A dirty secret of the privileged is locked away, here, like a skeleton in the closet with flesh still hanging from its bones.
Zombies. You may have heard of them. Apparently they're kind of popular right now. You might also have heard of Warren Ellis, whose name goes above the title of Blackgas (the artist, Max Fiumara doesn't get a mention until the inside, poor guy). The story has it that Warren Ellis and zombies came together as part of a bet with the publisher.
"Hey Warren, I bet you can't write a zombie comic."
"You obviously haven't read Global Frequency #3. I bloody well can."
"Prove it then."
It's not the most deep and meaningful inspiration for writing a story ever, but this is zombies we're talking about here; deep and meaningful are entirely optional. That said, zombies have always made an excellent metaphor for whatever issue the writer feels like exploring. In Romero's movies they're the unwashed masses rising up to take the houses and malls of the privileged. In Peter Jackson's Brain Dead (a.k.a. Dead Alive), they're the reverse: a dirty secret of the privileged that has to be locked away, a skeleton in the closet with flesh still hanging from its bones. In Blackgas, the zombies represent us at our basest and most primitive: they kill, eat, procreate and that's all.
Yes, I said procreate. Warren Ellis has given us shagging zombies, the gloriously sick old man. There will be more than one scene that makes you go "Eeeuuwww."
In a clever twist, these zombies remain partially aware and continue talking post-zombification. That's not a totally new idea -- zombies have been talking since Return of the Living Dead let them moan "Braaaiiins" -- but Blackgas's zombies are more articulate than that. The gas of the book's title detaches the victims' higher brain functions and forces them to watch while lizard brains take over their bodies. Blackgas is at its most horrifying when the zombies look down at what they're doing and say things like "stop me this isn't me kill me", or worse, revel in what they're doing. As you might have guessed, especially if you've seen the gory alternate covers Avatar released, this is not a kid's book. Not even a little bit.
Between the covers of these three issues, Max Fiumara displays his gift for entrails and severed bits to the fullest. For a guy with a realistic-looking style, though, Fiumara's faces are a little too elastic -- there are moments when the characters are difficult to recognize because their faces seem to have undergone major surgery between panels -- but he has a good eye for shadows, and clearly knows how to use black to its fullest effect.
Blackgas is very cinematic in its structure, taking its format from American horror movies. The story starts with two good-looking kids, and everything is bright, sunny, idyllic, and safe for most of the first issue. Their dialogue is snappy and conveniently boils down everything we need to know about them. In the first conversation we learn that Soo is a California girl with a phobia of pike; her boyfriend Tyler is a liberal arts student; and they're on a trip to Smoky Island, off the north end of the east coast, to meet his folks -- all that in 10 panels. Hollywood scriptwriters could learn a few things from Ellis. Things go wrong for Soo and Tyler immediately after they have sex, because if dead-teenager movies teach us anything: it's that sex leads to trouble. They also teach us that we should avoid Native American burial grounds, and yes, Blackgas has one of those too -- of a kind. As you'd expect from a cinematic story there's an explosive climax and an opening for a sequel.
But Avatar droped the ball a little here, undercutting the ending by putting a block of text underneath the final panel that says "To be continued in Blackgas 2 #1, coming out in September, 2006." This detracts from the impact of the final scene and is unnecessary when there's already a full-page ad for the sequel in the book. Hawking the next story as soon as the current one ends is cheesy. It's like having "The End?" on a title card at the end of the movie. It's one of those clumsy, old-fashioned techniques like an over-reliance on thought balloons, sound effects, and motion lines that most of Ellis's work avoids (there's a single sound effect in Blackgas, one of few you'll find in his books).
That bit of carping aside, Blackgas is an original and well-crafted take on a subgenre that would, in less capable hands, be clichéd. The media may be saturated with zombies at the moment, but with stories like this to keep it going, our love affair with the undead isn't going to end any time soon. In fact, if Ellis has anything to do with it, it's going to be a literal love affair.