The cover of Ross Campbell's zombie graphic novel The Abandoned (Tokyopop) provides a small double-take moment for the reader. It features the book's heroine, punkishly coiffed Rylie, holding what first looks to be a bloody bludgeon, blood spattered on her shoulder and around her pierced lower lip. It takes several seconds for the reader to register that the "weapon" Rylie's holding is a gore-dripping toilet plunger. When you're in the midst of an unexpected zombie attack, you use what tools are at hand.
A well-paced and grisly example of survival horror, The Abandoned is printed in digest form like the bulk of Tokyopop's comics series. I'm reluctant to use the OEL (Original English Language) label on this book, because unlike a more clearly manga-indebted series like Peach Fuzz, Campbell's art appears wholly western-influenced: we see none of the manga visual conventions that OEL artists are fond of inserting into their work (a sudden single-panel shift into ultra-cartoonishness, for instance). In look, Campbell's work is closer to a mainstream small-press series like Kirkman's Image zombie title, The Walking Dead than, say, Reiko the Zombie Shop.
Both Campbell's and Kirkman's titles set the start of their undead infestations in Georgia (Abandoned opens up on an island town outside Savannah, while Dead starts up outside Atlanta), interestingly, though I'm not sure that there's any thematic resonance in this fact – except to note that early island-set zombie stories frequently contained a racial or class-based subtext that the southern setting can't help recalling.
In The Abandoned, the living/undead divide is set along age lines: our beleaguered survivors are all post-teen or younger, while the first ravenous zombies we're shown are the tottering inhabitants of a nursing home. (This is the first work I can recall to give us the image of a zombie riding a battery-powered scooter.) Two members of our band of survivors, we learn, have birthdays within three days of each other – and, though we're only given the vaguest hint of the precipitating factors behind adult zombification, we still wait to see what'll happen when they each reach those magic days.
Our main guide through the new zombie apocalypse is Rylie, a zaftig young black woman (age not given) who works in an ice cream shop managed by a wide-eyed, full-breasted blonde named Nicole. Rylie, we're told by the text on the back of the book, is a "big-hearted volunteer by day, unruly rocker by night," but we're never really shown any concrete instances of the latter beyond her punk-rock garb and hairdo. Rylie divides her time 'tween working at I Scream, volunteering at the nursing home, caring for her aged father and mooning after a girlfriend-to-be named Naomi. It's a full life, but apocalypses have a way of messin' with the ways we'd rather be spending our time.
This particular end of the world opens with a hurricane that shares the same name (though with a slightly different spelling, she hastens to add) as our heroine: the storm brings something on land which wipes out most of the adult population. Initially, Rylie is childishly excited by the possibility of a 100-mile-an-hour hurricane, but once she has to start coping with its real after-effects, it's a different story. (You get a sense that Campbell is tweaking his young readership here: at another point in the book, a character chides Rylie by saying, "Thought you wanted a zombie invasion," making it clear that she's openly fantasized about such an occurrence in the past.)
She and a small band of young survivors (we don't see any other living young folks) – Nicole and her younger sister Cammie, recently busted-up lovers Ben & John, plus surly chain-smoking acquaintance Mae – leave the island to hook up with Naomi in the city. Once there, the group hides in an upstairs apartment.
Campbell stays true to the rules of modern zombie horror stories, and we get all the expected moments: scenes of the survivors making alliances and futilely wondering how it all went to hell so quickly, panels of our group boarding up the entrances even as we know that they're gonna forget at least one way in, an expedition to forage for food and supplies that'll end up with someone getting bitten, one big betrayal and many lovingly gory panels of folks getting ripped and torn into pieces.
The writer/artist clearly loves this stuff, and even includes the obligatory in-jokes (e.g., a panel where Nicole non-ironically echoes the sheriff from Night of the Living Dead). A few pages clearly evoke the original NotLD in the way the artist uses blackened borders and smaller panels to suggest an overwhelming darkness. Too, his use of sepia tones broken by splashes of pink & red (first confined to Rylie's red mohawk and clothes, later abundantly slathered on when things grown splattery) is effective, reminiscent of low-budget moviemaking without coming across too beholden to it.
In the end, of course, how much you enjoy this exercise most likely depends on your tolerance for zombie chomp-'em-ups. In an era when even the House of Ideas is willing to put out a Marvel Zombies mini-series – recruiting Walking Deadman Kirkman to tackle the alternative Marvelverse storyline – one might understandably be more than a little wary about the prospect of yet another cannibalistic dead tale. To my eyes, Campbell manages to lift his story above so many others (Walking Dead, included) through the vibrancy of his characters.
Rylie, in particular, is a much more interesting protagonist than the one-note living stiffs who typically populate these tales. The supporting cast of isolated young folk – minimum wage earners, orphans and runaways – are precisely the kinds of people you can see being left to fend for themselves in the midst of a big national disaster. [Insert your own relevant comparison here.]
True to this kind of modern horror yarn, The Abandoned concludes on an open-ended note, leaving plenty of room for a follow-up. Though Tokyopop's site indicates that there are two more projected volumes in this storyline, the book itself doesn't contain the usual number on its binding – which makes you wonder whether somebody changed their mind at the last minute. Hope that's not the case…