Zombies aren’t quite in season, but it can be interesting to look at them anyway. Also uninteresting, as the theme is becoming a bit tired, but it’s a good idea that can be approached from many different directions. There’s a metric ton of manga that use zombies as a theme, from Is This a Zombie? to Zombie-Loan, High School of the Dead to Evil’s Return. Talking about three is only scratching the surface, but here are three that use the zombie in three different ways.
Tokyo Zombie – Yusaku Hanakuma (1 volume)
There’s a style of comic in Japan called heta-uma, which are comics so bad that they’re good. Usually they have very simplistic/primitive art and nonsequitor jokes. Tokyo Zombie is one of the more accessible heta-uma-style stories I’ve run across, but it’s still pretty out there. It uses a very traditional Night of the Living Dead approach to zombies. Starring two blue-collar workers that enjoy practicing Brazilian Ju-Jitsu and hate their boss, the world turns upside-down one day when a mountain where dead bodies get dumped suddenly comes to life, and the dead rise up to terrorize the living. Getting bitten by the recently raised converts you, and much of the population perishes. The story flashes forward, where we find that the rest of humanity lives in a protected compound with zombie slaves that do things like jump up and down to power generators and provide entertainment in gladiatorial-style matches. The rich are the ones that run the city, while the poor fight in the matches against the zombies. The main characters have eked out a living scavenging, but are sucked into the combat arena towards the end of the book. The story is a simple one, but its bizarre sense of humor make it worth the read. The mountain of the dead is introduced when some gangsters bury a man up to his neck in the garbage, then kick his head off to kill him. The jiujitsu angle comes back at the end of the book in a strange way. The main characters also have strangely minimal reactions to everything that’s going on. The simple art suits the story, and makes the moments of violence all the more absurd. It is oddly fitting to a zombie story like this, which does something to point out the absurdity of the idea in the first place. Published by Last Gasp some years ago, the book is still in print and available.
Grand Guignol Orchestra – Kaori Yuki (5 volumes)
A change of pace, this one is set in medieval times (though it looks and acts a lot like the Victorian age, except with cars), this is a story of a land that was swept by an inexplicable taint that turned a percentage of the population into marionettes. Their features and limbs gain the look of puppets, but in reality, they are soulless demons that know only violence, and can make more of their kind with a bite. The plot of the series is that they can be soothed and laid to rest with music, which is what the main characters do as a band of traveling musicians. They go against the queen, who is tied into the plague, and who destroys villages with “divine lightning” if they become too tainted. There are many short stories about small towns dealing with outbreaks of the disease among loved ones, and each of the musicians has their own story to tell about personal tragedy dealing with the disease. The best part of this series is Yuki’s ornate, atmospheric art. She does a good job with period costumes and creating just the right look for everything. Her backgrounds, characters, and hairstyles are all quite detailed, and she’s one of the better artists working on girls’ comics in Japan. The downside is that her series can be quite confusing, and Grand Guignol Orchestra is no exception. The first volume rushes the explanation and left me feeling rather confused, though ultimately the story is interesting enough to follow to its five-volume conclusion. Unfortunately, the mysterious characters here can also be hard to sympathize with, and the stories meant to pack an emotional punch fall flat with a lack of character development. Still, it’s an interesting take on the usual zombie story, even for a girls’ comic. This one’s a bit older as well, but all five volumes are in print and available.
Reiko the Zombie Shop – Rei Mikamoto (11 volumes, 6 in English)
I deliberately avoided talking about zombie series strictly about pandering and fanservice (High School of the Dead, for instance), and Reiko the Zombie Shop is definitely guilty of some of that. But it’s so bizarre, and has such a great sense of humor, that the scantily clad high school girls just seem like part of its act. The main character, Reiko, is an indifferent necromancer that will bring the dead back for a price. This is not a permanent solution, as nothing she does can stop the rot, but live clients pay her for the chance at a last word. But when she resurrects, the zombies are berserk, and often violent things happen. Actually, violent things happen anyway, and this manga is a strange mix of really disgusting horror and perky (but not overdone) cuteness that makes it feel like it would be right at home alongside something like Army of Darkness. The humor is mostly in the dismemberment, as there are some strange and very violent murders that unfold in ridiculous ways in every volume. Reiko is mostly a good necromancer, but she has a sister that raises the dead for the purposes of evil, and eventually they both get violent zombie servants that enjoy hacking the opposing party to pieces. Even regular characters tend to be mean-spirited and hateful, and often meet violent ends. The series starts off with a series of one-off chapters, but eventually develops a less interesting plot. It’s never boring though, and I ran out and bought every volume as soon as it was released. Dark Horse’s cancellation of the series broke my heart, especially since volume six ends in the middle of something. Mikamoto does draw the girls with huge breasts and short skirts, but this was originally a comic intended for girls, so it never goes into overt creepy territory (this cover isn’t typical of the art inside). His art is well-suited to the story though, as he can draw cute and messy violence with equal zeal. It’s an awesome series, and one I was sorry wasn’t more popular. All six volumes are available.