I think after The Walking Dead premiered, we entered a nadir in the zombie craze. We're dipping towards the valley floor in the sine wave, and once season 3 of TWD starts, I'm sure we'll climb back up a bit. These periods of zombiephilia used to be something that happened within nerd circles--Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later really only garnered massive attention among the glasses-clad while making moderate waves in their immediate cultural periphery. Now that the nerds are having kids, even media giants can't ignore it. One thing I didn't really anticipate from the zombie industry was an attempt to make them family-friendly. Well, at least I think that Rex: Zombie Killer is aiming to be family-friendly. I know I'm certainly not the first reviewer to make the "Homeward Bound meets The Walking Dead" comparison, so I might be on to something. Let's go through the checklist:
-Talking animals? Check.
-Storytelling techniques and plot points common to children's literature and film? Check.
-Art style that anthropomorphicizes animals? Check.
-Characters defined primarily by a single emotion/attitude that is revealed through dialogue? Check.
-Anti-animal abuse message? Check.
-Amoral 80s biker gang as the chief villain? Check.
Okay, so it's got all that stuff. Then we have this.
I mean yeah, I've been playing Doom since second grade. Dad told me the exploded piles of mush at the business end of the rocket launcher were "Pop Tarts" to soothe my PTSD instincts. I think the reason this is weird to me is because, you know, I associate talking animals with dogs and cats that crack witty jokes telepathically, and one of the dogs is voiced by Michael J. Fox. Then of course, there was We3, which had a nearly identical premise to this but wasn't shy to get bloody and make the US Government into villains. I'm not entirely sure who the audience for this is, since we've got gorillas caving people's skulls in with a baseball bats, and corgis singing cow-herding songs like you might hear in a Disney cartoon. Otherwise the violence is generally PG-13 (mild violence, occasional blood--and that severed head.)
So the plot goes like this: You have these dogs, a cat and a gorilla, all of them given the ability to talk through the magic of animal experiments. The ability to understand each other is pretty handy, of course, given that they all became friends in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, so now the leader, Rex (take a guess which one he is) decides that this group of animals ought to head a few hundred miles to Nevada to find the scientist that gave him speech. Supposedly that will save them from this whole kerfuffle, or at least give them shelter for a short time. The plan gets snuffed briefly when Brutus the Pit Bull gets kidnapped by the aforementioned amoral 80s biker gang, which apparently runs a weird complex in the woods where they have dogs fight zombies for fun.
So I think there's a clear anti-animal abuse message there. While the bikers are all Michael Vick-ing the place up, the heroes form a plan to free Brutus and the other dogs held there. It's standard fare as far as plots go, but the premise makes things interesting by highlighting that the interests of animals and humans aren't necessarily congruent. Maybe that's nothing new since The Walking Dead highlights the whole "humans murdering each other for scant resources" thing, but it has the potential to go deeper. It was a one-shot comic, but I could see future stories in this world if the writer wants to take it to those "deeper places."
Writer Rob Anderson's dialogue is pretty clear cut. The characters all prefer to tell us about their personality differences more often than showing us which can sometimes get tedious, but in a book aimed at a younger audience (as I'm still postulating this is), it's not an unfamiliar device. One strange thing though is that they speak in that kind of semi-high vocabulary style where they use words like "mustn't" instead of "can't" or "shouldn't," and generally tend to avoid slang. It keeps the text easy to read and is reminiscent of a style I've seen used before, as though if animals really did start talking they'd speak like Optimus Prime or something. But who knows. Maybe animals really do have a better vocabulary than the average human and we just don't know it yet.
Each character is distinctly basic: Rex is the Noble Leader archetype, Brutus is the Maverick, Snowball is the Jaded, Selfish One, Buttercup is Oddly Happy-Go-Lucky for a dog living in the apocalypse, and Kenji is the Withdrawn, Intelligent Giant. They're good foundations to start with, and with that variety it's easy to make a character driven plot with these elements, so it'll be interesting to see how these characters evolve in the coming issues.
The anthropomorphic facial expressions weird me out though.
The art style is generally consistently good, primarily dominated by cool and Earth tones to give it a look that's gloomy but still leaving room for optimism (As well as a chance for Rex and his team to contrast their own brighter shades and qualities against the bleak landscape. It's always great to see this kind of thought put into coloring.). But the attempt to make the animals more sympathetic occasionally led to some design choices that make the characters look odd. Artist Dafu Yu has got his anatomy and proportions down but humanizing animal faces, even for a young-adult or children's comic, makes them awkward to look at. Kenji's (the gorilla) face is especially kind of strange. If there's one thing I would change about the art in this book, that would be it. I think he might need to shift further in the direction of iconic faces to achieve a more comfortable look. A few of his human poses look kind of stilted and could use improvement but generally he does all right with it. And he definitely excels at characterization of the animals (even when their human facial expressions freak me out) which can often be a challenge. Otherwise, his zombies look good, he can make some real detailed scenery, and he can do action scenes with lots of activity without them feeling stilted or losing the flow of the book. Which is always a positive.
Aside from some minor problems, I think this is a decent starting point for this artistic team. It looks odd in some cases and it's not reaching for the stars or anything, but it's coherent and I didn't dislike reading it. I don't know if you like your talking dogs mingling with your zombies, but if you like the premise, check it out. Personally I don't think it's necessarily my cup of tea (again, as an adult I'm not sure I'm exactly the target audience), but that doesn't mean it's bad. I certainly don't recommend against it.
TL; DR: Rex, Zombie Killer mixes one kids' movie with one zombie comic and comes up with something that's fairly middle of the road. It does well with some things while others could use some fleshing out. For a new creator-owned one-shot it definitely hits a lot of the right marks.
Rex, Zombie Killer is written by Rob Anderson, illustrated by Dafu Yu and published by Big Dog Ink. You can visit their site here and purchase a copy here, or use the comic shop locator to pick it up at one near you.
A free review copy of this comic was graciously provided by the creators. Thanks guys, we appreciate it.