:: Article

Marvelling at Zombies


Marvel Zombies, Kirkman, Phillips and Suydam, Marvel Comics

By 3:AM Staff Writer.

The shifting shapes of fancy, the strong movements of passion, colours that are above the half-wit real and yet written into the morbidezza of our flesh eye hues, in the words of E.C. comic book genius Al Feldstein, like sex, “a lot of foreplay and then climax,” that’s how Marvel comics always worked for me. Though it is pictures of the external character that draws you in yet it is the living principle inside each that motivates them, a warm, moving mass of stamped tingling sensations, a firmament of obtruding power for the eye swarming to the strong overimaged lines of CC Beck’s art rerouted through Simon/Kirby’s Timely Comic development of the Sentinel of Liberty back in the 40’s. Smashing Hitler on the jaw rendered yet another reinvention of the self-commiserating relevance of the genre in the 60’s and now we witness another shuddering development, one which frightened even its author.

The American comic heroes of the 1960’s had a muscular strength, a moral grandeur and an expressible will of gross, tangible impression that rose up inside and made each reader fizz with ideas and dreams of impossible intellect in their every uncreated night. It is a feeling of atmosphere that Stan Lee brought to the table. Lee didn’t see the atmosphere, he felt it in prodigious colouring and forms, and in its power he attempts to escape the sense of failure, the earnest and stultifying sense of a temporal dimension screwing it to the base of some socially constructed terror characterised as ‘the need to represent’. The sense of the perfect form fills, you have to believe, his whole mind. He hardly seems to suffer thoughts for anything else. The Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, The Mighty Thor, Daredevil, The X Men, The Silver Surfer and Spider Man are idealised forms and in their beauty is their power, despite all the ludicrous attempts to insist on other sources. They are raised above our frailties, and it is by this, their hard, masculine realisation of defeated pain, defeated inner weakness, that a heroism is accomplished that is a template of the defining American hero – he who walks alone, psychotic and violent.

To want the artists to genuflect to what the times require is a horrid desertion of the occasional insight that those outside the act of making bring to us, that the comics were there to aspire to be rid of the servitude of the news, and the deranged dreams of the makers of the American comics are ‘skewered on the ferocious dilemma of expression.’ The dilemma is common to the modernist sensibility and is exploited in two directions: either paint the void a la Beckett or play witty with an extreme plenitude of sovereign objects. The comics overwhelm with plenitude, and yet their extremism, like its opposite, contains in itself the impossibility of statement and the perfection of our required, nay, necessary, failure. Being so much, being so full, being so crammed to overflowing, there is nothing else, and so nothing to which they might refer. They establish through this over-fullness a whole and complete world.

And so we may then note: the boards of a theatre and the regions of fantasy are not twins, identical nor other, so when offence is given chest-hair and sweaty feet there is the inclination to finish your drink at a rattle and dive out onto the street, never mind its joke –lined stink of fennel excess, in single file. Resist that dog! All is as far away from any sort of calculated human life here than romance is to a moth in a circle of firelight; the least tincture of pedantry brings with it the angry regret of a rep without a handgun. (So Iron Man’s question to Spiderman after Spiderman has just eaten Aunt May and Sarah Jane: ‘Spider-Man. How’s your wife and aunt?’ becomes an ironic sub-text to this initial flawed integrity.) Everything from that perspective seems tainted with sour-grapes and a failed rehearsal. Our hero is less a character at this stage than a grounded jealousy inflamed against nothing less than the footnotes of the universe and its moronic pale distemperatures.

He walks with the scattering gait of a maimed duck through the morbid puddles of cavilling bead-rolls, spleen and tenacious fault. His criticism is our own and so we might catch the slight whiff of the tainted upon his frosty line, his strong verse. There is poetry here for sure, the lonely sort that erupts out of nature at the beginning of a moment that cannot return. He hardly breathes anymore but is instead a cube of jade playing a nifty tune. His chest is a sham fiddle. What is hanging from the streetlamp ahead is the brawled corpse of the woman who never washed up dishes, who played with her manner each day in and out seeking its perfection but ending up more or less, all things in the pot, a dolt. Death wasn’t a refinement of her beauty but more a relaxation for her long feet. All city people hate each other. So in point of suspicion – the element of the culprit – there are no limitations. He stands gawping at the swinging wretch and feels impertinent, squalid and jealous. Alongside the hatred of the other is the cartoon lust for self-annihilation too. This story warns us to beware our prayers in case they be answered!

Hounded by the dead woman (who is of course merely a metaphorical extension of inspiration itself and the reason to keep on keeping on even when we can’t), he never gave a second thought to the requirements of the lonely facing the blank exuberance of the ever-expanding universe but instead drank his squash without a word of complaint and saw to it that his hands were scrubbed spick clean and his mouth forever held tight to its lozenge sweet. He was ever called in as a saccharine fancy by those who avoided him most, and was thus so treated through true and considered loathing. It can’t be helped. The corpse is remembered for the line of extinction, the angle of trajectory from the here and now into the there and gone. It is all a goose. All serious things are inevitably the stuff of farce and sawdust, bizarre combinations of red-light wit engaged as a footboy to serve the Roman in the ‘wild wood-leaves and weeds strew’d on the grave’ that then, in an amazed and strange transportation, becomes a sort of romance and delight hidden in the dark moonlit, white and azure, laced with blue of Heaven’s own tint. Thbis is merely a summary of the story.

It is a perversion of the religion of love, yet this is to say no more than that as all boys of fourteen begin with this, the perverse is the crimson at the bottom of a cowslip. Patsy Walker, Brenda Starr, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and all the rest of the good girl art in the line of Thurman T Scott even through to the Daily Mirror’s Jane are merely the comedy’s obstinate adherence to what comes in the shade of melancholy boughs. And that is all. In this we are being given the rudiments, the reader of solitude and the hero of the night blending into a twisted, sadistic, masochistic integrity that has to remain, as the cuttle squirts ooze from its cod, the apperception of definition regarded as prey.

American patriotism, like all immense riddles, is neither a personal nor natural affection and that there is a direct and fateful connection of the comic book with politics is obvious. Bill Everett’s The Sub Mariner was created to fight the Nazis and to challenge the American non-intervention stance which in the thirties ignored the National Socialist threat. Captain America was merely a pulse attached to the flag, liberty, independence and nation with a mind as square as the endless jaw jutted steadfast against the Hitlerian torturer The Red Skull, requiring nothing but the redundancy of piety and a genuine cowboy morality. What this preserves is merely the ideal of propriety of action where the games’ afoot and moralise at leisure if you must but go do it elsewhere.

Here the act of reading places society and solitude against each other as the coolest of principles. Germaine Greer reminds us that what we need are articulate readers and less of us trying to wield our nibs. A child who is brought up with these, who has also seen the Eastwood of the rock ‘n roll Leone Spaghetti westerns and the dirt-bag mannerisms of his incorrigible Dirty Harry, is to be enchanted by the moral rightness of the vigilante, whose feelings are the vacuum-pulp affectation of an enemy’s missing parts, of characters who are morally assured and who have the tenacious virility to enact their desires rather than submit to the loss of their empires, personal or patriotic. Duty here is defined starkly and clearly as the physical expression of the inward disharmony of the soul and depicted as a fist breaking slut teeth. In the end these are all existentialist texts about men reckoning on death; honest, virtuous, solitary and of great spiritual depth who despise the fuss of success and victory and yet see existence as worthless if dishonoured by failure in the face of the smallest attention of evil.

The fatal weakness of all these characters is a pride that drives them from human company. Peter Parker cannot be anything but a teenage youth covered in ephemeral and fussy sentiment avoiding communication with those with whom he hopes to find a home. America is a city where there are nothing but endless crime scenes weeping twixt clock and clock, and interludes of vainglory bathed in the everlasting scent of some quality aftershave covering a creepy privacy that shades into necessary secrecy. This is the world of Dostoevsky and Hamlet, a purgatorial world of heavenly spirits bedimmed by sinful thought where each hero is an embodiment of transfigured truth and craft, a costume drama about the independence of the soul from society, yet all still weirdly linked to the antics of Kafka’s secret state department. Many of these heroes are blind, lame or contaminated. All of them are secretly mad.

As time has gone on there have been moments of clarity, the clock charging up, as it were, nature, where the reader and the writer experience the common realisation that there is something inevitably hopeless in this, in all this farrago of insolence. Just as Clint Eastwood’s characters are accused of being proto-fascist, so too American comic book heroes. By the time the eighties arrived the readership had flagged and the ideas had run out. Alan Moore’s Watchman comic was a brilliant deconstruction of the genre, whose work was able to point out that there was something deeply flawed in these ridiculous chimeras of the state’s brain. Yet Moore offers in this and in his subsequent comics, especially his Tom Strong stories, a recollection of antique habits formed from within the golden time of invention, a time when it was still possible to rely on the immediacy of the beginnings and first innocent readings reaching back even further to Captain Nemo and Verne’s excellence of callisthenics garnished by Bismarkian furniture.

In this twilight time readers now pick up on what has already been defused, where the critics and fame have blasted the characters into a different and distorted framework than that invested upon them at the very beginning. There are so many blockbuster films now depicting skimpy narratives and magnificent special effect trims. American superhero comics are now objects of the connoisseur, the dandy poseur as well as the freeloading après moi delugists, where those who once had neither initial inclination nor natural taste to praise them now do so, and offer their judgements without blushes nor the impeding doubtfulness of impudence regained. And yet some of these films spare our blushes by showing some of the inevitable unveiling that comes from these magic lantern displays of technological bravado: in Burton’s two Batman films (though D.C. not Marvel) the mirror we find is convex to a carnival degree that makes for weirdness closing in on Angela Carter, say. The opening sequence of Batman Returns which tells in miniature a possible origin of the Penguin is morbid, creepy, beautiful and tender within the snow-bound hell of its Gothic underwear. None of the Marvel films have been as strong.

Surprisingly it is perhaps Ben Affleck’s Daredevil that holds the attention for more than a mincing minute; the gritty darkness is such that it almost denies itself the queasy sentimentalism that rots the teeth of the Spiderman and Fantastic Four offerings for a goodly portion of their films. Nor does it fall foul of the stupid affectation of the Hulk film which seemed to misunderstand what the Hulk/Banner actually already was, superadding to its wants and origins an oedipal story of father and son that seemed both pointless and vulgar, where by vulgar is meant not a natural coarseness but rather a learnt coarseness, something refined without any feeling of the essence of such feeling. It tries, simply, to be too clever by half. The X-Men trilogy however boasts some integral refinements and habits that makes them admirable in many ways; the performances of Patrick Stewart and Ian Mckellan are genuinely affecting and there are more than a few scenes that are startling and imaginatively rendered – the shocking death of Dr Xavier being one that comes immediately to mind – so that they can be considered entertaining without the vulgarity of the kind mentioned above.

Yet the strength of the comic is in its thin paper format, and in the reading habits of those who consume them in the cunning smallness of bedroom and corner shop step under the ticking of civic clocks. This is not something that cares one jot for the principle of universal suffrage, government, common feelings and interests of society. It doesn’t care to communicate nor connect. It does not require nor desire the loud applause of the critics nor the reputation built upon dollars or pounds. It is rather a silent and lonesome business, a business that works in the dimmed mess of Belaqua’s black diamond of pessimism risen unwashed to estranged, fantastical and utterly groundless hope. Such is the fate of the delinquent reader. That and foul socks.

The wonder of Kirkman, Phillips and Suydam’s Marvel Zombies is the depth of reference, its animation of the idea that every word returns from its pre-lingual symbol to live in a galaxy of fresh paint and forms that are either always returning in endless circles or darting forward from one level line to another at a speed that mimics the lightening-quick quantum movements of thought itself, as in, to take just one of many examples, the page where Captain America, his own brain in his hand and the top of his skull sliced off, begins by saying ‘ I’d rethink that theory on the brain – I’ve got evidence to the contrary’ which then moves over the two adjoining pages and through its thirteen swift panels to pick up the horror, panic, confusion and pain of the heroes as they respond to this comment, working an overarching grim gallows humour through each with a nightmare glee that helps maintain the momentum of the depicted scenarios and is a consistent element of Kirkman’s whole story.

Referencing covers from early classic comic stories Kirkman, Phillips and Suydam move through to their narrative with a psychological inevitability that consumes itself. Taking the notion of deconstruction to a visceral level of cannibalism Marvel’s finest are literally taken apart and eaten alive. The deep shock is really only to those who are fully involved with the base-line characters, who have a romance with these guys, like a visible conscience, a secret tribunal inured to the contempt of the world through the intercourse with a reading history steeled against the prejudices, concealments, hypocrisies and cowardice of formal, state, historical, illiterate powers who, like Raphaels’ Elymas the Sorcerer and his hard iron visage, large, uncouth and unimaginative, forever entangled in his own delusions, impose their horrors upon the fleshy world this reading tribe dispute through a strange baffling act that has been staged as a peculiar vice of their own personal histories, a history that is no more nor less than that of being dedicated, non-conformist geek fans.

These tend to be like Sherlock Homes, omnivorous readers with a strangely retentive memory for trifles, each with a vast store of out-of-the-way knowledge, without scientific system, but very available, like a crowded box-room with packets of all sorts stowed away therein, so many that they have themselves but a vague perception of what is there, and Kirkman, Phillips and Suymam are the apotheosis of these, rendering story and graphic lines that ask for the depth memory of knowledge to surface and reimagine possibilities of the original atmospherics of each of the heroes filtered through Titian’s Slaying of Marsayas as well as back numbers of the Marvel oeuvre, Evil Dead cinema and sci-fi/fantasy/horror pulp . At the end we are shown the fifteen covers of ‘classic’ marvel hero comics which Suydam reworks into the corrupted, reinventions of the new storyline ‘torn from the pages of Ultimate Fantastic Four’, as the blurb screams it on the back cover!

Both Phillips and Suydam draw on classical influences as painters outside the genre – Phillips as a landscape and sea-scape oil painter, Suydam as someone who involves his knowledge of the classical to his depiction of the genre’s motifs and together they roll out a thunderous wildness that carries forward the insanity of the narrative visually alongside the mental humour of the nasty story. We pick through the debris desperately holding on to the thought that perhaps even such carnage might furnish an additional stimulus to curiosity. Certainly this is not about anything, surely not the post 9/11 landscape of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which haunt the American civic spaces, and yet there is something in these toiling, reeking, death lumbered pages that startles the imagination to other grotesqueries, and these real-life, real-world events cannot be excluded as both sources and resting places of these hardening, skinless, raw panels.

The story turns the tables on all the primary assumptions we noted above: here we see the heroes facing a power, in this case an alien virus that turns everyone who comes into contact with it into ravenous flesh-eating cannibal zombies, against which they are helpless to resist. The strict puritanical aura of immovable will-power which is the iron-fisted core of most of them is melted with a sudden, easy collapse. They are reduced to mere appetites. Nothing remains but strange and wearisome selfishness, a determination to save themselves that never existed before, ironically, they died and became monstrous. In this undead state they become negative instances of their former selves, all save perhaps the Hulk who remains a primal state of destructive beserk power.

As Hazlitt remarks, knowledge is beauty as well as power, and knowing these guys brings out the freaking genius of the book, the awful terror it stirs. Even before it was out there writer Robert Kirkman knew that he was taking a risk, was experiencing the primal fear of genuine creative activity, and what we respect in his work here is what has been said about Hogarth – its not merely the nature of the subject matter but the knowledge displayed, the number of ideas it excites, on the fund of thought and observation contained in it, gratifying in a sense our love of truth filling up the voids of the mind and that most interesting part of natural history, the history of mankind. Nature and passion combine with reason and intellect. The highest categories of the human soul, pleasure and pain, are revealed.

To find a kind of strange beauty in the deformities and flesh-falling rotten bodies of the heroes as they crash away from sight as heroes and emerge as something less, defeated both in their inheritances and their present moment too, is to be reminded of the strange catastrophe of old age, of creeping inevitable mortality, of the end of the impossible dream of fearless immortality. It is youth’s hope and youth’s swagger that falls away in this story It is the extreme metaphor for what is the human condition; the artists rendering Kirkman’s story work as Raphael worked Galatea and Rembrandt his dark shadowed aged souls, work like Turner returning to the first chaos of the universe where perhaps there will be again the state of things where the waters are separated from the dry land but as yet there shall be nothing crawling anywhere. In all this death there is the gusto of a living principle, the skull beneath the skin stamped with all the passion of recognition, and maybe sadness, definitely fear.

Magneto, the most intelligent and powerful of the mutants is seen from the very opening page fighting zombie heroes and it is in the brief panels that show his defeat that brings home to us where this story is going to differ from all others. Magneto announces, as is Marvel comic heroes wont, that the other heroes have underestimated his powers. ‘Did you really think you could defeat me?’ he growls. He is exhausted but defiant, angry and regrouping for a next wave of decisive action. This is a common enough moment in such comic book narratives. It is a reassuring conceit that no matter how staggering the odds are, the good guy will find a way. Of course, what complicates the moment here is that Magneto isn’t actually always a good guy, but he is the central character of hope here in the crowded dark shadows of this narrative. Readers expect something like this and know that he will escape and that there will be a way.

Yet in the very next panel Magneto is bitten and within four gory pages is eaten alive by the marvel zombies, including Captain America, Hulk, Daredevil, Spiderman, Wolverine, Thor. It is graphically depicted, we see the body hewn into carcass meat, we see the zombies cramming their mouths with the bleeding body parts. The scene is hard to read, hard to look at. Its violence is more than there has ever been, the perversity takes the story and the images to a twisted level never before seen in this confection.

It is nasty, it is caustic and brutal. It feels bad. It taunts the reader with a grim humour that runs throughout its fatal entrances and exits. The nightmares of all the human centuries are each here in this, but the feeling that dominates the reader is not mere revulsion and horror but rather disappointment. The central premise of these heroes being their indominatable undefeatability, to see such failure, such weakness, it tears out the heart and refines your notion of moral and existential limitation. Perhaps it is Hamlet to whom we must reach to recall such a similar deflation, where we see the struggle of a soul who might be great and yet who is brought down by too much consciousness of his own timid, frightened, deceitful will.

Page after page reveals further and greater depravations visited upon them; The Silver Surfer is eaten, Spiderman eats all his relatives, his leg falls off, Black Panther is kept alive so that he is a source of food, little bits of him cut away and feasted upon when hunger strikes the infected, Galacticus himself falls. The final panel, where the zombies move from planet to planet eating whole populations, delivers a final decisive end to any hope of redemption rising out of the story. It is genocidal doomsday every day here.

Captain America, the Sentinel of Liberty himself, is the central character in all this, defining the moment the dream of American heroism died as he himself is destroyed by the Red Skull near the very end of the story line. The damage inflicted upon him by Magneto at the start of the story, the top of his head sliced off like an egg shell by his own shield, revealing a green oozing brain mess, is what has defined his presence throughout the story up until the insane ending where in a fit of hunger he fights Red Skull, intending to eat his old defining Nazi enemy only to have his brain pulled out from the skull bowl by the nazi. Thus ends Captain America. He is seen lying ready to be eaten himself in the final panel of this final battle. Here we see the great sign of heroism succumb to the great sign of evil, America vs the Nazis, Stars and Stripes vs Swastika. Yet the anarchic feel of the story skewers this too. The Nazi is also destroyed, as are all the old villains.

The old villains, it is suddenly stark staringly clear, were merely negative images of the heroes and now, in this new universe, they are merely identical in all essentials. Defined by their single consuming hunger, there is no longer good and bad. All zombies are equal! The power to be frightened, to feel the need to fight back is no longer driven by anything more than scarcity of resources. Dog shall eat dog. The world of civic duty, moral understanding, imagination, wit, sensibility, these are all dead. The characters are worthless as shit. They are despicable. And it is out of this realisation that the reader’s disappointment becomes manifest. They have robbed us of their greatness of soul and our hopes for greatness of soul. They are not able to show us the way to a better understanding, a deeper realisation of what humans are capable of. They are les than humans, not greater. Their powers were merely playthings selling a simulacrum of grandeur whilst hiding nothing more than a perky desire to revenge oneself upon a world that had hurt them in some way. Deal with it, we whisper back to them. The story ends the blindness of those who would have heroes. There is no brightness in this dark story, but a perfect use of the Marvel comic book genre to startle us once again with something freshly seen and felt and deeply understood though for many years perhaps hidden from sight.

Yet the story also reminds us of the compulsion for death in the make-up of these heroes. Thanatos was their great secret from the very start. Loathing of humanity’s friendliness, of being a part of its frailty, hatred of the stranger, and seeing in the end everyone as a stranger in order to remain someone set apart, an outsider, in this haunted dreamstate, the ripping apart of the veil reveals merely the strange terrifying natures of these mad, psychotic loners. What Kirkman has done is taken the logic of their personalities and psychologies and written them out large for us all. Here be monsters indeed. The single-mindedness, once turned into mere appetite, cannot masquerade as love of anything, and is here merely a horrible selfish nihilism sustained by ravening lusts.

The potential for such a work of art, and such a revelation, was always there in the genre but such potential is rarely fulfilled. The strangeness of this story, the weird vividness of the pictures, construct a reader who knows too much and feels too much to be able to just shrug and ask, ‘What’s next?’ There is too much here for a moment, there is a philosophy and a critical act in the making of this particular story that transcends its commercial success and will continue to haunt those who have known these characters for a long time. It warns us about making too much of the spirit of outsiderdom, of missing the psychotic stupidity and the murderous egoism that can lie inside the mad thoughts of the puritanical vigilante, reminds us that we are all too old to forget about dying and the responsibility that knowledge of that places upon us, as readers and as just frail humans who most of the time are just trying to make things a little better, knowing the inside story to the Dylan’s plaintiff sigh: ‘It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there’.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 30th, 2007.