[14 June 2011]
PopMatters Associate Comics Editor
Concepts are created to be stretchable. At least that’s the thinking of T.A. Boatwright, creator of the indie Western-Horror mashup Zeke Deadwood: Zombie Lawman. Two years after the release of the initial book (re-released just a couple of weeks ago), the follow-up takes a slightly different twist on the original concept. While Zeke Deadwood #1 was a comedic book in the vein of The Goon, Zeke Deadwood #2 is a much darker, mythical and grittier book. Is it wise to switch gears? Probably not, but the execution by Boatwright and Ryan C. Rubio certainly lends credence to the idea that if a concept works in one style, it could work in another.
Zeke Deadwood #1 was a lampoon of sorts. Undead lawman Zeke dishes out six shooter justice in the old west. There is an air of ridiculousness that is quelled by the matter of fact execution by Boatwright and Rubio. It certainly helps that the whole story is set-up by a fictional radio serial, which in turn makes the book more like a parody of The Lone Ranger or other Western radio serial. The Earnestness of the protagonist, the running gags and the art style are seemingly at odds with each other. Yet, somehow the entire concept is enticing. Like The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. with a zombie.
The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. also had an element of Steampunk to it – well before anyone probably thought of the concept. Zeke Deadwood #2 takes on something similar in its story, but whereas Brisco County Jr. was tempered and hallmarked by the natural comedic abilities of Bruce Campbell, Boatwright and Rubio switch gears for the follow-up and take Zeke down a much darker road. The dark tone, reflected in both the plot and general outlook of the book, is a surprising, but not disconcerting turn. It’s refreshing that a creator would take his creation, flip it on its head and still present an enjoyable comic.
While Zeke Deadwood #1 was a comedic romp of old Westerns, the second story is more of a reflection of modern Westerns, embodying a grittier tone and mythical elements that flesh out more of the world that Zeke Deadwood inhabits. We begin to understand why Zeke is still walking, and the hints to how and why he is a zombie trying to bring balance to the scales of justice are a strong reminder of another Eric Powell work, Buzzard. There are definite commonalities, but whereas Buzzard went into the ethereal territory of Lovecraftian horror, Zeke Deadwood strays away from that level, finding a soft balance between the Western and Horror genres that does not bend too far to either. Stretchable, yes, but not bent.
The connection between issues one and two are cemented by the opening radio serial sequence, setting up the second issue’s shift in tone, and foreshadowing its conclusion. Whether directly or indirectly, the opening panels signal the start of a new adventure for Zeke, but also figuratively warn us of the end to come, for Zeke and for us as comic and pop culture fans in general.
“We’re a dying medium, Bill,” says the radio announcer in first panel of Zeke Deadwood #2. That’s the essential element of Zeke Deadwood, speaking mainly of its root as an indie comic, and as itself as a genre mashup. Nothing is dead yet, but the contractions of our shared media brought on by over indulgence, downward sales trends and disruptive technology innovations have been, and will continue to, change the landscape of pop culture. Radio gave way to TV and Movies. Newspapers are giving way to the World Wide Web.
And all of these are somehow converging into a new digital age that is a step-child to the first digital age. While not directly addressing these concepts of societal evolution, Zeke Deadwood (both the comic and character) is both a product of it and harbinger of what’s to come. We are at the end of ink and paper, yet we begrudgingly and stubbornly try to hold onto them. Zeke Deadwood is both a product of the new age and a reminder that it will end just as surely as other have as well.
But before we sing the funeral hymn, there is something to reflect upon in the panels of Zeke Deadwood. The art styling, as with the first issue, is strong, presenting all the ugliness of the frontier and the specific setting while also being presented with clean lines and layouts. Also, as with the first, the ink work is very much the strength of the visual presentation. It’s subtle and not overindulgent, conveying the pencil lines and separating the action from the background without distancing the two. Not an easy task, but handled very well and consistently for 32 pages.
This is not to say that Zeke Deadwood is the end all be all of Western-Horror. Fair enough. It is, however, a reflection of our confusing time, when periods of the past are re-imagined to allegorically present the confusion of our age. We are blind to what the future holds. Generations that have previously moved in an always pressing forward path have stalled. The regression of exploration and invention has us questioning the failed technologies of the past as we search for the here and now.
But, in 32 pages of comic, that may or may not be some allegory of dying 20th century media, we find that gritty enjoyment that gives but a moment of piece and quite satisfaction. Zeke Deadwood issue two is as enjoyable as issue one. That’s the verdict, and one we can take solace in if we dare to venture beyond the stagnate confines of our certain present.