Saturday, March 5, 2011

Max Brooks vs. Max Brooks

Yet another dual/duel review, this time pitting Max Brooks against himself! I guess we know who the winner is going to be for this one, eh? This match-up is a show-down between the “Recorded Attacks” section of Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide (hereafter referred to as TEXT) and the graphic novel version of it called The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks (Hereafter referred to as GN) Let’s breakdown the similarities and differences between the two so we can properly assess which one is the winner.

The most obvious similarity is the author is the same man, Max Brooks. The GN is black and white (a popular choice with zombie comics) as is the TEXT. Both books document the history of zombie outbreaks from 60,000 B.C. to nearly the present day and prepare the reader for the events Brooks covers in World War Z. The stories are nearly identical, except...

The most obvious difference is that the TEXT covers many more events than the GN does, which makes sense. As told in a comic, any story is going to have a much higher page count than in an unillustrated text like the TEXT. Of the 61 stories in the TEXT, 12 survive in the GN. I suppose I could pit the 12 TEXT stories against the 12 GN stories to give my review the oft-desired “level playing field.” But that seems unfair, for the other 49 stories have good qualities and the 12 are visually evocative and have certain advantages when told in a graphical format. Consider these two examples:

TEXT tells of a 60,000 B.C. cave painting that may be a warning or a description of a zombie attack: “On the wall is a painting of a human figure, hands raised in a threatening posture, eyes fixed in an evil gaze. Inside its gaping mouth is the body of another human.” (p183) Compare that description to its depiction in the GN:

Which is creepier to you? For me, the GN version is more unnerving in its specificity--the narrow, uneven slits of the eyes and the frowning shape of the mouth. The text seems so generic by comparison.

Here’s another example from the TEXT speculating about a 17th century A.D. ship discovered at sea with no crew and the hold full of undead African slaves chained to the floor. The discoverers of this horror sank the ship. Brooks speculates:
“...the unfortunate slaves would have to have endured watching their captors devour or infect one another after their slow transformations into living dead, the virus having worked its way through their systems. Even worse is the awful likelihood that one of these crewmembers attacked and infected a chained slave. This new ghoul, in turn, bit the chained, screaming person next to him. On and on down the line, until the screams were eventually quiet and the entire hold was filled with zombies. Imagining those at the end of the line, seeing their future creeping steadily closer, was enough to conjure the worst nightmares.” (pp. 200-201)

In contrast, the GN speculates that one of the slaves was sold (mistakenly or deliberately) to the slave traders while infected and the disease spread through the crew and the cargo hold at the same time. This time I found the GN less horrifying because it seems less likely that the chained slaves could bite each other across the aisle and it seems less likely that the crew would get infected. The GN did have the unnerving payoff of seeing the zombie slaves from the sunken ship walking away on the sea floor.

TEXT (or any text for that matter) relies on the imagination of the reader to fill in the graphic details. Sometimes this is effectively accomplished, as in the creeping doom of the slave ship or in another story where Japanese zombie killers are trained in part by spending a night in a room full of moaning zombie heads (the killers either succumb to or master their fear). Both TEXT and GN acknowledge that a detached zombie head has no moaning ability (without lungs and such) but say it is more the psychological horror of rows upon rows of undead eyes watching and teeth snapping that is the true test. TEXT better suggests the terror than GN shows it in this case, making for a more compelling story.

On the other hand, the GN forces the reader to confront abominable acts being committed in their specificity. Zombies are really rotting to pieces and tearing chunks of flesh off people. The artist may have a more fiendish imagination than the reader and show the reader what he or she wouldn’t think of on their own. The artist here, Ibraim Roberson, does a good job of not being gratuitously gory, only presenting what is needed to drive home the horror of the stories told. The gore isn’t an end in itself. Here it serves to raise the stakes in the story, making a victory more triumphant or a defeat more devastating.

One strength of TEXT is the interweaving of the stories. Some of the zombie outbreaks have sequels of a sort. The Japanese zombie killers are too efficient, leaving World War II Japan without any zombies to exploit as weapons. So when they found some in Manchuria, they attempted to exploit them with bad results. Some of the Manchurian experiments were seized by the Soviets, who also tried and failed to develop them as weapons, leading to the destruction of a Siberian town. Having different stories related makes for more interesting reading and gives a sense of a well thought out and constructed history leading to World War Z.

Boosting intellect may not work out
So if the storyteller is equal and the stories are more or less the same, the discerning reader needs to look to those differences to make an evaluation. If the reader doesn’t want an imagination boost or especially graphic considerations, TEXT is the way to go. If you want a more visceral horror experience, GN is the way to go. For me, TEXT was more enjoyable just for the greater sense of history and number of different stories. I enjoyed GN and its enhancements of some of the stories, but I’d choose to re-read TEXT over GN. Which is not to say that I won’t re-read GN. TEXT wins by a nose (hopefully, an uninfected one).




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  2. It's nice seeing another Catholic zombie-afficionado blogger. I took my son to see Max Brooks at the Mark Twain house a few years ago near Halloween. It was a lot of fun.