In vodou, a dead person who is revived after burial and compelled to do the bidding of the reviver, including criminal acts and heavy manual labour. It is believed that actual zombis are living persons under the influence of powerful drugs, including burundanga (a drug reportedly used by Colombian criminals) and drugs derived from poisonous toads and puffer fish.
—"zombi." Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
Main Entry: zom·bie
Variant(s): also zom·bi
Pronunciation of zombi: ˈzäm-bē
Etymology: Louisiana Creole or Haitian Creole zonbi, of Bantu origin; akin to Kimbundu nzúmbe ghost
Date: circa 1871
1: usually zombi a: the supernatural power that according to voodoo belief may enter into and reanimate a dead body; b: a will-less and speechless human in the West Indies capable only of automatic movement who is held to have died and been supernaturally reanimated
2: a: a person held to resemble the so-called walking dead; especially : automaton; b: a person markedly strange in appearance or behavior
3: a mixed drink made of several kinds of rum, liqueur, and fruit juice
I hate Robert Freakin' Kirkman.
No, wait: that's not quite right. After all, I really do like Invincible and some of his other stuff. I just hate that his foray into zombie comics has apparently been so wildly successful that zombie comics are suddenly everywhere. (Yes, it's all his fault. One must blame someone, after all.) Everyone's trying for their own unique—or sometimes not so unique—take on the whole zombie thing. But why so much? Why now? Why everyone?
I have a theory. Now, it's coming completely out of the air, and no doubt displaying a fine ignorance of history, religion, psychology, sociology, and several other -ologies, but bear with me.
Overall, there seem to be a few loose groups of zombie stories. It might be more proper to call them all revenant stories—tales of people who reappear after death—although revenants are usually thought of as ghosts, but just run with it. First, you have the "unlife after death" group—people die, maybe they get buried, they pop back up and usually, there's nobody home; the creature is all appetite, craving those tasty brains inside their crunchy cranial coating. (Why dead people have such a craving to eat, especially brains, is almost never satisfactorily explained.) In this group, you've got your mummies, many of your resurrected vodoun creations, and most of your horror movie zombies. Mummies usually dispense a lot of death and destruction in the process of trying to find those things that will bring them fully back to life, while horror movie zombies dispense a lot of death and destruction mostly for the sake of dispending death and destruction. (Oh, and eating a few brains along the way.) Vodoun resurrectees tend to be brought back for specific purposes, and rarely en masse, but they're still glad hands at the whole death and destruction thing.
Second, you have your Frankenstein monsters, which I'm considering as a separate category, even though it's the same resurrected dead creatures thing. I think they can be distinguished because of the whole "making one creature from many with the intervention of mad science" thing, and also because Frankenstein monsters seem, as a rule, to have more of a sense of self—although, curiously, frequently not the self from which the brain was taken. Sometimes, in Frankensteinmonsterland, it's a different creature that inhabits the resurrected brain.
Third, and most recent, you have live people who somehow "catch" undeath, or are made to ingest something transformative. They become ravening creatures or near-catatonic automatons, and pass from life into undeath without that terribly unpleasant "dying" step. This group includes a number of actual, real-life (for certain values of "real", and also of "life) vodoun zombis—and the idea of an actual zombi is just peculiar—as well as most of the popular comic book zombies these days. The comic book zombies may also nosh on a stray person or two, killing and/or infecting them, and probably passing on the infection in a most salutary way.
Zombies usually get created through some outside agent. In the case of Kirkman's The Walking Dead, it's some sort of infectious agent, and the government strategies to fight it—over before the story starts—are profoundly misguided and ineffective. In Marvel Zombies, the world is deliberately infected by superhumans who just want to "thin out homo sapiens—to give mutants a fighting chance." In Warren Ellis's Blackgas, it's a naturally occurring chemical stew under an island, released by a small earthquake, that looses all the primitive impulses as it also apparently does something to the body. It's also fairly common for zombies to be able to spread the disease through contact—in Marvel Zombies, it's either through saliva (the odd chomp) or other body fluids; in The Walking Dead, it's through direct contact, via chomp, although it started as an airborne disease. In Death Valley, a suite of Zombie Tales stories by Andrew Cosby, Johanna Stokes, and Rhoald Marcellus, it's an airborne disease, possibly caused by an eclipse or something that happens in the atmosphere.
What I'm wondering is just how much the recent surge in zombie stories is a reaction to outside events. Again, this is just a rumination of sorts. For all that zombie stories came into existence in something like their present form maybe a couple hundred years ago, they didn't really start hitting popular culture hard until maybe sixty years ago—when it became apparent, in fact, that atomic warfare could be a seriously nasty business, with all sorts of interesting side effects. A quick perusal of IMDB (admittedly not a comprehensive or perfect source) seems to indicate that there weren't many zombie movies until 1946 or so. After that, you get a sudden surge in the 1950s, and then it settles down a little until the late 60s and early 70s—when, in fact, we'd have been seeing the nasty effects of a certain sort of chemical warfare, and also experiencing the uncertainties of all sorts of worldwide social changes that made for a more uncertain time. Another surge in the late 80s and early 90s, where they seemed to be a self-evident AIDS metaphor. Then it settled down to a small but steady stream for a while, and now we're getting another surge in various media—and the world has become a much more uncertain place, for various reasons. Maybe zombie stories are a particular way of dealing with a world out of control, making it somehow seem more manageable. Something where all you have to do to contain the disease is do in a few people in a way that would never work in the real world, or a way to see what happens when the disease wins.
I've only run across a couple of stories that are actually about the zombies themselves. First and foremost in the category would be Kirkman's Marvel Zombies, of course. In this, we get end-of-the-world horror combined with watching the zombie heroes actually end the world and being completely unable to stop themselves. Ordinary people pretty much get chomped out of existence fairly fast, except for a few stragglers. It's a fascinating read, despite the fact that I don't read in the Marvel Universe all that much, so discovering that, say, Colonel America has gotten himself all zombified or that Reed Richards lost his freakin' mind isn't quite as meaningful to me as it would be to a fan, but it's still weirdly entertaining. (Seriously, Reed thought becoming a ravening zombie was "evolution"? Dude!) For some reason, people think Marvel Zombies is humorous, probably because people see individual panels out of context—like cheery Colonel America over to the left—but it's actually pretty grim, if you think about it. Mutants, metahumans get infected by this agent from another dimension, get converted into these endlessly hungry creatures inside dead bodies, but at the same time, they're still in there. They know what they're doing, and most of them just don't care . . . but a few do. Can you imagine how terrible it would be to have been a hero, a rescuer of mankind, and then suddenly to be forced to think of them only as a tasty snack, to know what you're doing is so wrong, and be unable to stop yourself? At times when the craving is briefly satisfied, they seem to try to think their way through, to try to figure a way out—because, after all, there are only so many regular humans left, and what happens after you outlive your food supply? (You start eating yourself, that's what. And I don't mean that in the "you haven't taken in enough nourishment so your body starts consuming its fat and muscle from the inside" kind of way; I mean, in the, "here, have a knife, cut off a chunk and take a bite" kind of way. Despite the grimness of the premise, there is a LOT of very dark gallows humor.)
The only other stories directly about zombies themselves that I've run across are The Damned, by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt, and the Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse series by Ben Templesmith. Eddie, of The Damned, has a situation a bit more complicated than your average zombie. He lives in a twenties speakeasy world where dark magic, demons, ghosts, and things that go bump (and hack, and slash) in the night are entirely real. He's been cursed so that no matter how many times he gets killed, he doesn't necessarily stay dead. If someone touches the hands of his corpse, they will die in his place, in exactly the same way that he died. He decomposes after he's died, and the spell eventually restores him—eventually. He's a mite, shall we say, fragrant in the meantime. The story is a very dark noir, of dames and double crosses, and the end, where Eddie has to decide what to do with the people he's after, is truly horrifying in purely human terms. Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse, I must confess, I've read very little of—but the parts that I've read have been oddly funny. The one-shot "Segue to Destruction" begins with a Bible-style verse, which ends, "And the horsemen did look upon the earth, and see much in the way of entertainment, hookers and blow. And it was good." It also involves Wormwood's fond reminiscences of Ghengis Khan, Pope "Not that Innocent" the First (yes, that is in fact his papal name), and the first and second comings (yes, I mean that exactly the way you think I do), a sisterhood, fun stuff like that. Oh, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who do in fact have a yen for entertainment, hookers, and blow (but without any particular desire to bring about an apocalypse, no matter how much his Holiness begs).
Oddly, Marvel Zombies is the only one I've found about the zombies themselves that really aims for the same sort of horror as more usual zombie stories. The Damned tells a story that doesn't work without zombie-esque Eddie, but it really is primarily a noir mystery. Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse is . . . well, honestly, I'm not entirely sure what that is, except that it's very funny and periodically very gory, and Templesmith himself makes an appearance as Wormwood's biographer—whether Wormwood wants one or not—and to yell about his Eisner nominations. Wormwood seems to save the world a time or two, as well. In the latest story arc, "Calamari Rising," Wormwood and his friends try to save the world from an invasion of giant space squid from another dimension. (And in the afterlife, Ed Wood once again wonders, "Now why didn't I think of that?")
For all that vodoun zombis are the prototype for all zombiekind, in the recent plague of stories, I've seen one, and only one, that actually uses vodoun. With a story by Nicolas Cage, of all people, as well as his son Weston and Mike Carey, Voodoo Child seems to be the lone entry in that subcategory. I suspect this may be because vodoun zombies usually get made one at a time, for particular purposes. It's hard to get any bang for your "world gone mad" buck one zombie at a time. Most writers also probably don't want to go near certain racial and ethnic elements; traditional-style zombie stories are certainly a good bit saferthan vodoun zombi stories. Moreover, vodoun zombies seem to be mostly agents of specific, targeted revenge. Gabriel Moore is certainly quite the revenge-minded young man (or whatever); created by his mother, with the help of another man, as a desperate attempt to keep her son alive, he's an agent of vengeance against the descendant of the man who killed his father and more or less killed him. Thankfully for the story, the descendant turns out to be a perfectly slimy person, taking advantage of people in post-Katrina New Orleans, involved with someone selling teenaged girls into sexual slavery, fun stuff like that. But a singular story of revenge doesn't seem to be the sort of story that most people want to tell with their zombies; they prefer the full-blown mass zombie attack.
Most zombie stories are ostensibly about how the people react to a world gone insane. Kirkman's The Walking Dead is the foremost long-form version. Now, I'm as fond of a good post-apocalypse as anyone, but I have to confess: I hate The Walking Dead. Understand: it's very well written, and very well drawn. I just hate it. There's something about the way that Kirkman's handling it that just doesn't work for me at all. I mean, take, for example, the story of the Governor and Michonne (the woman and the legs in the image to the right). Rick, the main character, Glenn, and Michonne are out of their compound—a prison repurposed into a living facility, by the by, because it can be more easily defended—and they're following the trail of people taken from a downed helicopter. They come across Woodbury, a small town with four blocks walled off and defended against the zombies. Turns out that the Governor and his men are capturing outsiders and forcing them to fight zombies, and chopping a few of them up for zombie food to keep their fighting pets alive. Rick, Glenn, and Michonne get captured and tortured by the Governor, who wants them to tell where their compound is. He cuts off Rick's hand, then beats and rapes Michonne, making sure that Glenn, kept captive in the next room over, can hear every single sound. Beatings and raping, for the next few issues. Not that it's shown to us in all its wondrous detail, thank goodness. No, just checking in every so often to make sure that we know what the Governor's doing to her. Then in issue 32, one of the Governor's men, realizing that his boss is way 'round the bend, helps Rick and Michonne escape . . . but then she goes back and gets her revenge on the Governor. And that we do see, in all its wondrous and appalling detail, for one solid issue, the entirety of issue 33. Her revenge involves, among many many MANY other things: his penis nailed to a piece of wood, a spoon inserted with great violence where a spoon should never go and used in ways thankfully not detailed—aside from seeing her remove it and then use it to lever out one of his eyes—a sword, a hammer, an acetylene torch, pliers and a power drill. It's the most bizarrely compelling issue of a comic that I've ever read, because despite knowing that You Do Not Want To See This, you can't stop reading. You can't say that the Governor doesn't deserve what happened to him . . . but at the end, it doesn't make you feel any better. It doesn't make her feel better. It's not cathartic, in the way that reading revenge stories is supposed to be. From what I've seen, whatever condition the Governor may be in at the end of this—she gets interrupted, so neither she nor we know at that point whether or not he's dead—Michonne's not in much better shape; she seems to be headed for a spectacular case of dissociative disorder (once called multiple personality disorder). In the meantime, Rick ends up killing the man who rescued them and who he thinks wants to betray them to the Governor's men, which leads Rick to flounder over the question of whether or not he's become an evil person, because of the things he's done and is willing to do to keep his family alive. In terms of a post-apocalyptic society, The Walking Dead is strangely less fanciful than something like Wasteland or Resurrection, despite the presence of the undead just about everywhere . . . but somehow that also makes it much much more difficult to read. I get that people under prolonged, extraordinary stress are capable of both extraordinary good and extraordinary evil, that they'll do what it takes to keep themselves and their loved ones alive, that the situation may liberate something awful in them. Got it, read the memo, heard the song. I just can't take this particular vision, somehow.
I wonder to what extent these stories help deal with certain aspects of modern life. Something that happens in almost every zombie tale is that people are forced to murder their changed friends and loved ones. Granted, poor Tyler up there from Blackgas represents a somewhat extreme case. Even in most zombie stories, it's not that you're going to have to go out and shoot everyone you know—although there's a reason why a lot of these stories take place in small towns and suburbs where people frequently know each other much better than most big city dwellers. But back here in the real world, modern medicine has made it more likely that you're going to need to make life and death decisions about yourself and your family. Your mother isn't likely to lose her mind to a black gas from beneath the earth, go on a murderous rampage, and force you to destroy her body . . . but maybe she'll get into an accident that leaves her in a persistent vegetative state, and you'll have to decide whether or not to pull the plug.
Look at the conversation above, from "For Pete's Sake" in Zombie Tales: Death Valley, by Johanna Stokes and J.K. Woodward. If you didn't know that it was about someone who'd been zombiefied, that could be any conversation between a woman and her parish priest about her husband, probably connected to machines that were forcibly feeding him and doing his breathing for him. She's hoping for a last-minute scientific cure, refusing to recognize that it's long past that last minute. Conversations like that aren't at all unusual in most zombie stories. Maybe your husband isn't going to catch an airborne disease that leaves him a ravening beast that you chain on the balcony . . . but maybe he'll develop Alzheimer's, and you'll be left dealing with a person whose body you recognize but who no longer knows you, who's no longer inside his body in any real way. Most of the main characters in a zombie plague story wind up having to kill or destroy the body of someone they loved. Maybe seeing these issues presented in such an extreme way allows people to consider the real issue presented, to be able to wonder how they'd handle the situation, to think about it in a way that allows the luxury of distance.
There does seem to be a light on the horizon—or maybe the way to put it would be, lightness and levity on the horizon. Lately, a lot of dark but humorous stories have been coming out. Maybe the fact that people are making fun of these stories indicates that they've served their purpose, that we're coming to terms with the most recent intense uncertainty of the world. Maybe the cycle is coming to an end. Deathless tales like Jesus Hates Zombies (image above), in which we discover that it's not so much Jesus who hates zombies as it is his Father, who sends his only begotten son back down to the planet to kick zombie ass, but who then decides that he'd rather have them redeemed instead, despite their acute lack of thought processes with which to ponder the mercies of God. Or Dave Stewart's Zombie Broadway, in which music's power to soothe the savage and undead breast is discovered and explored, in ways that would make Ed Wood say, "Now why didn't I think of that?" if he were still alive. Everybody's Dead, a new series by Brian Lynch and Dave Crosland, shows what happens after the zombiepocalypse induced by a meteor, when ten college friends seem to be the only ones left alive. Eating Steve, by J. Marc Schmidt, is one of those very rare stories in which the disease that creates zombies is actually discovered in time to prevent some of the worst, but not in time to prevent our current president, the Shrub himself, from becoming a mad brain eater who must be put down for the sake of the country. ( . . . OK, that last bit is only implied.) But the best of the humorous ones so far remains Faith Erin Hicks's Zombies Calling, perhaps in part because not only is it sending up zombie movies and the rules by which they operate, but there's a certain core of seriousness that comes out near the end. Ultimately, long-form zombie stories may not work when they're only humorous, because they are, after all, dealing with the end of the world, or a substantial chunk thereof, and piling up the corpses along the way, and there's just so much humor you can associate with quite that much mayhem and death. (That said . . . here, have a Zombies Calling Christmas.)
And to close with an almost, but not entirely, unrelated thought, I would like to make an open plea to comic book writers: please keep the zombies out of the superhero titles. I freely admit, this is a pet peeve of mine. Nonetheless, the zombie plague, along with the demon coming up from wherever, helped drag down the second volume of Welcome to Tranquility (although, curiously, the running character of Zombie Zeke was just fine); in Darwyn Cooke's version of Will Eisner's The Spirit, their very presence highlighted all sorts of problematic aspects of Denny Colt's existence—such as the fact that he was a zombie, more or less, which is perhaps not what you want people thinking about your stalwart upright hero, especially as he pursues a romance with the sweet but determined young thing—and they don't look to be headed anywhere good in the upcoming issues of Kirkman's Invincible. I suspect part of the problem is that zombies lose their metaphorical function in superhero stories. As part of a story arc generally lasting no more than six or seven issues, you simply don't have the time to develop the story that way, so unless you're willing to go whole hog Marvel Zombies-insane, they can only be disturbing agents of chaos. And frankly, supervillains handle that role quite nicely. They don't need the help.