What comes after a zombie apocalypse?
If Max Brooks' seminal zombie novel World War Z is to be trusted, (spoiler) the ecology of the undead works much the same as the old "Our Friend, The Food Chain" ecology you dozed through in school. Just as indiscriminate plundering of streams and shoals leads to overfishing, so too does all that mindless gorging on our juicy parietal lobes lead to ... overbraining, I suppose.
Slowly, once the zombies have worked their way through everyone not smart enough to find a well-equipped, steel-reinforced redoubt AND FREAKING STAY THERE, the undead will starve to ... death? Un-undeath? Something. (End of spoiler.)
So take heart, if ye be wearying under the current zombie onslaught in movies, comics, television, and — especially, it seems — books. We have but to wait it out.
It won't be easy. As a book critic, I've had a truly horrifying number of zombie novels lurch across my threshold this year alone. On last Friday's NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, I mentioned how much I loved Colson Whitehead's fantastic, zombastic Zone One, and how its warmth(!), humor and legitimate sadness — to say nothing of its just plain gorgeous sentence-by-sentence writing — makes it seem to me like it should be the last word in the genre.
It won't be, of course. We're due for at least a few more waves of the putrefying, peripatetic suckers. But if you're looking for something bracingly different to chew on while the literally faceless zombie horde moans and sputters and oozes and flops across the media landscape, you don't have to look too far.
Weirdly enough, the comic I've got in mind comes from the very same creator who gave us the long-running, highly acclaimed comic that inspired AMC's The Walking Dead. (Whisper: The Walking Dead comic is better/scarier/more merciless/more deeply affecting than the show, but you probably knew I'd say that.)
I'm talking Science Dog. He's just your average super-evolved hyper-intelligent Scottish Terrier/scientist/adventurer.
With a jetpack.
Putting the Meta- in "Meta-Canine"
For a long time, we only glimpsed Science Dog — he was part of the world writer Robert Kirkman and artist Cory Walker created for their indie superhero Invincible.
In the pages of the Invincible comic, Science Dog exists as our titular hero's favorite comic book character. Readers glimpse his grizzled snout peering out of lunchboxes, t-shirts and movie posters in the background, while Invincible goes about his day, fighting evil-doers.
Until, that is, Invincible #25, when Science Dog earned his own one-shot backup story, in which we learned his secret origin (science experiment gone wrong, duh), and met his nemesis (a mad scientist, natch). Another Science Dog story appeared in Invincible #50; a slim new (68-page) hardcover edition collects these two stories and supplies an ending.
Dialing Back the Gore. Mostly.
Kirkman's The Walking Dead (with art by Tony Moore and subsequently Charlie Adlard) delivers straight-ahead horror: gouts of gore and life-or-undeath situations in which no character is safe. Kirkman specializes in delivering, on the final page of each issue, a sudden narrative gut-punch that leaves you shattered.
Kirkman's Invincible started out like a lot of other pastiches on the superhero genre do — full of whimsy and in-jokes and winking references to superheroes owned by other companies. But it wasn't long before it became clear that Kirkman set out to push against the limits of the superhero story. Invincible became a darker book, with sudden bursts of shocking violence, but it's managed to avoid the trap of descending into a grim, joyless slog. (Can't say as much for some of the corporate-owned superheroes the book references.)
The key, I think, is that Kirkman remembers that superheroes are supposed to be fun. He likes to remind his readers that the superhero life is of necessity a violent one, and that if everyone gets out of it unchanged (or, in many cases, unharmed) than he's simply iterating situations, not telling a story.
Setting the Stakes. Then Raising Them.
Science Dog begins as gleeful, gee-whiz science-fiction. The pup's got a jet-pack, a raygun, and (eventually) a time-machine, for crying out loud.
But even here, when his tale consists of a flying dog-man fighting off a mad scientist encased in a giant robot exoskeleton, Kirkman manages to allow whimsy and real, life-or-death stakes to co-exist.
And when things look bad for our hero — and he makes a choice that any self-respecting canine super-scientist with access to a time machine would make, damn the consequences — we feel for him. It reads like a story about time-travel that hasn't been told before, but one that really should have been.
That's no mean feat, and it's a testament to Kirkman's ability to find, in the too-familiar trappings of zombie horror, superheroes and science-fiction, something legitimately new.