you’ll have a hard time convincing the human race of that.  For all of Zen’s fighting prowess and hard-boiled attitude, he only uses force to combat that which is already coming at him.

CA: Considering how Zen touches on environmental issues, and that you live in Los Angeles along with the dense layers of smog contained therein, where do you see our planet’s status in the next 20 years?

SS: I don’t presume to know the intricacies of global warming, and thus have no way of projecting what may or may not happen to our planet over the next 10 or 20 years.  I have to leave that to more scientific minds than mine. But in my gut I feel that we’re approaching some sort of critical mass—not just regarding our environment, but our very spirit—and I believe that we will need to undergo a paradigm shift, which in fact may already be happening.  The human race is going to have to change to survive.  And I believe we will.

CA: Why did you opt to change Zen’s photon stick from a spear to a blunt quarterstaff?

SS: That was a simple marketing decision.  Based on the popularity of the comic-book, we had already begun to sign licenses for the like of toys and video games—and for a multitude of fairly obvious reasons, we wanted to eliminate or at least tone down the bloodshed in favor of a more Star Wars-like signature weapon.

CA: In the back of A Fire Upon the Earth, there is a reference made to a Zen movie being in the works. What ever happened to that project, and are there plans for a Zen film to be made in the near future?

SS: Zen had been optioned for film and tv a few times in the past, before comic-book films became the dominant sub-genre they are now.  The movie referred to in A Fire Upon the Earth was from a company called Sceneries, with horror auteur Brian Yuzna attached as director.  As with so many Hollywood projects, it didn’t happen.  There is something—something big—in the works now, but it’s in the fairly early stages, and I can’t say anything more than that.  I am confident that Zen will find his way to both the big and small screens within the next couple of years.  And it will, without question, be awesome.

STERN3CA: Tell us your thoughts on what really happened at Roswell.

SS: I believe, as do many serious investigators, that there was an alien visitation at Roswell, and that it continues to be covered up until this day.  As many fans know, I’ve worked the Roswell ‘mythology’ into several Zen stories.  In my opinion, the best book ever written on the entire subject of alien visitation is Alien Agenda, by Jim Marrs.  It’s required reading for anyone interested in this topic.

CA: You and Dan started Zen Comics Publishing from scratch in the late 1980s. What would be your words of advice to someone who’s trying to go the indie route in publishing their comic in 2009?

SS: The world of publishing today bears little or no resemblance to the one that existed in the 1980s.  As a result, I’m not sure I’m qualified to school people in this regard—other than the typical advice, which still rings true, of believing in yourself and what you do, never backing down or taking no for an answer, taking advantage of every legitimate opportunity that comes your way, networking whenever possible—no one said it was going to be easy.

CA: Thanks for taking the time to talk with, Steve! So what’s next for Zen?

SS: Look for new publishing projects in 2010, some new licensed products—and keep checking back at for the news about film/tv that fans have been waiting ever so patiently for.  Their patience will be rewarded.

There you have it my friends! Just in case you thought The Wacky Month of Zen was over, we actually have one more surprise left for you. So stay tuned…

Andy Liegl



  1. Billy

    Always good to hear some back story straight from the horses mouth.

  2. Indeed! And Steve Stern is an awesome dude to boot!!

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