Not only have zombies been done to death, but the joke about zombies being done to death has been done to death. If you’re going to do a zombie story these days, it has to stand out. I mean, from what I read of the Marvel MAX miniseries Zombie, it seemed really run of the mill. You need to change the ingredients to the zombie lore by either adding or subtracting. The Marvel writers removed the brain-dead instinct of the zombies to make Marvel Zombies interesting. Chris Ryall and Ashley Wood added robots and amazons to make their two miniseries (Zombies vs. Robots and Zombies vs. Robots vs. Amazons, of course) catch your imagination.
Awakening, by writer Nick Tapalansky and artist Alex Eckman-Lawn also removes a piece of what we usually subscribe to the zombie mythos. The entire concept of zombies is scary for a multitude of reasons and one of those is that once they’re on the scene, civilization dies in the blink of an eye. They’re dumb and slow, but they gain numbers like nobody’s business and become unstoppable, turning the world into ruins containing only several hundred survivors at best. It is rather frightening, but is it always necessary? You toss away the sudden apocalypse and you’re still left with shambling shells of humanity that only exist to tear you apart, no matter who you used to be to them.
The story takes place in Park Falls, where there have been a series of horrific murders and missing person reports. Our main character is Derrick Peters, a former police officer who finds himself investigating this phenomenon. He has only one real lead and it’s testimony from Cynthia, the town’s resident crazy woman (complete with SARS mask).
“If what Cynthia told me is true, it would fit with what’s happening here – to some degree, anyway. But it seems a little too bizarre to accept. And coming from Cynthia, there’s always the potential for… inaccuracies. But if what she’s saying is true, then the shit is about to hit the fan.”
Cynthia tells Derrick about how all these disappearances are because of zombies, which are linked to a conspiracy. Like any reasonable human being, Derrick reacts the way you’d expect.
But we’re the readers and we know we’re reading some kind of a zombie story, hence we know that Cynthia is more than just the girl who cried wolf. Derrick reluctantly listens to her story about a run-in with a zombie and her claims that this all ties in with the shady company Cline Pharmaceutical. While she may be crazy and the concept of zombies is unbelievable, Derrick is still a detective and facts are facts. The facts, as he discovers, are too strange to ignore.
He’s not alone, though. The police department is visited by a government dude by the name of Daniel Howe. Howe has been sent by his higher ups to investigate the disappearances and while they must have some idea of what he’s up against, Howe is completely in the dark. What better proof than his first look at the evidence?
Derrick and Daniel hook up and begin trading information unofficially. It’s a very cool dynamic, especially with the police chief knowing that Derrick being part of the investigation is illegal, but recommending him to Daniel off-the-record anyway.
Cynthia was a temp at Cline Pharmaceutical, which set up shop near the town, did some peculiar business, then emptied out their building and hit the road in short order. You could say that the story writes itself, which would be a negative here. You read what’s going on and you feel like you’re looking at a mystery where you’re two steps ahead of the protagonists. Obviously, Cline created the zombies and they’re going to have to deal with it. The mystery is over, so let’s just see some action conflict and call it a day.
At least, that’s what it feels like after the first two issues. The third one is the “shit hits the fan” issue. We the readers, as well as Cynthia, feel superior to Derrick and Daniel for knowing what’s up… only for the comic to slap us in the face for thinking as much. Three scenes go on at the same time – one on top of the other, across the pages – that are so chaotic and disorienting that at points they almost seem to flow into each other. Really, I mean that in a good way. Now I need the fourth issue because I really don’t know what’s truly going on anymore.
Eckman-Lawn’s art is pretty cool and appropriate here. The best way I can describe it is if you were to take a style like Ashley Wood’s, use a lot more color, film it and put it on a run-down 1970’s school projector. It’s fitting for a zombie story and you get the feeling that Park Falls is the creepiest, untrusting town you’ve ever seen. It’s a good thing that all the major characters are explicitly diverse in appearance because at times, the art gets so scratchy that you can’t really tell who’s who unless you pay extra attention. For instance, Daniel Howe has slicked back blond hair, but in some instances, his hair has been scratched over with so many lines of black that you forget who he’s supposed to be.
The overall style really works because of the shadowy nature of the zombies. Most movies and comics go out of their way to show you how dead and decayed these guys are that you have no choice but to think, “Oh, shit! Zombie!” In this comic, it’s more like that scene in Shaun of the Dead where Shaun and Ed sing along with a zombie while thinking he’s just a drunk. They aren’t out in the open, so unless you’re being attacked, you have to go out of your way to realize what you’re dealing with.
This is displayed in a scene where a woman is dealing with being attacked and injured by a zombie. While in the foreground we see Derrick and Daniel talking it over, we see a shady figure shuffling down the alley, towards the young woman. It isn’t until after she screams and we get a good look at the guy in the light that we see it’s merely a police officer inspecting for evidence.
Another thing about the art here is that sometimes real life imagery will be tossed in, like some kind of nightmarish Roger Rabbit deal. A photographic image of someone’s face will be placed over the drawn character’s face or a real hand will be used for a panel while being so saturated with shading and the like that it’s hard to notice. Even someone getting their grocery shopping done is really jarring.
Awakening is planned to be ten issues. I’ll likely have a full review of the series done after it’s finished, but for now, I definitely recommend it. Not only is it a cool, original zombie story, but it’s a comic you can read while eating dinner. Even if you spill your food or drink all over the cover and get it all stained and slopped up, you can still convince your friends that it’s supposed to look like that.