Friday, 7 February 2014

Essential Tales of the Zombie volume 1

Essential Tales of the Zombie volume 1 contains all ten issues of the magazine Tales of the Zombie plus a story from each of the first couple of issues of the magazine Dracula Lives! Bonus material consists of the cover of Annual #1, an all reprint issue. The early issues of Tales of the Zombie and one of Dracula Lives! also carried some reprints of stories from Marvel's earlier horror comics and these are included here; they come from the likes of Mystic, Menace, Journey into Mystery and Chamber of Darkness. Writers on the series include Roy Thomas, Steve Gerber, Kit Pearson, Marv Wolfman, Tom Sutton, Tony Isabella, Doug Moench, Gerry Conway, John Albano, Len Wein, Carl Wessler, Larry Lieber, David Anthony Kraft, Chris Claremont and John Warner. Artists include Sutton, John Buscema, Pablo Marcos, Win Mortimer, Vincente Alcazar, Enrique Badia, Rich Buckler, Vic Martin, Ron Wilson, Ernie Chan, Syd Shores, Dick Ayers, Frank Springer, Alfredo Alcala, Michael Kaluta, Virgilio Redondo, Yong Montano and Tony DeZuniga. Unfortunately some of the reprints predate the era of credited creators so there's a degree of omission and guess work (which invariably is better at identifying artists than writers) involved here. Identified creators include writers Stan Lee and Chuck Robinson, and artists Ayers, Gene Colan, Bill Everett, George Tuska, Ralph Reese, Tony Dipreta, Bill Walton and Russ Heath. One of the Dracula Lives! stories is a reprint drawn by Dipreta, the other is new and written by Thomas and drawn by Colan. That's a HUGE amount of credits so the labels have spilled over into three other posts, one and two for new work and a third for reprints.

One of the joys of the Essentials is to be shown glimpses of fads in popular culture that have otherwise been generally forgotten. Here is a strong reminder of early 1970s America's fad for all things Voodoo (and that's the spelling used throughout rather "Vodou" or "Vodun"), which is otherwise primarily preserved for modern audiences in the James Bond film Live and Let Die. (Issue #4 of the magazine even carried a rather critical review of that film by Don McGregor, reproduced here along with so many other text features. I had to suppress a chuckle at the text's comment about how actor David Hedison was probably one of the few glad that the film lacked the scene from the book where Felix Leiter is fed to a shark. But it took sixteen years before Licence to Kill dipped Hedison into a shark tank.) Voodoo magic, especially the walking dead, was fascinating many. The magazine format meant that Marvel could produce, or reproduce, material that wasn't bound by the shackles of the Comics Code Authority, starting with the series's very name as the lead character could be unambiguously presented as a "zombie" rather than a "zuvembie" or some other Code friendly spelling that takes away the impact and sheer horror associated with the word.

But this series wasn't the first time Marvel had dabbled with zombies. A number of their 1950s titles had featured them and several stories are reprinted here. Such was the impact of the original stories that one of them, simply entitled "Zombie!" from Menace #5, was selected and built upon to provide the main character and his daughter. Bill Everett thus emerged as the creator of an ongoing character some two decades after working upon the original strip and right at the end of his life. (An editorial in the first issue wishes Everett a speedy recovery but sadly it was not to be. Not included here is a tribute piece from the second issue.) Oddly the first issue doesn't credit Stan Lee's work on the story - maybe his infamously bad memory was at work and perhaps just once he failed to do what he semi-jokes he always does and take any credit that isn't nailed down. The original story is reprinted as the Zombie's chronological second appearance, but the twist at the end of the tale is now lost because of what is shown before it. However the newly created origin ties in well with the original story, though I don't know if the latter underwent any modifications from what was printed in the 1950s in order to match the new material. And the new material came in many different forms.

The magazines were more than just comics by another name. As well as several strips, both new and old, they also contained a number of features and the occasional text story. In several ways they remind me of London Editions Magazines/Fleetway Editions's Superman and Batman titles from c1988-1995 which had a similar strip and text feature approach and which were amongst my introduction to US superhero comics (if I remember and understand correctly, the earlier years of LEM's output was in an exceptionally rare period when the DC superheroes had a better presence on the British newsstands than the Marvel ones; Marvel UK at the time being primarily focused on licensed spin-off titles). These articles delve into a number of aspects relating to both zombies and Voodoo, ranging from the origins of the religion to some of the best books then available on the subject to the portrayal in movies to the culture clash in New York as the rituals of animal sacrifice met legislation barring them and the public's reaction to finding decapitated animals in the park. There are in-depth looks at a number of Voodoo and zombie movies, including some previews. Overall the tone of the articles is highly sympathetic to Voodoo, even though most of the authors appear to be atheists, noting that it has been distorted by media depictions but in fact is rather harmless. "In fact, with the exception of those rites involving animal sacrifice, Voodoo is probably as harmless as Presbyterianism, albeit more colorful," writes Chris Claremont in issue #7 before going on to point out "...there have been no Voodoo holy wars, no Voodoo inquisitions, and no Voodoo tax-exempt real estate holdings." In general the series sets out to portray Voodoo in a non-negative light despite also having to meet popular expectations. However it's not so clear about the differences between the Voodoo practised in Haiti, in west Africa and in Louisiana and in other parts of the United States, tending to present them all as one.

Within that we get a mixture of new and reprinted stories, some focusing upon the title character, others telling one-off tales of encounters with zombies and Voodoo. Whether original or reprinted, these back-up strips are often highly entertaining and at the same time quite dark. We see the fate of an butterfly collector as his son's wish that he'd stop capturing and sticking pins into the insects comes true, or four female prisoners escape and reach the isolated home of one of their aunts only to come to grief one by one. Then there's the white hunter in Dahomey (now Benin) who is searching for gold and his long lost brother, but his atrocious treatment of the locals backfires on him. There are tales of murder victims taking their own revenge or of families turning upon one another and more. The anthology format is now rarely seen amongst US comics but it's always good to allow creators the chance to come up with completely one-off stories and the results are a strong pleasing mix.

However the main attraction is the lead feature, telling the story of the zombie that was New Orleans businessman Simon Garth. Reading through these tales I found it absolutely astounding that there is an almost total lack of appearances by the wider Marvel universe. Simon Garth may have popped up in Dracula Lives! but only as a passing cameo when Dracula visits New Orleans. Indeed the story could easily have been left out but I guess somebody wanted this volume to be the definitive Zombie collection. (The story had already seen print in Essential Tomb of Dracula volume 4 so it wasn't as if people might assume a major team-up was missing.) Otherwise the only visitor from another series is Brother Voodoo in a couple of stories, one filling in for the lost Zombie tale. These stories are both fairly okay but fall into the realm of back-up strips and so aren't the main attractions. Still it's good to see Brother Voodoo operating without the constraints of the Comics Code Authority, even if he does still talk about "Zuvembies" instead of "Zombies". This restraint is probably the main reason why Simon Garth didn't get used in other Marvel comics at the time - significantly he didn't appear in either Marvel Team-Up or Marvel Two-in-One when virtually every other Marvel horror star did at some stage or other. This isolation works well, reflecting the lead character's own isolation but also allows the series to stand on its own feet instead of swamping things out with an endless stream of guest stars.

The first story introduces the main characters who recur throughout the series. Simon Garth is a ruthless businessman who has climbed to the top in the coffee industry but in the process he's lost much of his humanity. Arrogant and domineering in both the boardroom and the home, he has alienated his wife and tries to run his adult daughter Donna's life. He is also oblivious to the feelings of his secretary Layla. Then he is brought down when he dismisses the gardener Gyps for making unwanted advances on Donna but in retaliation Gyps kidnaps him and takes him to a Voodoo ceremony where the mambo (priestess) is Layla. She tries to free him but Gyps catches up with him and kills him, then forces Layla to bring Garth back as a zombie. Wearing the Amulet of Damballah which allows anyone holding its twin to control him, Garth now wanders the Earth as a stumbling corpse. However vestiges of his former life remain and he refuses Gyps's command to kidnap Donna, instead killing Gyps. He then spends much of the rest of the series wandering, occasionally coming under someone's control as the Amulet is successively found and lost, and otherwise surviving. The series doesn't pull its punches - the violence isn't gratuitous but it's also held back on and we see the impact on humans and animals as Garth takes action against them.

The setting shifts between Louisiana and Haiti and back again, with Garth a noble figure whose lack of speech and thought is compensated for by one of the few occasions when second person narration works. Over the course of his wanderings he encounters a number of bizarre situations, ranging from a mad scientist who briefly transforms Donna into a giant spider, to a house murder where members of a family are being picked off, to a New Orleans cult in association with a local crime lord, to a reclusive family looking after their deformed son. Garth is used and abused by a succession of individuals, most notably a group of "swingers" (party types rather than switchers) who use him to perform pranks on a number of people who've annoyed them, not realising just how dangerous this can be. Despite such abuses, Garth manages to maintain a degree of dignity throughout, helped by a part of the zombie curse that gives him a fast healing power. Midway through the series Garth is reunited with Layla, now an outcast after she tried to save him, yet tragically the swingers make him attack her for her past actions in the typing pool. However she survives long enough to give her soul to allow Garth to be restored to full life for twenty-four hours.

Issue #9 sees Garth now restored as he gets the chance to put right a lot of his past mistakes. He attends his daughter's wedding and reconciles with his ex-wife. He visits his business and apologises to his partner, then sells up and has the proceeds put into a fund for his ex-wife, his daughter and the deformed boy. And he takes action against the New Orleans crime lord and the cult who transformed him in the first place. Finally he returns to zombie form but retains enough control to use the Gris-Gris bottle Layla obtained that allows him to permanently die. The story may offer a sense of closure for Garth, but it wasn't intended that way. An editorial note at the start of issue #10 confesses how a story depicting his resurrection was written and drawn, but many of the pages were diverted in transit and ended up in Guam. It was rescheduled for issue #11 but then the series was cancelled, presumably as the Voodoo and zombie fad was now passing. Since there's nothing added after issue #10 it seems the story never saw print in any other series.

The format of the series means there aren't that many pages devoted to Simon Garth and so his story is much briefer than just about any other character with their own Essential volume. But it allows a much closer and personal story than is often the case, and shows how even the most obscure of characters from decades earlier can be put to great use. Meanwhile the other stories and features all work to give an enhanced experience. It's a pity that the magazine format will probably never be seen again as this volume offers a good look at how such a format can deliver so much.

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