Sunday, October 4, 2009

It Came From The Back Issue Bin! #3- Marvel Zombies

By Jason Shayer

Zombies have been part of the comic book world ever since the classic days of EC comics and then in 1970s in the pages of Eerie and Creepy and the various Marvel Comics horror magazines. However, the infected, flesh-eating zombies seem to have taken their time to shambling over into the four-color world.
Back in 2005, writer Mark Millar (The Ultimates, Wanted, and Civil War) had the Fantastic Four open a portal to an alternate Earth (Earth-2149 to be precise). On this Earth, an alien virus has infected most of its population, including super-powered beings, and had turned them into flesh-devouring zombies.
The popularity of this storyline and those zombies couldn’t be contained. A 5 issue miniseries called Marvel Zombies was spun off in 2007. This miniseries focused on these zombies and their world and called upon established zombie comic writer Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead). While this series was knee-deep in flesh-eating zombies, the title was also a play on words. The term “Marvel Zombie” was a derogatory geek label used for fans who only bought Marvel Comics titles.

What actually makes this idea so much fun is that it happens on an alternate Earth. The writers have the freedom to play in this Marvel Universe and pretty much do whatever they want without worrying about affecting cannon or continuity. Imagine an infected Spider-Man who turns on his loved ones, devouring Aunt May and Mary Jane. Or a Giant-Man who keeps the Black Panther alive and infection free so he can continue to feed off of him.
Robert Kirkman’s off-beat, black humor rises to the top. Picture a zombie Spider-Man and a zombie Luke Cage playing “Go Fish” while waiting for big brains to figure something out before Galactus devours their zombie-infested planet. Or how about a Bruce Banner painfully struggling to digest what his green-skinned alter ego’s voracious appetite has devoured?

So what makes these Marvel Zombies different from your typical zombies? First off, unlike their brethren who are slow moving, the Marvel Zombies still retain their super powers. So you’ve got an undead Spider-Man still swinging around and wall-crawling, capturing his latest meal in his webbing.

Secondly, head shots don’t kill them. In fact, the Marvel Zombies can take traumatic body damage and still remain animated. Captain America runs around with the top of his head lopped off, the Wasp is an animated head, and Iron Man rockets about with just his upper torso.
Thirdly, the Marvel Zombies still have their mental faculties. This twist provides two wonderful story elements: smart zombies and, for a brief period of time when their hunger is satiated, remorseful zombies. Heroes are forced to confront the horror of what they were willing to do to quell that hunger for flesh.
However, these characteristics also create a rather unique problem for the protagonists. They’re too successful and before they’ve really gotten a handle on things, they’ve run out of humans to feed on.
And that brings me to the last difference. The story is actually about the zombies and not about survivors. It’s difficult not to sympathize with these heroes who have become monsters and are at the mercy of their hunger.
So, while Marvel Zombies might be initially seen as derivative, it’s actually a rather fertile environment for writers to play around in and have some fun.
Like all successful viruses, the Marvel Zombies returned with a run of sequels. Time magazine actually ranked Marvel Zombies 2 as one of the top 10 graphic novels of that year. Despite what you may generally think of sequels, each of Marvel Zombies series has risen above the putrid, rotting flesh of their predecessors and put a new spin on the idea. Take Marvel Zombies 4 for example, this take on the idea pits some of the classic 1970s monsters, like Werewolf by Night, Morbius, and the Man-Thing against the unrelenting Marvel Zombies.

Taking things even further, Marvel Comics and Dynamite Entertainment teamed up to bring Army of Darkness’ Ashley Williams to Earth-2149 where he brought his acerbic wit and boomstick to bare against the host of zombie heroes and villains.
After a horde of sequels, Marvel Zombies has recently called upon horror writers David Wellington (Monster Island) and Jonathan Maberry (Ghost Road Blues) to inject some new life into these shambling, undead creations.
Another fun aspect of this series has been the zombification of classic comic book covers that have served as covers for variant editions and reprints. Artist Arthur Suydam didn’t hold back in creating gory homages to some of Marvel’s more recognizable covers. These covers were actually compiled into a hardcover edition, Marvel Zombies: The Covers.
Where can you start reading? You can jump right in with the ongoing Marvel Zombies Return series. It actually goes back to the original characters from the first Marvel Zombies series and delves deeper into their zombie origins. If you can find it, the Marvel Zombies trade paperback reprints the first miniseries and is the place you probably want to start. Otherwise, look for Marvel Zombies: Dead Days which reprints their first appearances in Ultimate Fantastic Four as well as the Marvel Zombies: Dead Days special. Also, keep an eye open for the Marvel Zombies/Army of Darkness trade paperback.

--Jason Shayer