REVIEW: Zombie Outlaw #1

I’m sure at some point before I’ve mentioned the large shadow The Walking Dead casts over the zombie genre in comics.  With how successful and how critically acclaimed that series has been, any other zombie comic has to have its own niche if it’s going to stand out.  With Zombie Outlaw, a self-published comic by writer Brian J Apodaca and artist B Paul Jordan, the twist is setting the zombie horror against the backdrop of college campus comedy.  It’s definitely different in tone and presentation from Kirkman’s zombie opus, and is very much its own entity.  But is it a good comic?

Well, there’s a lot of good stuff here, at least, even if it doesn’t all quite come together in the end.  Apocada is clearly a skilled writer, bringing his central characters to life with an easy charm, making them instantly likeable (or hateable, if that’s required) within a few choice interactions.  Although this is the kind of surreal world where the key to a long-lost tomb is on the librarian’s keyring, the characters feel credible.  Geeky Matt is the kind of character that is familiar to the teen comedy – picked on by a meathead bully, lusting after the girl of his dreams from afar – without falling too far into bookish, bespectacled stereotype.  And when he first encounters a zombie for the first time, he pisses his pants, which, let’s be honest, is probably a reaction we’d be more likely to have than picking up the nearest weapon and launching into battle.  But stealing the show is suave student mentor Will, channeling the spirit of Ferris Bueller by way of Indiana Jones.

So, on a panel-to-panel basis, Apocada’s writing is strong.  But as a whole, it doesn’t quite  gel into a satisfying, cohesive narrative.  Oddly enough, it  feels like simultaneously too much and not enough happens.  On one hand, it feels like we’ve barely got started on the story before it comes to an abrupt end, with the zombie action just getting going by the conclusion of this first issue.  But on the other hand, I think I might have preferred a whole issue before the zombie outbreak got out, gone more in-depth with the mythology and history of the Zombie Outlaw from back in the Old West, while also giving us more time to get into the friendship between Will and Matt before it’s broken apart.  In trying to pinpoint the central structural problem of the issue, I’d venture to say that there are two good stories here – the zombie curse from a bygone age ready to unleash itself on today’s world, and the college campus romantic comedy – but in trying to rush through the development of each, neither is fully realised.  This might not end up being a problem once the story is complete and we can read it as a whole, but better pacing could be something to take on board for future issues.

Funnily enough, I think B Paul Jordan’s artwork has a similar problem to Apodaca’s writing, with the whole “strong on a panel-by-panel basis but problematic when taken as a whole” analogy.  I’ll begin with the positive: I love his art style.  It’s a style that’s instantly distinct, with his characters’ massive forearms and weird inversed eyes with black whites and white pupils.  With the unusual body shapes and knack for visual gags, Jordan actually reminds me of Rob Guillory’s work on Chew.  Like Guillory, he’s an artist perfectly suited to comedy.  It is very hard to make comics funny, and much of it depends on the right artist, someone who can capture a quirk of facial expression or body language that sells the moment just right.  But Jordan pulls it off, hitting home some genuine laugh-out-loud beats in the comic.

However, I think he needs to work on his layouts.  Save for a couple of impressively orchestrated zombie sequences in the latter half of the book, much of the layouts are quite unremarkable, and in the early pages in particular there is a noticeable amount of dead space.  The storytelling can be a bit off in places as well, with characters jumping from one massive, overblown pose to the next with little cohesion between them.  It veers dangerously close to one of those manga parodies, with someone eyes bulging out of their heads with a crazy zoom-in as they cry, “OH NO! I FORGOT TO BUY MILK!!!!”  However, Jordan has an instantly appealing style, and if he hones his skills a bit more, I could see him being an artist in real demand in the future.

As a first issue, Zombie Outlaw #1 has some flaws, but it is still an enjoyable comic, I was never bored while reading, and there’s enough groundwork put in place that you get the sense subsequent issues could be better.  Both Apodaca and Jordan are talents with real potential – with a little refining here and there, I think they could do some really good stuff down the line.

You can buy Zombie Outlaw #1 from Comixpress.  If you’re attending the ComiKaze Expo in Los Angeles on November 5th/6th, you’ll be able to get the book there too.  For more info, check out www.zombieoutlaw.com.

REVIEW – Jesus Hates Zombies: Jurassic Kinda Life, Volume 1

I like Stephen Lindsay.  He’s a standout writer on the indy comic scene, one I’ve praised at length before.  Massive Awesome was my introduction to his work, and it’s a hilarious, surreal, insane romp brimming with invention and nuttiness.  More recently, I read the first issue of Buck, and was impressed by the increased maturity and nuance of Lindsay’s writing, and was intrigued enough by the set-up that I still find myself anxiously awaiting the second instalment.  But for the longest time, I never got around to reading any of Lindsay’s most famous work, the series that first made his name: Jesus Hates Zombies.

Which brings us to Jurassic Kinda Life, the latest series released under the Jesus Hates Zombies banner.  And I’m disappointed to say that I wasn’t too impressed.  Lacking the increased mastery of storytelling reflected in Buck or the frenzied, madcap innovation of Massive Awesome, this feels like something of a regression for Lindsay.  There really doesn’t seem to be much to the story beyond the high concept of “Jesus VS zombies”, save for also throwing Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin and Elvis Presley into the mix, and now adding dinosaurs as well because they’re the new hot thing.

It all feels like a contrived effort to be quirky and “out-there”, which is all the more frustrating given how effortlessly Lindsay has pulled off quirky and out-there in his other work.  I think the problem is that, while the crazy high concept might attract people’s attention, you then need something more substantial to hold that attention.  And Jesus swearing a lot isn’t a gag with enough mileage to do that.

One thing that isn’t dampened in Jesus Hates Zombies is Lindsay’s knack for snappy back-and-forth banter in his dialogue, making the friendship between Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln feel naturalistic and down-to-earth against the odds.  At other points, he manages to slide in hefty chunks of exposition (worse, exposition about time travel) into concise chunks of speech that still manage to feel like believable dialogue.  This is an important skill for a comic writer to have, yet one that is sometimes lacking even with high-profile creators.  So, kudos to Lindsay on this front.

I also had some issues with the artwork of Rob Croonenborghs.  Technically, the art is good.  The cartoony style has plenty of energy, giving the pages an exciting, kinetic feel.  My problem comes with the renditions of the main characters.  Given my issues with the plot of the book, and the lack of meat in the gags, a lot of damage control could have been done simply by nailing the appearances of these famous characters. But because, with Croonenborgh’s art, you don’t really get a clear, immediate sense of these characters as actual historical figures, this becomes a sorely missed opportunity.

To explain: take Ethan Nicolle of Axe Cop fame.  He can draw a brilliant Abraham Lincoln, that remains cartoony and in the Axe Cop style while at the same time totally working as a recognisable caricature.  If you had an Abraham Lincoln as detailed and instantly recognisable as that in this story, riding a Velocorapter, slicing the heads off zombies – that’s an instant hit gag right there.  You could show that panel to someone on the street out of context, and they’d get a good laugh right away, because it’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN riding a raptor and killing zombies.  But as it’s drawn, it’s just a guy with a beard riding a raptor and killing zombies, and so you’d have to explain to this random person on the street that it’s Abraham Lincoln, by which time the visceral impact of the gag is lost.

There’s also the odd issue of clarity: for example, when you have zombies and dinosaurs in the same story, the idea of a ZOMBIE DINOSAUR showing up becomes irresistable.  But when it finally happens, it wasn’t immediately clear to me that the dinosaur in question was a zombie, until Jesus brings it up in dialogue a couple of pages later.  Niggles like this aside, though, Croonenborghs has a fun, breezy style that helped the pages stylishly flow by.

With the news that this is being adapted into a film by Six Feet Under actor Eric Balfour, slated for release next year, I suspect Jesus Hates Zombies: Jurassic Kinda Life could be set to get a major boost in profile, and in turn a sizeable increase in sales.  I hope this does happen, that this comic becomes a surprise cult smash, and the creators see lots of money from it.  But most of all, I hope that Jesus Hates Zombies becomes successful and popular enough that more people decide to seek out Stephen Lindsay’s other work, and get to see the quality stories he’s really capable of.