A wish, frail and plaintive, lies at the heart of James Tynion IV's zombie apocalypse comic. Its presence goes a long way toward explaining why Memetic, which on a flip-through might seem like just another splatter tale, is actually fun to think about after you're done reading it — and not just because it involves a sloth.
Tynion keeps his wish secret for most of his story. It's finally expressed near the end, and it's the villain who spells it out: "People who create things. Makers. We spend our whole lives trying to build something, but it's never enough," he says, nestled deep inside a lair full of his own artwork. "We need to make more. We need more people to see it."
Tynion wants — needs — to be seen. To ensure that that happens, he's dreamed up a crowd-pleasing horror comic in which hordes of naked, feral humans, infected by a brain-eating virus, bleed from the eyes and scream at the sky. Oh, and they munch on the non-infected, too. Naturally, there are a few charismatic holdouts. Protagonist Aaron and his boyfriend Ryan are cute college students wending their way through zombified Manhattan. Meanwhile, a motley band assembled by the military flies across the country looking for a cure.
It's pretty standard except for the source of the infection: an Internet meme. On Day One of the three-day apocalypse, people begin circulating a cute cartoon of a shaggy gray sloth. When word gets out that just looking at the sloth triggers a wave of euphoria, the image goes stupendously viral. Some spend hours staring at Good Times Sloth, while others print copies to paste up far and wide. Then, 12 hours after they see it, people transform into brainless, ravenous beasts.
It's good fun to imagine a meme taking down humanity. How fast would it travel? How many would it infect? What about all those people — easy to ignore sometimes — who don't actually spend their lives staring at screens? And the sloth image is itself an inspired creation. It's banal but cryptic and, best of all, cute. Tynion didn't need to stipulate that looking at it caused a mysterious flush of goodwill. In the real world, people routinely spread equally pointless memes without any tangible incentive.
Illustrator Eryk Donovan serves up rictuses and gore with palpable zest, and his enthusiasm doesn't flag when he fleshes out the good guys. He gives Aaron beseeching eyes, a nose stud and a tangled mop of hair that reflects his tortured emotions. His boyfriend Ryan is BloomCounty's Binkley with horn-rims and ear gauges. Barbara Xiang, the military's expert on weaponized memes, is less flamboyant but just as expressive.
Still, Donovan falls short when it comes to capturing the visceral horror of a throng of screaming people. When there's a mob to draw, he omits the individual details that help make real crowds frightening. Also less than satisfying is his depiction of the bizarre final stages of humanity's meltdown. The images at the end of the book are more brow-furrowing than spine-tingling. But that's ultimately Tynion's fault — any artist would find it hard to depict the peculiar conclusion he's laid out.
That scenario, a boringly literal extrapolation of the theme of connection, feels like a last-ditch attempt to come up with some kind of ultimate monstrosity. Instead, humanity's fate is just odd. Surprisingly enough, though, that doesn't sink the book. The wistfulness of Tynion's voice as the "Maker" keeps the reader on his side even when he slips up. Just like the meme-spreaders in his audience, he only wants to be seen. Is that so wrong?
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.