If I were a smarter critic I’d probably have something meaningful to say about the way zombies seem to be elbowing vampires aside in popular culture. Maybe everyone is just jumping on the success of The Walking Dead, but I don’t think so. I think there’s something about the zombie apocalypse that speaks to a post-foreclosure-crisis America full of zombie neighborhoods and zombie luxury highrises.
No time to get into it now, though. I’ve got a backlog to clear!
One of my favorite new ones in the zombie genre is the new limited series Fatima: The Blood Spinners from 20-year comic book master veteran Gilbert Hernandez. Not that Hernandez is doing anything all that groundbreaking here. One issue in, it’s a pretty simple story: an addictive drug turns users into zombies, and a classically buxom Gilbert Hernandez heroine aims to take down the crime lords who sell it. Yet Hernandez executes it with his typical skill and style. (EDIT: Issue 2 just came out and it’s doing weird things with pacing and story, so not really so conventional after all.)
Now, the last violent thing of his I wrote about, Speak of the Devil, went in a direction I didn’t much care for, so we’ll have to see whether this one works out.
If Fatima shows us a master confidently ripping through a genre convention he can handle easily, I think Dead Winter vol. 1 is much more a case of a journeyman using a genre to stretch his art and show us what he can do. This is a self-published book collecting an internet comic, and it shows off author/artist Dave Shabet’s strengths well. He brings in some nice little twists to the genre and memorable characters: a sassy kitten, a waitress who’s charmingly oblivious through the first stages of the zombie plague, and her evil, germophobic boss whom she fights off with the business end of her dirty mop. Much better than those, though, is his terrific, distinctive drawing style, which you can see evolving as the book progresses. There’s a lot of pencil shading, I think, all black and white except for the heroine’s bright red kerchief and the hero’s red sunglasses.
But I also hope Shabet continues to evolve to address a few things. I would like to see fewer panels per page to give his art room to breathe, for one thing. Shabet’s art is so shaded and active that nine or so panels, even on an oversized page, is dark and hard to read. This is generally not the case in the internet version, where he can set the panels against a black background to make them appear brighter—yet the transfer to print those black borders and dark panels seem over-packed.
I’d also like him to pay more attention to the basics of storytelling in an ongoing series: internal conflict and character motivation. Mere survival is obviously a strong enough motivation for a human being, but watching characters fight for survival page after page gets repetitive.
If I were writing a comic, though, I’d hire Shabet to draw it tomorrow.
All of Dead Winter can be read online.
All the points for originality in the zombie category, though, have to go to the limited series The New Deadwardians, now exactly halfway through its eight-issue run.
We’re in London in 1910. A zombie plague has carried off a good portion of the population; the zombies gather outside the city gates. To fight the zombies, the upper classes have turned themselves into vampires, but in a very repressed, English way. They even file down their canines to maintain a normal appearance. The lower classes that remain human live in their own, separate neighborhood. Chief Inspector George Suttle, an upper-crust vampire, has an impossible murder mystery to solve: a vampire is found dead, not killed by any of the three known methods (beheading, staking, or burning).
Writer Dan Abnett has written on dozens and dozens of titles, and shows his experience especially in his adeptness with exposition. He has a very full, complicated world to explain, and fits in all that information elegantly, almost always with action so it doesn’t bog things down.
I like it all a lot. Pick up the trade paperback when it arrives.
In some cases the difference between a zombie comic and a superhero comic simply comes down to how many people are affected. If every Tom, Dick, and Harry turns undead it’s not special, being normal is special. But if you’re the only one who can’t die, you’re a superhero.
That’s what happens to Alex King, the hero of Last Mortal. He’s an addict and small-time crook who gets involved in a deal gone wrong that kills his best friend. Overcome with guilt he tries to kill himself—and discovers that he can’t. So he does the only other thing he can and uses his immortality to take revenge on the crooked DA who set him up.
The best part of the collected hardcover, and a big part of the reason I’m reviewing it, is the bonus material at the back that shows the development of this concept from its earliest version, when writers John Mahoney and Filip Sablik were in middle school together. For middle schoolers, they were pretty damn good. They even include Keats in that early draft, which I assume must have come from their joint English class. Totally charming.
Meanwhile, Dan the Unharmable shows how a pretty much identical superhero concept can function totally differently with a change in tone. Last Mortal aims for gritty, noir realism. Dan the Unharmable aims for the ridiculous.
Dan is a private eye who just happens to be invulnerable. That leaves him wanting for nothing, so he takes cases for absurdly little money and prefers to loaf around and smoke weed most of the time. He’s forced into action, though, when a young woman shows up claiming to be his daughter and begging for help.
After Young Liars, David Lapham has been on a real tear of weirdness. There was the hard-to-decipher Sparta USA, and then he wrote for several of the gross, ultraviolent Crossed miniseries, which I think bled into his violent, nihilistic Caligula and the werewolf horror story he’s writing now, Ferals. Of them all, this is the one with a sense of humor, always a nice addition to weird and violent.