Thursday, June 30, 2005

Ah, zombies. The living dead, reanimated either via sorcery, science, or chemistry. They shamble and sometimes sprint along, seeking to carry out the bidding of their master, or craving to eat the flesh and/or brains of the terror-struck living, unstoppable, unreasonable. Whether they pop up in end-of-the-world-type scenarios, or as an aberration slash threat to/on the normal everyday world as we know it, they've captured the imaginations of millions of people- writers, artists, filmmakers, readers- everywhere. Zombies are really popular right now thanks to a resurgence of Living Dead films a la Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, and the latest George (Father of the flesh-eating variety) Romero effort Land of the Dead. Robert Kirkman shares some of the blame, I mean credit, as well with his hugely popular Walking Dead comics series, about a group of people scrambling for survival in a post-catastrophe, zombie-ridden part of the United States.

And I've been right there, digging this zombie jamboree; when I was a kid, I got the creeps after watching early Hammer horror film Plague of the Zombies and the 1930's mood piece White Zombie with Bela Lugosi. Later on, I was astounded like everyone else when Romero re-imagined the zombie with his Night of the Living Dead, still one of the most groundbreaking and powerful horror films ever. Re-Animator and Return of the Living Dead were both greatly entertaining, often laugh-out-loud takes, the latter introducing the whole "...brains..." schtick which has now become canonical in zombie legend. And so on and so forth. In comics, there have been fewer zombie tales- I seem to recall a fairly well-done series from Dark Horse in the '90s titled Zombie World, featuring various arcs by various writer/artist teams, one being Tommy Lee Edwards, which is why I bought it. Not bad, not world-shaking, either, and as I recall the ending was a bit of a cheat. But, not long after viewing the otherwise fine 28 Days Later, about a brain-eating, scabrous Sandra Bullock (I'm kidding...really) and having just finished reading the latest claustrophobic chapter of Walking Dead, I had a minor epiphany: There was nothing left that hadn't already been done with the zombie. Just about everything in the last 30+ years has been spoofery or riffs on an established template, and only the chops and/or artifice (or lack thereof) of the filmmaker or writer/artist made it as fresh as it was. I dropped Walking Dead not long after, and have yet to see a single recent zombie-related film to this day. Let's face it: zombies and zombie stories are, for lack of a better word, less-than-fresh to me.

And with this in mind, consider now the newest release from new-to-me publisher Boom! Studios: ZOMBIE TALES, an anthology featuring several living dead stories by an impressive group of creators, all printed on nice paper stock and in full color for a paltry $6.99. And y'know what? Although I've been on record for the last year or so that I don't want to see or read another zombie story in quite possibly ever...this wasn't all that bad.

Story one is an amusing Keith Giffen-drawn tale about a really dimwitted zombie name of Ted, who wanders around looking for something (guess what) to eat and constantly talking to himself. He finds a zombie kitten to be nice to, so you know he's not a bad guy, then we discover that actual living people are hunting the kitty that Ted has befriended, which apparently has the key to "save the world" from further zombieism (I assume), to be continued. We have the Romero-ish team of scientists who have apparently unleashed the zombie plague and are looking to set it right. Not the most original template out there, but writer Andrew Cosby milks it for some chuckles via Ted, and Giffen's art is appropriately grubby.

The next two stories pretty much follow the standard E.C./Warren twist-ending template. "Severance" is a pretty intense tale of scientific-experiment-gone-bad and revenge, a look at corporate greed and family ties that, with its big-shot boss looking out from his office as the city burns, echoes Dennis Hopper in Land of the Dead. "Daddy Smells Different" looks good- I like Andy Kuhn's art here. But Kuhn has to take the blame as well for not giving me enough visual information to enable the twist ending to resonate with me. At the risk of spoiling, I won't give it away but since we had no real clues about who was and who wasn't a zombie, the ultimate revelation came across as arbitrary when it should have been "wow"-evoking.

"For Pete's Sake" is a lavishly illustrated tale about a woman who is keeping her zombified husband alive in the hopes that someday a cure can be found, and the priest who attempts to reason with her. Nicely done drama by writer Johanna Stokes, and excellently imagined by artist J.K. Woodward, whose painted work reminds me a lot of similar stuff by John Bolton or Scott Hampton. I think Woodward is a talent worth keeping an eye out for. Not literally, of course. For me, this was the best story in the book.

As great as I found Woodward's work, I was was equally unimpressed with the first Stateside art of Carlos Magno, who gives us a workmanlike and unexceptional visual to go with what I thought was a pretty clever story by Mark Waid, titled "If You're So Smart...". Unlike "Daddy Smells...", I was actually surprised by the twist ending.

Rounding out the collection is a "Dead Meat", another Warrenesque (this time '80s Bill Dubay-style) story about a zombified mercenary soldier, and frankly, it didn't make a lot of sense. Too much playing it fast-and-loose with zombie lore to prop up the merc zombie tough-guy conceit. Ron Lim does the art, and it's not as slavishly imitative of Jim Starlin as I remember it being in the '90s on the Warlock books- it's not terrible, but he just can't get the stiff, superhero-comic artist out of his style.

I had no reason at all to enjoy Zombie Tales as much as I did, but despite my complete disinterest in the zombie genre right now I was entertained and impressed in places. I see where Boom! is preparing another zombie-themed collection soon, and hopefully I'll get the chance to check it out as well. And J.K. Woodward- watch that name, first as new Fallen Angel artist, and then who knows...! B+

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