The DEADcomic Overlook #137: Left 4 Dead: The Sacrifice
“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.” — Edgar Allan Poe
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall… who’s the *fearest* of them all?” — The Cryptkeeper
Good evening, boys and ghouls. You may notice a hastily composed icon inhabiting the recesses of this review. Yes, it’s Terror Week. It’s like Shark Week, only TERRIFYING. Welcome to the a season where pumpkins grin from every porch and children beg for candy. But it’s all in good fun. Here at The DEADcomic Overlook, we will be looking at three webcomics dealing with things that go bump in the night.
“Eh,” you say, “you’re a week early. And it’s not exactly my thing. But at least it’s not video game webcomics again.”
Oh, you tease. But you have a point: some time during the summer, video game webcomics dug themselves AN EARLY GRAVE will the crush of coverage they got on this site. Fortunately, Halloween gives me an easy way to break out of this vicious cycle. A new way to refocus.
First up first is a horror webcomic based on a video game — Left 4 Dead: The Sacrifice.
If you’re not a gamer, or if you’re the sort of gamer who considers Bejeweled 2 to be Game of the Year material, you’re probably asking: “What’s Left 4 Dead and why should I care?” The Left 4 Dead games are set in a zombie apocalypse. Your inner grammarian is probably balking at the “4″ in the title, but it makes a twisted sort of sense: the game is about four characters who are suddenly thrust in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Hence, it’s a little bit of word play: these four were left behind and considered dead.
The end of the first game sees the four characters being rescued by a military transport. The beginning of the second game takes place in a new locale (The American South), yet the characters from the first game do make an appearance. So what happens to them in between? That’s where the comic comes in. Valve, the video game company behind Left 4 Dead, considers the story canon, which helpfully sidesteps the fanfiction trap.
There isn’t much information on the wiki or within the official site on who was responsible for the comic, but after a quick search I discovered the comic was drawn by Michael Avon Fleming. (Ed.: I was wrong. It’s actually comic book veteran Michael Oeming. Thank you to reader Tim Simmons.) The comic was release fairly recently in September, with the concluding chapter posted on October 5 to coincide with The Sacrifice downloadable add-on pack.
I have never played anything from the Left 4 Dead series. The free demos for the first and second game are yet unplayed on my Xbox harddrive. I’m more of a gamer who likes to mow down waves and waves of aliens rather than the Living Dead; laser kills tend to be less messy. I had to refer to the Left 4 Dead wiki for background info when writing this review. In fact, I probably would never have checked out this comic if not for enthusiastic endorsements for various corners of the internet.
While for the most part video game adaptations do not exactly have a stellar track record when being translated to other media, horror games do all right … especially in that most democratic of all media, the cinema. I mean, Milla Jovovich is in her … what, fourth Resident Evil movie already? Silent Hill managed to make $97 Million worldwide. And, while it may have many, many detractors, Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead has sorta become a cult classic for its sheer awfulness.
It would be so easy to write off this comic as a cynical and transparent marketing ploy to get people to buy the DLC, not unlike the comics that come free with an action figure. A comic that comes with a video game can’t be much different, amirite? Ah, but sometimes the comic transcends the original marketing pitch. Need I remind you that, once upon a time, a 12-page comic written to promote something from Telltale Games actually went on to win the Eisner Award?
And just to show you that they’re serious about telling a story, Valve published a whopping 4 chapters and 178 pages for The Sacrifice. HOLY CRAP. Which means in four weeks, Valve release more pages than a typical webcomic does in a year. This is Valve, after all, the guys responsible for Half-Life and Portal. Story-driven games are their thing.
Our four protagonists are Bill, an old, grizzly beret-wearing coot with seemingly superhuman strength; Zoey, a tough gal who would rather put an end of the zombie threat than to run away; Louis, a former office worker who remains unrealistically hopeful despite hopeless circumstances; and Francis, a tattooed joker who thinks the zombie apocalypse is the best thing to ever happen to his life. They’ve survived this long because they’re carriers. This means that while they’re immune to the Green Flu that turns humans into zombies, they’re also a danger to other humans because they carry the virus. As a result, others treat them with suspicion. As soon as they’re rescued by the military, they’re tossed into a hermetically-sealed prison and subjected to a barrage of medical tests.
But, as you know, zombie-free bliss is but a temporary condition in any zombie apocalypse story. Soon, our heroes find their safehouse in Millhaven overrun by the Walking Dead from many shapes and sizes. After joining up with a bunch of redshirts — I mean, fellow survivors — they punch, shoot, and plow their way through waves and waves of zombies. Their mission: to make it out to the Florida Keys, a Promised Land that are, thankfully, zombie free. But will our heroes sacrifice their very humanity for a fool’s dream? Will they become nothing better than the bloodthirsty zombies themselves … only with better hygiene and the gift of perspicacity?
The webcomic was clearly made for people who are already fans of the game. Valve, though, has made the comic quite accessible for total newbies. It doubles as both a intro to the Left 4 Dead universe and a new take on characters that gamers are already familiar with. Each chapter provides a small glimpse to each character’s lives before the zombie outbreak became a full-blown epidemic.
Incidentally, there’s little original in these flashbacks. Each one is a pastiche of scenes avid zombie movie watchers have seen before. Zoey, for example, watches her mother attack her father during breakfast, and she has to kill her father before he himself turns. This is not that different from the first scene from 2004′s Dawn of the Dead. Also probably lifted from that movie: Francis picking off zombies as he and his pals chill on the rooftop.
(These scenes, by they way, may have been lifted from even earlier zombie flicks. I’m not that avid of a zombie movie watcher. I am probably picking scenes that were already lifted from even earlier movies, quite possibly even the original Dawn of the Dead.)
Bill’s is probably the most original… and also the most kick-ass. He’s in the hospital for an operation and about to go under from the anesthetics. The zombie apocalypse hits just as he’s about to lose consciousness. Part of me thinks that he’s going to be spared because the zombies will assume that he’s already dead. Instead, Bill shakes it off and administers some righteous zombie beatdown.
There are times when the comic sounds too much like a game instruction manual. I understand that this is the primary purpose of this comic, but c’mon. Does it sound natural seeing two guys talking about which zombies you can’t shoot because shooting them makes them worse? Or recalling about a species of zombies called “Tanks“? Who names a zombie a “Tank” anyway … a roleplay gamer? Will Louis and Francis now be informing the guards about hit points and AC’s? Other zombies have equally colorful names, like “Witch,” “Boomer,” and “Smoker.” While I’ve run across game reviews that praise the game for grounding these off-putting classifications effectively into the horror millieu, within the comic they can’t help but sound cheesy as hell.
And, while we’re at it, the villains are woefully one dimensional. The minute we see the old officer in charge of Millhaven, you know he’s the sort of guy who will listen to the dire reports about the undead and then dismiss them as ridiculous fabrications. You know, despite actually living in a world where the evidence is swarming like a fire ant colony all around them. (Seriously, the dude’s worse than the Iraqi Information Minister.) And the minute you see Lt. Mora, you know eventually he’s going to turn on his own commander, which inadvertently lets the zombies into Millhaven. In a way, this is in line with the George Romero theme of how humans, not zombies, are the architects of their own demise. Still, would it have killed Valve to develop these guys to be more than just mustache-twirlers?
Overall, though, the webcomic brought the action and is packed with style to spare. Oeming’s artistic style is similar to Mike Mignola’s (Hellboy), which, as you can guess, is the perfect fit for a horror comic. The zombies are uncomfortably organic, looking either grotesquely bloated or deathly bony. The action sequences look great, too, especially when the nighttime skies and dark corridors are lit up by sudden and colorful bursts of violence. The characters are drawn to be thin an wiry, haggard physically and mentally and yet fit enough to survive anything the zombies throw at them. Fleming may not draw the prettiest faces, but being pretty ain’t easy when you’re on the run from zombies.
While I still consider Dead Winter (reviewed here) to be the best zombie webcomic out there, Left 4 Dead: The Sacrifice manages to be a good, breezy read. You don’t need to have ever played the game. You don’t even need to be familiar with the characters before hand. If you want a good yarn about four people in the face of a hungry horde of the living dead, give The Sacrifice a shot.
You’ll be … glad you DEAD. Muhahahahahaha!
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)