Guest Writer: Michael J. Miller
This should come as no surprise to anyone who has casually peered into the world of popular culture over the last few years but zombies are in. The success of AMC’s The Walking Dead – based on the hugely successful in-its-own-right comic series – has ushered in a new era of zombie fervor. We are in love with zombies and we want more of them. This has lead to some odd cross pollination of genres (the Star Wars novels Death Troopers and Red Harvest anyone? It’s literally Star Wars and zombies!! What?!?). Crazy unexpected combinations aside, many of these stories are not without merit or depth. And they do give us a weirdly different vision of horror. One of the more unexpected (and disturbing) entries into this horror sub-genre came in 2005 with Marvel Zombies.
This five issue limited series (which would obviously spawn other limited series because it’s comics and that’s what happens) ran from December of 2005 to April of 2006. It was written by Robert Kirkman (creator of The Walking Dead) and illustrated with great gore by Sean Phillips. The story is set in an alternate universe (yay comics! our regular heroes aren’t in danger!) where an unknown virus has infected the Marvel superheroes and turned them into flesh-munching zombies. In a short time they’ve devoured all the fresh food left on earth and the series begins with them scouring New York City for food…and they are very, very hungry.
The story gives you everything you’d expect from a comic book zombie adventure. We see raw, rotting flesh falling from the bodies of our once mythic heroes. There are scenes of zombie feasting (more than my stomach was a fan of) with flesh torn, limbs dismembered, bone and sinew stretched and snapped, and organs ripped out for feverish snacking. The carnage is more than a little disgusting. We have zombies chasing the few remaining human survivors; zombies trying to feast on cosmic entities; and even zombies fighting other zombies. And it is filled with a raw, dark, twisted sense of humor as the heroes we’ve loved forever become the sort of monsters they’d normally defeat. Yet my real interest in the story lays a bit deeper, just below the grotesque action and macabre humor.
What fascinates me about zombies (and I can assure you it’s not the gore…blech, again my stomach can hardly take it) is their theological and philosophical significance. We traditionally conceive of a human being as having two parts – body and soul, the physical and the spiritual. We are more than just our bodies. (As Yoda teaches Luke Skywalker, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”) What a zombie then symbolizes is what happens to us when you take the soul from the body. A soulless body becomes a decomposing monster that hungers for and sustains itself on the very life it once shared. Without our souls we are simply monsters with an insatiable hunger to destroy. Since the zombie condition spreads like a virus it also illustrates the contagious nature of evil, with the potential to corrupt us all like a plague. It is a dark and haunting metaphor for what happens to us if we forsake our true nature.
As I walk through the layers of symbolism I’ve found between the covers of this graphic novel I must say I have no idea how much of this was Mr. Kirkman’s actual intent and how much of it I’ve found because I see it there. However, with art, it doesn’t really matter. Art is, by nature, subjective. While the artist’s intent is important, we can never share in that original moment of creation. So the importance of any work of art is how it speaks to us, what we see. That being said, the basic “soulless body” idea is something Robert Kirkman had in mind as the recap at the beginning of the third issue states, “The hunger is what brought it here…and feed it did, until the Marvel heroes were no more. They were replaced by soulless monsters, driven only by an insatiable hunger for human flesh.”
The story is very dark in tone, as one would expect. It opens with Magneto, uninfected, being hunted by the zombified Marvel horde. Taunting him, Spider-Man asks, “Do you really want to go to all the trouble of fighting us off when you could just succumb to the inevitable and give up?” Daredevil assures him, “Just submit…this is only going to end badly.” There is seemingly no room for hope in this story. Whenever it appears, it’s graphically torn apart a few pages later.
In a soulless world, there can be no place for hope to grow. Without the divine light we are lost. It is significant then that the little hope we do see comes only in minor glimmers with T’Challa (the Black Panther) and Magneto’s Acolytes. They are still human and as such can represent hope. Only those living beings who still retain their souls can have a chance at salvation.
This soul/soulless, hope/hopeless metaphor works with surprising efficiency using superhero subjects. In our culture, one of the rolls superheroes play is that of mythic hero. We no longer have the ancient communal tales of Heracles, King Arthur, Odysseus, Beowulf, Prometheus, and others to bind and instruct us. The heroes of old transcended the mountain of the gods to return with knowledge needed for the salvation of humanity. Today we may lack those ancient communal stories but in their place we have Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk and others. These are beings with godlike powers. They are the ones who teach us that with great power comes great responsibility. They instruct us in the matters (and dangers) of pride, duty, and controlling our anger and the monsters within. To turn these contemporary mythic heroes and guides into soulless, hopeless monsters is a horrific stroke of brilliance.
Superheroes protect us from evil. They teach us to transcend the darkness and find the light. They assure us that everything will be alright and good will win in the end. But in Kirkman’s story they have become the ravenous evil they once opposed. Our champions are corrupted. The ones who stood between humanity and the dark chaos of evil are no more. Our heroes are literally dead and rotting. The unconscious shudder this creates – especially for someone like me who grew up reading and rooting for these characters – settles uncomfortably deep in my stomach.
To add to this twisted perversion, Kirkman forgoes the usual zombie mentality (growling, grunting, mindless monsters) and has the characters retain much of their traditional personalities. We see Spider-Man, Giant Man, Iron Man, Captain America, and Luke Cage talking as we’re used to but devoid of any shred of empathy or compassion. Caring nothing for each other or anything else, they are as monstrous inside as out. While they all bare a rotting visage, it is the inner self that is most disgusting. When the Silver Surfer arrives heralding Galactus and planetary destruction he proclaims, “In all my travels — I have never encountered such creatures! Abominations!! I have seen what you’ve done to your world. You should long for these hours to end.” He is speaking for every childhood fan reading this series. And once more, the horror stirs deep within a quiet, unconscious part of myself where something I always knew to be true is disrupted.
Lastly remember that, as our culture’s version of mythic heroes, these characters are supposed to show us how to transcend the darkness. In this zombified alternate universe that model is gone. The heroes have fallen, their souls stripped away. As we see them reflected, as through a glass darkly, we see our own potential for evil as well. While Marvel Zombies is a darkly humorous tale, merging two popular genres it also generates a real sense of disquiet and unease, especially in a lifelong comic fan. The true horror comes from watching these evil perversions of the Marvel heroes I grew up with tear flesh from bodies without any moral qualm…and in seeing my own dark potential writ large in the form of the characters who are supposed to show me the way into the light.