Friday, January 29, 2010

Marvel Zombies (comics)

Writer: Robert Kirkman
Artist: Sean Phillips
Collects: Marvel Zombies #1-5

Ahh, Marvel Zombies. To say it's popularity was surprising would be an understatement. I'm not sure anyone suspected the pairing of zombies and superheroes to strike a chord with folks. Still, despite it being pretty much everywhere - from t shirts to folders - I've only just now gotten around to reading it, about as late to the party as a guy can get.

Having finished it, I've got to say that I'm not sure what the big deal was. Don't get me wrong, I'm a sucker for zombie stuff. I'm also an easy mark for superheroes, as is probably obvious. But something about this just didn't resonate with me the way it seemed to others.

In a lot of respects, this book is stupid fun. There is some small thrill to be had out of seeing recognizable and well loved Marvel superheroes as flesh eaters, which is probably a good part of what was so popular about the concept. Also, Robert Kirkman doesn't really hold back with his gross ideas; this is not Walking Dead caliber of disturbing, thankfully, but there are some darkly humerous moments to be found in the book. This is probably it's strength; if you want a cool, breezy read that you won't mind picking up, this is a book to check out. But on the same token, it doesn't ever actually try to do anything interesting beyond the fun of it's surface concept and it does have flaws.

I think the main flaw of Marvel Zombies is the story, or really, the fact that there isn't one. We start out where Ultimate Fantastic Four's arc "Crossover" - the arc that introduced the concept - left us, with the dimensional portal closed and Magneto alone. For maybe eight or nine pages we follow him as he attempts to stay alive in the midst of the zombie heroes, but it ends abruptly. From that point on, we follow the zombie heroes as look for more food, fight the Silver Surfer and Galactus and half-heartedly try to figure out their zombie condition a bit too long after the fact. Sure, we later get a couple pages of the Black Panther and the last couple surviving humans and mutants, but it's a pittance late in the book. The story never really goes anywhere or does anything beyond "zombies kill everything and try to eat everything"; which is fun, but makes the book on the whole largely forgettable.

In this vein, Marvel Zombies greatest strength is also it's biggest weakness. On the one hand, it's rather unique in your average monster or zombie project to have the focus be on the monsters. In fact, it's what some fans absolutely demand out of some franchises. But here it leaves the story to remain one note. I thought for a while that perhaps it was just because of a lower investment in the characters - while I like Marvel a good deal, I'm more of a DC guy - but realized that wasn't really the problem. In truth, this series really could have used more of the human perspective to really make it shine. Going back and forth between the zombies and the human perspective would still have left the story as unique, as it isn't often you get into the heads of the opposing creature, but on top of that it would have added an extra layer to the proceedings. There would be plenty to mine from uninfected humans, especially considering it was their heroes who protected them whom were now out to devour them, and it would have made a nice counterpoint to the zombie perspective. In this way, Mark Millars original idea for the zombieverse - with The Punisher as the last man alive trying to fend off the undead - might well have worked better for the overall concept.

Worse still, the zombies aren't even very likable. Despite the fact that they supposedly retain their general personalities, it doesn't truly feel like they do. Even when thinking straight - which comes only after they feed - the only one who truly seems to feel remorse and emotion over what they've done is Spider-Man, whom the other zombies find annoying for it, and Giant-Man. The others just excuse their behavior and seem to be alright with what they've done without much internal strife, despite the fact that they now devour the people they were supposed to protect.

Add on to this some logic problems - see Hulk and the Silver Surfer midway through the book - and this isn't a story you can think too hard about. Thankfully, it is indeed some stupid fun. That can't really be undersold. But it's not the kind that's going to stick out in your head beyond a few of the larger set pieces in the story. Still, in some ways, that's enough, but I can't lie and say I didn't want more out of the tale. If Kirkman hadn't managed to make the book the kind of breezy fun he did, I could see this book collapsing under it's own weight.

The artwork, however, is nicely done. Sean Phillips does a nice job illustrating the book, giving it a feel reminiscent of a Marvel comic, merely with the heroes as flesh eaters. In some ways, this style choice helps keep the comic from ever getting too disturbing, for good or bad; on the one hand, the comic basically relies on shock value and a smidge of dark humor, but on the other, a realistic style for Marvel heroes devouring guts and eyeballs could have been a bit much. As it is, the book doesn't have a lot going for it behind the curtain; anything more realistic than what we got would have removed the fun of the book, which is really all it has going for it.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

This book was stupid fun in every respect. Luckily, that worked for it. I don't quite get why it caught on as it did - truth be told, this isn't exactly a high point in comics - but it is worth a read. I'm not sure what to expect out of the sequels though. This book managed to close out before the concept had worn thin enough to snap. I can't see three or four sequels holding up without the joke growing old. Still, this is good for a breezy, goofy read; just don't go expecting anything of substance, because if you want any of that this isn't the book you should be reading.