Zombies are everywhere. NO, this is not a warning, so hear me out before you go calling on ATF or anything. I mean zombies are positively rampant in modern-day pop culture. We live in a day and age where people engage in zombie walks and weddings and drive pseudo-Zombie Survival Vehicles (sorry, That Guy, but your souped-up Neon is no match for the cannibal holocaust). Always a popular horror film device, the undead have blown up with the runaway success of The Walking Dead, all but taking over TV and comics. Hell, even Archie isn’t safe from the zombie apocalypse. So in the wake of this oversaturation, and in spite of my lifelong love for all things horror, I swore off zombie comics awhile back. I never really cared much about The Walking Dead in the first place (sue me), Crossed became an exercise in rapey overkill, Deadworld is all fine and good, but enough already. (Well, except you, Afterlife With Archie; you can stay. Riverdale 4 Life, yo.) Zombies as a plot device, in my opinion, don’t work well in a long-term medium; though it seems a deadly enemy force that cannot die should yield plenty of varied and interesting stories, but for me they had become synonymous with tired-ass plotlines that also would not die and needed to be put out of their misery.
Then an acquaintance asked me if I’d ever read ’68.
The creation of writer Mark Kidwell, ’68 is the zombie comic for people who hate zombie comics. Set in the late 60s to early 70s, the Image series brings the impact of the Vietnam War to the undead apocalypse, as soldiers and civilians in ‘Nam and back home struggle to survive the tumult of both the new epidemic and life during wartime. Normally military-themed fiction is filed next to most zombie tales in my personal I Don’t Give A Shit file, but I couldn’t deny that a story of the abject terror of battling undead flesh hunters and the reality of war at the same time sounded brilliant. Kidwell’s series places historical melodrama against a horror backdrop, giving readers much more to chew on than some stale brains.
Last Rites, the new miniseries hitting stores this week, is the culmination of Kidwell’s various ’68 stories, bringing characters from previous story arcs together for what we can only assume, given the comic’s track record, will be the ultimate showdown between alive and undead. By now it is 1970, and a group of survivors have taken refuge inside Manhattan’s landmark Flatiron Building, most notably Hallowed Ground’s nameless, ‘postle-smoking orphan known only as The Kid; Johnny Love and Jenny Peece, Homefront’s lovesick teens-turned-parents, and the heretofore-unseen Derry of the Hardship storyline. The family of Kuen Yam from Rule of War also makes an appearance. Most of the issue is spent establishing relationships and the fact that these characters are recurring, but ’68 always makes you care about its people, so the fact that fans of the series will recognize a few faces in the Last Rites lineup should keep them invested from the get-go.
One of ‘68’s strengths as a historic thriller is its persistence in delving further into the dark side of 1960s-70s America beyond the war, working the most notorious murder cases of the era into its horror agenda. Last spring’s terrific Bad Sign one-shot explored the what-ifs surrounding the Zodiac Killer in a zombie-ravaged San Francisco. Similarly, Last Rites features a subplot involving Charles Manson and his Family trying to team up with Richard Nixon to carry out Helter Skelter. (This is the third comic in as many months that I’ve reviewed that involved a Manson character! Coincidence??? Dun-dun-dun…) Kidwell clearly recognizes that the mere presence of zombies in a horror story is no longer sufficient, and that to assume as such is a disservice to his audience. Once again he has struck gold by narrowing his scope to the most chaotic moments of the time, fictionalizing and applying them to the cannibal- apocalypse setting. ’68: Last Rites promises the same outstanding writing and complex characterizations as its predecessors. Also, there’s a zombie Henry Kissinger. I rest my case.