Emanata: Astro Zombies

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It’s a zombie moment. Grey, shambling, undead ex-people are the most durable monster fantasy of right now, and hat goes double for comics, from The Walking Dead on down through Blackest Night and the unkillable Marvel Zombies franchise. Zombie stories are stories about assimilation–being robbed of one’s individuality and absorbed into a mindless mass that can only perpetuate itself. That’s a big cultural fear at the moment, obviously, but it’s particularly a fear in the context of English-language comics, which are perpetually on the verge of being absorbed into a bigger entertainment machine. Also, zombie stories involve insanely high levels of gruesome violence, which comics are very good at getting across.

Al Ewing and Henry Flint’s Zombo: Can I Eat You, Please? is the most bizarrely charming zombie comic I’ve seen lately, an American collection of the first few storylines of a recent British serial from the venerable weekly sci-fi anthology 2000 A.D.. (There’s no connection to zombo.com, now and forever the greatest site on the Internet, but it’s nice to imagine how they might relate.) The premise for the book’s first half is a variation on the old horror staple of a lost group of travelers being picked off one by one, in this case by a sentient planet whose every plant and animal species is doing its best to kill them; Zombo, the government-created creature that’s unleashed to protect them, is a kind of half-zombie designed to fight the inhabitants of “the zombie planets.” Ewing pulls off some hilariously overheated dialogue: “They said it was in defiance of the laws of science–of man–of God! They said it was impossible… but they were wrong!” Most of the cast is actually eviscerated off-panel seven pages into the story; a few pages after that, a Russell Brand lookalike is fatally squished by a carnivorous, singing psychedelic tree. It’s that kind of comic.

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The satirical element is even broader in the book’s second half, “Zombo’s Eleven,” which ups the ante by allying Zombo with a group of disaffected young people who like to kill themselves in original ways, then have their friends upload the videos and see how high a user rating they can achieve–the twist being that characters who actually want to die horribly end up being a bit harder to kill off. The plot, such as it is, also involves thinly disguised zombie versions of the Rat Pack, Marilyn Monroe and Walt Disney, as well as a monster that outdoes Swarm by being a zombie made of bees, and a flame-gun that abruptly stops working: “Your free trial of iGun Thermo Edition has expired. Switching to Lighter Mode. Please register this product to unlock full Immolation Mode and many other exciting features. Thank you.”

And then there’s the character of Zombo himself, with his Larry Blackmon-inspired codpiece, ravenous bloodlust and instability balanced by his sweet, earnest attempts to be polite. (Zombo, to a person whose face he’s just reflexively devoured and is still chewing on: “Oops! Forry! I fought you were fomeone elfe!”) He’s nearly the most sympathetic character in the entire thing–a monster among much worse monsters (and unsympathetic characters whose role is clearly to get killed with the maximum possible amount of spatter).

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The spatter, incidentally, looks great. Flint handles the violence here as the stuff of black comedy, with real relish. Lots of artists can draw a convincing picked-over skeleton, but Flint is one of the few who can make it look like he was cackling the whole time. The setup of “Zombo’s Eleven” requires a few pages with no mayhem whatsoever; Flint makes up for the lack of spurting ichor on them with his design for the cynical talent-show host Myron Snyde, who’s essentially Simon Cowell with an oversized Hector Hammond-style head.

Ewing manages to construct just enough of a plot to keep the escalating explosions of viscera meaningful, and in fact to keep the explosions escalating–no mean feat in a book like this that starts out cranked up to maximum volume and stays there. Zombo is mostly a vehicle for what 2000 A.D.‘s editors call “thrill-power,” the sugar-high buzz of watching exploding human bodies in a context where they’re funny and ultimately harmless. But its zombies are also loaded with subtext. All they can talk about is how much they want to make everyone else “like us,” and a lot of them are stand-ins for pop-culture phenomena that it’s impossible to escape. Zombo‘s universe, overrun with zombies, would be very similar to American Idol and Disney franchises. There may not be a helpful monster, no matter how savage, that can protect us from being assimilated.