Zombies aren't a genre, they're a setting.
The sensationalism of the walking people-eaters is over, that much is apparent. Readers are no longer awed by the concept of our dead coming back for us. If a zombie story focuses on the gore or the shock value, then it fails.
I'm happy to report that Key of Z does not fall into that trap. In fact, Claudio Sanchez and Chondra Echert's post-apocalyptic story is more about the politics than the horror. Zombies are basically a nonessential here; they merely provide a backdrop for tension. The mindless antagonists could easily be replaced by orcs, aliens or werewolves and the core story would not be lost.
The plot centers on family man sans family, Nick Ewing, and his multiyear revenge plot in dilapidated New York City. Sanchez and Echert choose a decidedly pragmatic approach to the social landscape of NYC in dire times. Humanity has holed itself up in the modern day fortresses — our massive sports parks — and attempt to restructure itself in defense of the harsh landscape. Though some wish to band together and collectively assist each other in the shared crisis, other figureheads, like Lavoe the gangster who runs the makeshift town inside Yankee Stadium, wish to treat their territory with as much ferocity and aggressiveness as they did before everything went to hell.
It's a fairly straightforward payback yarn, with the minor twist being our protagonist possesses a harmonica that has a Pied Piper effect on the undead. Honestly, without the zombies I don't know compelling the whole plot is. The writers don't throw many surprises at the reader, everything it telegraphed and appears as it seems. Sanchez and Echert attempt to examine of the greater truths of the human pathos, but most of the main players suffer from lack of depth and weak characterization. Ewing's ongoing narration is the jewel to the piece, but beyond that I found a lot of the interaction and dialogue bland and predictable.
Nathan Fox's covers write a check Aaron Kuder can't cash. It'd be pretty naive to expect cover work to always reflect interiors, but there is a significant decline. Kuder is serviceable, the mix of gore and his personal style mesh well and for the most part he conveys emotion adequacy. The serious script and his slightly animated approach creates a limbo where the intended tone of the project loses its meaning. Is this a tough-as-nails survival story, or does it gear more toward baroque and outrageous? Kuder is a fine penciler, but the art failed to carry the slack the story left over.
In general, the story suffers from too much Key and not enough Z. For the sake of exposition and plot movement the characters only seem to run into zombies when the story needs a jump start. On the other end of the spectrum it seems the characters can transverse parks and bridges without much trouble, even while they're having an audible back-and-forth conversation.
This offering from BOOM! Studios is standard zombie faire. It's a good read that tells a meaningful story in a thoughtful, fleshed-out world. But, it does nothing to stand out from the hundreds of other zombies stories out there, and that's coming from a guy who writes a zombie webcomic. On the plus side, the 130 pages collection does include a few nifty bonuses, like multiple alternate covers and a series of exerts from the hero's journal, so the deal is sweetened slightly.
Key of Z provides a solid experience, something of substance, but don't look for it to redefine the genre… or the setting.
Jamil Scalese is just like you — an avid comics reader and lover of sequential art. Residing in Pittsburgh, PA, he is an unapologetic Deadpool fan, devotee of the Food Network and proud member of Steelers Nation. Check out his original, ongoing webcomic And Then There Were Zombies and follow his subpar tweeting at @jamilscalese.