Marvel Zombies #1 Staggers into the Comic Book Universe

Sean Phillips’ artwork in Marvel Zombies #1 is dark and dirty, while Rober Kirkman’s story balances pages of feeding frenzies with morbid humor.

Zombies and comic books, notably Marvel Comics, have a long and varied history together. In the 1950s, when superhero comics were in decline, horror comics ruled the racks. This was especially true of the comics put out by the precursor to Marvel, Atlas Comics. The idea of the dead coming back to life was a quick and easy recipe for horror stories. Whether they came back for revenge, because of some black magic, or for no reason, the zombie struck a primal cord of fear in the hearts of the comic-reading youths of the 1950s.

Unfortunately, these stories also struck fear in the hearts of many adults, too. Most notably Dr. Frederick Wertham, a psychiatrist who tried to tie the gore and violence in the comic books of the day to juvenile delinquency in his book, Seduction of the Innocent. Congressional investigations into comics led by Senator Estes Kefauver soon followed.

The result of these hearings was the creation of the Comics Code Authority, a committee created by and made up of comic publishers, who instilled a Comic Code that everything that they published must follow. Part of the Code listed that “Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.” This article of the Code put horror comics in general and zombies out of business for almost 20 years.

This lasted until 1971, when the Comics Code was adjusted slightly. The Code became more lenient, especially towards horror comics. The above Code article was adjusted to read, “Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, or torture, shall not be used. Vampires, ghouls, and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high calibre literary works written by Edgar Allen Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle, and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world.”

While vampires and werewolves were fair game, zombies were still banned. Marvel, who was experiencing success at the time with their Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night books, came up with a way around this. They created characters called “Zuvembies”. These characters looked like zombies, acted like zombies, and appeared to be zombies, but since they were named zuvembies, the Comic Code Authority was none the wiser (if only censors were that dense today).

By 1989, the Comics Code changed so that it barely resembled the Code of the 1950s. It became much looser and more forgiving. Zombies were no longer banned, and Marvel retired the “zuvembie” name. Around the same time, the rabid, love-anything-put-out-by-Marvel fans got stuck with a disparaging nickname, one which they made their own as a symbol of pride for their devotion to the company. The nickname they were called was Marvel Zombies.

All of which brings us to Marvel Zombies, the new mini-series from Marvel. Not only is the word “zombie” proudly listed on the cover, the amount of gore inside would have made Wertham faint.

Marvel Zombies is a spin-off from an arc in Ultimate Fantastic Four. The Ultimate Reed Richards makes contact with a Reed Richards of an alternate dimension. Unfortunately, a virus from outer space caused all the Marvel heroes to become undead and crave human flesh in this dimension. Reed Richards of this zombie world was searching for alternate dimensions to replenish the diminishing food supply in his reality. Only with the help of the mutant Magneto, the last remaining non-zombified superhuman, does the Ultimate Reed Richards make his escape back to his dimension.

Marvel Zombies picks up where the Ultimate Fantastic Four books end. Magneto has destroyed the portal that brought the Ultimate Reed to this dimension at a great cost to himself. Exhausted and hurt, Magneto is set upon by Captain America, Giant-Man, Spider-man, and many other zombie heroes. How does it end for Magneto? Not well.

Writer Robert Kirkman, no stranger to zombies due to his work on Image’s The Walking Dead, is faced with a difficult challenge. Whereas in The Walking Dead, he tells the story of human survivors and their struggle with the zombies, in Marvel Zombies, the main characters ARE the zombies. How do you make brain dead, only thinking of feasting on human flesh, zombies sympathetic enough to support a series? Simple, don’t make them brain dead.

The main problem with how these characters were presented in Ultimate Fantastic Four was that their bloodlust replaced how you expect them to act. Marvel Zombies explains that as a side effect of their maddening hunger. After they have eaten, Kirkman allows their true personalities to show through. Spider-man is still as angst-filled as he is in the other books published by Marvel, only now, instead of bemoaning his job or lack of social life, he is kvetching about eating Aunt May and Mary Jane.

The artwork by Sean Phillips is dark and dirty, suiting the subject matter excellently. He shows the gore, and there are buckets of it, in a way that is realistic enough to be shocking but cartoon-like so it is not completely repulsive. Kirkman balances pages of feeding frenzies with morbid humor, another horror tradition that keeps the reader’s interest.

When this series was announced on Marvel’s schedule, one wondered how they could write enough story to cover five issues. After reading the first issue, you hope the story lasts longer. That is, if you’re a fan of horror mixed with humor. If you, like Dr. Wertham, are turned off by excess gore, then you’d best keep moving down the comic rack.