Written by Shane W. Smith
Illustrated by Shane W. Smith, Diego & Andrea Lopez Mata, and Joseph Canave
Published by Deeper Meanings
Zombies! Grahhhh! But seriously, in the recent explosion of stories featuring zombies, vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural beings that remind us of the limits of our humanity, I’ve squarely hitched myself to the zombie wagon. Why? I’m particularly partial to the gross-out factor in zombie stories -- I swoon endlessly over the new horrors imagined by the Walking Dead makeup team, think dreamily of the exponential zombie pileups in World War Z, and love the way zombie mythology plays with our fear of global pandemics. But perhaps, on a more existential level, zombies raise the question of basic social interactions - who, in our world, do we see as lacking human dignity, and thus not worthy of our time, respect, or basic kindness? How do we treat those people? Do we hack their heads off or try to cure them or keep them in a shed near the house a la Shaun of the Dead?
Undad by Shane Smith examines this profound question on a personal scale -- it’s the story of one man’s slow descent into zombiehood, which threatens to alienate him from his family, brings him closer to life on the streets, and sees the local pet stores come dangerously close to running out of small rodents. It’s the story of Brett Buckley, family man and lifelong vegetarian,who is bitten by a ragged, crazy bum. He becomes disoriented and finds himself with a craving for flesh -- he sates his hunger unthinkingly with the first thing he finds -- his son’s class hamster. This is but the first of many things that Brett will have to keep a secret from his family.
The zombie strain he’s been infected with has a remarkably slow growth rate -- the major things Brett struggles with as he begins to change are an inability to focus at work, fits of anger at his children, and a waning connection with his wife. I suppose there’s also that pesky need to consume enough small mammals to prevent him from needing to feast on human flesh. At this point, you should be able to tell that this story is as much about one man’s struggle with his inner darkness as it is about any familiar monster tropes. The focus on Brett’s responsibilities as a father and husband are poignant, and feel deeply personal for Smith, which made for an engaging read for me, but might veer into sappy for some.
But the monster tropes in Undad are good too. The zombie bum at the beginning, overlooked and misunderstood, is truly scary and discomforting but also gets a satisfyingly complex backstory. The dreams Brett keeps having, of other people’s lives descending into horror, are eerie and intriguing in a way that draws you further into the story. And Brett’s ever more desperate attempts to procure food -- leading him from a vegetarian lifestyle as the story begins to breeding rabbits in a storage locker -- are suitably logical and grotesque at the same time.
Undad’s illustration style is a bit challenging -- but I ultimately enjoyed the way they were done as well. It’s a collaborative effort, with Smith illustrating the first issue in an almost Sim World like digital style (it wasn’t the best, especially because Brett looked emphatically feminine for no particular reason). Andrea and Diego Lopez Mata take on Issue 2 in a grosser, darker, more etched-in style, and Joseph Canave draws Issue 3 with a straightforward comic book look. Smith returns as illustrator for Issue 4. Though all of the illustrations seem distinctly digitally created, the switching between styles adds a bit of an element of surprise to the story that keeps you engaged.
Ultimately, Undad is very clearly a self-published, Kickstarter supported project, with all the of the imperfections and rough edges that entails. At the same time, it feels deeply personal and like the team involved put al ot of thought and work into it. Though it’s not the zombie free-for-all that some bloodthirsty part of me was hoping for, it does zone in on the existential question of what zombiehood, literal or metaphorical, can do to a person and to those who love them. Which is a pretty horror-inducing thing when you think about it.