So it turns out that my real work is more important than this blog.
But not to worry, internetters! I still love you–here’s a review to prove it.
Even if it’s only nominally a review of the book it’s supposed to be about.
The living and the dead, Jason. Fantagraphics, 2006. $9.95, 48 pages.
Everybody knows the story of how Sigmund Freud was asked about the deep psychological meaning of his (ultimately fatal) smoking habit. The story goes that Freud replied: “sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar”.*
What everybody doesn’t know is what Freud went on to say: “But a zombie is never just a zombie”.
For once, Freud was right. The horror genre as a whole is rife with symbolic subtext, but it’s never rifer than in the disreputable subgenre of zombie fiction. Zombies aren’t just shambling living dead monstrosities in search of the nearest brain to chomp on. They can also, like, mean stuff too.
And they can mean a lot of different stuff. Zombies are symbolic chameleons, able take on any number of meanings, depending on the whims of the creator. Nowhere is this symbolic range on clearer display than in Romero’s “Living Dead” series, the closest thing there is to a zombie canon. In Night of the Living Dead, the zombies represent American xenophobia and racism. In Dawn of the Dead, mindless consumerism. And in the most recent entry in the series, Land of the Dead, they represent an oppressed and vengeful underclass.**
This symbolic range has made the humble zombie a versatile monster, more so than other creatures tied to more specific meanings. Given their range, it was not terribly surprising when, a year or two ago, zombies become the hot new thing in comic books. For a while it seemed like you couldn’t pick up a funnybook without tripping over a zombie. Zombie horror! Zombie comedy! Zombie romance! Zombie yaoi!
Okay, I made that last one up.***
Two things drove this fad: the then-recent appearance of a couple of popular zombie movies; and the growing popularity of The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman’s obnoxious right-wing fantasy cunningly disguised as a comic about post-apocalyptic zombie survival horror. But all things come to an end, and the surest sign that this particular trend was on its last, rotten legs was the appearance in early 2006 of the mini-series Marvel Zombies. Hardcore fanservice, this series featured Marvel’s stable of beloved underwearmen (like Spider-Man and Captain America) turned into, you guessed it, ravenous, slavering zombies.
A few things worth noting about this mini-series. Back in the day, “Marvel zombie” was a derogatory term for folks who would only buy comics published by Marvel, no matter how bad they were compared with books from other publishers. No doubt the creators behind Marvel Zombies (including Mr Kirkman again) thought it very “ironic” to turn this term of abuse into the punning premise of a series. As identity theorists might say, they’d reclaimed the term “Marvel zombie” into a badge of pride.
But it’s doubtful the creators saw the deeper irony inherent in the very premise of that series: a stable of once colourful characters, now turned into an undead mockery of their former selves, forced to feed insatiably upon one another in a nihilistic spectacle of violence. They might as well have published a series called Flogging the Dead Horse, featuring unspeakable things done to a horse called Ditkirby.
The second thing to note about the Marvel Zombies series? If perennially late to the party Marvel was doing zombies, then the zombie fad was officially over.****
So what better time than now for Norwegian alternative cartoonist Jason to release a zombie comedy/romance?
But then, Jason has long pursued his creative muse in some unlikely directions. For those unfamiliar with his schtick, all of Jason’s work features anthropomorphic critters drawn like hipster rock kids, i.e. skinny and morose. His short graphic albums, mostly in black and white, put these scrawny creatures through a variety of genre paces: Hey, Wait…, the work that introduced him to English audiences (which many consider his best work), was a poignant slice-of-life look at childhood memory and getting old. The Iron Wagon adapted a mystery novel. The Left Bank Gang was a heist-gone-wrong story featuring James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald (as “funny animals”). You Can’t Get There From Here was a romantic comedy about the cast of Bride of Frankenstein.
Jason’s style is often described as deadpan which is, if anything, a dramatic understatement. His gawky, inhuman characters and prosaic, even mundane framing tend to leech his stories of almost any affect, like an Uncle Scrooge story drawn by an autistic savant. In The Living and the Dead, Jason quite effectively uses these distancing techniques for laughs.
Plot: boy meets girl, girl is street-walker, boy saves enough money to buy a night with her, meanwhile a meteor lands, zombies appear and spread like a plague, boy and girl must fight to survive. In most hands, this would be lurid, pulse-pounding stuff, but Jason plays it as deadpan slapstick visual comedy. Hence we get scenes like the following: the hero fights his zombiefied boss, sticks a knife in his chest, then looks at him still standing there, leaves and comes back with a big machete. Or the Keystone Kops bit with a zombie police officer. Or the throw-away baby-eating joke.
It’s okay, see, because they’re only funny animals! Besides, the protagonists take it all in their stride. In fact, Jason’s characters are uniquely well-placed to survive the apocalypse. The devil himself could appear on the page, rape a thousand schoolchildren and destroy the universe. At most, Jason’s characters might show a few flying sweat beads in alarm; the final panel would matter-of-factly show the earth exploding, seen from outer space. Dealing with a horde of zombies out for their flesh? Child’s play.
Except for a handful of sound effects and half a dozen panels of dialogue (presented as silent film intertitles), the book is completely silent. Luckily, Jason’s clear, minimalist line and straightforward design are more than strong enough to carry a story on their own.
So if a zombie is never just a zombie, what are the zombies in The Living and The Dead? It’s hard to say too much without giving away the (oddly sweet) ending, but I’d say they represent the creeping conformity of middle age.
That, plus an excuse for some flesh-eating gags.
Recommended? Jason’s style is increasingly looking like a limitation, but it works well here. A amusing bit of light entertainment.
IYL: Zombies, silent film comedies, macabre humour/adventure cartoonists like Gorey, Addams or Sala.
* The story is probably apocryphal, which is quite apt for Freud.
** Yeah, I haven’t seen Day of the Dead, but I guess the zombies there symbolise Wall Street brokers and faulty cuisinarts, or something.
*** And a google image search gives me nothing. But the Combinatorial Law of Fetishes predicts that somewhere out there, someone has a jones for zombie yaoi.
**** That said, I would have eaten that shit right up when I was eleven years old. Zombie Spider-Man versus, I don’t know, zombie Hypno-Hustler? Sign me up!