“The Other Dead” #1 by Joshua Ortega, Digger T. Mesch and Qing Ping Mui explores the onset of a zombie infestation, as many a story has, only this time the creatures returning from the dead aren’t human, but instead seemingly just about every other kind of once-living creature. This first issue is mostly introduction to the premise and the characters involved, but it puts enough of a unique and creepy spin on the idea to make this stand out from countless other zombie stories.
There has been no shortage of creators trying to come up with their own variations on the genre, in an apparent and collective admission that yet another straightforward zombie apocalypse tale either won’t get noticed, or will simply be dismissed. Mesch’s twist, as developed by Ortega, is a brilliantly simple one that shifts the zombie plague from humankind to our furry, feathered and four-legged friends, and as such lends itself to snagging readers based on that hook alone. But the writers don’t bank on that to keep them, so they develop enough of a backstory to keep readers coming back for the second issue and beyond.
Rather than take a linear approach, Ortega adds developments like a hurricane bearing down on the Louisiana coast, a child who gets sick trying to eat eggs, and a rock band experimenting with demonic rituals as elements that may, or may not, have any relation to the impending plague. He at least hints at enough of a connection to avoid making the story feel like a padded and badly-executed made-for-cable TV movie, and in doing so gives the story a little extra depth. At least, more depth than endless scenes of zombie animals gorging on human intestines would provide.
Ortega makes the backstory work based more on the pervasive sense of creepiness, rather than through any kind of extensive characterization. He avoids stereotypes and cliches, but his characters just don’t have any real sense of uniqueness to make them drive the story; there are no memorable personality traits or defining moments to establish them as worthy protagonists.
Ortega also adds a lot of unneeded elements, and in doing so makes the pacing of the book suffer; the narrative sequence plods along at times, and sequences that could sufficiently be told in a few panels are instead stretched out over a couple of pages. One such two-page sequence spends way too much time on a character vomiting, for example, and another seems to exist for no reason other than to give Mui an excuse to draw a pretty explicit strip-tease routine. It’s as though the creators feel the inherent violence wasn’t sensational enough, so they’re compelled to add some other gross-outs, along with some sex and oh yeah; plenty of profanity; to ensure it. It’s at these moments where the story practically slows to a stop.
While Mui admittedly does nicely draw strippers, he also does well at drawing more essential aspects of the story. The characters are all immediately recognizable, and he’s excellent at what many artists are deficient in: drawing animals realistically, dead or undead. Although realistic undead animals is an abstract concept, never has a flock of zombified ducks actually looked menacing, and not comical as one might expect.
For whatever reason, the better-known zombie apocalypse stories have largely shied away from the notion of undead animals. “The Other Dead” confronts it head on, but seems to lack the confidence in using that idea to carry it without falling back on so many adolescent-type tricks. The first issue is enjoyable enough based on its central idea, but is hampered by all the distractions meant to enhance it.