Before I begin this review I must start with an important preface that might instigate a few annoyed remarks in the comments section, but that must be stated nonetheless: I don’t really like, or understand, the whole zombie phenomenon that has swept through popular culture over the last decade. This is not to say that I haven’t enjoyed some of the movies, comics, and video games that have sprouted from this return to glory, just that I really don’t understand why people find the mythology and the overall aesthetic compelling—as much as the snob in me might turn my nose up in the air at the sight of annoying Twilight fans I at least conceptually understand the appeal of vampires, but for zombies, where’s this affection come from?
My trepidation for the genre as a whole has only been compounded as this resurgence has lead to an outpouring of rather mediocre and forgettable titles and films. For every Dawn of the Dead, and 28 Days Later in film, and The Walking Dead and We Will Bury You in comics, there is a pile of knock-off’s and uninspired pretenders to wade though. Victorian Undead was definitely one of those comics I looked at as belonging to the latter category. The cover proudly declared next to the title, “Sherlock Holmes vs Zombies!” and carried an up-close image of a great detective as a zombie replete with deerstalker hat, calabash pipe, and of course, maggots and flies. I figured that the title, written by Ian Edginton with art by Davide Fabbri, would be a hard sale for readers. People indifferent to the zombie genre, like myself, would ignore it, and zombie enthusiasts might be hard-pressed to buy a book pitting The Master against the undead when other publishers have zombies taking on the entire Marvel Universe or battling Ash from The Army of Darkness.
As many of you have no doubt guessed from the tone of this review, I was pleasantly surprised upon completing the first issue of Victorian Undead. Despite the cheesy subheading and overwrought images that it inspired in my mind of Holmes decapitating zombies with the broken pieces of his iconic spyglass while screaming, “How do you kill zombies?? It’s ELEMENTARY my dear Watson!!!,” Eddington and Fabbri take the story very seriously and avoid and all the temptations for camp that the plot no doubt elicits. The zombies are portrayed in a way to capture their full horror, while Holmes, and his erstwhile companion Watson, are constructed in fashion that fans of Arthur Conan Doyles’ work will find respectful.
The story begins in 1854 and has a glowing green meteor crashing down into London. Soon inhabitants of the poorer areas began dieing off from a strange illness and stories of the deceased returning from the grave circulate. The narrative then jumps ahead a few decades with Holmes and Watson investigating a mysterious social club bent on providing illegal excesses to the wealthy. Holmes disrupts the organization and discovers that its villainous leader is actually a clockwork automaton. Later his services are requested at a mining site where workers have uncovered zombies. He only gets few moments to examine them before the Queen’s Secret Service shuts them down in the concluding panels of the issue.
The thing that surprised me the most about the comic book was how much I was genuinely excited by the prospect of seeing the great detective meet the undead horrors. All my concerns, caused by the cover, of a cheesy confrontation between Holmes and the creatures were quickly disabused when no such violent collision took place. The story follows a straightforward pacing that takes itself and its subject matter seriously. As someone who has read about a dozen or so Sherlock Holmes stories I found that the tone has the sense of authenticity despite obviously non-traditional subject matter. This sense of well-constructed tone led me to check what other things Edginton has written and sure enough I discovered he has written adaptions of other Holmes’ stories previously for comics. The obvious sense of care and appreciation for the Detective’s mythos is very evident in the story.
Very little actually takes place in the first issue but I find this refreshing for two reasons. First, it is nice that the creators are not rushing anything for the sake of shock and gore. Second, it shows their intent to work true to the conventions of Holme’s traditional genre. This is not a zombies versus (fill-in-the-blank) type of story. They are attempting to create a genuine mystery as opposed to a one-dimensional and awkward mash-up and instead of “Sherlock Holmes vs. Zombies,” I think this story might have been better subtitled with, “Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Living Dead,” or something that equally captures the true essence of the creators direction. In spite of this marketing deficiency the story casts a wide net and I think, if given a chance, zombie fans and Sherlock fans will find the book a satisfying read.