We got a taste of the bubonic plague in late April, when the World Health Organization dubbed the H1N1 virus (aka swine flu) a public health emergency. Within a few weeks, people were showing up at the grocery store with protective surgical masks. Yet it wasn’t the first time we’d been hit by a mysterious, deadly virus: AIDS continues to spread, and SARS, while no longer an epidemic, remains fresh enough to elicit shudders. Not surprisingly, these recent disease panics led to a spate of zombie fantasies (in the form of movies, video games, survival guides, and even a Marvel Comics series), all of which played on our fear of pathogens. A new graphic novel by Don Roff and Oakland illustrator Chris Lane is no exception. Called Zombies: A Record of the Year of Infection, it imagines a public health crisis in the year 2012 caused by a sickness that percolates through the air and gets under people’s skin. By the end of the year, more than five billion people have succumbed. The idea is horrifying, but in a weirdly seductive way. In fact, Lane’s drawings give “the year of infection” an almost romantic cast. Almost.
More than just a zombie enthusiast, Lane professes to have seen “every single zombie movie about a million times.” The Santa Rosa-raised artist doesn’t, at first glance, seem like someone who would fetishize the undead. Lane is tall and narrow, with thick and buttony features. The Triceratops tattoo on his right forearm derives from a sticker he’s kept since first grade. On his left arm is an image borrowed from the German painter Max Ernst of a Victorian man and woman kissing. The man has wings. Lane said he spent most of his life drawing “creepy crawly things,” some of which appealed to Paul Barrett and Amy Wideman, the designers who dreamed up Zombies. At the time he got recruited, Lane was a novice zombie illustrator, albeit one with such passion for the material that he willingly sacrificed four months of his life to produce it — almost to the extent of becoming a zombie in his own right.
Lane’s love of zombies is highly traceable. He got heavy into punk rock as a teen, and easily cottoned to art forms that seemed politically subversive — George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead seemed to fit the bill. It featured an African-American hero (Duane Jones) at a time when most black actors were relegated to menial roles. (Another two years would pass before blaxploitation really broke ground.) His death at the end of the film elicited comparisons to slain civil rights heroes, even though it sat uncomfortably with a lot of film critics. Romero’s subsequent movies made similar types of political statements — some more heavy-handed than others, said Lane. Dawn of the Dead (1978) opens with a SWAT team busting up tenements in a fictional ghetto, whose residents are mostly black and Puerto Rican. “It’s over-packed,” said Lane. “It’s the nest for any virus to break out.” He says Romero advanced the film’s social commentary by having the survivors take refuge in a Pittsburgh mega-mall. “So there’s all these situations where you can see these mindless automatons doing what they would do any way,” said Lane. “It’s about getting lulled into capitalist excess.”
Such messages distinguished zombie movies from other types of splatter films, Lane said. Horror movies are mostly about fear of human psychology (i.e., the demons within); sci-fi films deal with our anxieties about “what’s out there.” In contrast, zombie films focused on race, class strife, totalitarianism, war, consumerism, and of course, transmitable diseases. Filmmakers like Romero attacked their subject matter with a kind of earnestness and zeal that particularly appealed to Lane. But more than that, he liked their theatrical shock tactics. For instance, he admired Romero for constructing an anatomical human form out of pig intestines in Night of the Living Dead so that it would look particularly grisly when ripped apart.
Lane took that approach in Zombies, creating bodies that appeared to be suffering from a form of leprosy that cannibalizes the soul as well as the skin. According to Roff (who writes in the voice of a fake medical expert, Dr. Robert Twombly), the mysterious illness causes tissues to swell with fluid, eyes to redden, lungs to contract, and ear canals to squeeze shut. In Lane’s drawings, the infected bodies endure a slow process of decay. Skin crackles and flakes off, exposing a purplish under-layer. An ear appears to have a chunk taken out of it. Veins pop through the remaining skin, making each zombie’s face look webbed with scars. The colors are improbably bright and brazen: purplishish plums, pillar-box reds, the orangiest vermilions, and the murkiest browns, all smeared on the page in watercolor. “When you’re painting something like dead skin, it seems like you’d want to make it as drab as possible,” Lane said. “But there’s actually a lot of layers.”
Unlike some of its antecedents, Zombies tries to be more of a graphic medical textbook than a political allegory — which turns out to be one of its strong points. Lane may have latched onto zombie movies because of their social resonances, but in this book his fascination turns inward. Zombies has a clinical obsession with bodily atrophy. It also offers a very personal account of what it’s like to walk through a world that’s been ravaged and desiccated. At one point, Twombly enters a high school sports stadium where the stands bear “row after row of corpses.” The doctor suspects it’s a mass suicide and wonders if these people acted out of fear or despair. Lane’s image of vultures encircling a dark stadium message board is one of the book’s most affecting.
The idea of mass apocalypse certainly isn’t far from our minds these days, so Roff and Lane didn’t have to reach too far to make their book have social resonance. But it’s also deeply personal, both because of the narrative voice and because of Lane’s drawings, many of them inspired by real-life characters in Oakland. Tight deadlines forced Lane to produce at the rate of one image a day (he started in January and ended in early May), which didn’t leave enough time to create an under-painting and decide where the lights and darks would go — let alone craft a million zombies from scratch. “Some people are draft monsters who can come up with something in their head and make it incredible,” said Lane. “But I like something raw to go off of, so I’m taking photos all the time.” A lot of times he would have to ask friends or colleagues to make zombie poses on the fly (which explains why the characters in the book look so identifiably East Bay, with their Food Not Bombs shirts and earlobe plugs). His models included bartenders, bookstore clerks, musicians from local garage bands Olehole and Dead to Me, other artists, his old boss from Cole Coffee, and a chef at Flora Restaurant who rescued Lane at the last minute, after someone else ducked out of being a zombie security guard. There’s a punk group in the book whose members manage to elude the zombies for months despite a titillating bumper sticker on the side of their van: “Vegans taste better.”
Four months of barely sleeping and not seeing friends caused Lane to empathize with his zombie characters. Even now, he’s not quite at the point of burnout. But Lane understands that the zombie trend will ebb and flow, and he predicts that fairly soon, another phantasmal being will emerge in its place — mostly likely the werewolf. He can’t wait.