ZOMBIES: A Record of the Year of Infection
Field Notes by Dr. Robert Twombly
Written by: Don Roff, Illustrated by: Chris Lane, Edited By: Amy Wideman
My Foreword: 'Zombies' is a graphic novel set during a year in which a zombie virus progressed throughout the world, bringing civilization crashing down. The first thing I thought about was World War Z. This could be seen as an almost direct relation to that book. Since this graphic novel centers so heavily around one man and those survivors that he meets, it could be an expanded version of the individual tales in 'Z'. This will be a Mini-Review, in that there isn't going to be the page by page of other comic reviews. This will be more of a general outline along the lines of my very first reviews for WATCHERS, Season 1.
The reason is that most of the pages contain a date and some sort of minimal writing which would make it difficult to have a running commentary about. There just isn't going to be anything really in depth I can add; my commentary will add up to the things I'll mention in 'The Good, The Bad, The Score' section.
Their Foreword: What follows is a found manuscript. The author/illustrator of this book, Robert Twombly, was a blood specialist native to Seattle, Washington. Dr. Twombly witnessed the worldwide necrotic infection that, as we now know, began suddenly on or around January 7, 2012. The infection lasted approximately one year, and during that time all known zombies either decayed enough to succumb to their physical limitations or were destroyed by pockets of human survivors.
Dr. Twombly's journal is a unique record of the time of infection in that it seeks to understand the undead by living among them. It is also the record of the author's day-to-day experiences at a time when such records were not commonly kept.
The manuscript was found inside an empty cottage in the town of Churchill, at the edge of Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba, Canada. The whereabouts and the fate of the author are unknown. His notations have been reproduced here in their entirety.
The graphic novel is presented as if someone had actually written these words (they're not typed out, they're written unevenly across the page, there are 'smudges', 'crossed out entries', etc.). In addition, there are a lot of drawings and sketchings that are rough, smudged and smeared in some places... the cover gives you the idea:
On January 12, 2012 Dr. Twombly makes his first entry on the new infection that seems to be sweeping the globe. The headlines are already telling of a possible bio-weapon attack, that thousands are suddenly ill, that there have been reports of patients attacking hospital personnel and so on. Among the doctor's observations is how fast the first patients became ill and how quickly it spread. He lets us know that filtration systems used to protect the military when they were called out to keep order failed to protect them from being sick. He mentions an estimate that 90% of downtown Seattle appears to have gotten sick. He worries that this will be an extinction level event for mankind. We get a sketch from these early days of a system breaking down as the virulence of this unidentified pestulance becomes obvious. Power outages become the norm and hospitals are over full capacity. A news black out is instituted, but it is hopeless - everyone can see with their own eyes how bad things are.
We get a rundown of the early symptoms - flu like, red eyes, fluid about the lips, constriction of nasal passages. As things progress, the patients stop eating. They suffer diarrhea and vomiting. Body aches intensify until patient limbs are contorted and cramped. No bacteria, virus or other pathogens can be found to explain this. Shortly after patients succumb - too quickly to even move them to the morgue - they become animated again, with no scientific explanation. Basic function return to the limbs, but there is no recordable respiration and no heart rate. Jaws open as if in anticipation of biting action.
Very quickly Robert is reduced to a staff of two, not including himself. And then, one of his fellow scientists turns. They get her into a secured cold locker, but not before she bites Robert's assistant Paul. The bite infections spreads rapidly and nothing they try works to stem his death and reanimation. He's able to use a beaker of hydrochloric acid to stop Paul. Carla continues pounding at all hours at the cold room door....
By observing the zombies from the roof of the lab, he's able to make some general statements about the undead's capabilities:
A) They have less than normal strength individually.
B) They generally move a decreased speed due to the degrading state of the musculature.
C) They seem to have a voracious appetite, but since they're dead and can't digest, it seems to serve no physical purpose.
D) They gather in groups - purpose unknown.
A week on and his snack supplies are becoming perilously low. Carla in the cold locker is still animated, but no longer pounding at the door. Cold has a similar effect on the zombies as on people - their limbs start to go stiff after prolonged exposure.
A hospital intern has managed to survive. He's made his way to the lab because of the 'Help' signs Robert posted in the windows. He tells his story of what happened at the hospital, but it's basically what has already been outlined by Robert, himself.
Ryan and Robert manage an escape from the lab to Ryan's houseboat. He's hysterical to find that his girlfriend is no where in evidence, but there is a lot of blood on the deck. They soon manage to pull it together in order to hunt the neighbors for supplies. Robert opines that it will take significant trauma to the brain to stop the undead because small caliber rounds, even to the head, do nothing. They run into another survivor, Jeri and her dog, out on a lake. She's been drifting for a few days, out of gas - as are Robert and Ryan's outboard now, so they can't get back to Ryan's houseboat.
After dark, they come ashore for food. They hole up in someone's house, making sure to block out all light that could draw attention. Jeri tells us her story.
Over the next several days, while out gathering wood for burning, Robert makes more observations of the zombie's physical breakdowns and the 'fact' that they seem to recall basic things they did with their lives beforehand. He also discovers a newspaper article that has him wondering if he's discovered the cause of the outbreak - a food additive from a biotech company. Their labs had been quarentined shortly before the worldwide outbreak as there appeared to be some sort of cumulative effect. Robert is now nervous about the food they've been living on - the additive is literally in nearly all processed products from corn chips to canned soups.
There is another attack as he is out wandering. He inadvertantly leads zombie school children to their safe site. Jeri hides a bite from them and later attacks them from within the house. In the struggle, Ryan is bitten and the house set ablaze. Robert runs away without the dog, who won't leave as he tries to protect the burning house from the advancing zombies. Ryan runs away into the woods, despairing what Jeri's bite means to him. Robert will never see him again.
About a month after the initial outbreak... a few days following the loss of the dog, Jeri and Ryan. He meets Katherine, but she doesn't hang around and isn't interested in them traveling together. She tells him she makes better time on her own. She mentions the paper articles about the food additive before everything went to Hell. Robert wants to travel to the lab in the article to look for some evidence of what they knew - perhaps he can use it to understand what has happened and how to stop it. She's uninterested.
He makes it to the company lab and finds an incriminating partial email printed out. It indicates that the additive didn't break down at sufficient levels to clear the human system when taken in high dosages. It has built up in humans until an undetermined toxicity is reached. People get sick. They need more research to study 'safe' levels of consumption and what the health impacts may be. Naturally, this is all hush-hush. Robert again realizes that everything he's eating from energy bars to enhanced bottled water could potentially be driving him toward the toxicity point. Nothing in the email refers to the living dead and there seems to be a possible genetic factor to how people react to the compound's build up in the system - nothing is clearly pointing to the C88 compound being responsible, but it is more than just suggestive. He can find nothing further that's useful without breaking into file cabinets, but the place is over run - he needs to get out.
He joins up temporarily with a group of hunters who have been travelling in a bus and treating the zombie situation as a carnival game. He doesn't stay with them long, but they have a hand crank radio (he steals) and they are receiving a broadcast from northern Canada. The transmission claims they've created a safe haven for suvivors who can reach them. On his trip northward, he has a few close calls with the shambling dead and passes through an abandoned town. He manages to find some food to stay alive.
He runs into a van of musicians who have managed to stay alive, as well. He joins them on the track north toward where the 'safe haven' is supposedly located. He gets their story.
They make it to a small farm surrounding an Inn. They're admitted after they pass quarentine. He records the farm's leader, Dale's, story. While Dale is the nominal leader, the farm is set up like a commune with community resources and community responsibilities. Everyone switches jobs so no one gets stuck with the harder work any more than anyone else. They've managed to intercept the zombies that wander this far north, so far, destroying them with minimal losses. Robert is happy to be around people in some semblance of normality after nearly two months of being on the constant run. He settles in.
He notes some disturbing trends among the zombies that find their way to the community. The occasional zombie has taken to picking up basic tools to use a shed door while chasing after a retreating cat. This seems to show some sort of basic problem solving development. The radio at 'The Farm' picks up other broadcasts as pockets of humanity begin to reassert themselves in isolated areas. Katherine shows up at 'The Farm', but only stays for a short time, preferring to keep moving.
There is a case of 'new zombiedom' inside the camp. A man who had not been bitten nor come into contact with any zombie body fluids. It adds to the feeling that they aren't safe and that the food additive build up may be continuing for some people. Dale admits that this has happened before.
They go for a week with no zombie sightings. Suddenly, they're attacked by a swarm of the gathered undead. Robert doesn't know how they managed to remain undetected that allowed them to congregate in such numbers. The Farm is overrun - he sees new friends go down, including Dale. He manages to make it out alive, somehow, with a dog, Marty. As far as he knows, no one else made it out.
He makes it to Churchill, another survived human settlement. The community has arranged themselves in a much more tightly constrained way than 'The Farm'. Robert compares it to a medieval castle trying to resist a seige - an apt state of mind for what they're facing. Churchill reports that they haven't seen any zombies throughout the entire nightmare. It's possible that they are so far north that the zombies haven't been able to tolerate the cold long enough to arrive. Still, the town isn't taking any chances with spring rapidly approaching. No one gets in without a thorough check and they don't send out gathering parties - everything is self produced within the walled off community. He and Marty are put up in an old woman's home who isn't pleased with her space being compromised. She informs him that the people of Churchill aren't used to strangers. Nora also expresses doubt about the wild tales of walking dead. As far as she's concerned it's all a government conspiracy for reasons unknown. And she thinks the man-in-charge, Larry, is just a kook who's persuasive enough to convince people to act as crazy as he is.
Robert sees a zombie out on the ice close to the fortified town, but he's actually just describing the nightmares he's still having. Marty the dog doesn't help things as the dog took an immediate disliking to Larry and still barks at him after several weeks of them being settled.
Robert is making a diary entry, and he mentions that Marty is barking again. He wonders if it's Larry 'checking in' on them. The entry ends with, "Later I will tr...."
The publisher's return with this afterword: "Dr. Twombly's journal was discovered by Canadian rescue crews who arrived at the town of Churchill on July 18, 2013. They found no survivors."
The Good: Robert Twombly is a nice guy to spend time with as the protagonist. I like the conceit that he happens to be a scientist as well. It makes his observations relevent to the phenomena.
I like the journal idea - and the fact he just happens to be an artist of some talent - helps immensely.
I'm happy that the vast majority of people he meets aren't raging lunatics... even the 'leaders' of the two communities he seeks refuge in aren't the typical megalomaniac, evil control freaks. These are decent people doing what they have to to survive, but they aren't murderous scumbags victimizing everyone they come across.
The Bad: The entire food additive angle didn't justify the entire portion where he breaks into a zombie infested lab just to read the ending page of an email and then leave. The whole sequence at the C88 lab was ultimately empty.
I don't like the amount of time we have to spend with Robert's musings as he figures out the very usual and accepted zombie tropes. We know everything that he 'discovers' already and you have to wonder if they man has never, ever seen a zombie movie in his whole life. We're left to shout, "Just like Romero!" over and over at each new 'revelation' about zombie characteristics and behavior.
Other Thoughts: I think one of the weaknesses here is also the journal conceit, even though I liked it. We basically have to spend time with Robert's thoughts as he figures out all of the well-known tropes. Nothing is new here (the dead come back to life, they want to eat the living, you have to destroy the brain, fire is a good weapon, etc). What it basically boils down to is that he never even acknowledges that there have been movies made already about this and they were remarkably prescient, which would have allowed us to 'fast forward' through the audience learning 'facts' we already know because nothing new is happening here.
The Score: I enjoyed the graphic novel, though I think it runs a bit longer than necessary to tell its tale. Like I said, this could very well be an individual tale set during the time of 'WW Z'. It's well written, but doesn't expand beyond the zombie tropes in a way that makes all of Robert's 'discoveries' old news. It would have been nice if he'd brought up prior zombie movies - either to say there had never been anything like it, even coming out of Hollywood - so we'd know that this alterna-earth had no zombie movies. Or, to basically say 'what do you know, Romero was largely right!' which would have been a clever acknowlegement that we were dealing with the usual tropes.
I do like the artwork - it really does look like the sketchings and drawings of a talented, but amateur artist, though I have to wonder why Robert felt the need to include red blood on so many of his drawings. Overall, this is a good work, but it offers nothing new or different and we don't learn enough about anyone including Robert Twombly's pre-apocalypse personal life. Even when he's writing about other's personal recollections about their families, we never hear mention of parents, a spouse, siblings, even friends - it's like he lived in a lab-cocoon or he just didn't give any thought to anyone personal in his life outside of the lab. Even a line indicating he didn't have much of a personal life would have been better than this utter silence on the issue. Since our entire experience will be through his eyes, we needed to have a better sense of knowing him - glimpses of who he was before he became trapped in that lab and watched the world as he knew it end. We don't get that and it keeps us distant from him throughout the rest of the tale.
3.25 out of 5