Words and Pictures: Living Dead Special: “Revival” and “The New Deadwardians”

Our zombie overlords have stuck around as an all-conquering pop culture meme a whole lot longer than I thought they would, to be honest. Although I’m not instinctively fascinated by the entire sub-genre, I do like certain iterations of zombie fiction. I’ve even kind of written some myself.

But I don’t read the head honcho of zombie comics, The Walking Dead, any more (all that suffering finally became too much for me, delicate little flower that I am). Fortunately, there are other takes on the risen dead out there in the world of comics, so I thought I’d take a look at a couple of them.

One, Revival, is the first volume of a new continuing series which is perhaps not strictly about zombies, but definitely about the living dead. The other, The New Deadwardians, is a self-contained story, complete in one volume, that’s certainly about zombies but also about vampires, thereby doubling its quotient of zeitgeisty pop culture icons.

They both demonstrate that a bit of imagination and lateral thinking can squeeze fresh and interesting blood even from a stone that’s been pretty much squeezed to death already .

REVIVAL, Vol 1: You’re Among Friends

written by Tim Seeley, illustrated by Mike Norton, published by Image Comics

This one’s got TV stamped all over it. Not to say it’s a glorified pitch for a TV series, but that it mimics the structure and pacing of TV drama. Quite a few comics do these days. There’s a natural similarity between episodic comics and TV series, and a shared preoccupation with concept-driven long form storytelling.

The concept in the case of Revival is a twist on the standard ‘the dead are rising’. The dead are rising, but only a few of them, in one specific town in rural Wisconsin. And they’re not coming back as flesh-craving zombies, but as…well, just as they were before they died, except that now they’re spectacularly damage-resistant and psychologically traumatised to various degrees.

This comic’s been labelled into an unusual sub-genre: rural noir. Not hugely unusual outside of comics, admittedly, but Revival does has a pleasingly distinctive feel to it compared to its own-medium peers, and rural noir is as good a summary of it as any I’m likely to come up with.

There’re plenty of vivid characters, led by two sisters who look to be the main focus of the series. All of them are caught up in events they don’t understand, dealing with undead loved ones, unresolved lives, a government quarantine, intense media attention, and supernatural things even odder than walking, talking dead folks. It’s a pressure cooker environment. Inevitably, cracks start to appear.

Revival has, in its opening pages, one of the most inspired plot details I’ve seen in absolutely ages. Specifically, a zorse. The hybrid offspring of a horse and a zebra. There is no over-riding plot necessity I can see for it being a zorse rather than a horse, but the fact that it’s this almost surreal animal evokes Twin Peaks in its arbitrary strangeness. It shifts the reader’s expectations and perceptions. It’s a small but wonderful creative choice, subtly setting a tone for everything that’s to follow.

I don’t think this is quite as smooth and polished as some of Image’s other recent hits (though it’s not far off). For my taste, there’re maybe a couple too many sub-plots, mysterious hints etc.; fractionally too many quick scene changes; one or two spots where an alert copy-editor or proofreader might have tweaked the text.

But that’s pretty minor, and pretty subjective, stuff. Revival has plenty more to recommend it than not. A cool premise, the novelty of the whole rural noir thing, nicely sketched and engaging characters (especially the two sisters), some entertaining violence, some clever creepiness (watch out for the revived grandma who’s having teeth troubles).

It looks as though the creators plan to use Revival‘s premise not as the point in itself, but – like all the best undead fiction – as a vehicle for touching on a load of other stuff: religion, family relationships, governmental control, murder mystery, pervasive and intrusive media, bereavement and so on. That could be interesting and fun.

And it has that zorse. I love that zorse.

The New Deadwardians

written by Dan Abnett, illustrated by INJ Culbard, published by Vertigo

As I said, this comic hits two zeitgeist targets by including both zombies and vampires. It wings another by tapping into a Downtown Abbey vibe.

In the world of The New Deadwardians, Britain’s population in 1910 is divided into three: aristocratic, privileged vampires; hordes of shambling zombies; and the lowly, unaltered human survivors of the zombie plague.

To address the obvious: the individual elements aren’t especially new. Rewriting history to incorporate a vampiric ascendancy has been done before (Kim Newman and Brian Stableford spring immediately to mind), and so have undead plagues as social metaphor. The pleasure here resides in the synergy and inventive details that Abnett and Culbard inject.

The Metropolitan Police’s last murder detective – a vampire – finds himself investigating an odd crime, when a vampire turns up dead but showing no signs of having been traditionally dispatched (stake, decapitation…you know the drill). What follows from that set-up is exactly what you’d probably expect, and want: an exploration of the alternate world the book proposes and a journey into its secret history.

I’ll get the stuff that narrowly kept this from being a complete gem of a comic for me out of the way first. It boils down to not being totally convinced it sticks the landing for various reasons, amongst them a central secret that’s a bit easy to anticipate and a feeling that the last 20% or so of the book doesn’t quite match the measured and rather understated confidence and precision of the preceding 80%.

But as with Revival, the positives here are much meatier than the negatives. They start early, because the first chapter is something of a masterclass in straightforward but intriguing character, world and plot introduction. Wonderfully accomplished, I thought. Then there’s the pitch-perfect depiction of an emotionally stunted British upper class made yet more distant by virtue of being undead, and loads of nice details such as the convoys of primitive armoured vehicles traversing the zombie-infested countryside and the bereaved vampire lady, unable to cry, painting black tears on her face.

For the great majority of the book, the plot is developed and complicated with a very sure touch and to be honest I was kind of in love with the whole thing, from the considered, careful plotting and dialogue to the art, which is a bit sparse and stiff but thereby remarkably well-suited to the material. Violence and gore are handled with pleasing restraint; they are threatened, anticipated or remembered more often than they are explicitly used to advance or dramatise the plot.

The central character, the vampire detective, is remarkably engaging and sympathetic, considering that he’s theoretically as devoid of desire, affect and spirit as the rest of his kind. His development through the course of the story is perhaps a little on the predictable side, but that didn’t really bother me since it’s nicely done.

The New Deadwardians was, for most of its length, a really great read. Okay, so I didn’t quite maintain that very high level of enthusiasm throughout, but it’s never less than engaging and overall it gets a big thumbs-up from me. If you like both Downtown Abbey and 28 Days Later this right here may very well be the perfect comic for you (and I’ve got a feeling that demographic isn’t nearly as small as it sounds like it ought to be).