by Charles Meier
Though I’m a few years too young to claim personal experience, I’ve always found the early-to-mid 1980s a fascinating time for American comics. The emergence of the direct market meant comics no longer had to fight for scraps of spinner-rack space in newsstands and supermarkets. This in turn contributed to the ongoing decline of the once-draconian Comics Code Authority, as “mature content” could now (theoretically!) be kept safely out of reach of children.
It was a time of industry-wide growing pains. Many of the period’s writers and artists were relative newcomers, still struggling to perfect their craft. The overwhelming popular opinion that comics were a children’s medium extended even--if only in part--to many of the creators themselves. The writing and art were often rough (though this improved over time, as the creators grew more experienced), and the tone could be inconsistent as creators attempted to inject humor and juvenilia where it often wasn’t appropriate.
The result of all this is that comics of the period often resemble nothing so much as exceptionally violent Saturday-morning cartoons. Not that this precludes enjoyment--far from it! If I had to use one phrase to describe ‘80s third-party comics, it would be “endearingly crappy”. You know they’re not all that good from a strictly intellectual point of view, but their adamant refusal to be offensive about it keeps you reading. Leave “strictly intellectual” for the Ultimate Warrior comics.
The benefits of the direct market also served to break--or at least loosen--the grip of the Marvel-DC duopoly, clearing the path for both the self-publishing boom and third-party publishers such as Comico, Eclipse, and First Comics. These three, the longest-lived of the bunch, produced a great many of the period’s classic titles, but the latter is the one I’m concerned with today.
Ah, First Comics. The company that brought Lone Wolf and Cub to our shores years before manga was cool or profitable in this country. The company that plucked Mike Baron and Steve Rude from obscurity by picking up the Nexus ball and running with it for eighty issues. The company that brought us Jon Sable Freelance, a title I discovered in IDW omnibus form and found myself enjoying way the hell more than I probably should.
Clearly, then, I have a bit of a soft spot for this company. So when I heard the long-defunct First was resuming operations this year, my celebrations could have incurred a 15-yard penalty, were I in the NFL (which would have been preferable to the indecent-exposure charge, to be honest). Finding out they were publishing something called Frickin’ Butt-Kickin’ Zombie Ants made it all the better. “Sweet!” said I. “With a title like that it can’t NOT be awesome! I’ll bet it’s a parody of all those crappy TMNT clones from the ‘80s! This is gonna be hilarious!”
Frickin’ Butt-Kickin’ Zombie Ants is, indeed, a parody of bad TMNT ripoffs. The plot concerns with four huge (as in five feet tall), four-armed prehistoric ants infected with the no-kidding-totally-real-life-seriously-you-guys mind-control zombie fungus. Placed in suspended animation by an erupting volcano, the titular ants awaken in the modern day to a world plagued with zombies. The twist: there are both good and bad zombies. The good ones, led by undead scientist Professor Haversham, subsist on a synthetic brain substitute while attempting peaceful coexistence with humanity. The bad ones, led by the Gobbler King, will have none of that processed-food crap, insisting on organic free-range human brains. Adopted, named, clothed and armed by the good zombies, zombie ants Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gorky and Nabokov fight to protect their new friends from bad zombies and zombie-hunters alike, as well as protect themselves from the giant flies who seek to lay eggs in their bodies so their larvae can eat their heads from the inside out (again completely real, except for the “giant” part).
As parodies go, Frickin’ Butt-Kickin’ Zombie Ants is note-bloody-perfect. The Fillbach Bros.’ artwork captures the period’s style to an impressive degree, with sterile detail (particularly in depictions of architecture and machinery, which often seem as though they belong in an entirely different comic) sharing uncomfortable tenancy with the cartoony and near-amateurish. This last should not be taken as an insult, however, as there is plenty to be admired here; I particularly liked the lavish articulation on the zombie ants and decapitating flies, and the massive, bestial Gobbler King exudes apish menace (cutoff jeans notwithstanding).
The comic’s writing, as with its art, is a flawless imitation, adapting the “fling the whole pot of spaghetti and see what sticks” comedic approach of its milieu, from the pop-culture ephemera strewn across its panels down to the “funny“ comments in the legal fine print. Writer Steve Stern handily manages that Saturday-morning cartoon approach I mentioned earlier, crafting one-dimensional characters (the zombie ants are distinguishable only by their choice of hat and weapon) so well you almost don’t mind. Almost.
Which brings me to my chief problem with all this. You see, this comic’s best quality is also its worst quality. Frickin’ Butt-Kickin’ Zombie Ants is too flawless, too slavish a parody, to the point that I’m not even sure it’s supposed to be a parody. If you handed this to an old-timer First Comics reader/collector and told him this was a work from the ‘80s s/he’d somehow missed, nothing in the comic itself would persuade him/her otherwise, apart from the copyright and artist tags, but who looks at those? Well, I suppose collectors do…
But you get my point, right? The comic fair to leaps over the Parody Threshold--that point of no return where a parody becomes the thing it’s parodying. The illusion stands even from a technical standpoint--the lettering, the printing, the shape of the freaking word bubbles…even the fake sea-monkeys ad on the back is too accurate, with only a few weak jokes thrown in to confirm its fakeness.
I’ll admit I’m slightly worried about the larger implications. The last thing I want is for the new First Comics, rather than approach the modern comics industry with an eye toward innovation and new talent, to instead devolve into a niche nostalgia peddler, seeking only to relive its glory days with endless rehashes. It is, of course, entirely too early to tell--perhaps my pessimism affects my objectivity.
If I sound condemnatory, I don’t mean to. There’s nothing outright offensive about Frickin’ Butt-Kickin’ Zombie Ants, but there isn’t much to recommend it either--certainly it can’t support a second issue (something I dearly hope Stern & Co. realize). It is endearingly crappy, but its choice of subject matter skews it too far towards “crappy”. However you look at it, all the TMNT ripoffs were the worst part of the Eighties self/third-party publishing scene, and arguably what led to its downfall (especially once TMNT itself more or less became what it was supposed to be making fun of). If nothing else, Stern and the Fillbachs (sounds like a folk group, doesn’t it?) are to be commended for its insane attention to detail. Any creative team with this kind of energy and drive is bound to have a project worth its sticker price in it somewhere.
TL;DR A parody of TMNT ripoffs so dead-on it actually becomes a TMNT ripoff in both the best and worst way possible.
A review copy of Frickin' Butt-Kickin' Zombie Ants was graciously provided to Spandexless by the publisher.
Charles Meier is a guy who read way too many comics for his own good. He’s also convinced the inside of his head is the scariest place on earth and he has the hilariously NSFW travelogues to prove it. See them for yourself at theinvertedpanopticon.blogspot.com.