ADVANCE REVIEW! Graveyard of Empires #1 is already out, but #2 will come out on Wednesday, August 24, 2011.
Does the world need another zombie comic? I honestly don't think so, but they still keep trickling out, desperate to grab some of that unlikely Walking Dead money. I thought the zombie hybrid genre was over in at least 2009, but here we have Graveyard of Empires by Mark Sable and Paul Azaceta in the year 2011. While it might be late to the party, maybe that's a good thing, keeping the book from getting lost in the shuffle of superhero zombies, cowboy zombies, flapper zombies and -- oh, I dunno -- caveman zombies.
Reading through Graveyard of Empires #1, I damn near prayed that what I heard about the book was wrong. Okay, that's an overstatement -- I hoped I was just reading a crazy good war comic with an amazingly catchy title and not a zombie story. And, for the most part, the first issue is exactly that: a well-researched war comic about Marines in Afghanistan dealing with the local population as events of real and startling consequence happen. There are some amazing details in this first issue, as we see a line of soldier memorials composed of boots and rifles, surgically implanted suicide bombs, a tampon being used to clog a wound and a great silent two-page scene showing what the various soldiers in our story do at night. It'd be the perfect comic for anyone who loved The Hurt Locker, myself included.
Then the final scene happens, introducing us to the zombie threat and threatening to sink the whole story. It comes off as a series of cliches: one unkillable corpse, someone gets bitten (we gotta watch somebody transform into a zombie, right?) and then we get a "shocking" full-page spread of an oncoming horde of the undead.
If I didn't have the second issue waiting for me in the same sitting, I would have given up on Graveyard of Empires right there, as writer Mark Sable has a history (at least in his creator-owned work) of offering a really great first issue that set me up for disappointment in the rest of the series as his story swung too far in the area of high-concept screenplay plotting for my tastes. Both Unthinkable and Grounded did this to some extent, seemingly disposing of everything I liked about the first issue.
So, imagine my surprise when I actually enjoyed Graveyard of Empires #2.
While it sounds like I'm taking Sable to task, his scripting is often very capable, even if I don't like the direction he takes his stories. In Graveyard, even though I think the zombie element is a tired at this point, with all its shooting and fatal errors and people decidedly not saying the "Z" word, I appreciate Sable's actual writing of it, as character and personality doesn't dissipate once the undead start walking. The Lieutenant still hasn't forgotten about the insubordination he was dealing with in Issue 1, and it feels like that character dynamic may come into play later.
However, there's also the potential for more interesting developments amidst the genre chaos. The recap blurb on the inside cover suggests that the Marines and the Taliban may end up working together to battle the zombies, or at least trying to. That's a concept that has a lot of potential in elevating this book above being a cover version of various George Romero tropes with some military flavor.
Still, my favorite part of Issue 2 is the flashback to the previous spring, which is decidedly free of monsters. Instead it deals with the events that resulted in the death of Combat Outpost Alamo's Captain, which involves an ambush at a field of poppies -- a plant that seems to be one of the motifs of the series. Now that's an interesting development: a zombie comic with a floral motif. See what I mean about Sable's scripting? He understands that zombies can't be the only interesting thing about a zombie story, and that's what really saves this book from being written off as trendy.
The other selling point of this series is Paul Azaceta's moody art, which is adept at both military action and zombie horror, separately and together. If Sable's script were rotten (it isn't, and no pun intended), then Graveyard would at least be a visually exciting comic to look at, bolstered by Matt Wilson's colors, which combines the area's searing yellow-orange desert heat with otherworldly purples and bright red blood and flowers.
At this point, I've made it no secret that the zombie element of the story is the worst part of Graveyard of Empires, which is a shame. Without it, we'd have more of what makes the first two issues a great read -- a well-researched, well-thought-out military comic with compelling characters. But alas, I'm sure a book will sell better if you can pitch it to readers as "_________ meets The Walking Dead." As someone who's more than a little sick of zombies, this is only a small barrier of entry, which speaks to the quality of the rest of the comic.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter as @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his newest comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics.
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