Dead High Yearbook is a charmingly odd fusion of teen drama and old school horror anthology storytelling. The high concept pitch for this YA graphic novel is Tales from the Crypt meets Mean Girls. Like all good horror anthos, this one comes with its own hosts: an pair known only as "Zombie Boy" and "Zombie Girl." The former is a vaguely jockish character who sports faintly green skin and a collection of Frankensteinian stitches. The latter has a sort of post-Riot Grrl haircut, is a fiend for coffee, is comfortable in belly revealing t-shirst, and has eyes that occasionally glow an unearthly red. Zombie Boy is a bit of a softy and Zombie Girl is kinda bitchy. They spend their un-life creating a sort of yearbook-of-the-damned, which contains photos of high-school students who were bumped off in particularly unpleasant and horror comic appropriate ways. The creation of this grim annual record provides the antho with its reoccurring framing device.
Framed within are eight tales of teenage terror from as many different writer/artist teams. The stories run the gamut from gore-splattered gag-fest to grim metaphoric meditations on the emotionally pitfalls of intergenerational family relationships. Despite the predictability of many of topics discussed (is there anything more depressingly monotonous than the concerns of high schoolers: fitting in, body image, sex, family, the accumulation of trendy material possessions – strangely, however, music is missing here), there's a refreshingly modern approach to what would otherwise dip into "After School Special" territory. For example, in the queer vamp revenge tale "Fang You So Very Much," the homosexuality of several characters is treated as a just another fact of characterization. There are no tedious lectures on the inherent beauty of the human diversity or special pleading for understanding. Dead High Yearbook takes place in a world were the normalcy of homosexuality is already established – the culture wars that still convulse everybody over, say, 24 don't really appear in the pages of DHY. Even the "gay bashers" that appear in the aforementioned story are driven more by criminal profit motive than hatred of the sexual other or homophobia. The book's treatment of race is similarly unburdened by the weight of history: the ethnic origins of characters and interracial relationships simply are, without the characters or the writers congratulating themselves on their with-it-ness. I leave it to other, wiser readers to determine whether this is a sign of the authors' naïve view of the world or an indication of how mired in 1960s to '80s identify politics the ever-graying world of horror fanciers is.
In keeping with the old school EC-esque horror anthology feel, every tale does have an O. Henry style finale, but even these occasionally shake off the musty trappings of horror's well-established, comfortably conservative "diseases for kisses" approach to handing out just desserts. In fact, my favorite story ends with the following bit of moral philosophy:
"Why did this have to happen to me? Why did I have to die in this . . . ugly way? I lived a good life. I was a good girl. I worked hard . . ."
"Nobody promised anything. Got that? Good or bad, it's the luck of the draw."
"That's so unfair."
That sort of moral fatalism strikes me as another generational thing. I recently read a review in which a blogger took a film to task for not mocking its protagonists for being the relatively privileged products of the first world's middle class. Wouldn't it be a better film, the blogger opined, if the characters realized that their class concerns made them loathsome and they realized they somehow deserved their fate? Wouldn't it be better, the blogger was essentially saying, if this film was made with the tired and smug Marxism light of 1968 as its guiding light? Instead, the film simply suggested that sometimes horrible things happen to good people, and to bad people, and to indifferent people. What's scary is that you can't hold the world hostage by your good deeds. Monsters won't care that you're a registered Democrat. Though several of DHY's stories partake of the tired shopworn moral calculus that has dominated horror for nearly eight decades now, I applaud its often amoral tone. Let's hope parents buy the book with looking inside it.
Speaking of audience appropriateness, another nifty thing that DHY exploits is the fact that the sort of crap parents will poop kittens over in film, television shows, and video games, will totally slip under their radar if you present in book form. Perhaps it's the lingering cultural capital of the printed word, but you can slip in all sorts of shenanigans. DHY slips in several sexual references (though no graphic depictions) and some definitely R-rated gore. I'm thinking specifically of a story in which a mutant tape-worm thingy bursts out of a teenage girl and does battle with a Hulk-like boy whose muscles continue to bulk up until he himself pops like a meat balloon. Seriously.
Ultimately, Dead High Yearbook is meant for a YA audience and, for an oldster like me, it is sometimes hard to determine if the things I don't like about it are bugs or features for its target audience. The plots and characterization take a backseat to dialog, which tends to speed stories along. There's also a tendency to simply slam elements of story together on the basis of reader-acknowledged references and not internal story logic. For example, one of the characters in one of the stories is, without forewarning, revealed to be a vampire hunter. This isn't justified by showing the reader hints of the character's extracurricular activities. Instead, the character's name – "Hunter" – and costume – "hey, like that Blade dude" – are all that the story needs. It can feel a bit like your watching a movie while somebody's got their finger on the fast forward button. Is this slim writing or am I used to more wordy stuff? Who knows?
What I do know is that DHY is a nasty little treat and, if it had been around when I was a late elementary or junior high kid, I would have loved sneaking this thing past the parental censors. Does a YA horror comic need a higher recommendation than that?