The audience can choose to read the book straight, in which case there is a cracking yarn to be found and enjoyed, or they can read between the lines, where a less-than-stellar moral battle is being waged.
In this uncertain era of terrorism and rampant fundamentalism, the last thing the military needs to worry about is undead zombies rising from the grave to get revenge on their killer.
But that is what Team Orphan, a group of soldiers with no families and thus nothing to lose, confronts in Children of the Grave, Tom Waltz and Casey Maloney's four-part miniseries, collected in a trade paperback volume and released last summer.
The book, illustrated in black-and-white with an eye towards the rugged individualism of warfare, isn't a Night of the Living Dead type of zombie story. Rather, the undead that Team Orphan -- Pedro "Lil Pete" Rodriguez, Reginald "Shiv" Reese, and Michael P. Drake, the squadron leader -- meet are the resurrected, child victims of a genocide launched by Col. Akbar Assan, a twisted fundamentalist with a military background engaged in ethnic cleansing in his Middle Eastern nation of Stinwan. Team Orphan is tasked to kill Assan and put an end to the civil war and genocide in Stinwan, but when they embark on their mission the three men first face strange nightmares about their childhood mistakes and then an army of supposed-to-be-dead kids hell-bent on revenge.
Children of the Grave is an engaging book thanks to the commitment of the part of Waltz and Maloney to realism in the face of wholly unrealistic scenarios. The scenes of warfare, especially when Team Orphan raids the village of Stinafi in the second chapter of the mini-series and engages Assan's Desert Jackals in ferocious battle, move at a breakneck pace and are grounded in the laws of physical reality instead of those of comic book unreality. When bombs explode or when a character is shot, the results are as they should be in reality: characters get hit with shrapnel if they're too close to an explosion, and heads don't explode if they're hit with bullets (instead, the character just crumples to the ground). This commitment to reality takes on great importance in the book because there are few narrative elements that take place outside the scope of modern warfare.
Naturally, given that the events of Children of the Grave occur in a Middle Eastern setting and because the bad guy is a genocidal maniac who has seized control of his nation, Waltz and Maloney story is athinly veiled allegory for what's going on in the world today. This is diffused a bit by the presence of the zombie children trying to bring the downfall of their killer; after all, these things aren't really replicating the world today because Saddam Hussein wasn't attacked by the corpses of his victims. It's easy to keep one eye on the political posturing and the other eye on the narrative at hand as an individual entity. But using the undead kids as a narrative device here has the (possibly) unintended consequence of belittling the seriousness of the book.
In 1996, UNICEF launched a campaign directed at raising awareness of the horrific effects of landmines on the children of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Part of this program included releasing the comic, Superman: Deadly Legacy, in which Superman helps save the children of that region from the perils of landmines and espousing the importance of doing away with that tool of war by showing how harmful they are, especially to kids. This might have made for a good comic book read, but how seriously can someone take an issue like landmines and their impact on children when the person pontificating about the dangers is the comic incarnation of Superman? (This problem presented itself earlier in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, a film that found Superman trying to end the Cold War by ridding the world of nukes.)
Reading Children of the Grave with that UNICEF-sponsored comic in mind reveals the possibly hidden motivation behind the book: to reveal, like Superman did, the deadly consequences of having fundamentalist, genocidal dictatorships around the world. (This then opens the door to read the book as a tacit acceptance of the Bush doctrine of preventive war, but that's beside the point). But like with Superman and landmines, is using zombies to highlight the consequences of genocide the best way to get that message across? Most intelligent people know genocide is a very bad thing, just like they know than landmines are very bad things. Having a group of zombies, or Superman, drive home that message won't matter. For everyone else, though, the importance of conveying the hazards of fundamentalist maniacs and explosives hidden beneath some dirt might be diluted by presenting those things in such ways.
This was a greater problem for the Superman book because UNICEF intended it to be a public service message. Children of the Grave, on the other hand, exists primarily as a piece of storytelling. Inherent in the narrative Waltz and Maloney craft, though, is the problem of this stuff (save for the zombies) existing in real life right now. So the onus is put on the reader to decide how they want to read the book. The audience can choose to read the book straight, in which case there is a cracking yarn to be found and enjoyed, or they can read between the lines, where a less-than-stellar moral battle is being waged.