By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
If you thought Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a clever idea, have I got a book for you!
The New Deadwardians (Vertigo, $14.99) is like a mash-up of Downton Abbey and The Walking Dead, with a sprinkle of True Blood. If that seems a preposterous combination, rest assured that it is not – in fact, it’s blood-suckingly, zombie-bitingly, aristocratically delightful.
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What makes it work is the thought that Dan Abnett, a fan-favorite comics writer, has put into the world his story inhabits. Deadwardians takes place in London in 1910, the tail end of the Edwardian age (the same era as Downton Abbey), and he brilliantly re-creates the sharp class differences of the time. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that Abnett – a Brit himself – deftly portrays the differing accents, occupations and social norms of both “toffs” and working-class Londoners.
But not the lower classes, because they’re all zombies! Where our world and Abnett’s diverge is a mysterious zombie plague that breaks out in 1861, we learn in flashback, and threatens to overwhelm the world’s only superpower, Great Britain. In desperation, the ruling class of Victorian England takes “the cure”: They become vampires, so that the zombies take no interest in them.
That sacrifice – upper-class English are immortal, but no longer experience pain or pleasure – provides enough of an edge to achieve an uneasy equilibrium with “the restless.” The cities are walled off, to protect the working class – the only normal humans left – so they can continue tending the industries that make England pre-eminent. The dead, drawn by the smell of living beings, lurk by the fences. These creatures, standing outside the life and wealth of England, are both a constant threat and, metaphorically, a subtle commentary on class distinctions.
Not so subtle is the idea of the idle rich being literal as well as metaphorical blood-suckers. But hey, how could Abnett resist?
Needless to say, this world would be fun to explore all on its own. But there’s a plot, too – a murder mystery in a world where most people aren’t alive anyway. The story focuses on the efforts of the last homicide detective in London to ferret out the who and how of the impossible death of a vampire without the use of impalement, decapitation or incineration. His investigation takes him to the lowest establishments of the East End (whorehouses, now called “thirsty houses” for the new service they provide the upper class), to the rot and corruption in the highest reaches of this society.
Often when a writer conceives a huge, comprehensive and cohesive world, the story suffers in favor of displaying all the clever bits. But not Abnett: I found myself genuinely engaged by the murder mystery, as well as the strange existence of Chief Inspector George Suttle, Murder Squad. I hope Deadwardians sells well enough that we’ll see him again.
I should mention that the art is by I.N.J. Culbard, with whom I am not familiar. It seems to be from the same school as Guy Davis, who has drawn Dark Horse’s B.P.R.D. for years: Not flashy, kinda sketchy, but it gets the job done.
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I wasn’t terribly impressed by Bubbles & Gondola, a 2012 piece of fluff about friendship and self-worth by new French artist Renaud Dillies, but he’s more than made up for it with his sophomore effort at NBM, Abelard ($22.99).
Written by another Frenchman, Regis Hautiere, Abelard is set in an anthropomorphic world that’s just as lousy as ours, about a small bird who falls in love with another bird, and wants to give her the moon, and so decides to go to America, where rumor has it they have developed flying machines. (There’s no other hard evidence, but it seems the story is set at the beginning of the 20th century.)
The small and naïve Abelard sets off – he’s apparently somewhere in Europe when the story begins – and his journey isn’t easy. He meets with the cruelty and brutality of the real world, and is befriended only by a cynical bear who ridicules Abelard’s optimism. Nevertheless, the friendship endures to a bittersweet ending.
OK, it’s not Shakespeare, but you can look at it as a road-trip story, or a tale about loss of innocence, or even an aspect of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” That’s a pretty heavy subtext for what looks on the surface to be a simple story.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at email@example.com.