The back cover of this trade paperback collection of the four-issue series reads "Two fan-favorites in one dangerous place!", which seems disingenuous at best. I'll give the back cover copy Marvel Zombies as a fan-favorite, no argument. It's been a decade and the bloom is off that particular rose but, on the other hand, it has been a decade, and Marvel published a lot of comics under that particular title, and sold a lot of them, even if the returns inevitably diminished.
Age of Ultron, though? I don't recall anyone that 2013 event series being particularly beloved. I mean, it sold just fine for what it was, but I remember reading a lot of pieces on line dissecting the many other films and comic book series it seemed to be derivative of (particularly its opening chapters), a lot pointing out how weird it was that almost the entire comic is set before the so-called Age of Ultron and some that did both. And that's about it.
But let's give the poor person who wrote the back cover copy a break. It's still a sorta weird title for a series, even a Secret Wars series, as it revolves not around a conflict between Ultron and the Marvel Zombies, but an alliance between the two factions so that they combine their might to take on a group of Marvel heroes with connections to Ultron.
So, this is going to get a little complicated; I suggest you blame series writer James Robinson.
The giant, ever-guarded wall known as The Shield separates most of Battleworld from the mindless hordes to its south: The Deadlands, home of the Marvel Zombies and, apparently, Perfection, ruled by a shiny gold Ultron and hims many, many duplicate soldiers. When people violate Doom's laws, they get sentenced to work the wall, or, if they're real bad, they get tossed over the wall.
As the story opens, we see one such criminal–Tigra–hunted by the Marvel Zombies, who chase her into a creepy crowd of Ultron footsoldiers. The Ultrons erase everything that's made of flesh, undead or otherwise, and so the zombies and Ultrons fight for an entire splash page.
We then get a history less of Perfection, and it a mostly unnecessary affair about an alternate universe where Ultron defeated the Avengers and kept on winning; it directly references particular points in old-school Avengers continuity.
And then we get introduced to Janet Van Dyne and Hank Pym...from the domain of 1872. Pym gets pitched over the wall, but is saved by Jim Hammond (the original Human Torch, in the incarnation that Robinson was writing in Fantastic Four and All-New Invaders), safari-coat Simon Williams/Wonder Man and The Vision. The trio take him to the town of Salvation, which they built after rebelling from Ultron. There they've gathered survivors and protected them with an ionic energy force field derived by Wonder Man.
They want this Pym to come up with a way to defeat Ultron, even though he's a dumb cowboy version who has never heard the word "artificial" before, since another Pym invented Ultron (Cowboy Pym was working on a steam-powered, clockwork Ultron though...that's why he got sentenced to the Deadlands in the first place). He tries his best.
Meanwhile, Ultron and Zombie Magneto form a pact, in which Ultron sticks Marvel Zombies into tubes and they come out as half-Ultron, creepy-ass looking cyborgs that I guess are pretty much just Deathloks, only with Ultron-y faces. It's not clear why Ultron would even bother to do this, instead of simply allying with the zombies and sending both hordes against the forcefield of Salvation at once, but whatever.
Some heroes die, others live, Ultron and the Zombies are defeated...or defeated-ish, maybe, as I think both hordes show up at the conclusion of Secret Wars. I kinda wish I kept a volume of Secret Wars handy while reading all of these tie-ins, so I could occasionally refer back to it to see if and/or how well these various tie-ins actually work with it.
Steve Pugh handles the artwork, and it's far from his best work, but it is well beyond serviceable. So much has been done with the ZOmbies before that he doesn't actually have too much room to come up with new characters from the catalog to zombify, or inventive ways to portray them, although I liked his Mandrill and his Stilt-Man.
I think his Ultron is a particularly good one, too, as the jack o' lantern face that defines the villain looks more and more like an animal skull from certain angles, particularly when it comes to the prime Ultron.
This is probably my favorite image from the book:
For the most part, this seems like an extremely inside baseball tie-in, as it takes a few of the common elements of Battleworld and smashes them against each other in order to form a coherent story; whether one enjoys that story will likely rest one one's affection for these strictly C-List characters.
As with each of the collections discussed in this post, this one includes a space-filling reprint in the back: The first issue of Brian Michael Bendis and Bryan Hitch's Age of Ultron miniseries, in which we are introduced to the dystopian future where Ultron is still in the mopping-up process of Earth's heroes and villains. This is the issue that includes Hawkeye murdering people, Spider-Man being tortured and Captain America crying. Not exactly a fun-fest.
This is one of the two Secret Wars tie-ins I've read that have absolutely nothing at all to do with Secret Wars (the other was Where Monsters Dwell), and isn't even set on Battleworld. Rather, Marvel seems to have just used the excuse of Jonathan Hickman's extended reference to the original 1984 Secret Wars to publish another Deadpool comic. And "publishing another Deadpool comic" has been a pretty sound strategy for Marvel of late.
The book opens with the same explanatory page that all the Secret Wars tie-ins do, the one about the Multiverse having been destroyed, and all that remains is a patchwork planet ruled by Victor Von Doom and so on, only here all of that is crossed out, and the words "Wrong Secret Wars!!!" written there instead. This is the original Secret Wars, in which we learn "what really happened." Basically, it was all about Deadpool. Don't remember Deadpool, who wasn't even created until 1991, being there? There's a reason for that, which this book explains.
Writer Cullen Bunn and artist Matteo Lolli basically condense the 12-part original series down into a sort of highlight reel, inserting Deadpool into the action wherever possible, while also providing a story arc for the character that involves him getting good looks (after a 1984 fashion), having a fling with The Wasp and saving all of the heroes from death.
It's a pretty fun idea, really. I confess that I've never read Secret Wars, and have never felt any desire to go back and do so. I'm pretty weak on 1980s Marvel in general, but I've never got the impression that it was something that needed read the way that, say, the Mark Gruenwald-written Squadron Supreme or Frank Miller Daredevil stuff was important. So I can't tell exactly how accurate Bunn and Lolli's recreation of scenes from the original are...with a few exceptions. Marvel includes Secret Wars #1 in the back of this collection for
Scenes from the original are presented and are apparently meant to be instantly recognizable–Deadpool finding a secret stash of those plastic shields the figures in the toy line came with, Deadpool trying on the Venom symbiote before Spidey gets his new, black costume, the mountain getting dropped on Hulk–but I can say from experience that having experienced them firsthand isn't important. Whether one has read the original or not, it's pretty clear that this is 21st century, meta-Deadpool interacting with old-school, 1980s Marvel characters.
Between the end of Deadpool's Secret Secret Wars and the reprint of Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, there's a "Bonus Round" by Bunn and artist Jacopo Camagni, which takes a similar approach to 1982's Marvel Super Heroes Contest of Champions...although here they've only got ten pages to work with. Basically, Deadpool convinces The Unknown and The Grandmaster to let some of the minor characters compete, and, to shut him up, they comply.
It's Deadpool, Doop, Howard The Duck and Pink Sphinx vs. Rocket Racer, She-Man-Thing, The Vile Tapeworm and Frog Man. I'm...pretty sure at least a few of those characters are original to this series, as I'm fairly certain I would know if there were a She-Man-Thing or not.
Dammit, now I've gotta know. I'll google She-Man-Thing, but that's where I draw the line here...Huh. Well, what do you know. You learn something new every day...even if it's only about super-obscure Marvel comics characters...
By the way, I wasn't fond of Tony Harris' covers for this series, and am kind of baffled why Marvel didn't opt to do "covers" of covers from the original, with Deadpool gratuitously added. I know the cover of Secret Wars #1 at least is pretty iconic, and, scanning them all on comics.org right now, it looks like the covers of #1, #4, #8 and #10 would have all made fine covers to Deadpool-ize for this series (Skottie Young does a variant, and Harris does a non-variant referencing the cover of #4 though).
The fairly genius conception of the Marvel Zombies, first used in a 2005 Ultimate Fantastic Four story by writer Mark Millar but not given their popular, reader-magnet of a name until they earned a spin-off mini-series of their own in 2006, has long since run its relatively lucrative course. Marvel has seemingly done every thing they could with the idea of a zombified versions of their characters, and Arthur Suydam has "zombified" just about every single iconic Marvel Comics cover there is (The attempt is not even made for the covers of this particular series).
So it's no surprise then that there would naturally be a Secret Wars tie-in bearing the title of Marvel Zombies, and that the creators would have to focus on something other than the one-trick pony characters of that title.
The solution that writer Simon Spurrier, here working with Marvel Zombies vet Kev Walker, came up with is a pretty smart one. In the Battleworld setting of Secret Wars, the Marvel Zombies live in "The Deadlands," from which they lay more-or-less constant siege to the rest of the world. Standing between the super-powered zombie hordes and civilization is the wall, a gigantic wall referred to as the Shield. Among its defenders is Marvel's monster-hunter par excellence, Elsa Bloodstone.
I...don't recall Elsa Bloodstone playing a role in any previous Marvel Zombies series, even the one that featured members of her occasional Legion of Monsters running crew, so making a monster hunter a sort of general in a war against the undead seems inspired enough for a four-issue, limited, What If...? style series.
Things go pretty wrong for Elsa almost immediately, as a zombie version of a character with Nightcrawler powers grabs her and deposits her deep within the Deadlands. Together with a mysterious, amnesiac bald kid, she has to try and survive on the other side of the wall long enough to find safety. While most of the zombies mass at the wall, she finds a couple of stragglers–a still sentient piece of Doctor Octopus, a M.O.D.O.K.* stuck in a non-functioning floaty chair thingee, on his back like a tortoise–and a small gang of Marvel Zombies who have found "evermeat" in the form of a victim with a healing factor.
This Elsa is very much in the mold of the one from Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E., both in her design and in her personality, which is here extremely sarcastic and littered with swearwords (most of which are presented via grawlix, rather than the skulls and crossbones of Nextwave). Her swearing is integral in one of the better gags, as she unleashes a stream of invective at the teleporter who captures her, snippets of which escape between the BAMFs.
Throughout her journey she finds herself flashing back to her own very, very rough childhood and the cruel, brutal "training" she endured at the hands of her father Ulysses Bloodstone, generally whenever she finds herself having to play a paternal role to the child with her. There are a couple of "twists" in the plot, including the identities of a mysterious figure tracking them and of the child, which are pretty easy to see coming, particularly given the focus of Spurrier's script throughout.
As for the Marvel Zombies, they play a very small role in this, aside from being a sort of generalized threat but, again, there's not much left to be done with them. As a mix-and-match endeavor involving that concept and that of Nextwave's Elsa Bloodstone, it's fairly successful. In terms of Secret Wars, it's pretty skippable (actually, all of the tie-ins I've read so far have been pretty skippable; the zombies of The Deadlands do play a role in the climactic battle of Secret Wars, but then, so does everyone and everything, really). This is the first and only book I've read that has mentioned "the duplicate effect" of Battleworld, however, in which there will be more than one version of the same character (the topic first comes up when the little kid notices they are being circled by a pair of identical zombified Saurons).
Included in the back of this trade–as filler, really–is the first issue of the original, 2006 Marvel Zombies series by Robert Kirkman and Sean Phillips, complete with a tag instructing anyone interested to check out...
*Here, the acronym stands for Moribund Organism Designed Only for Cannibalism, or so Zombie M.O.D.O.K. tells Elsa.