The Webcomic Overlook #41: The Zombie Hunters
It’s fun to follow what movie monsters are currently tapping the cultural zeitgeist. Back in the 90’s everyone was ga-ga over vampires. Anne Rice was churning out novels on a regular basis, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was one of the most anticipated movies, Gangrel and the Brood were appearing out of flaming circles in the WWF, Sarah Michelle Gellar won the hearts of America with her vampire-hunting ways, and Wesley Snipes was just getting his fangs fitted for his first Blade movie. In recent years, though, vampires haven’t done much to capture the nation’s imagination outside of the latest Kate Beckinsdale movie. I blame this precipitous fall in stature on overly serious goth kids and the existence of actual vampire cultists who really do drink human blood … which, let’s face it, is totally gross.
No, in 2000, it’s all about the zombies! They’re like the party-hearty alternative to the even mopey vampires … not unlike how, in the world of Trekkies, the more sociable fans dress up as Klingons rather than as the stuffy and austere Federation officers. Vampires are always writing sad, tear-stained poetry about guilt over their bloodlust. Zombies, on the other hand, are pure id, chomping on flesh with gleeful abandon. Putting a vampire on a gameshow is rather confusing and probably a Christ allegory; chained up zombies on a gameshow where they chase fresh meat (as seen on Shawn of the Dead) … that’s comedy gold, baby! And, as Michael Jackson proved, zombies are kickass dancers.
Even I have not been immune to the charms of these gentle reanimated corpses. I’ve enjoyed both the new Dawn of the Dead movie and, paradoxically, the laughably awful House of the Dead, directed by the notoriously awful Uwe Boll. I even liked I Am Legend, which was basically a sanitized zombie movie for the masses. I’ve been both a zombie minion and a hapless survivor in the free online text-based MMORPG Urban Dead (which, by the way, inspired a short but fairly decent webcomic called Necrophobic). There’s even a movie about zombie strippers which .. well, honestly, would get me kicked out of the house if I ever rented it, but it’s OUT THERE PEOPLE!
So what culturally precipitated this shift of affection from vampires to zombies? I’ll leave it up to CNN and Fox News to speculate whether or not it’s a reaction to fears and anxieties stirred up by 9/11. My own absolutely unsupported analysis is summed up by pretty much the same answer I give to explain any youth-centered phenomena in our current decade: video games. Specifically, first-person shooters. We like to have plenty of faceless bad guys to mow down without worrying about whether or not we were committing murder. And which monsters are more faceless than zombies? Vampires are generally depicted as intellectual equals. On the other hand, zombies are already dead and are more animal than human. Time to turn off your conscience and fire up that rail gun!
This theory of mine, soon to be published in reputable scientific periodicals under the name “The El Santo Awesome Theory of How Everything Works,” is put to test in the subject of today’s Webcomic Overlook: Jenny Romanchuk’s take on the zombie apocalypse, The Zombie Hunters.
At the beginning of The Zombie Hunters, we are introduced, one by one, to a group of eclectic characters as they wander the rainy streets of a city based on Sault Ste. Marie. By the way, as a former Michigan resident, the mere mention of this Upper Peninsula town gets me all sorts of giddy, you betcha! What are all these people doing here, wandering these seemingly abandoned alleyways? Well, given that the title of this comic is The Zombie Hunters, chances are that they aren’t here to take part in the annual International Bridge Walk. We find that the team has been sent to a “green” zone on a relatively tame mission, yet were swayed by the temptation of unsecured loot in a nearby “red” zone.
Here’s where the comic begins to feel like a video game. Red zone/green zone? Maybe these labels are a time-honored staple of zombie movie lore. However, they remind me most of the suburb danger map in Urban Dead. (Jenny, if you’ve got a character in the game, my Level 7 survivor alt is holed up at a PD in Pennville. Let’s team up to drive back The Dead!) If this is a reference to the Resident Evil games, which, I admit, I have never played, then the zombie/video game association becomes even tighter.
The main character of The Zombie Hunters is a 21-year-old team leader named Jenny Romanchuk, and she’s … wait. Where have I heard that name before? Anyway, Jenny seems to practice the laissez-faire method of leadership, since none of her charges seem to take her seriously despite her habit of wearing an authoritative teddy bear hat. The less tolerant among you may scoff that this is not appropriate headgear when venturing into an area infested by zombies while operating under a military organization, but Mlle. Romanchuk (the author) makes it abundantly clear that the presence of mindless, flesh eating creatures should not hamper one’s fashion sense. This is especially true if you’re the sort of person that does all their shopping at Urban Outfitter.
But let’s stop talking for a fashion and look at the rest of the cast, starting with Samantha. When paired, Samantha and Jenny transform a generally somber tale of zombie apocalypse into an goddamn comedy revue. I have a feeling that Samantha was supposed to be endearingly annoying, but, like that Goth character on NCIS, she only succeeds in the annoying part of the equation. Much more likable is Charlie, an old man who is somehow immune to zombies. Plus, in a fairly epic sequence, he punches a zombie right through the head. Yes, it is every inch as badass as that sentence suggests. Rounding out the team is Dan and Katie; the first stands around and grumbles while the second … um, loses her glasses and bleeds profusely, I guess? Also, his character profile says he is in his mid-20’s, which I don’t believe for one second. Time to do an audit of your medical records, Red Halo Military.
The Zombie Hunters‘ header art suggest a perpetually bloody, unforgivable world where our heroine is living in constant fear of the undead. The actual webcomic delivers nothing of the sort … at least for the first three chapters, anyway. It’s rather off putting how colorful everything is. Most of the characters are dressed up like they were cosplaying for the local anime convention. Wow… the zombie apocalypse has never looked so kawaii!
We begin with our intrepid zombie hunters congregating on a building rooftops, while zombies mill about on the streets below. This is, incidentally one of my favorite parts about the zombie genre: danger is all about you and clearly visible, but as long as you hole yourself up, you’re safe. Our heroes do nothing of the sort and attempt to zipline from one rooftop to another. Of course, things go horribly awry. Ropes snap, people scream, and the zombies discover that dinner is served at their “Brain Eaters Only” get together.
And yet, everything feels like a big video game. At some point, the team spots a special zombie that can spit acid. Ooh, boss battle. The ensuing chatter sounds like something you’d hear on a Teamspeak line. And speaking of dialogue, The Zombie Hunters features some of the most awkwardly phrased obscenities in webcomics. “I’m having a f***ing blast. See this? This is my ‘having a f***ing blast’ face!!!” Seriously? I understand screaming obscenities in moments of duress, but the previous sequence sounds like something you might embarrassedly overhear at a bachelorette party.
There’s no real sense of danger, either. Maybe it’s because if a character got killed, I half expected them to be respawned on the map somewhere, HP fully restored. Or maybe it’s because the zombies never seem like a real threat. Look, when whole swaths of the undead are owned by what looks like a twelve-year-old comic relief girl twirling a belt tied to a brick, then I have to wonder: why are the military wasting taxpayer money on guns?
However, in a way I do appreciate Mlle. Romanchuk’s portrayal of zombies. Outside their hunger for human flesh, they do seem to be harmless, docile creatures. One of my favorite scenes shows Charlie — before he goes all, “En garde! I’ll let you try my zombie-fu style” — simply strolling through a crowd of inattentive zombies while looking for a fallen comrade. It would be no different if Charlie had wandered past a herd of cattle. These are zombies to be pitied, nurtured, loved… perhaps housed in a nursing complex somewhere and fed puree.
Chapter 4 marks a radical stylistic and narrative change. When the series started out, The Zombie Hunters looked like a scene taken out of an early Gorillaz video, back when they were fighting reanimated apes. It’s all very easy on the eyes, and Mlle. Romanchuk illustrates claustrophobic alleys and dingy hallways quite well. With the current style, the webcomic looks like it should air on Adult Swim some time between Death Note and Ghost In A Shell: Stand Alone Complex. In other words, The Zombie Hunters is now unrepentantly bleak with artwork to match. Except for a couple splashes of blue and red here and there, the comic is now entirely in black and white.
The childlike characters from the earlier chapters are now taller and artistically more three dimensional. There’s no putting a teddy bear hat on Jenny in this incarnation. The team now looks older, more weary, and more mature. How many years passed between chapters 3 and 4? As it turns out, none: Jenny is being called to the head muck-a-muck’s office to squirm and explain the fiasco from the earlier chapters.
Everybody seems to be angry all the time. Is this some sort of psychological issue? When trapped in a zombie-infested city, the characters are at each other’s throats, but they’re working together and, as those Samantha and Jenny team-ups show, generally rolling with the blows. When located safely back in human society, everybody now hates each other, people are screaming at the slightest provocation, and the color has been drained from the world. Perhaps Mlle. Romanchuk is making a radical statement: the zombie world may increase you chances of waking up without a cerebrum, but it’s much more fun than the real world. (While that previous sentence was meant to be sarcastic, I can’t help but thinking how awesome it would be if that indeed was the intent.)
Chapter 4 begins with a cute public service announcement that explains how we shouldn’t be afraid of the infected people. These animated clips are aired in elementary school classrooms and done in the style of cartoons from the 1940’s. It’s a neat little interlude that paints the zombies in a sympathetic light. However, PC gamers out there might notice that similarly themed retro videos were the most memorable cut scenes in the classic Fallout series. (By the way, I’m not accusing Mlle. Romanchuk of ripping off Fallout. She’s stated that she was inspired by an old timey cartoon.)
So which style is better: the colorful adventure from the early chapters or the cold nihilism of the current chapters? It’s tough to say. The current aesthetic is easily more appropriate for a horror webcomic. I can’t wait for the eventual scene that shows the team fleeing from zombies rendered in its moody, Gothic style. (Only then can I determine if the illustrated action scenes has transcended the detachedness of an MMORPG.) At the same, given that The Zombie Hunters is still using those cosplay characters from the earlier chapters, the aesthetics feel inappropriate at the same time. When Samantha, that pixie goth that swung a brick around, is now angsting like everyone else, it feels like something has died. (I hated then and I hate her now. See? I can never be happy.)
For all its faults, the first few chapters of The Zombie Hunters was at least unique. You could make a pretty decent tongue-in-cheek black comedy about a bunch of goofballs in colorful outfits that run around punching out zombies. Perhaps Romanchuk figured that Last Blood had the “goofy zombie action webcomic” crowd covered. In the end, it’s a toss up between the two styles … but I do hope she settles on one style and runs with it from this point forward.
Now that the story has evolved into a drama, the characters cannot be simply excused for being stupid idiots. Jenny has to be stripped of her command and replaced by who we are told is an unlikable scoundrel. OK, so Jasper is drawn with an absolutely douchey face. Yet, thus far we haven’t seen any reason why Jasper would be any worse than Jenny. She shows no real leadership abilities, she decides to loot buildings rather than do her job, she projects her anger onto her teammates, and mumbles and mopes rather than give a decent explanation to her superiors. Is she really our hero? I’ll give Mlle. Romanchuk the benefit of the doubt, though, and assume that this is the beginning of Jenny’s journey to self-discovery.
The story is trite, the dialogue can be stilted and embarrassing, and the characters are all big drama queens. Yet the artwork is very attractive, Jenny Romanchuk (the author) seems to be buckling down to write some real characters, and the earlier concerns may soon be invalid with the comic’s new, more assured direction. Despite being 100+ pages in, it still feel like it’s too early to make a call on The Zombie Hunters. I have a feeling, though, that after awkward start, the comic can only improve from this point on. The backstory’s been laid out. Time to make it interesting.
And, you know, there’s zombies! They’re all the rage, after all.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Posted on April 21, 2008, in 3 Stars, action webcomic, dramatic webcomic, gothic, horror webcomic, manga style webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, Uncategorized, WCO Big Review, webcomics, zombie webcomic and tagged The Zombie Hunters, zombies. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.