Heads up! There are zombies in Thunder Bay! Heads get lobbed. :::Cool::: Arms and legs are severed with some swordplay. :::Awesome::: People get gobbled up by ravenous zombies. :::Right on::: And there's gun play, with small arms and rifles. :::Nice::: And even the animals become zombies. :::Radical!::: And some zombies have a sense of morality. :::What! Morality? That sucks:::
Actually, no it doesn't. This is what makes Nowadays, a 300 page graphic novel written by Kurt Martell and illustrated by Chris Merkley an original zombie tale with unexpected dimensions and humanist themes. And the themes don't get in the way of the violence and action that zombie fans crave, which graphically explode on the pages with Murkell's excellent illustrations. You can see his work at www.merkasylum.ca.
Chris and Kurt have pulled off a major feat, a massive 304 page graphic novel, a first for the region sure to inspire other writers and artists. Especially now that printing costs have dropped (outside of Thunder Bay) and the Internet offers unique methods of funding and promotion. The back pages of Nowadays credit contributors including friends, family, local businesses, the Ontario Arts Council for financial help with its production, and Indiegogo, an Internet site where arts enthusiasts pick projects they like. They were intrigued enough to contribute over $20,000.00 for the printing costs.
At first, the main characters in this graphic novel seem to have little potential for character development or for serious action. None are cops, scientists, accountants, ex-navy seals, movie stars, playboys or doctors. Good thing too. Why not be original? These are young people on their way to plant trees when the apocalypse begins. As the story unfolds the characters develop, including the dog's. The good guys separate from the bad and when they reveal their addictions, more intrigue is generated. It’s a brilliant concept is that the zombies are also addicts, but for blood, which allows for discussions of addiction, unusual fair for the zombie genre.
Kurt also brings up other philosophical questions in Nowadays without being didactic, using another unique addition to the genre: as a zombie obtains more blood, the more it is able to think, have some sense of morality and regenerate. Unable to get blood, it becomes more ugly and more likely to turn into a crazed unthinking animal chasing humans down the street.
The craving for blood, like the craving for narcotics, can bring out the best or the worst in a character who has become a zombie, especially one satiated on blood and which had no scruples when human. Without scruples it is a very deadly zombie. Along with being more powerful, it can plan and set traps. It is more frightening than the traditional zombie, harder to kill, and more evil than a vampire. Vampires are distracted by beautiful women, can't go out during the day, are afraid of crosses, holy water, and garlic.
In Nowadays, when a character first wakes as a zombie, it hears a mysterious voice, speaking the single Latin phrase, "Cruor est vox." And although brief, there's a dream sequence involving a love scene. Together these elements suggest that a higher power might be involved in the madness. It's a wonderful way to maintain suspense and offers opportunities for sequels, which could build on the mysteries.
Kurt wrote the first draft for Nowadays in 1999, originally as a screenplay; inspired by zombie movies and later from a film he starred in, Zombie Massacre (the first full length feature film to be shot in Thunder Bay in 75 years). He later married his co-star, Sarah Boyer. They now have two children. Chris Merkley worked full time for three years on the illustrations. They printed two thousand copies and have sold over four hundred copies in just a couple months, so it’s a raging success and found an eager audience. Nowadays can be found at Comix Plus, Hill City Comics, True North Community Co-op, Gallery 33, The Loop, and soon at Chapters/Indigo.
[Added Text for this blog]
An incredible amount of work has to be plotted for the most basic scenes, backgrounds, layouts wiht characters, placing, pacing, action, etc. Chris sticks to drawing people primarily, and uses photos as backdrops, but with some basic photoshop tricks the photos become mottled and blurred when necessary to suggest motion, and layered to suggest depth and perspective when needed. He explained that this was no easy feat, that it would have been easier to have drawn the backgrounds. He had to scout for locations, get permission to use the locales, and sort through thousands of images to pick the ones that would best suit the background for the action. This is a collage method, which is supposed to make the task easier.
Collage was first used by illustrators long before Braque and Picasso claimed to have invented it, by the likes of Maxfield Parrish, to assemble images together that might otherwise be complex to draw, and create jarring effects. Chris uses images of trees, cars, shop exteriors, shop interiors with stocked shelves, clouds and ATVs. With his drawing and photo combination, he pulls of an impressive one man show of visual art. Once in a while the backgrounds invade the foreground, but not often enough to affect the ensemble.
There's a good deal of suspense in the novel as well. One is quickly swept up. Part of this is successfully achieved by the simplicity of the drawing, where the details don't rule, and the characters are full of motion and emotion. Close ups images intersect on the same page with setting shots. Backgrounds change to suit the mood of a scene. Panels change to suit the action.
The potential for the story is crazy and complex - where morality and philosophy about what we are gets involved. Zombies that slide in and out of the ability to think and love is a great allegory for who we might be, or at least for a certain percentage of us. We are supposed to be at our best when we are at our worst, but what if that isn't true? What if when times are bad, many of us become bad? There were a great number of suicides during the first Great Depression, but some referred to these times as the greatest time of their life, where people came together to share and celebrate life, because they needed each other and were able to appreciate the little things.
Even the dog in Nowadays presents a great allegorical dynamic. The reader is unsure as to weather Kurt is giving the dog the ability to think and talk, or if it's a zombie, high on blood that makes him imagine he can communicate with the dog. It's a great way to introduce sideline stories involving animals that become zombies, yet develop human characteristics should they eat human blood.
And the reader can't help asking, so what virus is in this blood? It must be airborne. And the mysteries suggest that this could be the beginning of an alien invasion, like Day of the Triffids, but with much crueler intent. The possibilities for multiple story lines with this new concept are endless and could be developed into an extended series.
Some great lines in Nowadays are: "Thanks again for not eating me!" "It's hard to get assholes to think of anybody but themselves." "Nowadays, the monsters have no need to hide." "If nobody truly dies, what's to stop people from being their true selves."
Nowadays presents opportunities for Kurt and other writers to tread down new allegorical paths, yet keep all the bloodthirsty fun and violence - spurring more creative stories within the zombie genre. And Nowadays would make a worthwhile film.