Zombie pop culture is my favorite niche of entertainment. The sprawling genre, with its boney fingers in books, video games, comics, TV, movies, and even board-games, has a very firm foundation of cultural criticism. The books and games and TV often force us to wonder about modern commercialism, the sanctity of human life, and the brutality of survival. To boot, Zombie popculture is pretty awesome: who doesn’t like watching the hero deliver cheesy lines while blowing holes in the walking dead or imagining themselves as some how prepared for the coming apocalypse. (Rule #21: Avoid Strip Clubs). I often joke with my partner that I am not sure she has enough useful skills to be on my survival team. She assures I wouldn’t make the cut for hers either. The fantasy of it is enthralling and fun.
The current trends in zombie culture imagine and promote a survivalist mentality; however, BOOM’s new comic Valen the Outcast, asks what is it like to have not survived, to be a zombie. While Outcast obviously departs from most of zombie pop culture in significant ways, I think it belongs to the genre. It’s set in an ambiguous sword and sorcery fantasy world, yet it manages to make a comment on the squabbling materiality of some land barons. Its main plot, as evinced in these first two comics, seems to be a hero’s journey toward redemption and is a mirror inverse of many zombie plots; Outcast’s hero, former King Valen, moves to reclaim his soul, while the zombie trope is not to lose it. By playing with the zombie genre so radically, Michael Alan Nelson delivers to us an essay on trauma, rage, and vengeance.
Valen the Outcast relates the story of a fallen king turned zombie abomination on his journey to reclaim his soul from a dark power. Along the way, in these introductory comics, a standard adventuring team is assembled. The Dead King is accompanied by a beautiful and dangerous woman, Zjanna—who appears to be some sort of sexy warrior nun. I say sexy warrior nun because we are given a brief taste of what must be her devotional prayers, and I assume her strange breast tattoos and chain mail bikini are related.
The Rotting Sovereign Valen also picks up a one Alexio Cordovan, a drunken tavern trickster, gambler, thief, and all around dashing guy. Even though I generally distrust people with thin mustaches, Alexio becomes a lovable rogue by the end of issue #2. All we need now is a wizard. Adventuring tropes aside, this team holds promise. The characters are complex and their relationships are given a sense of history, even if we haven’t had enough pages to make either deep.
As with most zombie fiction, I am often left to wonder, within its contexts, what does it mean to be human and what does it mean to be dead. However, Valen the Outcast has not given me much food for thought on this issue, yet. Readers haven’t had an opportunity to know the King before his demise and descent, so his actions are without a reliable source.
I am forced to ask myself, would the Living King have been so reckless as to kill his former sword brothers with little more than a page of protesting? Would the former king have trusted Zjanna? Are his actions therefore a reflection of his soulless-self driven by rage? While the questions of his fall from grace are played out well in a social context (he is literally cast out of Oakhaven society), we aren’t treated to its psychological consequences. The body of Valen is decayed and in that way nearly invincible (he is stabbed in the face, through the stomach, shot with several dozen arrows, and performs open heart surgery on himself in a dirty tent), but is mind decaying as well? I am hopeful, however, that we will see this kind of character development as the comic grows.
In the end, Valen the Outcast, even for some of its weaknesses, is firmly rooted in the zombie genre. It asks us to examine the consequences of a man’s drive to survive; will Valen lose his humanity on his quest to regain his soul? I’m not sure, but I definitely want to find out.