They’re massive, they’re huge as pop culture icons. They’re one of the few movie monsters that have remained mostly unchanged since their first popular movie, Night of the Living Dead. There have been evolutions, and reinterpretations, but it always goes back to being deceased and demanding human flesh or brains.
Sometimes they talk.
Sometimes they run.
And sometimes, they’re superheroes!
Despite coming out over a decade apart, both Marvel and DC have released their own interpretations of a Zombie Apocalypse encountering something variation of their core universe. Coming from two different eras of comics, and with vastly different creative teams, how do they stack up?
2005’s Marvel Zombies comes from the writing talents of Robert Kirkman. Sean Phillips was the artist, June Chung colored, and Randy Gentle lettered the book. Those of you who watch The Walking Dead on tv, or have seen the books, know that Kirkman is no stranger to the zombie concept.
While Walking Dead falls on the more traditional side of Zombie outbreaks, Kirkman got to really flex a lot of his muscles with this book.
As the story opens, Magneto is surrounded by zombies, beaten and proclaiming that the monsters he is surrounded by are trapped with him in this dimension.
This is the first issue of Marvel Zombies, and it does not bother to explain that this is actually a sequel to a previous story from Ultimate Fantastic Four a year prior. In that tale, the younger Fantastic Four reaches out to what readers were lead to believe were the original FF in the main timeline. Instead, it was a bunch of zombies. Their adventure would wrap up by teaming up with that world’s Magneto, and he would destroy the machine that linked these worlds together.
These issues are also not collected for new readers to Marvel Zombies, at least not under the Marvel Zombies banner. In fact, the actual origin of the Marvel Zombieverse would only later be expanded upon in the crossover story Army of Darkness vs Marvel Zombies, where Ash of the Evil Dead franchise would be part of the start of the zombification of this universe. The other prequel book, Dead Days, wouldn’t quite agree with it, but still explained how it happened. However it starts, though, it ends with all the heroes of New York infected, and most non-powered humans on the planet dead and devoured.
Amusingly, the creators of the flashback chapters apparently wanted to make Superman the source of the infection at one point.
The book spends a few pages killing off Magneto, before showing that the book is going to focus on what remains of the Avengers. Zombified and growing used to the hunger, including Giant Man, Iron Man, and Colonel America.
Yeah, this is also set in a decidedly different Marvel Universe, with costuming from the 70s, characterization from the 60s, and Magneto’s Acolytes from the 90s. This provides a general template for everyone to build off of, but also removes it several degrees from the Marvel Universe most readers will remember. Also, Galactus!
And, honesty, the art is amazing for this comic. While grotesque and truly horrifying at points, the familiar colors of Marvel heroes being distorted with heavy inks, toothy mouths, and dead white eyes is truly unnerving in the best way. Gore is undetailed, but the colors easily make it blatant what is being torn out of the bodies of the superheroes and cosmic forces. The end result is a truly dark and dismal visual comic, but it truly works in this case, showing how the Marvel Universe has fallen into disarray and the base instinct of hunger.
Kirkman is usually known for great characterization, and most of his Marvel work has some fantastic use of familiar characters in creative ways. The transformation of the Marvel Universe into Zombies essentially makes the characters… lesser than their original selves. However, the survivors wind up receiving a lion’s share of exploration during their side-plot. Eternal ponytailed jerkweed Fabian Cortez would often play the Starscream to Magneto’s Megatron during his time as an Acolyte, but here becomes a leader who embraces the few shreds of humanity that remain and keeps them safe aboard Asteroid M. The unfortunate side-effect of not being the focus, however, means that the survivors only get a scant few pages by comparison. This makes the zombies static characters, often receiving little to no development besides becoming more used to the desire to consume flesh.
As the story unfolds, the zombies of New York swarm and devour the Silver Surfer. A few of the A-list Avengers (and Spider-Man) eat his corpse after the Hulk bites off his head, granting them all some of the power cosmic. They use it to craft a massive cannon to destroy Galactus, but Galactus won’t go down easy. Can the zombified remains of our favorite heroes take the power cosmic for themselves?
This comic comes from what I personally consider the second Dark Age of Comics. While the first one comes from the aborted and maladjusted attempt in the early 90s to become “mature” by festooning everything with guns, violence, and pouches, the second one comes from the cultural shock that America suffered after September 11th, 2001. Heroes could no longer be happy, fluffy, or “for kids,” despite coming from a family-friendly entertainment format. They squabbled over political conflicts, dealt with rape as a character development feature, and rarely an event went by at one major comics publisher without someone losing an arm. Or two.
Poor Risk. The man suffers from the Teen Titans curse of never being allowed to be happy.
In this case, though, the comic mostly focused on heroes being assholes, or falling from grace and being corrupted by the infection.
As a result, this comic veers off into the woods, relishing in the dark aspects of zombies. By letting the zombies talk and retain aspects of their personalities, Kirkman leaves them as the focus of the book as characters rather than as the foe. This leaves the reader often a little disconnected, and relies on shock value to keep the reader attached rather than allowing the reader to care for survivors. In that respect, it is a polar opposite of Kirkman’s The Walking Dead book and works incredibly well as a counterpoint.
Marvel Zombies would expand with sequels, featuring a direct sequel in Marvel Zombies 2 that focused on the survivors and their battle with the still-surviving zombies. Marvel Zombies 3 would feature Aaron Stack, the Machine Man, going from the main Marvel Universe into the Zombie world. It was fairly awesome. Marvel Zombies 4 would feature Morbius the Living Vampire and the Midnight Sons hunting down Zombies who had escaped into the main universe during the previous story. Arguably the best, however, was Marvel Zombies 5, which had Machine Man return… alongside Howard the Duck.
There would also be a chapter called Marvel Zombies Return that would resolve the unanswered loopholes from the previous chapters, and explain how the Sentry randomly became zombified to kick-start the original infection. While Marvel Zombies itself hasn’t aged as well as some of the spinoffs, the concept is still a fantastic one, and a great addition to anyone’s collection of Halloween horror.
While DC and Marvel adore copying concepts from one another in the spirit of friendly competition, it would be 14 years before we saw DC take a crack at the idea of zombies and superheroes. Released in 2019, the appropriately named DCeased would take a look at how the Rebirth (aka 2016) era of DC Comics would take to a zombie invasion. Or at least, DC’s idea of one.
DCeased was from the mind of Tom Taylor, with Trevor Hairsine, Stefano Guadiano, and James Harren on art. Rain Beredo colored, while Saida Temofonte would letter the book. And unlike the magic or alternate reality of the zombie plague of Marvel Zombies, the real threat was the Anti-Life Equation.
Having been bested by the Justice League yet again, Darkseid of Apokalyps has kidnapped Cyborg of the Justice League. He plans to blend a perfect mathematical formula proving subservience to Darkseid, aka the Anti-Life Equation, and using Cyborg’s unique make up of machine and flesh to infect the Earth. However, by taking a piece of death itself and shoving it into the equation, something goes horribly wrong.
Darkseid falls to a blind, ravenous violence. His servant Desaad sends Cyborg to Earth, and the disease spreads across touch and machine alone as Cyborg becomes the carrier of the end of Humanity. Transmission by injury remains the same as regular zombie plagues, but the Anti-Life Equation spreading by the internet also quickly turns any hero or villain hanging out on the net into an infected in seconds.
As Superman works to secure a place in Metropolis, and Batman fights off his infected family in stately Wayne Manor, we see the Earth of DC fall slowly apart. While out camping, Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern is infected and turns on Green Arrow and Black Canary. Canary is barely able to kill Hal with her sonic scream, and Hal’s ring chooses her to become the new Green Lantern for Earth.
Batman falls, leaving Alfred to kill a man he considers his son. Harley Quinn kills the infected Joker, before having to take on a rampaging Birds of Prey. Aquaman takes a rampaging force of death to wipe out Atlantis. Clayface mutates into a ravenous beast of mass. Superman had to deal with his own infected adopted father. However, the worst was yet to come.
The Atom dives deep inside Captain Atom and takes a bite out of his heart. Powered by the flames of atomic energy, Captain Atom flies to the center of American power and explodes. While Superman and Wonder Woman try to carry him away, the explosion spreads. Baltimore falls, and Metropolis is also wiped off the map.
A few survivors remain off the rubble of the Daily Planet, as well as from Lex Luthor’s secret bunker.
That is the strength of DCeased. While violence is still frequent and shocking, the book takes the time to breathe. Characters have time to grieve between death and carnage, and in those moments, we have depth and development that makes some of the best zombie stories click. During those moments, characters can rekindle the hope that things can return to normal.
Had this been a major event like Infinite Crisis or Civil War, the focus of the book would have become the combat between those infected by the Anti-Life Equation and the survivors and almost entirely on the spectacle of a superpowered war. Now, don’t get me wrong. We still get that, and the creative team on this book does it remarkably well. Less popular characters like Giganta and Captain Atom show up, and deliver some powerfully wild moments. However, each issue gives the readers moments to breathe, and to connect with the characters again. Be it Damien Wayne reluctantly taking the mantle of Batman, or Green Arrow taking a breather to crack wise about the stupid situations he finds himself in, these characters feel not just super-human, but human.
Or Kryptonian, or species of choice. You get the idea.
DCeased is what I consider a modern comic, in that it was published within the last 5 years. It’s hard to peg what kind of era we currently are in, but the forces of nostalgia and hope have been rising in recent years, at least on DC’s side of the comic world. Heroes who fight evil, and fight for good. Villains who can be redeemed. Admittedly, we still have horrifying events and deeds, and we’re still suffering the after effects of that second Dark Age of comics… but it’s hard not to notice that the change of perspective from infected to uninfected in the story makes the entire story a different experience.
Like Marvel, DC hasn’t let the alternate world of DCeased end yet. There have been side stories during the horror of the fall of Earth, in A Good Day to Die, Unkillables, and Hope at World’s End. There is also a sequel with the next generation of heroes coming back to Earth years later, in Dead Planet. DC does win points for making sure the stories are easier to follow and collect, at least.
Both Marvel Zombies and DCeased are fantastic explorations of what could happen with a Zombie apocalypse, easily. In all, it really depends on what kind of story you’re looking for.
If you want the macabre, bizarre, and over the top violence to scratch that teenage “comics aren’t for kids anymore” feel, then Marvel Zombies and it’s ilk are easily what you should choose. If you want the roller coaster of hope, drama, and despair with heroes fighting against the unstoppable foe, then DCeased is your book.
But let’s be honest, just grab both. They’re both awesome books, albeit for different reasons.