Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Loop Of The Living Dead

During the early 2000s, you may have noticed the phrase "zombie apocalypse" practically bursting into our public consciousness, suddenly finding lucrative mainstream film and television reception after being so long confined to midnight horror shows and Halloween parties. My earliest recollection of the craze finding its spark was when the film "28 Days Later" began to get a good deal of play, and a great deal of talk--a zombie "outbreak" that didn't feature zombies in the conventional sense so much as crazed, salivating humans who sprang to the attack in spasms and bit their victims to spread the infection; but it's been so long since I've seen it that what I recall may not be an accurate impression. (Didn't they refrain from eating their victims? What were they, vegetarian zombies?) At any rate, not being a company that ignored popular trends, Marvel dipped its collective toe in those waters--and a franchise was born.

And they didn't call it "Marvel Zuvembies." Imagine that.

Looking back at the number of installments of Marvel Zombies as well as other titles that tied into the series, it's clear that Marvel did quite well with the concept--introducing in the pages of Ultimate Fantastic Four the other-dimensional Earth where a single infected super-being appeared and spread the virus through that world's super-human population, who in turn went on to devour the planet's ordinary humans. That story led to the first Marvel Zombies limited series, which then spawned others to stretch into 2010 and possibly beyond (I stopped poring through back-issues at that point). While the UFF stories were first-rate, however, I wasn't particularly fond of writer Robert Kirkman's (et al.) handling of Marvel Zombies and its characters--its atmosphere of disaster, death and gore alternating between the terrible fate of the world and the macabre banter among the single-minded "heroes" in their obsession to locate and secure other sources of food.

But if you sift through most of the story material, you can stitch together the parts of the concept that form its foundation while getting a sense of what Marvel might have envisioned for this kind of series--that, or the $$$ that an ongoing zombie series might generate in the first decade of Marvel's sales in the 21st century while the possibly brief window of popularity for the genre remained open. And so what follows is a poor man's "CliffsNotes" of this series, which essentially gives you the gist of how this ball started rolling--and what caused the circumstances by which it eventually devour itself (a turn of events which featured none other than the Watcher, for whom a world full of super-zombies must have been irresistible to look in on).

The place for us to start is of course the UFF story from 2005, where the infected and now malevolent Reed Richards, having duped the younger UFF Reed into activating a dimensional gateway device that allows the infected FF to cross over, briefly describes the beginning of the end of his world.

Our culprit is almost certainly the Sentry--who, if we're to believe Richards, was successful in breaking through from another universe to this one. And from there followed overwhelming death and decimation for the human race.

Granted, by 2005 the number of super-beings on Earth had multiplied considerably from their beginnings in the late 1960s--and in fiction, having the entire human species slaughtered to a man reads much more dramatically when it occurs at a speed that will shock both the reader and the victims. But you still have X number of super-beings having to consume billions of humans within a span of 24 hours, which is simply unbelievable. I could have bought a year's time... maybe six months, why not. But a single day? The math doesn't come close to adding up.

Perhaps equally shocking is learning in a later story the identity of the facilitator of this extinction event, while also seeing Reed's description given a slight revision to include humans among those infected. That may not make it much easier to swallow (heh, get it?) a planet full of zombies in a day's time, but it's enough to allow our focus to backtrack a bit and pick things up at the point when the outbreak was in its beginning stages, as the surviving heroes face their last hours.

Nova's words fall on everyone like an anvil, as if echoing what all of them believe to be true but few can bring themselves to admit--that the fight to save the human race is already lost. It's a powerful scene--and you could probably hear a pin drop after he'd said his piece.

And yet battle on they all do, in a vain effort to save as many as possible--but the tide quickly, inevitably, turns against them.

Back aboard the helicarrier, however, the end is nearer than anyone realizes--as Reed reaches a horrendous conclusion, and seals the doom of everyone who allowed themselves to think that this flying lifeboat was their last refuge against the genocide that was sweeping over their world.

From here, Marvel Zombies coasts on its success, while taking some bizarre twists and turns that clearly demonstrate that Kirkman isn't reluctant to push this series well past the boundaries of the implausible. In the case of Marvel Zombies Return (a play on words that will become clear shortly), which circles back and acts as a sequel to Marvel Zombies 2, we can add "recycled" to the list--with the remaining zombies, who had unexpectedly overcome their uncontrollable need to consume human flesh and had begun to work with those few humans who had survived the crisis (Magneto's followers on Asteroid M, led by Fabien Cortez), were betrayed by Cortez and transported to different regions of another universe where they're all basically "reset" by new scripter Fred Van Lente, their insatiable hunger once again rising to the fore and turning them into murderous monsters. Unfortunately for the Watcher, Giant-Man materializes in his citadel on the moon and consumes him--but now having access to the Watcher's dimension-spanning technology, Giant-Man realizes he has a dimensional doorway to an unlimited food supply at the touch of a button.

Meanwhile, as others of their infected group materialize in different regions of space, Spider-Man appears on that universe's Earth (Earth-"Z"--what else?), where he's already begun to infect the inhabitants--with Giant-Man soon arriving to feed his own hunger. Like Kirkman, Van Lente covers a good deal of territory in Marvel lore, the hook being to introduce the zombies' intrusion into lives and events we're already familiar with (e.g., Kitty Pryde's adventures in Japan with Wolverine, World War Hulk, Secret Invasion); and thanks to a group of zombies which have gathered in the ruins of Avengers Tower to coordinate with Giant-Man's efforts to activate the Watcher's technology, the tragic fate of Earth-Z plays out before our eyes in just a few pages, with even the Kree, the Shi'ar, and the Skrulls being dealt into the conflict.

At the conclusion of the series, however, the story takes a sharp turn when the Sentry is injured in a battle with Spider-Man's New Avengers--with Giant-Man seizing the opportunity to use the Watcher's technology to transport them all to the moon and betray the Sentry by capturing and containing him, in order to use his power to activate the dimensional transporter.

Thanks to Spider-Man, however, the New Avengers unleash nanites developed by Tony Stark that attack diseased and decaying flesh, which essentially devours anyone infected with the virus, i.e. all the zombies present (with the exception of the isolated Sentry). But look who shows up to deal with the plague once and for all--by closing a loop in time that only now has been discovered to have existed all along.

As we can see, Van Lente has done away with Kirkman's notion that the Sentry's arrival on Earth was the result of a deal Magneto had struck with him off-panel to wipe out a sufficient number of homo sapiens in order to reduce their threat against homo superior. Regardless, it's unclear why the Watcher wouldn't instead expose the Sentry to the same nanites, thereby sparing both Earths the attack of the Sentry while dealing with the loop as well. The simple answer is supposedly so that other stories spun off from this concept can still be developed (as they indeed were)--though of course, the Watcher is keeping mum on that.

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