COMICS: petpluto reviews Zombies Calling

Let’s count the awesomeness of Zombie Calling, shall we? First, Whedony references galore. Galore I tell you! From Zombies communicating by saying “Grr”-“Arg” to the lead (female) character name being ‘Joss’, the comic is full of win. But going beyond that, it is full of feminist win too. That’s right, a book about zombies has three main characters, two of them girls, and passes the Bechdel Test. I realize the book’s about two years old now, but it’s new to me; and that’s all that matters, right? What I deem important? Ahem. Sorry. Zombie Calling and the fumes from the wood stain have made me a little giddily light-headed.

First things first. The book is done in black and white, and is a nice little jaunt of fun. I finished it in about 30 or so minutes, but several of those minutes were spent laughing, transcribing a couple of scenes, and trying to figure out how to transcribe a couple of scenes without ruining the spine of the book so John doesn’t kill me. And yet, even though it is a quick read, it is also one that I could see returning to again and again, much like an illustrated My Life and Hard Times (which is probably my favorite book of all time).

JOSS: First, we need weapons.
SONNET: What? You can’t fight them.. We don’t even know what they are!
JOSS: They’re zombies, and we have to fight. We’re the survivors. The survivors fight the zombies. That’s a rule. Now, lessee — Usually something sporty is best to fight with — A baseball bat, golf club, hockey stick… or if you’re really clever — –A cricket bat!

ROBYN: I got a spork.

There a couple of things of note in this scene. First, Joss, she of Whedony name, is the authority on zombie matters. Which is cool, partially because Joss is cool and partially because Joss is a girl who (a) knows about zombies and (b) is looked to by her other two dormmates as the person who knows about zombies. Second, this scene brings up Joss’ Anglophile-nature, and also the introductory scene of Casey Jones:

CASEY: New game, round head. [takes out cricket bat] Cricket.
RAPHAEL: Cricket? Nobody understands cricket. You gotta know what a crumpet is to understand cricket.

As a bit of an aside, I have always known what a crumpet is, and still have no idea what happens in cricket. Now, back to the scene. There is something hilarious about a spork, unless you are unfortunate enough to have to eat with one. It is one of the least threatening of the utensils (though I would venture that a spoon would be even less threatening), and practically uselss besides. To have a spork as a weapon when battling zombies is a poor situation to be in. And yet, not only does it seem to be one of the only options, not only does it seem to be Robyn throws out for serious consideration, but it also turns out to be quite the zombie-fighting weapon indeed. This is kind of like the moment in Jaws, when Quint throws his machete into the boat. Both the machete and spork are highlighted and come into greater significance later.

One of the other things that makes Zombies Calling wonderful is the exceptional dialogue. These three people sound like people, with their quirks and weird asides and craziness. At the same time, what makes them worth reading is that they have better lines than a majority of us would have ever, let alone in the midst of a zombie attack:

SONNET: Guns? Why would we have guns?
JOSS: It’s a rule of zombie movies. No matter where the characters go, firearms are readily available. So there’s gotta be some guns here somewhere. Maybe in the bathroom. Stuff’s always magically appearing and disappearing in there.
SONNET: This is <span style=”font-weight: bold;”>CANADA</span>. We don’t have any guns! I’ve never even seen a gun! I mean, I think the army has a couple —
JOSS: Canada has guns, lots of ’em. That’s what I heard in that Bowling for Columbine movie.
ROBYN: You should never believe anything Michael Moore says.
JOSS: Why not? I know the guy’s biased, but —
ROBYN: Michael Moore is an evil dirty hippie liar, and a traitor to the patriot cause.
JOSS: You’ve been surfing that Republican website again, haven’t you?
ROBYN: They gave me a bumper sticker in exchange for my immortal soul.

Don’t feel too badly, Robyn. I’ve done crazy things for bumper stickers too. Although I now do have a car, so maybe I’ve got one up on you. And also, they’re generally for organizations/philosophies I actually support, which you don’t seem to, if Joss and Sonnet are any sort of credible source. So, two up on you.

Zombies Calling does something else spectacularly. It engages social issues without seeming pat or overly cloying. It isn’t incredibly deep about these issues, but it highlights them, asks for the reader to recognize them, and then moves on – because, hey, this is a comic book about a zombie attack and these characters’ lives are in danger. Case in point:

ROBYN: Hey, Joss?
JOSS: Yeah?
ROBYN: You know how in horror movies, as long as you don’t have sex you’ll survive the knife-wielding maniac? Does… um… Never having sex mean… Um, I’ll survive the zombies?
SONNET: You’ve never had sex?
ROBYN: Hey, c’mon, it’s not that big a deal! I’ve almost had sex at least four times!
JOSS: But Robyn, it’s you! You’re a walking cliche, the guy who carries around a book filled with signatures from the women you’ve allegedly slept with!
SONNET: Just last week you were claiming you’d boffed the entire theatre department!
ROBYN: FIne, so I lied! You don’t understand how much pressure there is for a guy to score!
SONNET: Oh GOD, Robyn!
ROBYN: Look, I was just asking about the zombies, okay?? Just forget I said anything.
SONNET: Yeah, that’s not going to happen, Robyn.
JOSS: I’ve never had sex either.
ROBYN: Really?
JOSS: Yup! I mean, I’ve never even had a boyfriend, so… Yeah. Virgin hi-five?
ROBYN: Hah. Damn straight.

SONNET: Whatever, you freaks. I had sex last week.
JOSS: She doesn’t get a hi-five.

There are a couple of things I love from that exchange. First and foremost, that the comic book acknowledges not everyone has sex; people that could be considered attractive, people that are college-age, people that are out of freshman year, boys and girls, are able to not have sex and for that not having sex to not be a tremendous deal. And yet, on the flip side of the coin, having sex isn’t bad either. In one scene, Faith Erin Hicks manages to tackle both of these states of being without granting validity to one side over the other. Both sides are a-okay to be. Which is tres cool. Another point of coolness of this exchange is the understanding of masculinity as a performance. Robyn articulates that, somewhat crudely, when he exclaims that Joss and Sonnet “don’t understand how much pressure there is on a guy to score”. That right there is recognizing how certain aspects of masculinity are policed and enforced. If a guy doesn’t ‘score’, doesn’t have a pad with the signatures of the girls he’s slept with, then somehow or another he is a failed being. He isn’t fully masculine. And although both girls are surprised at Robyn’s announcement, it doesn’t detract from how they see him (though they think he’s a perv and an idiot, so maybe that isn’t quite so full of win as it could be with a different guy) – and he gains a bit of solidarity from Joss at the same time. He develops an interpersonal bond because he is open about his experience. The third thing I love about that interplay is how casually Sonnet states, “I had sex last week”. Yes, I’ve already expressed how well I think Hicks played the acceptance of the virgin and not aspect of the scene. But I also loved how comfortable Sonnet is in just laying it out there, without qualifying her statement at all.

And as much as I love the scene above, what with its interplay of seriousness and light-heartedness, this is the moment of heart that gets me:

JOSS: You know what scares me? My student loan. I’ve figured it out: when I graduate, I’ll have the same amount of debt my parents had when they bought their first house. I’ll have a mortgage but nowhere to live. I could be paying it off until I’m forty. It’s kind of a crummy way to start out your adult life, owing your soul to a bank or the government.

Student loans are something I don’t have to worry about, but that plenty of my friends do. It sucks that education has become so expensive. It sucks that we place such a monetary burden on people who need a college education to do something as simple as get a well-paying job. I know there are jobs that pay well without needing a college education, but for the vast majority of people in the Western world, a college diploma now is what a high school diploma was 40 years ago. And it sucks that in order to get that diploma, people have to embroil themselves in as much debt as they do.

That isn’t to say Zombies Calling is perfect. There is the whole bit where the zombie creator does a bit of monologuing to our three heros, laying out why he’s done what he’s done and bringing the metaphor full circle. The brilliance of zombie movies, the brilliance of fantasy, is that what happens within them can be a metaphor for a whole hell of a lot. Even in movies like Shaun of the Dead, where the zombie metaphor is for the utter inanity of a meaningless and unfulfilling life, it is still up to the reader to recognize that. Simon Pegg didn’t turn the camera toward him and give us the lowdown on what meant what. And yet, that is what Hicks does here, with these zombies coming into being for a professor of – I’m assuming here – literature’s metaphor about the educational system and the people who are within that academic system, and with the professor telling us and Joss et al this. To that I say:

  1. A literature professor should (a) be able to come up with a better metaphor and (b) know that he should never explain his metaphors. To explain a metaphor means the metaphor truly serves no purpose. The metaphor’s whole raison d’etre is to illustrate. If the creator of the illustration explains it himself, then there was no point of the illustration to begin with.
  2. Following point 1, I can’t see what Joss could have written about Macbeth to deserve a B- if this is the best this particular professor could come up with.
  3. This professor is obviously part of the zombification and so should loathe himself more than the students he teachers, because this whole living metaphor is something he should be ashamed of.
  4. The whole “getting the bad guy monologuing bit is so cliched, it really needs to be retired unless done by Pixar.

Also, why doesn’t Sonnet, as a goth girl, drink coffee? She’s a black-dyed hair poetry writer. That person digs coffee. She should totally be zombified.

Even with that, Zombies Calling is pretty damn incredible. I think I’m in love. Oh, and because of Zombies Calling, whenever something goes drastically wrong, I’m probably going to say, “Crumbs!” And I love any work that impacts my own verbal stylings, so automatic ‘A’ there.

Crossposted at Art at the Auction.


One Response

  1. Glad you liked it, and that you didn’t bend the spine!

    While I loved the TMNT reference you threw in, I’m pretty sure Faith Erin Hicks meant it to be a reference to Shaun of the Dead. Just sayin’.

    I had my issues with the villain’s rationale as well, but my bigger issue was with the minimal repercussions of Joss’s “zombie” killing spree once every infected person was cured. This could’ve been the first real story (other than I Am Legend) where the hero would have to face serious consequences for all that killing once the zombie plague ends.

    As far as the monologue goes, your analysis reminds me of two separate comics: “Batman: Mad Love” where Joker takes great pains to make clear to Harley Quinn that “A joke isn’t funny if you have to explain it to your audience!” and Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, currently the reigning king of zombie comics, where Kirkman does have the main character literally scream the entire metaphor of the series to the reader in one of the later volumes. A shame, too, because other than that one outburst the series is a wonderful balance of complex, subtle character drama and white-knuckle suspense horror.

    Regarding your final point: maybe Sonnet is just a tea drinker? There are still a few people in this world who don’t like the taste of coffee, goth or no goth.

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