One of my favorite moments in Al Ewing and Henry Flint’s 2000 AD serial Zombo takes place when the titular character – a half human / half zombie hybrid created by the British government to fight crime – is suffering an existential crisis after having his brain blown out. While Zombo stares into a mirror and struggles to understand the disfigured visage of the monster staring back, two scientists attempt to reason with him by showing him a DVD of a beloved 1980s cartoon: “Zombo, look over here! I’ve got Jem and the Holograms! You like Jem and the Holograms, don’t you?” The scientists aren’t even sure why Zombo liked Jem (“Was it because of the songs? I always used to like the hair myself–”). Instead, all they know is that something – anything – from his past should distract him from his problems. Aside from the fact that I myself happen to be a big fan of Jem and the Holograms, the mention of an obscure bit of pop culture hints at a larger theme in the comic itself: the hollowness of nostalgia.
Comics – like so much of contemporary culture – is driven by nostalgia, usually for its own sake instead of any specific emotional or narrative value. More often than not, fans and creators alike rely on old ideas in order to re-capture the enthusiasm and excitement of their youth. However, like the zombies that now populate so much of pop culture these days, nostalgia is often a mindlessly malignant force that feeds on old memories and emotions without offering anything new. We might not remember exactly why we like Jem and the Holograms (for me at least, it’s because of the songs), all we know is that we should like references to the past. Have our memories have been re-animated and warmed-over so often that they’ve become “zombified”? That seems to be the point Ewing and Flint are hinting at with Zombo; although they include numerous pop culture nods and references in their work, they also use the tropes of the super-hero and zombie genres to deliver a biting (pun fully intended) satire of modern culture.
The first Zombo trade collection, Can I Eat You, Please?, featured satirical skewerings of easy targets like reality TV and Disneyland, and much of the humor in those stories centered on the goofiness of a painfully polite zombie eviscerating criminals. The more recent Zombo stories, published this past October as You Smell of Crime and I’m the Deodorant!, are far more vicious in their attacks. However, while the barrage of pop culture references come at a breakneck pace (there is a spot-on Voltron parody that lasts exactly three panels), there is an undercurrent of respect and love to even the most scathing satires. Part of the fun of reading Zombo comes from not just “getting” the references, but wincing at the accuracy of the jokes. For example, the “Planet Zombo” story features an extended riff on the Beatles that could only be delivered, and truly appreciated, by a fan. In an attempt to fend off an attack from a sentient zombie planet, the government calls for a hasty reunion of a beloved musical group called the Sc4rabs. However, unlike their peace-loving public persona, the Sc4rabs are sociopaths prone to violent outbursts. Amid the sly references to Beatles mythology, Ewing suggests that this type of nostalgia is actually destructive since it distorts our memories: the four lovable lads we remember only exist in the past, and any attempt to simply re-create the art we loved is ultimately soulless. Even though this type of satire seems ruthless, it must come from a place of respect since it depends on a deep knowledge of the source material as well as a desire to protect it from exploitation. If art as powerful as the Beatles’ music becomes a mere commodity, then our popular culture really has become zombified.
Of course, these types of satirical references are only part of Zombo‘s appeal. If it was just a continual critique of culture, the comic wouldn’t be interesting. The critical subtext of the book simply underscores the book’s deft humor and action. Ewing’s smart writing and the book’s subtle (well, as subtle as a book about a half-man / half-zombie wearing bikini briefs can be, I guess) humor reward multiple readings and an eye for detail. One recurring theme of the book is that much of the dialogue is written in the style of other comic book creators, something that might escape the attention of some readers and delight others. For example, after his consciousness is digitized, the president of Earth begins speaking in a sort of Jack Kirby-inspired utopian techno-babble. (For example, his first words are, “Behold– ‘Homo-Digitus’! The birth of a ‘push-button’ soul–! The latest in ‘bargaining’ for those unwilling to face the totality of– ‘End-Game’!”) And in true Kirby fashion, the president actually becomes a more caring – more human – character after becoming fully digitized. It’s details like these that make Zombo a truly satisfying read: there is a genuinely thoughtful purpose and craft to the book’s violent humor.
The sharp wit of Al Ewing’s writing is matched Henry Flint’s detailed art, which manages to balance broad comedy, action, and subtle emotions. Each character, no matter how minor, seems to have a unique look and personality, and the book’s more violent moments somehow seem both humorous and horrific. As the scope of the threats to the characters grows in each story (from Obmoz – the reverse Zombo – to an entire zombie planet), Flint’s layouts become more chaotic, and the violent art also matches the book’s violent pace.
Since these were originally serialized in 8-page chunks, the stories move much more quickly than those in the often sluggish “decompressed” monthly comics. Although the book may criticize disposable pop culture, there is nothing hollow about Zombo; there is a whole lot packed into the pages of these comics. In a cultural marketplace swarming with zombies, Al Ewing and Henry Flint offer a unique, absolutely attention-deserving take on the genre.