Friday, September 29, 2006

Comics: Dead tired.

Wednesday was new comic day. Baring weather or national holiday, your local comic purveyors stock all the new junk on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.

The particular Wednesday, there were four significant zombie-related titles hitting the racks. First, a new issue of IDW's Zombies, featuring a group of criminals as prison guards fighting off hordes of zombies. We also got the first issue of Marvel's Zombie, featuring criminals and civies and National Guardsmen fighting off hordes of zombies. The fifth volume of Image's The Walking Dead came out. This features criminals, civies, and cops fighting off hordes of zombies. Finally, there was the Marvel Essentials collection of the 70s cult classic Tales of the Zombie which featured the on-going adventures of Simon Garth, zombie hero.

This list doesn't cover the recently released Recess Pieces, which is Day of the Dead in a grade school, or Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse, a continuing series about a zombified monster-hunter. Or the recent Marvel Zombies mini-series (no relation to the Marvel series mentioned above). Or Dark Horse's Zombie World. Or the two Romero series: the comic adaptation of his Land of the Dead and the original Toe Tags. Or the deadite filled Army of Darkness series. Or . . . well, enough already, you get the idea.

Like the zombies that fill all these comics, the titles them selves just keep coming and coming. And, unfortunately for readers, just like zombies, the titles also tend to be an un-individuated mindless mass. Certainly there are small differences – these guys are US Army while those guys are National Guardsmen – but, for the most part, they follow the standard plot: group of individuals who cannot work together get trapped and surrounded by zombies. Can they pull together before they are literally pulled apart? (This is when the books have a plot. Some, like the Marvel mini-series, simply roll on the strength of the fact that we'll pay money to watch super-powered ex-hero zombies feed on one another.)

Here's the deal. I'm getting tired of zombies.

Let's step back for a moment and look at horror comics in general. After several decades of limping along as a minor sideline to the dominant superhero franchises, horror comics are back in a big way. I'm going to go out on a limb and some credit to Steve Niles's 30 Days of Night, a mini-series involving a gang of vampires attacking an isolated Alaska town during their long and sunless winter. This comic (soon to be adapted into a flick as all comics are now required by law to be) helped revive the funny book horror market. Other, more general trends, played important an important as well: a sudden surge in quality horror films, the growth and mainstreaming of Goth subculture, the rise in popularity of manga horror titles, the aging of the comic buying demographic etc. The end result, regardless of the precipitating factors, is that horror comics are now a sizable market trend for the first time since the 1950s.

Let's peg the start of this revival to the late 90s. This is us just talking, so there's no need to be militant about the exact dates. In the late 90s, we had fewer titles, but, I'd argue, more variety. Horror comics, twitching back to life after their long slumber, were all over the map. The work of Steve Niles is emblematic in this regard. In his short career, Niles has cranked out vampire stories, a noir detective camp horror series, a 70s-style splatter-fest featuring a gang of biker Satanists, a mini-series featuring a Japanese-style giant monster fighting a enormous Nazi robot, a Bigfoot story, and so on. None of these was so original that we couldn't find prior examples of the idea in the larger genre of horror, but most of them were creative and horrific enough to satisfy. More to the point, they showed a sort of love for the genre in general, a restless need to range over the entire variety of the horrific.

But these days, everybody is rushing to crank out zombie books and the scary section of the funny book shop is beginning to look like a production still from a Romero film: zombies as far as the eye can see. This isn't to say that there aren't good zombie books out there. The Walking Dead is exception not only for its excellent zombie action, but also for taking the zombie genre in directions it could only go in a long-series comic format. And sure you can still find non-zombie related titles (like the vampire/pirate series Sea of Red or Marvel's House of Poe mini-series). But increasing amounts of shelf space are taken up by monotonously mediocre zombie books, all of which come from this sort of high concept horror hell where they take Night of the Living Dead and simply swap characters or setting. You can almost imagine a sort a Mad-Libs style zombie comic book plot generator: Zombies attacking [demographic group] who are trapped in a/on a [set].

Seriously, try it:
Zombies attacking cheerleaders who are trapped in a football stadium.
Zombies attacking hack sci-fi writers who are trapped in a convention hall.
Zombies attacking elderly retired insurance executives who are trapped on a cruise ship.
Zombies attacking people dressed like zombies who are trapped on a movie set.
Zombies attacking the rock group Alabama who are trapped on a rollercoaster.
Zombies attacking the Latvian Football Federation who are trapped in a Pink Taco just outside of Orem, Utah.

Actually, that's kind of fun, and might explain why people are so drawn to create zombie stories. But imagine that we went on through a couple hundred more iterations. It would get monotonous. It also builds up until you feel it is simply unnecessary. Most of these zombie projects are short mini-series that could, one feels, be better done as a movie (perhaps that's the goal of the creators, not to make a great comic, but to make something a movie producer would pay to adapt). Few really take advantage of the things comics can do. The Walking Dead, for example, uses the distinct format of a monthly series to tell stories your standard two-hour film could not. It is the zombie story that can only be done in comics, and therefore feels vital to the medium.

Now I dig zombies as much as the next guy. Some of my friends and co-workers seem to be zombies. But I think the market is getting zombied out. Let's bench the corpses for a while. They've done good, let 'em rest. Call in the werewolves or the giant insects or Martian invaders. When was the last really good body snatcher-style Martian invasion?

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