Marvel Zombies became sort of the junk food of Marvel Comics for awhile, where the company just kept churning out sequel after sequel. In reader circles, it became well-known that readers were getting sick of the phenomenon, but like true junk food, we kept buying it. If it makes money, why would they stop selling it? To date, Marvel Zombies ended up producing five numbered sequels, three non-numbered ones, a crossover with Army of Darkness, two one-shots, numerous guest appearances, and was a huge player in last year’s Secret Wars.
It’s important to remember that whatever your opinion of the repetition of the series, the initial story was not that bad. If it had been, it wouldn’t have led to the runaway success of the series. Marvel Zombies served as one of those lightning-in-a-bottle sleeper hit series, ending up in such demand that the first issue ended up with multiple printings. So what was the deal with this book, and why did subsequent series turn into such a crapfest?
The original Marvel Zombies spun out of a one-off idea used in Mark Millar’s run on Ultimate Fantastic Four. Millar has a lot of insane ideas which make it into print, but this one actually worked. Teased as the first meeting between the Ultimate and “regular” Marvel Universes, young Reed Richards was tricked into traveling to a world very similar to the traditional Marvel Universe…except everyone had been transformed into flesh-eating undead. Reed was rescued by the last uninfected superhuman, Magneto, and with the help of the rest of the FF, they escaped the zombieverse. Sadly, Magneto stayed behind to give them a chance to escape.
Millar’s controversial story raised enough attention–it’s Spider-Man, but he’s mashed up with Romero–that Marvel decided to continue the story. To do so, they brought in veteran zombie writer Robert “The Walking Dead” Kirkman and Eisner Award-winning artist Sean Phillips, who’d worked on superhero stuff but who hadn’t gone on to a high-profile Marvel project yet. Together, they turned Millar’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek story into a zombie genre piece with a decidedly Marvel twist. With The Walking Dead comic starting to get noticed (it’d only been running for three years at this point) and zombies becoming popular in film again (28 Days Later reviving the genre), the time was ripe for this book.
So Kirkman’s plot twists the zombie genre in a couple of unique ways. One, it made the zombies the main characters. Traditional zombie horror sticks with the mindless “Romero” zombie that eats without thinking. In Marvel Zombies, there’s few humans left–the Black Panther being one of them–so the story necessarily has to focus on the flesh-eaters, who retain their intelligence after being infected. Worse, these zombies are former superheroes, so despite being overwhelmed by their cannibalism, they still retain bits of who they were.
To that extent, the Marvel Zombies have to deal with the what have we become phenomenon even as they constantly gravitate towards evil. In some cases, Kirkman just surrenders to stereotyping and has the characters embrace their darkness. Captain America (called “Colonel” in this universe) is reduced to a jingoistic military man, Iron Man turns his smarts towards finding new food sources, and Wolverine is always ready to dig in for the kill. On the other hand, Spider-Man is constantly haunted by that Parker guilt, regretting what he’s done as soon as he’s finished eating. The most interesting figure, oddly enough, is Kirkman’s take on Hank Pym, a guy who’s willing to look past his constant zombie hunger and make long-term plans for a food source.
The other fun that Kirkman has is playing on the hunger theme. The zombies are almost always hungry, only sated for brief periods when a meal restores their ability to think straight. Worse, the zombies are out of food, having eaten every known person on the planet. In the short-term, the zombies come up with some creative solutions for dealing with a food shortage, including an openly disturbing one that occupies Hank Pym through the story. The big threat in Marvel Zombies, though, comes from the characters encountering a very specific Marvel character who’s hungrier than they are. The big climactic fight and its resolution are so obvious that it goes beyond irony…but nobody said Marvel Zombies was high literature. It’s a goofy superhero story with a horror twist, and it works.
A lot of credit goes to Sean Phillips’ art efforts on the story. This style would definitely be very a-traditional on a standard Marvel book, as his style is very “ugly” (and I mean that as a design feature, and not a criticism of his work). On Marvel Zombies, it works, giving us a disturbing look at the remains of a New York City that’s gone from a superhero paradise to a burnt-out hell. Phillips manages to capture the essence of the Marvel heroes–Spider-Man’s agility, the Hulk’s monstrosity, and Giant-Man’s size–even while putting a decidedly horrific twist on them. In fact, his signature style of giving the zombies shadowed faces and exposed teeth became the industry standard for the zombies, and the entire Marvel Zombies line of Minimates figures were based on Phillips’ version of the characters. Plus, Phillips drew some delightfully awful gross-out gags as the zombies are increasingly dismembered through the story. It’s not pretty, but again, it works.
Sadly, the Marvel Zombies declined in quality in the years past the initial series. Kirkman and Phillips twice returned to the franchise, once with the Dead Days one-shot showing the plague’s early hours, and again with Marvel Zombies 2 showing how the zombieverse changed decades later. Neither effort was quite up to par with the original, and indeed, Kirkman’s ending to Marvel Zombies 2 suggested that he was sick of the entire project.
Fortunately, the original Marvel Zombies can be read independent of the sequels, even though you know there’s more material out there. John Carpenter’s Halloween ends on a disturbing open-ended note, you can stop watching and be satisfied with the original work by itself. Marvel Zombies works much the same way, picking at your imagination with the horrific realization that the threat is still out there. Even if you want to pooh-pooh the entire Marvel Zombies sub-franchise as dreck, the original stands by itself as a decent Marvel horror work.