Drew: What is it that makes us human? Is it the capacity for emotion? Reason? Is it the ability to recognize that other people might have perspectives and motivations that are different from our own? These are some of the most fundamental questions of philosophy and psychology– perhaps too big to hope to tackle in a discussion of a horror comic book — but I’d like to suggest that humanity, however we define it, is the detail that separates Zombies and Vampires. Sure, there are the obvious cosmetic differences (illustrated beautifully by Alex Maleev on this month’s cover), but they’re ultimately quite similar: both are undead, both feed on humans, and both have the power to convert their victims into more monsters. The fundamental difference between the two — and what makes each so scary — is the question of their humanity: vampires have all of those qualities I mentioned up front, but zombies don’t at all. Or, at least they usually don’t — Empire of the Dead 2 reveals that its zombies may be more human than it may seem.
The issue opens in Barnum’s zombie circus, where Zanzibar ably dispatches challengers with the kind of badassery we usually only see of sentient zombie-hunters. Outside the arena, Xavier, the zombified former S.W.A.T. officer, is discovered and captured. Dr. Jones sees a perfect specimen for her studies in Xavier, but Xavier seems less interested in being a specimen.
This zombie is capable of some remarkable abstract thought. Not only can it plan (in hopes of avoiding pain in the future), it seems to want revenge for the very idea of being whipped. That level of consciousness — something akin to a toddler — should give us pause when mowing these things down (or watching them mow each other down, as the case may be). They may be numerous, dirty, and always hungry, but they’re still human. George A. Romero isn’t being particularly subtle with his analogies here, turning his zombies into a parallel for actual humans is new territory. He’s given a face to the existential dread his zombies represent, and that is the face of the poor.
Of course, Dr. Jones still needs to make her case for acquiring Xavier to Mayor Chandrake, who himself represents an existential dread of a different kind. That he’s of a more exclusive, more aristocratic species of monster isn’t quite enough, so Romero makes it patently obvious that he’s also absurdly rich and powerful.
With monsters representing the upper and lower classes, we’re left the whole of humanity as the middle class, forced to defend itself on both fronts, as the upper class threatens to exploit them and as the lower class threatens to consume them.
Only, I’m not convinced we’re meant to be rooting for the humans. This is, of course, the mark of a successful Romero zombie story (which also means the humans likely won’t succeed, anyway), but this is the first time I’ve ever found myself rooting for the zombies. Sure, the vampires are exploiting the humans for food and infrastructure, but the humans are also exploiting the zombies for entertainment. The zombies seem to be the only ones here that just want to be left alone. Perhaps that assessment is based on the conspicuous absence of any zombie attacks here, but it sure seems like the zombies are the most heroic group in this series.
Maleev’s art manages to navigate that ambiguity better than the writing. Indeed, much of the issue is over-written, crowding the panels with information we can already glean from the art. The copy-free passages are the strongest of the issue, and reveal exactly how talented Maleev is.
I’m torn — as much as the idea of introducing vampires makes me uncomfortable, or the thought of reading a zombie’s thoughts seems clunky, I’m actually enjoying the commentary that Romero continues to be able to mine from the genre. It may not be the smartest zombie story I’ve ever consumed, but it’s a far cry from the dumbest. That may sound like fainter praise than I mean — this series is by no means perfect, but I’m finding plenty to sink my teeth into (ugh). Patrick, I’m curious if you’re also getting something out of this? Are you okay mixing your zombies with vampires?
Patrick: Yeah, I’m cool with it — but mostly, as you mention, because the rules for “zombie” aren’t the boiler-plate Resident-Evil/Walking-Dead-style zombie. They’re absolutely being portrayed sympathetically, even as victims. There’s a hierarchy here, and Drew’s right to draw the parallel to economic disparity: we’ve got the poor, the getting-by and the ultra-rich. I guess we can call that medium group — the humans — the “middle class,” but it’s important to recognize that for as much as they are benefiting from the marginalization (and enslavement, torture and murder) of the zombie class, they’re just as marginalized. And while that marginalization is coming from the vampires, it’s also coming from themselves – there’s human meat (harvested, sold and purchased by humans) in the ring to rile up the zombie gladiators.
I find this whole world fascinating, and limiting the scope of this zombie outbreak (or our perspective of it at any rate) to New York City helps ground that economic allegory. Romero’s work is usually very good at stubbornly refusing the acknowledge the world-at-large, and keeping the focus on whatever small community contains our heroes, and this series is no different. That’s perfect: while I may not understand the economics of large American cities, I can at least observe the disparity, and the effects on the community. If that’s blown out to a state-wide, country-wide or world-wide level, then we’re in the realm of macro-economics, and I’m not sure anyone really understands that. There may or may not be a world outside of New York City in this series (and it may or may not have fallen to the dead), all we’re concerned with is how these three groups effect each other.
But that mostly means that the characterization of those groups is infinitely more effective than that of individual characters — especially in this issue. I love this sequence with the human military guys raiding the zombie neighborhood on the lower east side. The zombies are hiding.
There’s an instinct for self-preservation that goes beyond even recalling behavior patterns from their lives. Xavier might instinctively pull a gun on criminal, and some of the zombie voice-over-jumbles might indicate that the zombies are capable of understanding cause and effect, but this implies that they’re also capable of feeling fear. Drew, they feel!
It’s unfortunate that
Dr. Penny Jones is put in a situation where she needs to soften her vocal support of her own principles so early this series. In the first issue, she tells a story that illuminates her relationship with the zombies, and which builds up this idea that she’d want to “train” one. But in this issue, she’s forced to kinda dumb that whole concept down in order to sell it to the mayor. I’m happy to see the world clarified as much as it is, but the issue sure does stray from the center it developed in its protagonist last month. She’s still sort of doing the same thing here as she did in the previous — cozying up to someone she doesn’t really respect so she can pursue her work — but at least she was able to be honest with Barnum.
I may be barking up the wrong tree though. Drew, you’re probably right that we’re not meant to sympathize overly with any of these people. If they’re anything like most of Romero’s protagonists, they don’t stand much of a shot of making it out of this story alive anyway. With the humanization of the zombies, does that mean maybe one of them will become our emotional core? We’ve got two pretty good candidates in Zanzibar and Xavier. Hey, that’s the mark of a novel piece of fiction: I can refer to two different zombies by name!
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?