Zombies Calling original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Faith Erin Hicks
Publisher: Slave Labor Graphics
Price: $9.95 US
I’ve been hearing good things about Faith Erin Hicks’s new work, The War at Ellsmere, so I was disappointed to find that my local comic shop had already sold out of its initial order of the book. I’m waiting for a copy to arrive, but I figured I’d check out the writer/artist’s first major work. I’d heard of Zombies Calling before, but I opted not to pick up a copy, dismissing it as just likely the latest in a long line of competent but typical zombie comics. I’m glad the Ellsmere buzz got me to change my mind.
Zombies Calling is a thoroughly entertaining piece of pop culture. Hicks satirizes the zombie genre and celebrates all at once, but what makes the book so engaging is the strong characterization. In the back of the book, Hicks admits to enjoying the works of writer/producer Joss Whedon, and his influence is apparent here. But there’s a much more grounded, genuine quality to her characters that reminds me of my own youth (from a decade and a half ago, yikes).
Joss, a student at London University in Ontario, is stressed out. It’s exam time, and on top of that, she’s well aware of the overwhelming student-loan debt she’s amassing as she continues her post-secondary studies. To unwind, she and her roommates — Sonnet and Robyn — enjoy a zombie flick, during which Joss educates Sonnet about the rules that guide all zombie movies. That knowledge is about to come in handy, as Joss soon discovers that most of the other students on campus have been transformed into the walking, ravenous dead.
The first thing that’s immediately apparent about Hicks’s artwork is the influence of another Canadian artist: Bryan Lee (Scott Pilgrim) O’Malley. It’s easy to see his style at play in her work, as well as that of Hope (Chiggers) Larson, O’Malley’s partner. They once lived in the same area of Nova Scotia as Hicks, so I can’t help but wonder if the influence is more direct than usual. Hicks’s work also put me in mind of Philip (Kill Your Boyfriend) Bond’s and Ryan (Local) Kelly’s styles. Still, while those influences are apparent, Hicks’s work stands up well on its own. It doesn’t look derivative; she’s not mimicking others. Her own style evolves from those influences. Her detailed backgrounds bring a certain convincing quality to the storytelling, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it realistic. Her characters are rendered in a cartoony manner that makes for some effectively expressive moments.
My one qualm about the book from a visual standpoint is the cover. It’s not at all clear what’s happening. That the main character is wielding a spork isn’t obvious at all, and neither is the notion that she’s attacking undead enemies. Draping the logo across the character’s body interferes with the visual as well. The awkward could explain some of my initial disinterest in the book when it was originally released.
Hicks appropriately doesn’t take the zombie action seriously at all. There are a couple of tense moments, but the whole point of the zombie aspect of the story is to point out how ludicrous conventions of the genre really are. But in the process, Hicks also points out how incredibly fun they are as well. Appropriately, Hicks’s more cartoony style really serves to tone down the gore inherent with zombie stories, as a more horrific view of the premise would conflict with the goofier, irreverent side of the book.
Ultimately, what really wins the audience over is Joss. Hicks has crafted a well-realized, believable and relatable character in Joss (whom I assume is named in honor of Joss Whedon), and there’s plenty of evidence that she’s based somewhat on the creator herself. Joss’s focus on real-world horrors such as education-related debt over the impossible horror of undead eating machines makes her all the more grounded and real. Hicks balances Joss’s angst with her uncontainable love of the cheese that is the zombie genre, as well as her joy in discovering the rules work for real and offer her a chance at adventure. 8/10