Saturday, May 16, 2009

No Pride, but Prejudice and Zombies

I don't fully comprehend zombie fatigue. To my mind, zombies fill a subgenre like any other -- swords and sorcery, atomic destruction, alien invasion, and the like. Adding zombies to an otherwise dull story doesn't make it any better (although it's certainly made Jane Austen more palatable for a lot of people), nor do the bajillion zombie apocalypses that came before make the latest zombie entrant any worse. The key is whether the still-living folks in the story are remotely interesting.

The Zombie Hunters
by Jenny Romanchuk is an interesting addition to the canon of undead apocalypses, a comic that shares a kinship with some of the stronger deadhead tales and adds a few twists all its own. It takes place in a post-post-apocalyptic universe, one where the zombies still reign over most of the world, but humanity's survivors have begun to slowly rebuild civilization. At the tightly guarded Argus Research Campus, humans once again have houses, schools, scientific labs, and even bars, scratching out an existence while scientists seek out a cure for the zombie plague.

George Romero's zombie movies are frequently stuffed with political subtext, commenting on consumerism, race, and social classism, and The Zombie Hunters has its own set of second class citizens. In Romanchuk's mythology, live humans can become infected with the zombie virus through contact with undead blood. Although the infected are still alive, they'll turn zombie when they die and can pass the infection to uninfected humans through bodily fluids. Consequently, the infected are relagated to special barracks on the campus and live under special curfews and surveillance enforced by Red Halo, A.R.C.'s military complex. Infected persons are greatly encouraged to join the Zombie Hunters, salvage teams that venture into the zombie-filled wastelands to recover food, clothing, and any other remnants of former civilization. It's a potentially deadly job, but offers the infected a freedom they can't experience on campus.

Jenny (yes, one of the characters is named after the author -- more on that later) leads a team of young zombie hunters whose prolonged time in the wastelands has left them jaded to the zombie threat. They've long chafed under (and bent) the rules imposed by Red Halo, and after the loss of a teammate, they've grown increasingly reckless, endangering themselves and their position as Red Halo agents. Meanwhile, in its search for a cure, Argus has created a creature that is neither human nor zombie.

Admittedly, it took me a few tries to get into The Zombie Hunters. My understanding is that the comic wasn't initially written for public consumption, but as a goof for Romanchuk and her friends. And the earlier pages certainly have a goofier quality to them. Romanchuk's art is generally gorgeous -- filled with a colorful range of characters (many physically based on her friends), but grisley enough to match the morbid subject matter. But early on, she slips in and out of manga conventions, occasionally giving her characters minimalist features to denote displeasure, sheepishness, or panic. I'm a big fan of manga conventions where they're appropriate, but here it comes off as jarringly cutesy. It's better when Romanchuk trusts the expressiveness of her normal artistic style, which she does more as the series progresses. By the time we return to the Argus Research Campus, she's polished up the physical design of her characters and relies less on exaggerated manga expressions.

Similarly, the writing and characterization are slightly over the top in those first few pages. In the initial arc, our zombie hunters have gone for a bit of off-mission looting, an error in judgment compounded by some rather ill-advised antics when the legions of undead show up. It's essential to the overall storyline, but a less successful demonstration of the team's aloofness than later flashbacks that show them treating zombie hunting as a game.

The Zombie Hunters picks up significantly at the start of Chapter Four, where Romanchuk lets us in on the universe's backstory via an educational film strip. Yes, it's the same device used in the 1950s-themed zombie comedy Fido, but if Romanchuk is biting on Fido, it doesn't show. Her visual style is similarly silly, but distinct, and rather than act as a PSA for the local corporate zombie-containing complex, it provides a somewhat uncomfortable assurance that infected persons should be treated with just as much respect as anyone else (methinks the salvaged TV set doth protest too much).

From there, we get a much sharper picture of the reality of The Zombie Hunters. The uninfected march on in an isolated facsimile of earlier civilization and are nurtured with a vague paranoia regarding the infected. Meanwhile, the infected are relegated to their ghetto. And though our zombie hunters are named for Romanchuk and her friends, there isn't a Mary Sue in the bunch. They're reasonably competent, but by no means superhuman when it comes to zombie killing, and their time in the wastelands has dehumanized them a bit; death has become sufficiently routine that they lay bets on the survival of new teammates. And, though they'll break a rule here and there (mostly nicking stuff from quarantine), they fear losing their zombie hunter privileges too much to challenge the status of the infected. But that doesn't mean class warfare isn't off in the distant story future; unscrupulous Red Halo officers can extract favors from the infected, and with A.R.C. experimenting on zombies, experiments on the infected can't be far behind.

Another innovation from Romanchuk is the zombie class system. Anyone who's played a few rounds of Left 4 Dead is familiar with hunter zombies, witch zombies, smoker zombies, boomer zombies, and tank zombies. The Zombie Hunters has hunter zombies too, as well as spitters, berserkers, basilisks, howlers, mercies, and the typical slow-moving crawlers. The Zombie Hunters' class system predates Left 4 Dead's, but it has the same effect of adding drama while making your average zombie fairly easy to kill. And Romanchuk has the good sense not to make too much of the undead aspects of her story, keeping the focus on the folks who are still alive.

So check your zombie fatigue at the door. The Zombie Hunters is a brilliantly illustrated work, and Romanchuk has laid the groundwork for a story that's far less horror movie than classic social science fiction drama. But if you just like watching cute girls get chased around by rotting bodies, there's plenty of that, too.

[The Zombie Hunters]


danny zabbal said...

very nice reviews, esp this one. i feel like i understand the appeal of the zombie genre a lot more.


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