January 29, 2012

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Single Minded: Rex Zombie Killer #1

Break out your shotgun shells, because today, Single Minded is wandering into to zombie territory!

Rex, Zombie Killer #1
Written by Rob Anderson
Illustrated by Dafu Yu
Big Dog Ink


Five animals band together to try and survive in this world of the walking dead.  Rex, "a hyper-intelligent golden retriever", leads the group and plans strategy.  Brutus is a brawling pit bull who won't give up.  Buttercup, the corgi, doesn't quite understand what's happening.  Snowball, a cat, would rather take a nap, but helps in a pinch.  Finally, there's Kenji, a very large gorilla with a baseball bat and the heart of a pacifist.

Together, they must make their way across the zombie-torn land, hoping that a human doctor can save them and keep them safe.  But with danger around every corner, from both the living and the dead, do these five creatures stand a chance?  Find out in Rex Zombie Killer!

We always look at how a zombie apocalypse might affect humans, but rarely do we consider the plight of the poor animals of the world.  They have brains, too, you know, and I cannot think of a single instance where the outbreak of the walking dead came as the result of an animal's actions.  Effectively, they're screwed and it's all humanity's fault.  The hurt and confusion and almost certain death for the rest of the mammals in the area would seem to make for a good story, but I'm not sure I've ever encountered it--until now.

Rob Anderson, who was one of the writers involved in the innovative Great Zombies in History, does a great job again of making the legion of the undead interesting to me despite their saturation in comics by pitting a band of creatures together in a story of hope, fear, and survival.  The idea is brilliant, and I don't know why it's not been used before.*  It would be extremely frustrating, for example, to be a dog surrounded by canned dog food and know you can't eat it.  There's new horror to be mined in the idea of your best friend (humans) being turned into your enemy without warning.  You can show what happens to human kindness in a crisis, as it relates to the creatures we are supposed to be caring for.  A story like this has all kinds of potential, and I'm happy to report that Anderson is already mining that potential from the first issue.

A good zombie movie has a varied group of people who must work together to survive, and there's often a fair amount of conflict and doubt that goes into that process.  In this case, Anderson uses different species of dog and the addition of a lazy but goodhearted cat and a gorilla to create his tension.  Kenji, while not being the focal character, is perhaps the most interesting.  He's a gentle giant, and really does not seem to be able to process what is going on.  Without him, the others are almost surely lost, as they cannot wield the bat or open doors or do any of the things needed to survive in this world.  If Anderson chooses to go down that road, a story where Kenji is out of the picture and the rest must fend for themselves would have a lot of high drama.

But even if he doesn't, a pacifist great ape doing his Mickey Mantle impression as the need arises is still pretty great, especially when drawn by a talented artist such as Yu.  Yu was also a part of the Great Zombies in History project, and I praised his work there.  His art here is top notch again, with several innovative panel designs (such as the one that opens the comic, set in an abandoned supermarket) and zombies that are terrifying without being needlessly gory.  I like that Yu is able to show the terror and violence of the situation without splattering blood all over the page.  I've complained in the past that horror too often equals blood and gore, when sometimes what you don't see is just as terrifying.  Anderson and Yu get this, such as when a man is about to beat Brutus.  We don't need to be shown the bloody dog to get the point.  Our minds can do it for us.

The only weakness in the art are the faces of the animals.  Yu is working hard to give them emotions, which is cool, because they are our focal characters.  The problem is that sometimes the heads of the dogs, Buttercup in particular, look a bit off, as though they don't quite fit the rest of the body.  It only bothered me in a few places, mostly towards the beginning of the story.  The level of detail and ability to tell the story visually more than make up for this defect, however.

I really liked two things about the plot of this first issue.  First, Anderson does not try to give us huge tracts of information in the opening pages.  We get a good feel for the characters based on the supermarket scene, replacing the need to talk about their differences.  There's no overlong explanation of why zombies exist.  Anyone picking this book up is going to have a familiarity with the genre, and doesn't need yet another "alien artifact/experiment gone wrong/terrorist bomb/etc." set piece.  He can do it later, if he likes, but I don't think this story would be hurt at all if we never knew why there were undead at the door.  We see that some humans are alive in a way that drives the narrative, and the set piece that gives our pack a purpose is short and sweet.  Anderson is not wasting time.  This is an action-packed zombie story, which is my preference.  Giving the reader time to think and logic things out is a bad idea in speculative fiction, at least in my opinion.

The second thing I like is that despite being a first issue, we get a really complete story.  This is helped by having a fifty page start, but even if you split this book in two, the first issue would end with a dramatic decision of the animals to fight for the life of their friend.  If you are going to write a serial comic, then it should be able to be read issue by issue, without feeling like it's a 100 (or 120) page story broken up arbitrarily.  Anderson gets this, and it shows.  While I am really looking forward to seeing how the animals deal with the big reveal that comes after the climactic battle with both humans and zombies, I still left this issue feeling like I got a narrative that works within its page count.

As we leave the pack, there's a lot of ground to cover, a map that's laughable in its vagueness, and danger behind every tree.  Can these creatures survive?  I don't know, but I certainly want to find out.  I think anyone who reads this comic will want to find out, too.

Rex Zombie Killer is $3.50 for just over 50 pages of comics.  You can order it now in the February Previews catalog, with order code FEB12 0806.  Thanks to Rob Anderson for the review copy!

*Obviously, there's a good chance that it has and I just haven't seen it.  However, given that I am inclined to horror fiction, you'd think I'd have at least heard about a book or comic or movie that used animals as the protagonist in a zombie story.  Feel free to point me in the direction of something in that vein, as I'd be happy to read it.