Today, Taylor and Drew are discussing Marvel Zombies 1, originally released June 10th, 2015. This issue is a Secret Wars tie-in. For our conversations on the rest of Secret Wars last week, click here.
Taylor: Whenever the subject of bleak and/or depressing stories comes up, I’m quick to point out that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is perhaps the paragon of the genre. The book follows a man and his boy in an apocalyptic landscape as they struggle to survive in a world devoid of almost all life. While the narrative itself is heavy, what makes the book truly depressing for me is that it deals with the question of why try to survive at all. The book asks the uncomfortable question: if life is nothing but a struggle, why continue living it? Similarly, Marvel Zombies 1 has me considering these same questions. However, unlike the The Road, Marvel Zombies does spare some room for hope among the horror.
Elsa Bloodstone is a Section-Commander on the Shield, a gigantic wall meant to keep legions of zombies from overwhelming Battleworld. On a routine day, Elsa is transported 200 miles away from the wall by a zombified Azazel. There, she meets a small child with amnesia who she dubs “Shut-Up” because she finds him annoying. With her new companion, she begins the long trip back to the Shield only to find a massive zombie army already on their way to the same place. Taking Shut-Up’s advice, Elsa decides to go the opposite direction, towards the unknown.
I’ve never been a big fan of the zombie genre and with the fad reaching critical mass with the continued popularity of the televised version of the Walking Dead, it’s unlikely I’ll become a fan now. So you can only imagine my trepidation as I picked up the latest installment of the Secret Wars. But a funny thing happened when I opened the pages — I actually enjoyed it!
One of the main reasons I found this issue entertaining is that it banks on the interest I take in seeing alternate versions of characters I’m already familiar with. As noted earlier, we get a zombie-cameo from Azazel and we also get a particularly grotesque appearance by an undead Dr. Octopus. However, my favorite cameo of this issue is the Juggernaut’s.
Artist Kevin Walker works wonders in making a terrifying version of a well known X-Men character. Part of what makes this character design effectively freaky is that the normally massive arms of the Juggernaut have been replaced with sinew and bone. This is basically addition by subtraction. By taking away one of the very things that makes the Juggernaut unique, Walker has shown us just what an abomination a zombie version of this character is. Of course this effect is all the more effective by the juxtaposition of his hollowed out body with his massive armor. All of this, paired with a sinister smile, creates a character that’s simply frightening to look at.
The design of the zombie characters is a huge plus to this issue, but this isn’t to imply that the story isn’t equally interesting. Part of why I like this issue is that it quickly and effectively establishes the character of the main protagonist. I haven’t read any comics with Elsa Bloodstone in them and writer Simon Spurrier seems to assume many other readers are in the same boat. Because of this, he gives us several anecdotal events that provide us with a foundation for Elsa’s character. These include killing a recently infected fellow soldier, battling a number of zombies in particularly badass fashion, and eventually taking care of Shut-Up.
Of these, the latter is the one Spurrier pays the most attention to. Elsa clearly is not a woman to be trifled with and one who prefers working alone lest someone gets in her way. That being said, she’s not happy about having to protect an amnesiatic pre-teen. However, perhaps because she is still smarting from her brutal mercy killing of a colleague, she decides to help him. Adding to the complexity of this interaction with Shut-Up is the relationship Elsa had with her father, monster slayer Ulysses Bloodstone.
From these flashbacks (most of them interspersed to coincide with her interactions with Shut-Up) we gain an understanding of how Elsa became the hard woman she is. Basically, her father kept his emotional distance from her and preached toughness above all else. Elsa similarly asks the same things of all the people around her. While this type of character motivation isn’t all that remarkable, I do appreciate how we see the way it impacts her relationship with Shut-Up. Early on, she’s hard on him, but then she remembers her own childhood and relents just a little. Granted, this isn’t amazing character development by any means, but it’s a great first step in a single issue.
Ultimately, this little bit of change in Elsa is cause for hope in the issue. Whereas a comic about Elsa being a hard-ass the entire time would have been a slog, a comic about Elsa growing as a character sounds wonderful. And just as there is hope for Elsa to become a better person, her decision to listen to Shut-Up and try going the opposite direction of the Shield gives me hope that something can be down about the Deadlands and eventual death for every living thing.
Drew, what do you think? Do you buy Elsa’s development as a character? Do you have any experience with her outside of this comic that might change my opinion about her? Also, who do you think Shut-Up really is?
Drew: You know, I hadn’t really considered how suspicious Shut-Up is, but now that you mention it: it’s entirely possible that he’s a zombified shape-shifter or telepath leading Elsa into a trap. That would certainly explain why he was in the Deadlands in the first place, as well as why he’s so insistent on heading further into zombie territory. Perhaps his baldness is a hint of his real identity: zombified Charles Xavier. I’ll accept that I may be totally paranoid, but I’d rather suspect a million innocent children of being zombified telepaths than get eaten by one of them.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Within the context of this issue, Elsa’s trust of Shut-Up is without a doubt a positive move. Fortunately, Spurrier grounds that presumption in something other than the fact that Shut-Up is a kid. This may ultimately be the story of how a cute ragamuffin warms the heart of a distant grown-up, but none of the parts of that trope are taken as a given.
We’re introduced to Elsa as a hardass, sure, but we quickly learn that her attitude comes from a decidedly harsh upbringing. This not only gives valuable context for her initial treatment of Shut-Up, but also tells us how meaningful it is to transcend her inclinations. She isn’t softening because he’s so cute, but because she’s working through some serious trauma.
Which might actually make Shut-Up’s real identity a moot point. If this was really the story about how his adorableness won Elsa over, revealing that he’s not actually who he seems would feel profoundly cheap, but since this story is really about Elsa and her father, Shut-Up’s story is totally inconsequential. He’s just a thing she’s projecting her personal shit on.
All of which is far more interesting than I ever anticipated Marvel Zombies to be capable of. Taylor highlights all of the zombie cameos we get, but by the end of the issue, our heroes are headed in the opposite direction from the zombie horde. It’s a daring choice that banks on our investment in the non-zombie characters (and our own trust in this creative team to surprise us with unexpected cameos next time), but this issue more than justifies it.
Actually, this series may have quickly jumped to the head of the class in terms of my emotional investment. While much of Secret Wars is very much wrapped up in heady thought experiments (which I also love), this one never waivers in its focus from Elsa. That’s a calculated risk for a character so unknown, but Spurrier and Walker seem up to the task of keeping us engaged in her experience, zombie telepaths or no.
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?