Documents of a Zombie Apocalypse

Posted by on February 16th, 2011 at 2:00 PM

Zombies: A Record of the Year of Infection; Field Notes by Dr. Robert Twombly; Don Roff, writer, Chris Lane, illustrator; Chronicle Books; 142 pp., $19.95; Softcover, Color; ISBN: 978-0-8118-7100-6

It is commonly said, though I don’t know if it is true, that people were fooled by Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast largely because of the program’s slow start.  The show did not begin with a Martian invasion, or even with any sense of story, but with an ordinary music program, which was then interrupted with some preliminary news reports, followed by others that gradually provided more detail until — not too soon — the pieces could be fit together into a full story.  It is, in part, because Welles understood how reality was reported on the radio that his imitation of reality could seem so convincing.

Zombies: A Record of the Year of Infection; Field Notes by Dr. Robert Twombly succeeds in much to same way. The book’s central conceit works largely because it is so neatly tied to its medium. An illustrated story, Zombies presents itself as a found document, a naturalist’s notebook recording some very unnatural occurrences. It purports to be a first-person journal of the zombie outbreak, written by a doctor, keeping track of events as they unfold.  As with The War of the Worlds, the book gains our confidence, in part, because it does not begin with the zombies.  It opens, instead, with the sketch Dr. Twombly was making when the outbreak began — specifically, a picture of magpies. It’s a good trick for setting up a story that purports to be true.

Diary of the Dead tried a similar approach with video, but the illustrated story is a much more plausible medium.  Rather than try to convince us that some amateur filmmakers kept their cameras running while also fighting undead cannibals, a book like this only has to show that one guy wrote in his journal during the hours of tense dull calm between zombie encounters.

Don Roff’s writing style and Chris Lane’s illustrations are perfectly suited to this purpose.  The protagonist, narrator, and purported author, Dr. Twombly is a man of science and so he carefully observes, documents and tries to explain the phenomena he’s witnessing.  His tone is conversational, as is typical of a diary, and a bit freaked out, fitting the circumstances, but the scientific training comes across.  He notes what he sees, creates hypotheses, and adjusts them based on further examination.  He also interviews those people he encounters, recording their stories in their own words, placing them alongside beautiful but often hasty-looking portraits.  In these places, the sense of reality is at its sharpest, as the book resembles very closely a great deal of comics journalism, or many an artist’s travel diaries.

The images — even those that are truly ghastly — are beautiful.  Many are sketchy enough to be the work of a hurried amateur, and these create a level of verisimilitude such that the others, though sometimes quite elaborate, do not seem artificial or false.

In places, the pictures deliberately resemble the illustrations from an anatomy book, except that the anatomy in question belongs to aggressive, ambulatory, rotting corpses.  The details are treated as symptoms, and meticulously recorded as such.  This, too, contributes to the documentary feel while also helping to remind us how positively strange a walking corpse would seem.  Even just from a purely anatomical perspective, the mysteries abound.  And Zombies manages to make the questions seem real.  Restoring the sense that we just don’t know what these things are, to readers who have surely encountered zombies in fiction before, is itself a notable accomplishment.

It’s a truism of trendiness, I think, that anything too popular is already passé.  So it’s become fashionable in the last couple of years to complain that the whole idea of zombies is “played out.”  And truly, it is hard to think of anything new to be done with these creaky, shambling brain-eaters.

The plot of Zombies faces this problem, but the approach overcomes it.  The story is absolutely typical of the genre — an unknown disease, the return of the dead, social chaos, the struggle for individual survival and a carefully paced combination of running, hiding and fighting.  The characters, too, are familiar from every other zombie tale you’ve heard, read or seen:  There’s the lone scientist, trying to rationalize and understand what is happening.  There are the crazy survivalists, who may be more dangerous that the zombies they’re hunting.  There are the new friends, who die unhappily as soon as you’ve become attached to them. There’s the post-apocalyptic loner, and the colony of survivors, and of course, the millions upon millions of flesh-eating undead.  Zombies contribution to the literature lies, not in its plot or its premise, but in its form.

By the way, the outbreak begins on January 5, 2012.  That gives us a little less than a year to prepare.  I think I’ll start by re-reading Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide.  And maybe finding myself a little place in the mountains.

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3 Responses to “Documents of a Zombie Apocalypse”

  1. donroff says:

    Wonderful review, thanks. “Ron Doff” appreciates it.

    Don Roff

  2. vollsticks says:

    I thought that book was okay, actually. Kind of a Blair Witch riff but with zombies, of course. Good ending, too. The illustrations didn’t do that much for me, though.

  3. Hey Don! Sorry for transposing the letters in your name, and thank you for pointing it out. The mistake has been fixed. Now the only person referring to you as “Ron Doff” is you.