Enter The Death Game: Zac Thompson And Bayleigh Underwood Discuss Mad Cave’s `Nature’s Labyrinth’

by Tom Smithyman

Nature’s Labyrinth is a new series from Mad Cave Studios due out November 2, 2022. In the series, eight felons are stranded on a remote island with a changing landscape and forced to play out a televised game. We discussed the series with writer Zac Thompson and artist Bayleigh Underwood and learned what it takes to differentiate eight main characters and why we’re still watching shows like Survivor after more than 40 seasons.

Tom Smithyman: The series has a Survivor meets Squid Game feel to it. What were your inspirations for the plot and the world in which the series is set?

Zac Thompson: For me it started with reading Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game. I wanted to go back to the roots of the “death game” story or sub-genre and look at what made it work in the first place. I think ultimately battle royale was a North star as it balanced character relationships and over-the-top gore in equal measure. So from there it just became a game of `what do I have to say about this type of story? What else can I bring to it?’ So I blended in my love for ‘80’s horror and tried to take everything I love about stories with a distinct sense of “place” and weave that into the narrative. I’m really interested in the setting of these death games becoming a character in-and-of-themselves.

Funny you mention Squid Game, because at the time, it wasn’t out. It didn’t end up influencing the book at all – as I think the entire series was written before the season dropped. I’m very thankful for that if I’m being honest. Because I love that series and really admire what it did with the death game idea.

Smithyman: Why did you choose to set the competition in an outdoor maze? What does that setting add to your story?

Thompson: As I mentioned, I wanted to give the book a very distinct sense of place. Really, I always look at these death game stories and think, `Shit – it’s pretty hard to survive outside, or I really wish X would happen.’ So setting it outdoors and giving the maze this giant complex structure also allows us to build a sense of place within each issue. It’s a great visual way to show the progression toward the ultimate goal, but it’s also a fun way to ensure things are never predictable. And just when you think this place couldn’t get any more weird, it does. Which is to say, I wanted to set a death game in a big, wild place that didn’t really feel ordered or logical in any sense of the word. It’s a big love letter to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in that way. This is our version of The Zone.

Smithyman: Early in the first issue, we’re introduced to all eight contestants. What steps did you take to differentiate them?

Thompson: For me, it was all about giving each contestant a backstory that felt believable and a good reason for being thrown into the game. It was also important that it wasn’t just a bunch of people who looked the same or had the same background. It was important that the cast was diverse and their “crimes” were varied. Which is a long way of saying, I drilled each of them down into a full person with a broad range of traits that will rear their heads once the game begins in earnest.

Bayleigh Underwood: I really tried to vary up their silhouettes, body language and general vibe to make each one feel unique as well as look it.

Smithyman: There’s a pretty gruesome death in the premiere. Do you have a lot of other funky death scenes lined up?

Thompson: Every issue has something spectacular and gruesome happen. That’s half the fun! Bayleigh does some insane things in this book.

Underwood: Absolutely! There’s a whole lot in the rest of the comics.

Smithyman: Without giving anything away, what do you want your audience to come away with after reading this series?

Thompson: I think at the end of the day, the series is asking questions about trust and restitution. Is there any redemption for someone who’s done awful things? Is there any such thing as true justice for all? Can you really trust someone in a zero-sum game?

Smithyman: Why do you think people continue to watch shows like Survivor for more than 40 seasons? What is it about these contests that excite people?

Thompson: I think we all want to see people’s humanity tested. We can easily understand the stakes when we’re watching people struggle to survive and work together. It’s a microcosm of the real world but under extreme circumstances. These types of contests draw out people’s true selves and sometimes it’s really ugly. So like a car crash, audiences can’t help but watch with a mix of revulsion and excitement.

Smithyman: Thanks for taking the time to discuss this new series. Best of luck to both of you.

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