RACING FORWARD AND SETTLING IN: TWO BY CHRIS ROBERSON
Chris Roberson hasn’t been writing comics all that long, but in less than two years, he’s already established a substantial body of work. From adapting Philip K. Dick in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: Dust to Dust” to building a world with Stan Lee’s name attached in “Starborn” to rewriting the wrongs of J. Michael Straczynski’s “Grounded” arc in “Superman,” Roberson has, in his brief career, taken the raw material of what was handed to him and turned it into something worth reading. But he’s been more than just a writer-as-problem-solver, more than just a hired hand used to turn a pinch of a narrative idea into a satisfying meal o’ story.
Chris Roberson’s the real deal.
And his comic book career is just getting started.
I met Roberson last summer, at the Baltimore Comic Con, and I know him to be an intelligent, creative guy. I also know that while he understands comic book storytelling on a primal level, he can also deconstruct it intellectually. He has fantastic taste and knows what works, what doesn’t and why. I’m not particularly a fan of Michael Moorcock’s prose, but Chris Roberson writing the upcoming “Elric” series and folding in the Eternal Champions as well? Vast, multi-dimensional narrative spaces for him to write in? Yes, I will be there, for every issue.
Roberson didn’t take the usual path to breaking into the comics industry, not that there is much of a usual path, I suppose. But writing over a dozen genre novels and launching your own impressive publishing company before getting a shot at filling in on a Bill Willingham comic book series isn’t a trail most would blaze for themselves. But those years of work outside the industry surely gives Roberson a sense of perspective on what he wants to accomplish now that he’s inside of it. Or maybe he just wants to write good comics because he likes to read good comics. Either way, it seems to be working out for him.
Chris Roberson is on my mind this week because DC sent me a review copy of “iZombie: Dead to the World,” the trade paperback collection of the first five issues of the Vertigo series with Mike Allred. I already own those issues, and I’ve been buying the series from the beginning, but other than a review (back when I was doing weekly reviews), I haven’t written about “iZombie.” I haven’t had all that much to say about the series. I approached the trade with the question that has been in the forefront of my mind the whole time as I’ve been reading the serialization: “How well does this story work as a whole? Does it read smoothly, and satisfyingly, in a single sitting?”
Because, I’ll be honest, as much as I spent the first 400 words of this column with my love letter to Chris Roberson, I have found the monthly “iZombie” issues to be a mix of highs and lows. It’s always a pleasant read, but almost any comic with Mike Allred art could achieve that description. But did it amount to much, I wondered? Was there any substance to the series? With the arrival of the trade paperback collection, it was a nice chance to sit down with the first half-year of “iZombie” stories and see if they were more than just “pleasant.” To see if my enthusiasm about what I know Chris Roberson will accomplish as a comic book writer actually matches what he has accomplished, narratively. To see how good this series really is (or isn’t), when I devote my attention to it, instead of just reading it as part of a monthly diet filled with a hundred other comic book distractions.
But first, Cinderella!
Yes, as much as I wanted to dig into “iZombie” from that holistic perspective and see how it worked upon rereading, I didn’t want to read it until I had read “Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love.”
I had skipped Roberson’s first major work at DC — his six-issue miniseries from 2010, spinning out of Bill Willingham’s “Fables.” I have read plenty of “Fables” trades, but I’m a couple of volumes behind, and when Roberson came in to do the “Cinderella” spinoff, I didn’t pay much attention to it. I remember actually breaking the news about his involvement in the series a few years back as I covered a Vertigo panel for CBR at one of the San Diego conventions, but I didn’t know who Chris Roberson was at the time. Just some enthusiastic sci-fi novelist. That’s all the information I had.
But sitting there, last week, having read most of Roberson’s comic book work in the intervening years, with the “iZombie” trade staring up at me, I felt a gaping void in my Chris Roberson comic book knowledge. Something I was sure that, if I filled, would help provide a richer perspective on the workings of “iZombie.”
So I swiped my wife’s copy of “Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love” (true story, my wife is ahead of me on the Chris Roberson reading curve), and read the sucker from cover to cover.
It didn’t inform my reading of “iZombie” much at all. And it was foolish to expect it to.
I did enjoy the “Cinderella” series quite a bit, though. It had a significantly different tone than the Bill Willingham “Fables” series, a shift that was entirely appropriate to what this comic was: a light-hearted James Bond in Fable-land romp, with plenty of action and intrigue and romance. The series covers by Chrissie Zullo masterfully established the dangerously sexy innocence the story would play around with, even if the Lee Loughridge colors muck-ified much of the Shawn McManus artwork. I can’t fault Loughridge for that, really, since the visuals in this miniseries are in keeping with the overall Vertigo look, and certainly in keeping with the color palette of the main “Fables” series.
Still, “Cinderella” would have benefited from a more vibrant color scheme, to fit its level of international incident and Cinderella-and-Aladdin bustin’ up spy rings and fightin’ alongside a sword-wielding polar bear.
Roberson and McManus’s “Cinderella” is viciously plot-heavy, but not exposition-heavy. It has a lot of whirring parts, and it zooms along from one incident to the next, but it’s never over-burdened by explanation. Everything makes sense along the way, but there’s no doubt that Roberson packed plenty of stuff into this miniseries, almost as if he was declaring to the comic book readership, “I don’t know how many of these comics I’ll get to write, so I’m going to give it all I’ve got right from the start.”
That’s a good way to approach comics, even if my mind-reading bears no relevance to what was actually going through Roberson’s head. Of course, the throw-it-all-in mentality only works when you have good taste in what you’re throwing in, and you can balance all of the little pieces to make it come together into a whole. Roberson does that in “Cinderella” and he planted his flag in the comic book landscape with a notice that he could be a go-to guy for fast-paced action/adventure comics.
Which sets us up perfectly for a discussion of “iZombie,” a comic about three sweet, undead and/or supernaturally-powered pals who hang out at a diner. You want action/adventure? Why one time, Gwen, the sort-of-zombie protagonist, went on a sort-of-a-date with a monster-slayer! And they had a nice, long chat before Gwen ran off!
Action! Adventure! Romance! Just like “Cinderella”!
Okay, pardon my sarcasm. Maybe “Cinderella” did inform my rereading of “iZombie” after all.
Because here’s the thing: “iZombie” is a completely different comic than “Cinderella” in every measurable way. While “Cinderella” was fast-paced and plot-driven, “iZombie” is a relaxed, character-based drama. While “Cinderella” is verbal quips and sight gags, in service of an action-packed story, “iZombie” is like hanging out with your friends and talking about the weird world around you, it’s just that in this case, the world is really weird.
That isn’t to say that “iZombie” doesn’t have a plot, or conflict, or even moments of action. But that’s not the primary mode of “iZombie.” It portrays the world in which these characters live first, then lets the plot unfold. In “iZombie,” character have conversations. They express doubt and uncertainty. They look for relationships and human (or inhuman) connections. The monster-slayers and bad-girl vampire gangs are part of the tapestry of the world, but they don’t drive the story to such a degree that young, undead Gwen loads up on guns and ammo and flamethrowers, kicks down mausoleum doors and starts blasting away, shouting one-liners like, “I’ve got a burning desire to clean up this mess!” or, “Who’s dead now, bitches!”
I’m pretty sure that kind of stuff isn’t going to happen in this comic, well, ever.
No, “iZombie” is a hangout comic. It’s the Vertigo version of Archie and the Scooby-Doo gang meeting up at the ice cream parlor and getting caught up in bizarre mysteries. And, while earlier in this column I wondered if “iZombie” was going to be, upon rereading, more than just “pleasant,” I was asking the wrong question. I should have asked, “in a comic book marketplace that’s littered with hyperactive bombast and nothing-will-even-be-the-same-isms, what’s wrong with being a pleasant, leisurely, deeply enjoyable but laid-back comic book series?” Because the answer to that is easy: nothing.
“iZombie” scratches an itch most of us probably didn’t know we had, because no other comic from Marvel or DC (or any of the major independents) has that same kind of take-it-as-it-is and hang-out-with-the-crew kind of flavor to it.
Make no mistake, “iZombie” is ambitious. Roberson and Allred have a dozen characters in play by the end of the first trade paperback collection, and there are plenty of mysteries brewing. Roberson provides a unified theory of how the different undead creatures intersect, depending on the supremacy of their Undersoul or Oversoul. It’s comic book mysticism, but it’s also a strong description of the rules by which this supernatural world operates. Yet as much as that helps to provide a foundation for this series, it’s not in the foreground. What’s in the foreground is the relationships between the characters and their attempt to find purpose in their own lives. Not in a New Age-y way but in that ever-questing, human way that’s so essential to our existence.
Just because they’re a zombie, a ghost, and a wolfman (or the Chris Roberson/Mike Allred equivalents) doesn’t make them less human.
Compared to “Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love,” “iZombie: Dead to the World” seems understated, maybe overly-relaxed in its pacing. Both are good books, in their own way, but after settling in with Gwen and Ellie and Spot a second time, I think “iZombie” is better. Understating and overly-relaxed is a great antidote for the rest of what the comic book marketplace tends to throw at us. And it’s a beautiful, dangerous, comforting, mysterious world built by Roberson and Allred — one I want to continue to visit for a long, long time.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan