Some time around 2006 I wound up with a copy of the obscure, meditative French horror work They Came Back. I don't remember the details of how I acquired it, but chances are it was in a bargain bin in a Canadian video store because I watched it alone in a house surrounded by hedges at 49th and Granville in Vancouver, hypnotized by the eerie tranquility of my surroundings and what unfolded on the screen. Not long after, I convinced my then-girlfriend, who was visiting from the near opposite end of the continent, that we should spend some of our precious time together watching this odd film. I didn't tell her that I had already watched it, I desperately needed to gauge her reaction to the film as though we were both witnessing it for the first time. I needed to know whether the film said the same things to her as it did to me.
What They Came Back communicated to me was the idea of the zombie as a metaphor for cancer victims, a human brought back to a kind of life, where suffering is suddenly the ultimate certainty and a pale sickly presence washes over everything. Think of the monstrous hunger for flesh as subterfuge, because that's what They Came Back does when it removes that element of the zombie altogether. Think instead of the question at the heart of the zombie story: at which point is life no longer life?
Tim Seeley and Mike Norton's Revival isn't a zombie story, just like They Came Back isn't a zombie story. Both are contemplative works that utilize elements of the zombie canon — the dead have come back to life, everyone is righteously freaking out as a result, the former corpses are acting a little odd — but only in order to ease you into a false comfort, a narrative tranquility where you think you know what to expect and what rules to follow. Where they differ is in that last point, the one about behavior and reaction.
Revival is the action-oriented counterpoint to They Came Back's existentialism, a revved up, suspenseful pop comic story that nonetheless is just as intriguing in its twists and turns and cynicism as They Came Back is horrifyingly beautiful in its inexplicable tranquility and calm. The two's shared central hook — the recently dead have come back to life for no ascertainable reason — is brilliant in its simplicity and it's a testament to the strength and flexibility of that concept that both works are able to be so vastly different even as they're so similar. Revival first exerts its independence by pulling from the main zombie trope that They Came Back drops, which is the bloodlust of the recently revived.
Seeley gives Norton a sleepy, wintry midwest town to play in, which allows colorist Mark Englert plenty of opportunities to test out Dan O'Bannon's old theory that specks of blood hitting bright white surfaces is always a beautiful image. That plays out nearly immediately, with a striking, confusing page of a zebra-horse hybrid meeting a bloody, inexplicable end in a snow covered field. The comic opens with corpses coming to startling, almost comical life but it truly begins with this death, presented as more of a mystery than those revivals, because the dead coming back to life was promised in the title, while this death of a beautiful, unnatural creature isn't as clear in its intentions.
It doesn't take long for Seeley to give us some answers about this mystery and it's through that process that we begin to wonder about the behavior of his "revivers." Where the recently revived population of They Came Back is essentially harmless, more confused and shocked than anything else, Revival is full of an anger that may be built on confusion but is more accurately labeled frustration. But both responses are likely familiar to those familiar with cancer, a disease that sometimes prompts its victims — be they physical sufferers of the disease or those victimized by the emotional shockwave it triggers — to lash out in inexplicable ways.
The time period in which I saw They Came Back was one marked mostly by confusion, as my family and I were still trying to figure out just what it meant to be dealing with my mom's cancer. There was anger and frustration but those weren't definitive traits, we were still optimistic and felt that my mom's iron will and fierce determination would triumph above all odds. I watched the film by myself because I was alone and lonely but it was accidentally a necessary individual activity, where I was forced for the first time to question whether what I wanted for my mother was selfish and perhaps cruel. The victims of They Came Back aren't the revived dead loved ones but those around them, who have wanted nothing more than for their loved ones to return yet the instant they do, they don't know how to behave or act around them and the confusion is contagious — confusion of a return, confusion of coping, confusion of a status quo always desired but never truly accounted or prepared for.
But the victims of Revival are more complicated. This is victimhood in salvation, victimhood from recovery, a victimization of peace itself, where an interruption of an afterlife is all it takes to force rabidity and ferociousness and all out rage. Seeley and Norton work the narrative best when they enforce that, showing off hunched, animalistic and quasi-alive relatives, recovering from fatal ailments and age and disconnection but not necessarily coping. Theirs is a frustration not unlike someone woken from an especially peaceful or at least deep slumber, a frustration that strikes fierce and hot at whoever is closest in proximity regardless of how guilty they are or aren't of transgression. This is the zombie as a cancer metaphor of the later stages, when a "cure" isn't preferable and really only switches out one kind of pain for another, where victims occasionally view themselves as "abominations," to use the parlance of Revival. They are angry at all the fuss, and the questions, and the prodding and sometimes they strike out at loved ones and in Seeley's hands that's a physical strike, one that is sometimes fatal and grisly. But Seeley isn't necessarily the one who deserves the most praise for the succ
ess of that message.
Comics isn't always about paying one collaborator or another the highest compliment or assigning them the most responsibility for the success or failure of a narrative but there's no denying that one of Seeley's greatest strengths in this story is his ability to just let Mike Norton do what Mike Norton does best, which is graft real human emotion and pain and anger on artful, evocative backdrops and lushly detailed surroundings. This is a story where ghosts and ghouls and psychopaths and manipulators and incestual thieves all get equal spotlight time and yet not a one of them comes across as an ego glutton. This is a story where every beat, frame and symbol has its own particular place of important in the hierarchy of the storytelling pyramid, carefully inserted yet wonderfully spontaneous and energetic. And that's why for someone like me it works so well, even with flaws of goofiness or campiness or whatever.
This isn't a work with the kind of grace or methodical orchestration of a They Came Back. It's an angry, harsh affair that isn't afraid to voice its angst or to claw out at perceived transgressors. It forces you to wonder who you're really thinking of when you ask for a relative to return to good health, or when you demand more time with a loved one you know you're bound to lose. It wants you to think of what it would be like to know peace and then be robbed of it at the moment of ultimate tranquility. It has teeth and it bares them and you should wear the wounds with pride.
Because this is a reaction you can't force or fake. You can fake placidity, or disguise more complex emotion, but anger is a device that bubbles up against the surface until it breaks free. That girlfriend never picked up on what struck me so much about They Came Back because it was a uniquely personal reading and I wasn't capable of opening up about it yet. She thought it was just a weird film, like so many other weird films I love and force on others, beautiful perhaps but not necessarily noteworthy. At that moment in time I was okay with holding on to that emotion and seeing where the realization of it took me, I wasn't quite aware of the pain I was setting myself up for in the time to come. At that moment in time these were all just exercises, thoughts on a philosophy I never hoped to have to execute because even though I got the message, I wasn't strong enough to believe that I was still being selfish in my selfless demands. Nearly a decade on, I bore witness to where extension treatment leads and realized that I was withholding the kind of anger the townsfolk of Revival know all too well. It's only now that a work like Revival clicks with me, when that anger makes sense and I can embrace it for the release it is.
Nick Hanover doesn't want to set the world on fire, unless he has to, which seems increasingly more likely each day. As Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, he most looks forward to making subliterate internet commenters angry and forcing his record collection on unsuspecting readers through his comic, film and television reviews and miscellaneous other pop culture pieces for the site. He promises to update Panel Panopticon more this year, but you can always find his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover or explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness.