Zombies have once again infested the nation, and their ravenous desire for flesh-eating has become fodder for box office remakes as well as comic book tales of every variety. But what began with George Romero doesn’t look like it will end with any filmmaker or comic book creator any time soon.
One would think there could only be a finite number of zombie stories, particularly given the generally accepted terms of the genre: the recent dead return to life and begin feasting on the flesh and/or brains of the living. The survivors are left to seek refuge in unlikely places (shopping malls, abandoned farm houses, local pubs) until the inevitable ambiguous ending. Flavor with comedy or metaphorical comments on culture and/or politics. Repeat until cycle is exhausted and/or not funny, scary or relevant.
Despite this basic formula, the zombie genre is fertile ground for stories of all stripes, and good or bad, you can’t keep the zombies down.
Shi creator Billy Tucci and animator/cartoonist John Broglia offer their take on the zombie genre in Narwain’s Zombie Sama, a pedestrian zombie tale with vague elements of samurai lore mixed in to taste.
As the story opens, a mysterious “red rain” originating off the Eastern seaboard has caused the dead to return to life, creating panic and a state of martial law throughout the nation. As in many zombie movies, the unfolding zombie horror is revealed through TV and radio reports while the main character goes about his usual routine. This provides narrative economy and a vaguely ominous glimpse into what lays ahead for our hero, a Long Island sushi delivery boy named Jim Okami.
On Jim’s day of the dead, he finds himself stiffed by a meathead customer and dumped by his girlfriend, Suzy, for a rich jock named Brad. Fortunately, the Yoda-like sushi chef named Sanjuro-sama, who expounds upon the protein benefits of abalone shellfish and ideals of the samurai, lifts Jim’s spirits before becoming sushi himself for the marauding zombie hordes.
With his friend and mentor dead and his ex-girlfriend in danger, Jim wields the katana and ideals of the samurai as Zombie-sama, the zombie master.
The story that follows sticks to the basic formula described above, with Jim helping Suzy and Brad find their way to a zombie-free “green zone.”
Broglia’s art lends the opening scenes—and the rest of the comic—a comical tone that often feels at odds with Tucci’s story. The art is sufficient, but it feels out of place during the more gruesome scenes and, on the whole, feels unfinished in black and white. Fortunately for us, Zombie Sama‘s most effective scene is also its funniest. After cutting off Brad’s forearm after a nasty zombie bite, Jim leads the survivors to a nearby nursing home in search of a nurse to tend to Brad’s wound. Though the “red rain” has already transformed many residents of the Golden Years Home for Adults into zombies, Jim and company hit a bit of luck—the elder zombies are sans dentures, rendering their gummy bites harmless.
The scene isn’t worth the price of admission (especially when it’s $12.95 for such a slim volume), but at the very least it’s a seed that, with any luck, might one day flower into a story of its own. In the right hands, the treatment of people in “homes” and the idea of the elderly as the “living dead” would surely elicit some great satirical stories. This is an idea that needs to be explored elsewhere.
Here it’s Tucci’s best idea, and it’s over in just two pages.
The interlude at Golden Years adds more non-zombies to Jim’s band of survivors. Again, this follows the formula of the typical zombie tale, but Tucci adds his own twist by not only an elderly husband and wife to the mix, but by making them Holocaust survivors as well.
“This isn’t the first time we were pursued by monsters,” says Abie, the husband, prior to the group’s escape from the home. Abie then delivers a monologue about how, after the Holocaust, the nations of the world said, “never again,” but have repeatedly stood by and watched as people have been slaughtered in Somalia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Iraq. Through Abie, Tucci tries to draw a parallel between the horrors of the zombies and the horrors of the real world.
Tucci’s attempt to give the story a political message and a metaphoric backbone is clunky, forced and jarringly awkward. While it would certainly be possible to craft a zombie story that paralleled the events of Holocaust, simply sticking a stock character in the middle of a story and having him deliver a stirring speech on humanity turning a blind eye toward the suffering of others does not suddenly turn a middle of the road horror comic into a meditation on the Holocaust or any other serious subject.
This attempt at cultural significance is equal to watching The Wizard of Oz while listening to Dark Side of the Moon: if you put the two together and say there are similarities, then you’ll see similarities. Otherwise, the two elements are completely independent of one another. Unless, I suppose, you’re stoned.
After yet another escape from the zombies, again Tucci returns to the subject of the Holocaust. Fellow survivor Brian Finney, a caretaker of a nearby estate, watches in awe as Abie delivers his stirring speech, and afterwards remarks, “I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through. You’re so inspiring.”
It’s a nonsensical point that, regardless of its truthfulness or sincerity, serves only to suggest that Tucci has been deeply touched by the Holocaust. And while this fact is by no means irrelevant in terms of world history or Tucci’s personal experience, it does nothing to expand the comic’s story. Again, parallels could be made between zombies and Nazi’s, but Tucci hasn’t done that here. And if he’s tried he has failed.
None of this is to say that the book must take a political stance, that it must be a metaphor for this atrocity or that. The point is that if it’s there, let it be there; if it’s not, don’t try to force it.
The book’s ending manages some vague political satire in the form of “we’re all in this together” National Guardsmen and a speech of political rhetoric that hints at a possible second career for Tucci as a Bush administration speechwriter, but these are bells and whistles that only confuse the story. The unseen president, addressing the nation via the radio, speaks of humanity’s survival in the face of “worldwide Armageddon” (a Bushism if I’ve ever heard one) and the power of faith to carry us through our darkest hours. And just as Zombie Sama stumbles to its clumsy ending, the president speaks of hope, of beginning the rebuilding process, even as the reader is clearly shown the world still in disarray. It feels familiar, realistic.
Maybe the story has some political relevance after all.