BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The apocalypse has come and gone, the undead roam the streets of L.A. and superheroes like Mighty Dragon, Zzzap, Cerberus, Gorgon, and Stealth must protect what few living remain.
PROS: Cool heroes; original explanation of zombie virus effects and origin; good use of both genres; exciting action; flashbacks flesh out characters; cool setting.
CONS: Too many interchangeable regular people; somewhat boring villain; over too soon.
BOTTOM LINE: Ex-Heroes is a fun genre mash-up that pits superhumans against ex-humans. If ever a book had the potential for a Hollywood blockbuster, this is it.
How has Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines not been adapted for film yet? Really, I want to know? There’s no reasonable excuse I can imagine. Given the enormous popularity of superheroes and zombies, the major success of Marvel’s shared world movies and AMC’s The Walking Dead, it seems like a no-brainer (ha ha) that Ex-Heroes would make the ultimate Box Office killer. Someone call up the studios, I’m about to earn a commission.
The concept behind Ex-Heroes is brilliant in its simplicity. It can be summed up as: superheroes surviving in post-apocalyptic zombie infested Los Angeles. And that would be Romero zombies, none of those hyperactive 28 Days Later rage zombies here. I read in an interview with Clines that the book is somewhat of a reaction to Marvel Zombies. I’ve never read the comic (not for lack of desire) but I’m rather glad that Clines felt the need to give his take on the concept. I’m also glad that Clines makes use of original heroes rather than pre-established ones. It’s a nice touch that allows for more freedom and it doesn’t hurt that readers are introduced to some really cool characters.
It’s been two years since the plague of the undead has spread across the globe, killing billion and resulting in the collapse of civilization as we know it. In that time a fortress has been established on the premises of an old film studio and the survivors of the outbreak live in a new normal. The heroes, under the command of Stealth, go out on scavenging runs to keep the Mount supplied. Zombies, or ex-humans as they’re called, are an ever-present danger but deep in the city stirs a greater threat to the residents of the Mount.
What is a superhero novel without cool heroes? I recently read Tom King’s A Once Crowded Sky and while I enjoyed the literary approach to the genre, the heroes themselves weren’t so special. In a lot of ways they were standard archetypes. They fit the purpose of the plot driven novel, but I wouldn’t leap at the chance to read a comic series dedicated to their exploits. Though weaker in plot, Ex-Heroes features characters that I would love to encounter on a comic stand a hobby shop.
My two favorites were definitely Gorgon, who could absorb the life-force of people by staring into their eyes, and Cairax, a mix between Doctor Strange and the Hulk. I started out liking Mighty Dragon (St. George) but eventually found his self-righteous attitude frustrating. Still, I won’t hold this against Clines, there always has to be one noble, idealistic hero that refuses to kill even when it would be the most prudent action. What I will hold against Clines, however, is not clarifying that Mighty Dragon is St. George earlier on. It could be that I’m incredibly dense, but it was several chapters before I realized that St. George is the present day version of Mighty Dragon. I spent that entire time wondering, “Who the hell is this guy and where is Mighty Dragon?”
I was also impressed with Stealth, the dominatrix ninja, and Cerberus, the scientist encased in power armor. Both women are highly intelligent, arguably the most intelligent of the whole group, and despite Stealth’s insanely good looks it is her high powered brain that drives her. I would enthusiastically purchase a solo comic featuring any one of these heroes.
Unfortunately, the regular humans are as bland and faceless as the heroes are cool and fresh. There are far too many names thrown out there to keep track of (Richard? Luke? Harry? Jarvis? Billie?) and they are all so insignificant that their life and death has no bearing on the plot. They exist solely to be protected by the heroes and eaten by the zombies. On that note, the overall villain of Ex-Heroes is pretty…blah. For such a morally gray world he is far too one dimensional.
The setting makes for another great selling point. The Mount is a clever construction, making use of the natural fortifications of a film studio and augmenting them further for defensibility. It could be nearly as iconic as Dawn of the Dead’s mall setting, it has pop and personality. The best part of L.A. is all the pop culture references from Doctor Who to It’s A Wonderful Life. The regular humans compare ex-celebrities they’ve killed, injecting some levity into grim circumstances.
Ex-Heroes is told in past and present tense, in first- and third-person respectively. The past tense comes from multiple first-person perspectives, in some cases detailing the origins of the heroes and in others detailing the early stages of the zombie outbreak. The first-person past tense is much stronger than the third-person present tense, infusing the heroes with a sense of individuality. The plot is extremely lean and fast paced, ending a little too abruptly for my liking. The action is over-the-top, just as you would hope for when you pit super powered vigilantes against the carnivorous undead. There is plenty of carnage to go around in any case. I also love the ex-virus, from the origin (which I don’t dare spoil) to the symptoms – the virus doesn’t kill you, but it does revive you.
Ex-Heroes is a genre fusion dreamed up in Box Office heaven. The idea is solid gold, and though the implementation falls short of excellence I have high hopes for the sequel Ex-Patriots. Clines obviously enjoys and respect zombies and superheroes, and does both an honor with Ex-Heroes. One final note, I have to commend Jonathan Bartlett on his cover illustration for the Broadway Paperbacks re-release of Ex-Patriots. The cover is evocative and eerie, and I love the detail Bartlett works into Mighty Dragon. There’s a minute detail included that pulls the whole thing together. Having seen Ex-Patriots I can say that it too, has a terrific cover.