Monday, October 01, 2012

Review: Zombies Calling

I was a little uncomfortable while reading Faith Erin Hicks' Zombies Calling, and was made so by an argument going on in my skull. I was of two minds about it; one of those minds was really into it, and one of those minds was pretty cynical about it.

(The cynical mind, I should probably note, had nothing to do with the subject matter; it’s hardly the fault of the 2007 book or its talented creator, who began working on it at least as far back as 2004, that I didn’t read it until 2012, and thus have experienced a dozen or two more zombie narratives than I would have if I read it upon its original release).

It’s the story of a trio of Canadian college students, each with a somewhat pretentious and unlikely-sounding name (to my cynical mind, anyway). There’s the heroine Joss (short for Jocelyn), who is obsessed with Britain and zombie movies; there’s Robyn, a fairly stock slacker dude; and then there’s Sonnet, who is naturally into poetry.

One day, zombies attack their school, and only Joss and Robyn’s intricate and extensive knowledge of zombie movies, including the oft-referenced “rules” of the genre, can get them out of this mess alive.
And that’s where I started feeling a bit uncomfortable, even more so than the self-consciously cool aspects of the characters made me. The graphic novel is a sort of meta-narrative, but it’s a meta-narrative specifically dealing with the conventions of film, not comics, and the results are therefore somewhat muddled, even confusing.

If a character in a zombie movie suddenly realizes “Oh holy cow, I am in a zombie movie!”, then I suppose that would be pretty “meta,” and a clever way to play with the typical zombie movie conventions (if the Scream movies got there a decade or so previous), but when a character in a comic book declares that she’s in a zombie movie…? Well, that just seems wrong: No, you’re not in a zombie movie. You’re in a zombie comic. I know because I am reading you in it as you speak.

It’s entirely possible this bothered me more than it would you, but the comic is so conscious of the conventions it’s riffing on, and it references them so often, that it seems to be the organizing principle, and the fact that it’s about an entirely different media doesn’t quite work…at the very least, it doesn’t work quite as well as it would if Zombies Calling was a film that Faith Erin Hicks wrote and directed, rather than an original graphic novel she wrote and drew.

(That said, however, it’s not quite structured like a film and, were what’s in these panels and pages put on a screen unchanged, it would be a very, very short film…like, 75 minutes long).

Beyond that somewhat fundamental difficulty, however, it’s actually a pretty fun comic.
(Above: So I guess you can have fast zombies, or you can have slow zombies, but you can't have fast and slow zombies. Not without traffic issues, anyway)

Hicks’ zombies are of the Return of The Living Dead variety, capable of saying “Braaains!”, although they’re maybe even a bit smarter that that movie's zombies, as they are also able to communicate with one another and follow the directions of their master, who is the only other character introduced before the zombies attack, so it’s not exactly a big surprise when he reveals his hand in their creation and his grand plan:
Universities are overrun by zombies, taught by zombies, financed by zombies. And if that is figuratively what they are, then that is literally what they shall become…pretty ingenious way to make a point, eh children?
That’s not the only zombies-as-flexible-horror-metaphor instance in Hicks’ story, though; Joss is terrified by her student loans, and, in fact, she’s so scared that she suspects her fear of that is what helps her overcome her fear of actual zombies—compared to a lifetime of crippling debt, what’s so scary about a horde of rotting cannibals trying to eat you alive, you know?

It was a kick seeing Hicks’ art from this period in her career. I like it quite a bit, as it was then and as it is now, although it’s a noticeably less refined and more fussy here than it has since become (There’s a making of section of the book showing earlier sketches of various characters, demonstrating how much Hicks art had changed before she even drew the first panel of Zombies Calling)
(Above: From the sketchbook section at the back. Hicks' art style has changed a lot, as you can see from the above examples and several others included)

If you're unfamiliar with her work for some reason (you should rectify that), her characters have big heads and big eyes, and, design-wise, look like a compromise between manga and turn-of-the-millennium Cartoon Network original series characters. The black and white artwork and the tankĊbon-esque digest SLG published the book in probably further suggests manga, but it’s a format that perfectly suits Hicks’ designs and staging. The book is packed to the point of hyper-compression with action.

I’m of two minds about the book, but they both kind of liked it. One mind a lot more than the other mind, though.

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