Monday, January 08, 2007
Comics: It's di di mau or be zombie chow.
"Basically, I started thinking of the year in which the original Romero film was shot and started wondering what was going on in the rest of the world at the time. Were the dead rising all over the world? If so, what were the ramifications? It suddenly dawned on me…1968…Vietnam." - Mark Kidwell interviewed by Revenant
Despite the over-production of zombie-themed comics, novels, films, foodstuffs, and fonts, I must admit that the premise of '68, a zombie one-shot from Image comics, had me excited. In high-concept terms: the book is Night of the Living Dead meets Hamburger Hill.
The reason I was excited is I've got this soft spot for the horror subgenre of "military versus monster." There's something about throwing military hardware into a horror context that ups the excitement level for me. First, unlike the standard dumb and helpless teen in any number of horror flicks, the protagonists are armed, trained, and ready to battle. They aren't helpless and that elevates the level of the conflict. Second, horror creators get to steal another genre's stereotypes, getting the illusion of stronger character work while still avoiding any heavy lifting. Horror fans can see the over-sexed bimbo camp counselor coming (so to speak) a mile off, but, recontextualized, the chatty new guy, the silent vet, the ox, and Brooklyn all seem fresh and new.
So how does '68 stack up? A zombie fare, it's predictable. A group of recon types in the jungle come across a zombified VC caught in a pit of pongee sticks. They quickly figure out that something is amiss. This suspicion is reinforced when they find two disemboweled American troops, one of which is still lively enough to take a bit out of the unit's medic. A few short pages later, now fully aware that zombification is happening, the unit stumbles on a VC controlled village that is under zombie siege. Guns and guts aplenty as violent Marine versus man-eating undead action ensues. Standard stuff there. The violence is sufficiently gory (though, interestingly, the nastiest bit of work is what Charlie did to the two G.I.s and not the zombie-caused carnage). The body count, while modest, is high percentage-wise. Folks looking for their zombie thrills won't, I think, be disappointed.
For, me, however, the real pleasure of '68 was in the depiction of the troops. The dialogue snapped and the use of period correct slang was a treat. Though the characters do seem a bit thin, they benefit from the new context and feel more complete and better built than they probably should.
The art is also a plus. That the soldiers at rest are rendered with as much detail as the gore is appreciated. The coloring is moody without distracting from naturalistic representation of the soldiers. This is a major point. Years ago, Marvel had this Vietnam War based series called The 'Nam. Despite the stylized art work and the degree of censorship then found at a mainstream giant like Marvel, I thought the series was excellent. Certainly the language and blood was cleaned up, but it felt authentic on some level. This was back in the '80s and, a couple years into 'Nam's run, Marvel started producing comics on this more glossy, supposedly more durable paper. The new paper also brightened all the colors. For most comics, this didn't make a big difference. Hulk being bright green or dull green didn't really matter. But 'Nam was completely crippled by the introduction the new day-glow regime. Suddenly the soldiers were marching through orange and baby blue jungles, their outfits were the color of Lucky Charms clovers. Every panel now worked to undermine the crucial sense of authenticity that, earlier in the series, allowed you to overlook the other obvious elisions. (Later, when the book was on its last legs, characters like Punisher and Captain America started showing up, putting the final nail in the series' coffin.) Here, the coloring is low-key and completely effective.
My only real complaint with the book (aside from my general lament regarding over-zombification) is that, as a one-shot, everything feels compressed and rushed. Tension never really gets a chance to build as the plot needs to resolve in the space of a single issue. The '68 crew had a good, meaty (again, no pun intended) concept and I wish they'd been given more space to explore it fully.