The Marvel Zombies: A super infection (sort of)

Since I’m reading comic books because of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead (as if I really need an excuse to read comic books), I’ve decided to turn my attention to a different set of Kirkman’s zombie comics: the Marvel Zombies series.

I never really understood the whole Marvel Zombie craze when the outbreak first appeared. Writer Mark Millar of The Ultimate Fantastic Four created a “Marvel Zombie-verse,” with infected versions of the company’s most prominent characters, and the idea proved so wildly popular that Marvel hired Kirkman to spin the characters off into their own mini-series. That, in turn, spawned eight spin-offs and several other products, including omnibuses, action figures, and trading cards.

“I didn’t even really want to do this book,” Kirkman wrote in the introduction to volume one. It’s easy in the comics business to get labeled as something, he said. “I didn’t want to be ‘the zombie guy….’”

But Kirkman, better than anyone, should know how unstoppable the undead horde can be. It wasn’t long before the genius behind The Walking Dead fell pray to the Marvel Zombies.

As a Marvel Comics fanboy, I guess it was only a matter of time before I did, too.

Marvel Zombies: An undead plague has turned Marvel’s heroes into undead eating machines who still have their superpowers and who can still reason. Unfortunately, “the hunger” so overpowers them that they eat the world clean in a matter of days. Stuck on earth with no food left, they begin to ponder their next move when, from the stars arrives the planet eating space god Galactus. Guess who gets eaten instead? And not only do the zombie heroes get space-god flesh, they get his cosmic powers, too, suddenly solving the problem of being stranded on earth. The zombies take to the stars in search of their next meal.

The premise is hokey but fun. Kirkman gets some laughs out of the angst the ersatz heroes feel about eating people. “Dear God–what have we become?!” laments Spider-Man. “I ate my wife–my aunt! Why?! Why did I do that?!” “Here we go again…” grumbles another of the heroes, Luke Cage. Kirkman manages to make gore funny, too. For instance, the Hulk eats so much that when he reverts back to his puny alter-ego, Bruce Banner, his overfull stomach splits open his belly and literally spills his guts.

Phillips’ art is dark and inky. I didn’t like it, although I suppose it was intended to by stylistic and moody. I thought it looked unrefined and sketchy.

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Marvel Zombies 2: “Damn,” says Giant-Man on page one, “I can’t believe we ate the whole thing.” He’s talking about the known universe. The Marvel Zombies, spanning the stars under Galactus’ “power cosmic” have stripped the universe clean of all life. They decide they have to find a way to jump dimensions to find more food, so they return to earth in the hope of finding an inter-dimensional portal supposedly left behind by one of their former comrades. They encounter a small band of survivors trying to eek out a living on earth; they’re accompanied by a couple other super hero-zombies who’ve gone so long without food that they’ve learned to overcome their hunger.

More zombies. More eating. More fighting. At the end, the zombies have all learned to conquer their hunger, but a fear-mongering human tricks them into going through the transporter and they get scattered across the dimensions.

In this sequel, Kirkman continues to play up the gore, but it’s all (quite literally) comic book gore, so there’s not a whole lot of gross-out power to it. By the end, I realize that this Marvel Zombie stuff gets old quick–or else maybe I just don’t “get it” at all.

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Marvel Zombies 3: New writer, new premise, new zombies. Fred Van Lente takes over the writing reigns and reboots the series. Zombified villains from the Marvel Zombie-verse have tried to infiltrate the regular Marvel Universe. It’s up to Machine Man–a zombie-proof robot–to stop the invasion. He has help from a sexy silver fem-bot named Jocasta and scientific support from Morbius the Living Vampire—who also happens to be a genius biochemist.

Just when I didn’t think I could take another zombie comic, Marvel Zombies 3 proves to be the best of the bunch. Easily. (And, by the time I finish the series, I’ll still think so.) The art by Kev Walker is top-notch and highly detailed, feeling simultaneously like an action movie and a horror movie on the page. The covers provide the coup-de-gras: each of the four original covers was modeled after a movie poster for a major zombie: Army of Darkness, 28 Days Later, The Evil Dead, and Shaun of the Dead.

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Marvel Zombies 4: Morbius takes center stage with a team of other “monster heroes” called the Midnight Sons to hunt down the last remaining fugitive of the Zombie-verse invasion: the severed head of a super-powered chatter-mouth mercenary named Deadpool. The series gets over-ambitious in its attempt to distinguish itself from the other entries in the series: there’s a demonic overlord, Dormammu, from the Dark Dimension…a voodoo-practicing drug lord…werewolves, Man-Things, “men-fish,” and Sons of Satan…and a zombie virus that turns into an airborne cloud of pestilence.

Interestingly, along with flesh-eating zombies, the story incorporates voodoo-style zombi into the plot, too (hell, everything else is thrown in there, so why not), including a classic Marvel character named Simon Garth who’s an old-school member of the shambling dead. I wanted to like Marvel Zombies 4, but in its over-ambitiousness, there was some shark-jumping going on that was hard to look past.

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Marvel Zombies 5: Nothing like some interdimensional time travel to shake things up, I guess. The series just seems to be sinking fast, even with the reappearance of Machine Man and some comic relief from cult favorite Howard the Duck. They have to travel to five different dimensions—under the direction of five different art teams, unfortunately—to capture blood samples from five types of zombies so that Morbius can engineer a final cure. They confront “Romeros” (already-dead corpses re-anitmated by cosmic radiation); “Boyles” (living–rather than undead–zombies infected with a rage-like virus); “Raimis” (zombies reanimated by evil spirits); “Jacksons” (zombies that get infected by comic books); and cyber-punk zombies called E.A.T.R.S. It’s a nice tip of the hat to some of the most distinctive creators in zombie film, keeping in the spirit of the covers from Zombies 3.

With art by Kano long-time stalwart Tom Palmer, the first installment of the series gets off to a good start, but the rest of it quickly unravels. It feels like the artists are hardly even trying, and the schizophrenic jumps from Western to medieval to sci-fi to cyberpunk keep the story from ever achieving any rhythm. More shark-jumping hat not even Howard the Duck can save.

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Marvel Zombies Return: “The most popular marvel zombies are back!” the back cover declares. Wonder what happened to the super-hero zombies from the first two books after they were teleported away? (Well, honestly, no, I didn’t either.) Van Lente finally abandons his Marvel Universe zombie plot and returns to the Zombie-verse. He gets writing assistance from a couple big names in zombie lit, too: Jonathan Maberry (Patient Zero, Zombie CSU, Dead of Night), David Wellington (Monster Island); and Seth Grahame-Smith (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).

The series quickly reveals itself for the guest-writing gimmick it is. The individual segments range from okay to really good, and Van Lente masterfully brings the entire Marvel Zombies story to a full-circle close, but there are dozens of small continuity inconsistencies that bugged the hell out of me. Previously, for instance, the super hero zombies felt no pain; in the opening segment of Marvel Zombies Return, they do. There’s dumb stuff, too, like Spider-Man’s inability to shoot webs–so he shoots his veins and arteries, instead. Ha ha, what a gag…but seriously.

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Marvel Zombies Supreme: Total reboot, again, set in the Marvel Universe. Once upon a time, Marvel created a super hero team from another dimension called the Squadron Supreme, which is a blatant hero-for-hero rip-off of DC’s Justice League. In Zombies Supreme, the DNA from various Squadron members gets injected into corpses by a mad scientist, who then irradiates the corpses with an unknown cosmic energy. The corpses gain the shape and powers of the Squadron and go on a rampage. A couple B-list Marvel heroes have to stop them. They do. There is, as in almost all of these, a cliffhanger.

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My problem, I discover, is that I read all eight of these in two sittings, so it was just a shitload of zombie superheroes all at once. (That’s not even including Marvel Zombies Vs. Army of Darkness and Dead Days, either.) I probably should’ve taken them with more of a grain of salt, but as I’ve written here before, the overall quality of Marvel’s writing has been extremely high over the past few years, so I tend to be less forgiving than I might otherwise be when I see something that’s subpar.

Having said that, I saw much that I liked. The Arthur Suydam covers, which zombify classic Marvel covers, are always a treat (and they deservedly get their own stand-alone volume in the series). I also see a twist on one of the main themes of the wider zombie-lit genre: we are often our own worst enemies. That’s a variation on the theme that humans often pose a more dangerous threat than the zombies do. In Marvel Zombies, the zombies often pose a serious risk to each other. They also have the self-awareness to recognize that they are now their own worst nightmares and are powerless to stop themselves.

And, as Van Zente says at the end of issue #1 of Marvel Zombies Return, playing off the old Spider-Man theme, “With great hunger there must also come great hunger.” (So much for great power and responsibility!)

As Matt Mogk told me months ago, we won’t really know what the zombie threat will look like exactly until the dead actually rise. Who knows what form it will take? As Marvel Zombies 5 and the Squadron Supreme issues both suggest, there’s a new outbreak waiting to happen at almost any time, and each one could be different than the last. That’s worth thinking on, too–super heroes or not.