There’s no denying the power and popularity of zombie stories, even if I, and others including Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, can’t fully understand why. Obviously there’s the horror genre thrills, the sheer grotesque power of the image of decaying bodies walking the earth, the disease metaphor and other potent sociological metaphors and a certain apocalyptic fascination. It is that last factor that finally alienates me, and perhaps others, from the zombie genre to some extent. Unlike seemingly many others, I’m not one of those people who yearns for the end of civilization, and over and above that consideration, I think I’ve seen enough post-apocalyptic dystopian visions for one lifetime. Anyone who lived through the popular culture landscape of 2001 (and later, 2012) met their “end of the world” quota some time ago.
But the zombies walk on, as the enduring popularity of Walking Dead on TV demonstrates. Maybe I’m in the vast minority in finding the genre tiresome and bleak. Of course, none of that stopped me from picking up FUBAR: American History Z at San Diego Comic Con. Part of a continuing series that creatively re-imagines American history, this anthology collection presents dozens of famous tales from American history, from the landing of the Mayflower to a sci-fi near future, except with a zombie twist. Like all such anthology series, there is a certain uneven quality to the writing, and several stories lapse into formula and cliche. (A famous figure from history is introduced, there are ominous signs of zombies, then everything goes to hell and all the characters eat each other.) But when the formula is used with wit and a sense of historical irony, it can be quite effective.
For example, the Kennedy Assassination is recounted via a re-creation of the famous unrecorded interrogation of Lee Harvey Oswald. Oswald, drawn superbly by Joe Dunn, tells the “Men in Black” conducting the interview that JFK had been bitten by a zombie and was inevitably going to “turn”. This state secret, an obvious threat to national security, was the reason why Oswald was assigned to take out the President at the earliest opportunity, with a head shot, and only a head shot. That story, along with a story based at Woodstock where Jimi Hendrix plays as he “turns” due to the zombie outbreak at the festival, represent this anthology at its most creative, but even the Hendrix story has the same ending as most of the others (zombies swarm everything and it all goes to hell).
Other stories include a re-creation of the Battle of Little Round Top (at Gettysburg, during the American Civil War), where Union victory, in this telling, is due to a zombified army, including the famous Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Even earlier history suggests that some of the first European visitors to North America (Vikings) were met by zombified native Americans.
Like Kirkman, I just can’t seem to get past the downright yearning for the zombie apocalypse. I wouldn’t want to live in that world for ten minutes, nor am I particularly fascinated with spending time there in my imagination. The tribalism, the survivalism, and (in the case of the Walking Dead TV series) the pervasive sexism simply doesn’t appeal to my interests, values and worldview. There are certainly interesting stories to be told and interesting concepts to be explored in this genre, and I wouldn’t want to diminish its unquestionable popularity and influence on modern culture. But it’s not a place where I want to spend my imagination time.
On the other hand, Stephen Notley’s Bob the Angry Flower always brings a smile. I picked up a copy of In Defence of Fascism from Stephen at Comic Con, and it was good to see this book represented so well there. Notley’s comic strip, which ran in Edmonton for many years in the mid 1990s and made the rounds of science labs all over Canada (I spent that decade in one such lab) and continues to run is a true pleasure. Bob is a cynical, one might say, “angry” flower who goes through life with his friends Stumpy (a tree stump) and Freddy the Flying Fetus (not a tree stump). Betraying Notley’s academic roots, the collection of some of the original Bob strips that I picked up at Comic Con has an index, by subject, of all the cartoons. Just browsing that index gives you a window in what sorts of topics are discussed: “Death” gets so many references that it is broken down helpfully into the sub-topics “asphyxiation, scorpion, suicide and tapeworm”; “Mathematics” has to be similarly broken down into references to “Calculus, cube roots and Penrose tiles”; no less than eleven entries for “tears”and “Animals” is broken down by Phylum and Class. Despite (or perhaps because of) all those topics, Bob is, at least to me, uproariously funny.
The essential formula for a Bob cartoon is: Bob and his more optimistic sidekick Stumpy get into a situation, Bob has a breakdown and turns to dark violence or malevolence. That’s essentially the recurring joke: Bob is, after all, an angry flower. Through this lens, Notley is able to poke fun at Vegans (they attack Bob, viciously referring to him as “food”), Canadian border guards, teachers, the homeless and any number of other targets. This strip uses the classic British style of comedy, where someone with no sense of humour about themselves or their situation becomes the central point of fun. There’s an old saying: a man wearing a funny hat, pointing to it, saying, “Isn’t this a funny hat?!” is not funny. The man wearing a funny hat who doesn’t realize he’s wearing it is funny. Bob the Angry Flower is that kind of comic strip, attacking with humour those who dearly need to be taken down a peg or two, or who take themselves too seriously, or who just generally lack self awareness.
There’s also a slightly poignant, darker tone to Bob if one wishes to look for it. In making fun of depressed introverted cynics with a high self-regard (Bob himself has something of that character in him), the humour here can be very therapeutic. Such as the strip, “Dealing with Feeling,” in which Bob sits in a chair set against huge Gothic windows against the moonlight, with long shadows, alone, saying, “Leave me to my pain”. And half an hour later, Stumpy asks him, “Done yet?” To which a now cheerful Bob replies, “Yep!” Or the strip “L’Auto Bus”, in which Bob runs for the bus and misses it. As the bus pulls away, he pulls out a bottle with a skull and crossbones and proceeds to glug it down, only to discover, horrified, that “It isn’t poison at all! It’s Ambrosia, the elixir of life that lightens the soul and eases the heart…” He then proceeds to smash the bottle angrily, disappointed that he won’t get his moment of drama.
Bob the Angry Flower is a true classic: Calvin and Hobbes for the sick and deranged, or for those who like their humour like Johnny Cash liked his clothes: a little dark.