The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 196 | The horror, the horror: On Lewis Manalo’s MetaMorphosis and Sable and Azaceta’s Graveyard of Empires

Leaving Proof 196 | The horror, the horror: On Lewis Manalo’s MetaMorphosis and Sable and Azaceta’s Graveyard of Empires
Published on Sunday, August 11, 2013 by
Two recent comics releases, Lewis Manalo’s MetaMorphosis and Mark Sable and Paul Azaceta’s Graveyard of Empires, use the metaphor of zombies to address the war in Afghanistan, with decidedly different results.

night-of-the-living-dead-movie-poster1968There is a long history of the use of the zombie in popular entertainment to make social and political commentary on real-world conflicts. The transgressive and nihilistic bent of George Romero’s 1968 horror movie Night of the Living Dead has been described by film historians and critics as a subversive artistic statement about everything from the inescapable portrayals of mass violence of the Vietnam War—the first war to be broadcast on live TV straight to American homes as it happened—to the homegrown turbulence of the Civil Rights Movement era. In more recent years, prose works like Max Brooks’ World War Z, comics like Mark Kidwell and Nat Jones ’68, and video games like The Last of Us have used the metaphor of zombies to address more directly past and current socio-political concerns in military/paramilitary-themed fiction settings. (Yes, I know that technically, the monsters in The Last of Us are “The Infected” and not zombies, but eh, you say “to-may-toe,” I say “to-mah-toe.”)

The zombie, when expertly depicted and portrayed, is an almost peerless instrument for the task of “othering” as it applies to creating visually-driven narratives. The sight of a human likeness that has key non-human attributes provokes an almost reflexive feeling of disquiet, even revulsion, a phenomenon that has been studied at length by cognitive scientists, video game developers, reconstructive/plastic surgeons, and roboticists as the “uncanny valley” that we discussed in-depth in this space recently with regards to its effect on our perception of comics art. In a 1970 essay, pioneering robotics engineer Masahiro Mori presented his extrapolated familiarity response curve mapping the uncanny valley and its relationship to various moving and still artifacts:

Uncanny Valley Moving Still

Familiarity response curve showing the “uncanny valley” effect. Note the position of the zombie artifact at the bottom of the graph. [From Mori (1970), as translated by MacDorman and Kageki (2012).]

Given the zombie’s utility as a device for triggering uneasiness and dread in those that see it, is it any wonder that it has become a staple of contemporary horror fiction?

metamorphosischapter1_page4In his webcomic MetaMorphosis (compiled first issue also available on comiXology for 99¢), writer-artist Lewis Manalo subverts the traditional horror narrative function of the zombie, casting the walking dead in the role of the putative lead in a story inspired by Franz Kafka’s 1915 existentialist novella The Metamorphosis. The parallels between Manalo’s comic and Kafka’s work are too plain—almost to the point of unintentional parody—at least in the comic’s first twentysomething pages, but Manalo brings a sober dose of contemporary personal truth to MetaMorphosis that elevates the work from a basic homage and cuts through the surrealism of the protagonist, US Army veteran Gregor Samsa, waking up one day as a zombie, driven to feed on the flesh of the living. Manalo, who served in Afghanistan as a combat engineer with the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division before becoming a filmmaker and comics creator, seems intent to use Samsa’s transformation to comment on how some of those who undergo the experience of 21st century war on the frontlines—that spectator bloodsport of the Social Media Age—can be irrevocably changed by it, rendering them distant and alien to family and friends, and something horrifically less-than-human to themselves.

GraveyardEmpiresV1-cov-webDecidedly more conventional in its approach to the use of the zombie in a war-themed setting is Graveyard of Empires, a four-issue miniseries recently collected in trade paperback form (Image Comics, $14.99) that has a remote USMC outpost in rural Afghanistan under assault by a zombie contingent composed of the innumerable native and foreign corpses born of the nation’s long history of resistance against foreign occupation. Artist Paul Azaceta does a wonderful job in rendering the setting and the people (and zombies) whose lives (and unlives) are intertwined in the current War in Afghanistan, but writer Mark Sable seems to be trying to do too many things at once with a story that juggles numerous subplots, themes, and character arcs at the expense of actual character development or capitalizing on the rich narrative and thematic potential of the situation. By the book’s penultimate chapter, the story, brimming with promise of a bold and creatively stylized contextualization of the region’s military history in the first two issues,  has taken on the shallow depth and too-frantic tempo of any number of anonymous zombie films, military-themed or otherwise.

The zombie is an effective trigger for the emotions of dread and revulsion because it represents a fetid perversion of the human body and an extreme corruption of the mind, but that effectiveness is blunted when the characters, in the lead-up to their turning to zombies, are treated as expedient plot devices and quippy dialogue delivery systems, hollow simulacra of people instead of fully fleshed-out human beings. There’s no question as to Graveyard of Empires‘ high level of polished comics craft and its pop entertainment value—I can easily imagine the book being picked up for adaptation as a feature film or cable TV series—and it’s in a different and altogether superior league in terms of the technical execution of the visual storytelling compared to Manalo’s MetaMorphosis, but I found myself more and more disinterested in the whole affair as the book dragged on: it’s hard to get too worked up about characters being threatened with being turned into the walking dead when they’re already somewhat rote and mechanical in nature even before they get bitten.

Prior Leaving Proof articles in “The Sequential Art of War” series:

Odds and sods

  • George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has actually entered the public domain due to a clerical error (the original film distributor failed to place copyright indicia on the film prints) and as such, the film can be legally downloaded, broadcast, and distributed online (I’ve embedded a video of the full movie below) and in physical media. That also means that it can be freely adapted, and I wonder why we haven’t seen any of the big comics names and publishers take a crack at it yet… or have they? Let me know in the comments section below about any notable recent comics adaptations of the film.


  • Here’s one more zombie-related video before I sign off. I’ve never played Plants vs. Zombies, but Laura Shigihara‘s theme song is just too, too cute and catchy:

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