World War Z by Max Brooks (2007): Oh, zombie, where is thy sting? Brooks’ novel was a sensation a few years back, in part because it unfolds the story of the great Zombie war within a fictionalized oral history modelled on Studs Terkel’s structured oral histories of World War II, the Great Depression and other major American events. It’s a clever conceit, though moving from narrator to narrator (and country to country) works against the development of suspense at points, much less horror.
More than 40 years after George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead started our never-ending fascination with zombies, the rightness of some of Romero’s choices related to the wrongness of some of the choices of other zombie chroniclers only stands out more. Brooks goes with what’s now become the almost cliched viral/rabies model of zombieism — zombieism is spread by bite or by zombie body matter getting into an exposed cut or otherwise somehow getting into one’s bloodstream. This probably seems like a good idea, but the number of pandemics in human history spread through these means is, roughly, zero. It’s just not that effective a means of viral or bacterial propagation, which is why we don’t all have rabies right now.
Romero, of course, never explained what was actually causing zombies in his first two zombie movies. More importantly, there was no ‘Patient Zero’ style beginning point — one day, everyone who ever died and had enough flesh left on his or her bones to allow for mobility rose from the grave. And everyone who died after that, regardless of cause of death, would also rise from the dead. Now that’s a disease vector that could overwhelm civilization!
Brooks’ viral model, on the other hand, doesn’t bear too much hard thinking because one realizes that between the limits of propagation and the modest limits of his zombies’ intelligence (they are, if anything, much stupider than Romero’s slow-moving hordes), most of the book’s apocalyptic scenarios would be impossible. How do these slow-moving hordes which have a tendency to fall off, into or over any obstacle in their way manage to form up into gigantic masses of tens of millions of zombies in the American Midwest and other locations? I have no idea. It seems to me that these zombies would probably end up at the bottom of every cliff, hill, overpass and canyon in the world. So it goes. Several weeks into the zombie war, one would imagine the Grand Canyon would be full of zombies.
There are a lot of pleasures in this book, and the verisimilitude Brooks achieves with his technical research into weapons and various survival issues is impressive, but the whole thing falls apart if one thinks too hard about those million-zombie armies. So don’t. Recommended.
The New Lovecraft Circle, edited by Robert M. Price (1996): Gleaned from thirty years of the second wave of Lovecraft-inspired horror writing, Price’s anthology is sort of Fundamentalist Lovecraft. Many of the stories follow the same first-person narrative model of many of Lovecraft’s major Cthulhu stories, with one man recounting the zany events and evil tomes of forbidden knowledge that led him to some terrible revelation or other. I tend to prefer somewhat looser interpretations of the Cthulhu Mythos, but there are some genuine thrills and chills here, along with some early Ramsey Campbell Lovecraft pastiches that I’d otherwise have to pay a couple of hundred bucks to read in his out-of-print first collection.
One of the problems a lot of the writers have is their overwhelming desire to roll out one of the Big Guns of Lovecraft’s evil pantheon of alien gods, especially sea-dwelling Cthulhu, who’s supposed to be in the South Pacific but who pays visits to New England and California prior to being vanquished by the usual dodgy means. A lot of the stories fall more into the August Derleth Cthulhu mode, in which the Cthulhu Mythos becomes a source for modern high fantasy and not for horror. There’s nothing technically wrong with this approach, but it does mean that wonder and terror are a bit thin on the ground at times. Recommended for completists.
Daredevil: Born Again, written by Frank Miller, illustrated by David Mazzuchelli (1986; collected numerous times): Miller (300, Sin City) came to prominence as writer and artist on Daredevil in the early 1980’s. After a few years away, he returned to team with Mazzuchelli on what remains one of the great ‘reset button’ narratives in superhero comics history. Basically, criminal mastermind Kingpin discovers Daredevil’s secret identity and proceeds to destroy his life. And that’s just the first issue.
There are small story-telling glitches here and there that the editor should have fixed at the time (why Miller makes super-soldier Nuke blind like Daredevil but without the radar senses makes sense metaphorically but not literally), but overall this is ‘the’ Daredevil story, or at least ‘the’ Frank Miller Daredevil story. The hero gets stripped down to his basics, losing a lot of accumulated psychological baggage along the way, and even gets his first girlfriend back (Karen Page), albeit in dire straits herself.
One can see Mazzuchelli’s art develop from issue to issue, sloughing off standard super-hero tics and moving towards the more European style he’d use when he soon hereafter collaborated with Miller on Batman: Year One. It’s really all about faces and mood with Mazzuchelli at this point in his career, suiting a book that has a lot of explosions but which relies on character development for most of its major kicks.
The Kingpin has never been more demonic, and Miller also manages the neat trick of making the Avengers god-like again when he briefly drops them into the narrative — they don’t really belong in Daredevil’s urban vigilante world, and that’s the point, though a world-weary Captain America does lend Daredevil a helping hand in the last two issues. This is grim and gritty stuff from a time before endless dark reimaginings of superheroes had made “grim and gritty” a pejorative. Highly recommended.
El Diablo, written by Brian Azzarello, illustrated by Daniejel Zezelj (2001): This four-issue miniseries sees Azzarello reimagine one of DC’s obscure Western characters as a possibly supernatural avenger. We don’t really know, in the end, because El Diablo (if it is him) is only onstage for about three panels and never speaks, though he does hiss. And kill a whole lot of people. Or does he? Yes he does.
The narrative provides us with two big shocks and a lot of little ones, playing out like an expanded version of an old EC or even Jonah Hex morality tale, complete with a blackly comic (and just) ending. Zezelj’s artwork is suitably murky throughout, sometimes to the point of resembling woodcuts more than pencil-and-ink. Recommended.