I’ve been watching the CW television series iZombie and thinking of few things. Like, how glad I am that it’s not a faithful adaptation of the comic iZombie. And whether all apocalypses, even zombie ones, are personal. And I can’t help wondering if my zombie fatigue has gone into remission. Have I been cured?
The comic form of iZombie was written by Chris Roberson and drawn by Mike Allred with colors by Laura Allred. Its twenty-eight issues have been collected in four slim volumes: Dead To The World (Vertigo, 2011); uVampire (2011); Six Feet Under And Rising (2012); and Repossession (2012). In the comic, Gwen Dylan lives in Eugene, Oregon and works as a gravedigger and lives in a crypt on the cemetery grounds, but she has a pretty sweet fashion sense and a powerful hanking for brains. Gwen doesn’t remember everything about her life before she was a zombie and if she doesn’t eat, she forgets everything.
“I have to eat a brain once a month or I go all mindless and shambling. Total Night Of The Living Dead. Not that the alternative’s so freakin’ great. You are what you eat after all, and when you eat brains—well, you get the idea.”
Once she’s eaten someone’s brain, she has flashes of the dead person’s life and the strong compulsion to finish their unfinished business. When the feeling’s passed, Gwen paints in her crypt or hangs out with her friend Ellie, the ghost of a woman who died in the Sixties and has a pretty sweet fashion sense of her own. Sometimes they visit a local diner, Dixie’s Firehouse and meet their friend Scott, aka, Spot, a were-terrier who works IT at a local retirement community. The comic is sort of like That Girl, My So-Called Life or The Mary Tyler Moore Show, if That Girl were also a zombie and The Mary Tyler Moore Show left the office more and had a lot of classic Universal monster references, vampires running a paintball range called, Blood Sport; John Amon, a murderous local mummy who’s focused on living forever and forestalling the apocalypse; Dr. Galatea, a mad scientist who’s set on re-animating the dead for her own reasons (Thank you very much, Baron Frankenstein); a pair monster hunters investigating all the monster activity in Eugene, one of whom is in love with Gwen; and the Dead Presidents, a secret government team with its own agenda. Oh, and Scott’s grampa’s soul is inhabiting the body of a chimpanzee. So, maybe not really like those shows, except iZombie is snappy and fun and Gwen is trying to figure out what she should do with her so-called afterlife.
I’m not really sure I should call iZombie the television series an adaptation of iZombie comic. The comic certainly inspired the television series, but the show deviates from the comic in pretty significant ways and I think that was a wise choice. I think a “faithful” adaptation of the comic would be hard to pull off well in anything but an animated format—and not just because I love the art. One of the best things about comics is that so many things and ideas and creatures and powers can exist seamlessly in the same world. They are usually physically on the same plane. They are usually in the same style. Everything is equally believable and unbelievable according to the established constraints of the world. There is no problem of re-suspending your disbelief because cosmic, Lovecraftian horror just looks wrong—and not wrong in the right way. I would fear the graphics available for a Lovecraftian horror on a CW show would make suspending disbelief difficult. And while I do enjoy epic struggles of cosmic implications sometimes, I just find I enjoy them more in comics or pulp fiction than in tv or film lately. In any faithful live action adaptation of the comic, there would be the temptation to make the apocalypse impersonal—to make it about the hero’s painful choice, losing the apocalypse everyone is experiencing in making the hero the relatable character, if only for economy’s sake. But the apocalypse is personal for everyone.
In the television show, Seattle medical student Liv Moore (Rose McIver) attends a party that ends with a very small scale zombie apocalypse, a boat-sized one. Where Gwen doesn’t remember what happened to her, Liv knows from the start. In fact, it’s right in the credits, which is very convenient. (Also, please note Mike and Laura Allred’s sweet art). A drug dealer drinking an energy drink suddenly goes all rage zombie, scratches her and she wakes up dead in a body bag on the shore of Lake Washington. Liv goes to work for the Seattle Medical Examiner’s Office, in part for access to brains. Liv experiences flashbacks from the lives of the people whose brains she eats. And like Gwen she feels some sense of responsibility towards these people. But where Gwen seems almost haunted by the spirits of the dead, Liv picks up their traits and memories. And she uses these memories to solve crimes, mostly murders, ’cause, you know, murder victim brains. Liv doesn’t tell her fiance, her best friend or her mother what happened to her and why she broke off her engagement and changed everything in her life. Instead, she shuts them out or lies to them for what she believes is the best. Her boss, Ravi Chakrabarti (Rahul Kohli), is the only one who does know and not because she told him. He figures out pretty fast that Liv is a zombie. And when Liv shows strange insight into what happened to a victim, Ravi explains to Det. Clive Barbineau (Malcolm Goodwin) that she’s psychic. Barbineau goes with it, because it seems to work.
In some ways, iZombie reminds me of the Korean television drama, Vampire Prosecutor. In Vampire Prosecutor, Prosecutor Min Tae-yeon (Yeon Jung-hoon) survives an automobile accident only to discover that he has developed a thirst for blood. A vampire dedicated to justice, Prosecutor Min refuses to drink the blood of living human beings. Instead, he only drinks human blood when he’s on the case—blood samples from murder victims. Unfortunately, dead people’s blood makes vampires sick, but drinking the samples enables him to see the victim’s last few moments, giving him a seemingly uncanny insight into the crimes. And where in iZombie, the camera travels through Liv’s eyes into her brain cells when she has a flash, when Prosecutor Min drinks blood, we follow the platelets down to his heart before seeing what the victim saw. But while there is tremendous overlap in the Venn Diagram describing CW shows and K-dramas, iZombie is less serious in tone and has much less graphic violence and gore than Vampire Prosecutor. iZombie is a CW show developed by Veronica Mars‘ Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero. If Vampire Prosecutor is all brooding and tailored, intriguing work jackets, iZombie is about working out how to have a life in neat hoodies and interesting casual jackets.
Instead of trying for a perfect recreation of the comic, Thomas and Ruggiero stick with the zombified woman who eats brains and sees visions, making references to the comic here and there. For example, Ravi plays a were-terrier in a online role-playing game. And Liv’s ex becomes a kind of monster hunter. But so far there hasn’t been monsters other than zombies. But as zombie and artisanal brain dealer Blaine (David Anders) says, “Oh, c’mon. Eating brains doesn’t make you a monster. It takes a little more effort.”
And the apocalypse that is brewing on the show is much less cosmic than in the comic. More and more zombies appear in Seattle, people disappear and the Max Rager energy drink company is up to no good. Liz’s personal life and problems are hopelessly intertwined with the brewing zombie apocalypse, police corruption, corporate evil and her fiancé Major (Robert Buckley) going rogue. It all comes together at Meat Cute, the Blaine’s fancy butcher shop and front for his extortion racket. Regardless of whether she should’ve told her loved ones that she was a zombie or whether they would have believed her, Liv’s lies and omissions build momentum creating her own little end times.
The end times become personal for Gwen, when she looks at the people she loves and must decide whether or not to kill them. In the comics, John Amon tells her that she must absorb the souls of everyone in Eugene to save the world from the terrible, soul-sucking, extradimensional entity Xitalu. It’s cosmic and interdimensional. It involves many different kinds of supernatural beings and a complicated explanation of oversouls, undersouls and how zombies work.* It’s a much more complicated explanation that a bad mix of a designer drug and an experimental energy drink or a greedy dealer making a new life for himself by infecting others with the zombie plague and then selling brains to his new customers. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think that both the comic and the series show the personal nature of an apocalypse. Theirs is different than the one that’s sort of shown in cruddier ways in some of the big budget movies lately, where buildings and people are masses that represent the difficult choices and struggles of the heroes. iZombie the tv show stays focuses on the smaller scale—Liv and the people around her. The kinds of things that individuals can do depending on their knowledge, skills, access and means.
In the comic, the cosmic returns to the immediate, the personal. When Xitalu begins to obtrude on our reality, Gwen goes looking for her friends. And as she does, her friends, family and even people she doesn’t like very much all converge on the bus station as everyone desperately seeks to escape Xitalu and the terrible beings accompanying him. So Gwen is put in the immediate position of choosing whether or not she kills everyone she loves to save the world. And all those people, vampires, were-terriers, family she hasn’t seen in months have lives that aren’t all about Gwen. Lives we see in the comic. And in the end, Gwen makes her own plan. And I don’t really think it’s a spoiler to say: We’re going to make it after all.
*This is the only part of the comic that dragged for me. It was necessary, but iZombie is at its best when things are moving fast.
Despite her recent Zombie Fatigue remission, Carol Borden still prefers not to eat brains or other organ meats.
This piece was published by The Cultural Gutter on July 16, 2015