Tuesday, October 20, 2009

'Essential Tales of the Zombie' is an accurate title for a fine collection of comics

Essential Tales of the Zombie (Marvel Comics, 2007)
Writers: Steve Gerber, Tony Isabella, Doug Moench, Chris Claremont, et.al.
Artists: Pablo Marcos, Alfredo Alcala, John Buscema, Bill Everett, Gene Colan, et.al.
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

"Essential Tales of the Zombie" is one of an ongoing series of 500-page+ collections of reprinted material from the past 30-40 years of Marvel Comics' output. The material in this book originally appeared in some of Marvel's black-and-white magazines from the mid-Seventies. It presents dozens of tales of voodoo and walking dead, the majority of them taken from the 10-issue run of "Tales of Zombie." Also sprinkled throughout the book are some of the best text features from the magazine, such as reviews of zombie movies and articles about voodoo.

It should be noted that nowhere in "Essential Tales of the Zombie" will you find walking corpses of the flesh-eating, post-Romero kind. The undead here are mostly the result of voodoo curses and similar magics. For me, this classic feel is refreshing in this day and age of rampant splatter and dismemberment.

The most worthwhile material in the book is the ongoing saga of the Zombie from the title. It's the story of Simon Garth, a captain of industry and control freak, who is murdered and reanimated as a zombie. Painfully aware of his condition, yet helpless to do anything about it, he becomes the undead slave of a series of different masters, controlled by the mystical Medallions of Damballah.

The stories of Simon Garth are top-notch, classic horror comics, which is not surprising, given they were penned by Steve Gerber when he was at the height of his creative powers. The manage to present social commentary, tragedy, chills, and poetic justice to the bad guys, often-times within the confines of the same story. The narration may get a bit purple at times, but the power of the stories shine through. Plus, the two-part tale that sees Simon Garth finally gain the peace of the grave is an excellent bit of writing by Gerber's successor on the strip, Tony Isabella. It is a perfect end to the story of a man who was forced onto a journey of discovery and redemption.

Although Bill Everett and John Buscema drew the first three tales featuring the Zombie, the art on the Simon Garth saga is mostly by Pablo Marcos. Alfredo Alcala also handles the art on a couple of the stories. Despite the vast difference in styles between these four artists, the mood remains consistently oppressive, dark, and spooky, and all do a great job capturing the macabre atmosphere of the Louisiana swamps and Haitian back-woods that the Zombie spends most of his time. (Alcala, Buscema, and Everett happen to be three of my favorite artists, and they do fine work here.)

Aside from the stories chronicalling Simon Garth's journey, "Tales of the Zombie" contains two stories with Brother Voodoo (a superhero who, as his name implies, gains his powers from voodoo rites) and a couple dozen short horror stories. The Brother Voodoo stories are... well, they're Brother Voodoo stories. The character always seemed a bit goofy to me, and he's true to from in both stories. (One wraps up the plotline from his "Strange Tales" appearances, and it was nice to finally know how that all ended, but the character still doesn't do much for me.) The shorts are mostly your standard twist-ending sort of tales that have been around in comics since the 50s... the ones that once filled the pages of "Creepy", "House of Mystery" and "Psycho". Althoguh they are all excellently written and illustrated, these run the gamut of quality from ho-hum to masterful.

Rounding out the book is an interesting time capsule of table of contents from each issue of "Tales of the Zombie", selected text pieces about voodoo and the occult, a two-part short story from Doug Moench, and some reviews of movies featuring zombies. The movie reviews were of particular interest to me (big surprise there, eh?) and there were even a few mentioned that I hadn't heard of! These magazine articles made for surprsingly good reading... although I wished a few more of had been included. I would have liked to read the obit of Bill Everett that was mentioned on one of the ToCs.)

"Tales of the Zombie" is an unusual entry in the "Essential" series, but one that lives up to its title. Fans of horror comics won't regret spending money on this one.