In seeking to explain the pervasive popularity of the zombie genre, talkers-about pop culture have long espoused the theory that tales of the unhappy undead catch on during times of national stress, usually of a military variety.
I bought that, as 2002's 28 Days Later re-mainstreamed zombies between the U.S.-lead invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but zombies are still around, and more popular than ever. The argument could be made that they’re still here because we’re still stressed out and America is still engaged in the same wars we were fighting a decade ago , but then, hasn’t every single year of American history been stressful for the folks living in it? Haven’t we almost always been at war with someone somwhere?
So I’m developing my own theory. I think zombies are popular not necessarily as a psychological reflection of the common consumers anxiety about terrorism or immigration or mortality or economic decline or the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on Citizens United, but simply because the proliferation of cheap filmmaking and publishing technology and the hydra-like increase in media outlets makes it easier to make and transmit zombie products, and the astronomically more specialized consumer of the past decade means its easier to sustain popularity of particular genres. It’s now possible for almost any genre to become popular enough to be self-sustaining in today’s media environment.
For example, producers pitching Walking Dead to AMC in 2010 didn’t have to worry about mass appeal in the same way that a previous generations producers might have had if they pitched a Night of Living Dead series to NBC in 1985; if they get the people who participate in zombie walks and the comic book people and the horror people, that’s more than enough to tune-in and buy DVD collections.
I’m sure there are other factors, and deep cultural psychological ones may be among them, they can’t be the prime ones.
I’ve been mulling over the importance of theme and timing in the continuing existence of zombie media this week because I just read Marvel Comics’ Zombies Christmas Carol, by Jim McCann, David Baldeon, Jeremy Treece, Jordi Tarrangona and Roget Bonet.
It’s a pretty strange book.
For Marvel Comics, I think it either represented a spectacularly poor job of marketing a product, or an acknowledgement in a shift of their audience’s interest in the “Marvel Zombies” brand (or a bit of both).
When it was published serially, it was entitled Marvel Zombies Christmas Carol, and solicited as such, but it doesn’t actually contain the Marvel Zombies characters (zombie versions of the Marvel superheroes, first conceived by Mark Millar), characters that were phenomenally popular upon their first publication, but getting less and less sales and attention with each subsequent appearance.
The collected version, which I assume will do much better with a wider audience than the comics version did, reduces the “Marvel” presence to a the little red and white logo in the upper right corner of the cover, and even eschews the Marvel Zombies font for something more Victorian in appearance. The work is really more in keeping with the “public domain classic literature + supernatural” formula of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Here it's Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol…with zombies.
Economically, it’s a smart choice for supernatural bowdlerization. It’s one of the more pliable classics, one I’ve seen adapted by the Dinsey cartoon characters, their rival Warner Brothers cartoon characters, The Muppets, the Ghostbusters, a guy who played a Ghostbuster, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Peter Pan and The Pirates, Batman, computer-animated Jim Carrey and even the makers of a Matthew McConaughey romantic comedy. And, in its final form, I suppose a comic featuring a zombie version of A Christmas Carol makes a easy gift for the comic book or zombie fan on someone’s Christmas shopping list, when they’re browsing a big-box book store.
Narratively, there is a wee problem in the fact that it’s already a story of the supernatural, being full of ghosts. So tossing in zombies doesn’t have quite the same high-concept genre-clash as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Writer McCann thus zombifies the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, and the idea of "zombie ghosts" doesn’t quite sit right with me, in the same way a few of the Scooby-Doo monsters of my youth seemed wrong to me (Like the Ghost of Bigfoot from the episode where gang meets Laurel and Hardy, for example, or any of the various ghost witches they have chased them around over the years).
For the three Christmas spirits, zombifying them was mostly a matter of presentation the two pencil artists involved giving them scarier, more decrepit appearances than those typically assigned to them (Even the Grim Reaper-like Ghost of Christmas Future, who is usually so abstract in appearances it’s difficult to imagine a more decayed version; I liked the solution they came up with, which was to give him only the lower jaw of a skull inside his cloak, allowing him to remain faceless but to also suggest a face that’s falling apart).
The ghost of Jacob Marley is a little more difficult to wrap my head around; he’s presented as a sort of domesticated, intelligent zombie, complete with a Victorian asylum contraption over his head to keep him from biting, and a bell upon its top to warn when he’s coming, but he’s immaterial, walking straight through a closed door, and remains a ghost. A ghost of a zombie, I guess…? In contrast to the other Spirits, who simply resemble zombies…?
Despite the cognitive/conceptual awkwardness of a zombie ghost story, McCann’s strategy for zombifying Dickens’ holiday story is clever, even inspired, as it ties the familiar zombie plague premise directly into Scrooge’s greed and selfishness, and thus is quite literal in adapting at least one huge source of modern real-world anxiety—money.
The “zombies” are here never referred to as such, in keeping with good zombie movie tradition, but are instead called “The Hungry Dead.” Apparently the poor, the ill and the mad become infected with something that causes them to eat voraciously and never get their fill. After they’ve consumed all of the food and drink available, they then attempt to eat people. As an extremely wealthy man, Scrooge is thus in a unique position in his London neighborhood to at least slow the zombies down, as he would be able to purchase enough food to keep them from turning to human flesh for a while.
The rules of the plague here are a little muddy, as Scrooge first becomes infected as a young man, bitten by a sick horse he was attempting to help, thus causing him to refuse ever trying to help another again, but Scrooge never becomes a member of the Hungry Dead—well, he’s horribly greedy, but not gluttonous, and never drawn with rotting flesh like the rest of the Hungry Dead.
Throughout his life, he infects others with the disease, until this one Christmas Eve where it looks like half of London is ready to eat the other half. I guess he was a carrier of the disease, but was himself either immune, or so inhumanely greedy it's impossible to tell if he's alive or undead.
I’m afraid I never quite understood the nature of the zombie plague’s spread nor its—I assume it’s not spoiling anything to note Scrooge amends his ways after the Spirits visit, and instead of asking someone to buy him a big-ass goose, he goes about curing the Hungry Dead by…being in a good mood? Un-killing them with kindness…? I didn’t really get it, to be honest.
So while it’s a pretty clever story, and one worthy of consideration to those enamored or interested in, or even just morbidly fascinated by, the zombie movement of pop-lit, it’s not really all that great a comic (But a lot better than I expected it to be).
The artwork is unfortunately even more uneven.
The Michael Kaluta covers are in an entirely different style than the interior art, and in fact the character designs don’t match those of the ones employed in the story (Kaluta’s Scrooge especially bears no resemblance to the actual protagonist).
Two art teams are involved, penciler Baldeon and Tarragona draw the issues set in the present, while Treece and Bonet are responsible for those set in the past and future, and both teams have their own colorist.
Bladeon’s artwork is exceptional—this is probably the best work I’ve seen from him—and while Treece is no slouch, the latter has a thinner line, looser style and a tendency toward more medium and longshots. The passages from each artist, while not exactly night and day, are nevertheless dramatically, obviously different, and the book therefore has the inevitable uneven look. (The two drawings above are from Baldeon and Tarragona
This is, obviously, more noticeable and thus more frustrating when reading a comic as a graphic novel than as a serially-published comic, as the change in artists happens in a matter of seconds, rather than a month later, and is somewhat perplexing given that this was a standalone miniseries without any obvious time constraints.
Unless, of course, Marvel wanted to start publishing it ASAP, as there are apparently a lot of other folks who thought to mash-up A Christmas Carol with zombies. When I went to check the release date on this on Amazon, searching for "zombie christmas carol," I noticed McCann wasn’t the only writer to think of pitting Scrooge against zombies:
I’m mildly curious to see how the above writers present the zombie plague, and if they make the same explicit economic connections that McCann did, and whether or not they use ravenous cannibals as symbols of Scrooge’s character flaws or not. But I’m not so interested in zombies that I want to wander too far into the prose expression of their current popularity. Comics provide me with more than enough zombie tales, thank you.