It’s the time of year when a young woman’s thoughts naturally turn to skeletons and zombies, death and dying. I like bats, boneyards, snappy girls from beyond, hideous mockeries of humanity fermented in swamps, creepy happenings and bones, bones, bones.
I like horror comics, even if I don’t really like being horrified. I like the idea that there’s something else, not necessarily “more” just “else,” and the fantastic is pretty much filed under “horror” now. Since it’s the time of year for it, I’ve been reading the Dead Girl miniseries and thinking some about death, zombies and dead superheros.
Peter Milligan, Nick Dragotta and Mike Allred’s Dead Girl is a little wonky, but fun, and has some of the burlesque spirit I associate with representations of death—role reversals and low humor. Dr. Strange’s dignity takes some hits, including the revelation that he has piles. Mr. Sensitive has become way too sensitive in heaven. Mockingbird, Gwen Stacy and Moira MacTaggart are bored of death and killing eternity in a book club. The art’s the best part, with unerased pencils, a layered acetate over art paper look and nice colors by Laura Allred. There’s also a cute meta-narrative about how popular Marvel heroes return from the dead. Just be aware that it’s cute, not mind-expanding.
Dead Girl was a member of Mike Allred’s X-Statix, a group of superheros mostly focused on fame and money. Like many depictions of death and the dead, say José Guadalupé Posada’s cosmopolitan calaveras or Hans Holbein’s Totentanz and intrusive anamorphic skulls, Dead Girl is sassy. A Torontonian might even call her inappropriate. Her power was being dead, but even though she was pre-dead, she died. And strangely enough, this time I didn’t mind another X-Man dying.
I minded a whole lot in the past. I read X-Men as a kid along with comics like Black Panther and my sister’s copies of Spider-Man, but I dropped them all because I got tired of X-Men dying. The stimulus response stopped responding. It was like hitting the same spot on my arm over and over, so I couldn’t tell if it was numbing or irritating as hell. Every time an X-Man kicked it—or seemed to kick it—became just plain annoying.
Instead, I read things like the underground/art magazine Raw, which featured the creepy stylings of Charles Burns and, one of my favorite artists, Richard Sala. So it probably won’t surprise you that I got sucked back into mainstream comics through horror, especially once I saw Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. It’s kind of funny, because while the comics are very different in tone and quality, I don’t think there’d be a Dead Girl without Swamp Thing.
1954 was a busy year. Fredric Wertham published, Seduction of the Innocent, warning that graphic comics led to juvenile delinquency and the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on juvenile delinquency. In response, the Comics Code Authority prohibited portrayals of the walking dead, werewolves and vampires as well as cannibalism and necrophilia. “Terror” and “horror” were banned from use in titles. It might seem crazy that comics and pulps before then featured, say, necrophilia or cannibalism, but some of the EC comics covers are pretty hard going. Vampires and werewolves made it back into respectable comics under the revised 1971 code. Zombies, in all their lurid and unsavory glory, stayed disreputable.
At least they did until Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing. I’m surprised that Len Wein and Berni Wrightson’s original Swamp Thing was even CCA-approved. Their Swamp Thing was a murdered man dumped into a swamp who rises again as a “muck-encrusted mockery of a man.” (Yay!) Under Moore, inker John Totleben and penciller Steve Bissette, Swamp Thing was the first DC comic to be published without the CCA’s seal of wholesome freshness. In fact, they went the code one better with a storyline involving rotting zombies, necrophilia, incest and implied rape—Abby Cable (nee Arcane) discovers that her husband, Matt, has been dead for months and his corpse is inhabited by the damned soul of her evil-minded uncle, Anton Arcane. It’s hard to argue the nastiness was gratuitous, but it’s the kind of trick that can only be pulled off once.
I’m pretty sure that without Alan Moore’s shuddersome storyline, Peter Milligan and Mike Allred wouldn’t have been able to publish their diverting Dead Girl miniseries. Saga of the Swamp Thing showed that mainstream horror comics could be successful without the CCA seal. Superhero or not, the CCA wouldn’t approve Dead Girl manifesting on earth in a body constructed from stuff Dr. Strange found at “Pathmart,” including a lot of meat (no pork) and a wig. She certainly wouldn’t have a fling with Dr. Strange, necrophilia gone Allred snappy.
Do you hear that sound? That’s Fredric Wertham is groaning in his grave. Wertham must long to rise and put an end to all these zombies, but can’t figure out how to do it tastefully and without desensitizing young people, by exposing them to his gruesome and grisly self.
While she spends much of her time writing and drawing, Carol Borden has a serious plan in case of a zombie plague.
(Originally published at The Cultural Gutter on November 8, 2006)