Here's an oddity for me and I'm not even sure what I should call it. My go-to term for a collection of comic books is a graphic novel, but this isn't one of those, because it's an anthology. Maybe it's just a graphic anthology and I'm overthinking things, but maybe it isn't. Whatever it is, it's a collection of different stories in graphic form, written and illustrated by myriad hands, which share a common theme, that of inserting the living dead into the past rather than the present.
Every time I review an anthology, I point out that they tend to be mixed bags and this is absolutely no exception. There's some really good stuff here, but there's some much more amateur stuff too, a criticism that I can't explain away because it simply needed to be done better. I can explain away the varied quality in writing though, because it seems like the editors or publishers or whoever put the original concept together for this volume and commissioned these stories didn't give the writers as many pages as they frankly needed to do justice to the theme.
It starts out really well, because the nine stories are presented in chronological order and the best one is the earliest, a piece about the battle of Thermopylae in 489 BC, in which three hundred brave Spartans and Greeks, led by King Leonidas, defended that pass against millions of Persian soldiers under the command of King Xerxes. We all know the story nowadays, because it's been told in comic book form before, as Frank Miller's 300, and memorably adapted to film by Zack Snyder.
This telling is only eight pages, but it questions the consensus that there were millions of Persians, suggesting that there could only have been millions if they were zombies, needing no food or water and always shambling forward. The story by Rob Anderson manages to cover everything needed for a dynamic eight pages with room for a neat and worthy twist. The only thing better than this story in this volume is the art that brings it to life, courtesy of artist Dafu Yu. It's glorious and busy and epic, as any telling of this legend should.
It's fair to say that Derek Chase is completely unable to follow that quality of art, but I like his far simpler work in the second story too. We jump forward almost a millennium and a half, to Erik the Red and a plan for Vikings to settle Greenland in AD 986. It doesn't work out and I'm sure you don't need me to tell you why at this point, but writer Neil Fisher struggles with the eight-page limit. He starts and finishes a story well enough, but there's little substance here and I can't blame him for it in the slightest. How do you cover so much in such a limited space? Maybe Rob Anderson could find a way, but maybe it was never going to happen.
Eric Drumm takes an interesting approach to this conundrum by avoiding a plot entirely in favour of a mindset in his story set in the feudal Japan of 1468. It's about the honour of the samurai and it comes across well when zombies prove to be the test. Other details turn out to be unnecessary and a majority of the frames drawn well by Leandro Panganiban have no words at all. The truest films are those without dialogue and that applies to the truest comic books too. Let the art tell the story.
Last month I reviewed the graphic novel 'Silent Knight', written by George O'Connor and drawn by Dafu Yu. Both of those names are here, but while I much prefer Yu's art in this book, I'm not so fond of O'Connor's story, which ought to be a gimme, set on Roanoke Island in 1587. To be fair, his story is the best thing about this piece, because the art by Eric Carter is enthusiastic but apparently the work of a promising but green amateur and the letterer apparently didn't report for duty, leaving everything to be explained in Arial italic. No, thank you.
At this point everything focuses in on American history, with stories set during the expeditions of Lewis and Clark; the burning of Washington, DC by the British during the War of 1812, making this yet another oddly topical volume for January 2021; and the Badlands of South Dakota, a story that attempts to explain how Teddy Roosevelt found his positivity again after losing both his wife and his mother in the winter of 1884. I really like the artwork of Frederick Kim here, which reminds me of the classic era of British comics, full of admirable detail but never overwhelming the page.
Almost inevitably, there's a Jack the Ripper story, though writer Joshua Osborne manages to endow it with impressive originality and neat irreverence given the limitations inherent in only six pages. Perhaps he saw how impossible doing these stories justice in eight pages was and said, screw it, I'll bring mine in within only six. The volume wraps up with a Cold War story set in Moscow in 1961, an original piece that suggests that the zombie virus was brought back to Earth from space. It was very cool to see a zombie Laika!
This is a relatively thin volume, those nine stories wrapping up in eighty pages, so the presence of working art and storyboarding is welcome, if less so than usual because each writer and artist gets very little space for no better reason than there are so many of them here to showcase. And so this is just like a regular prose anthology in being a mixed bag. Fortunately, when it's good, it's notably good. I need to look into what Rob Anderson, Frederick Kim and Dafu Yu have done elsewhere. ~~ Hal C F Astell