Ostensibly tapping into the popular vogue for a certain strain of outlandish genre-mashup fiction that brings together the stately classics of English literature with ghastly imagery and narrative tropes appropriated from the modern zombie movie (a sub-genre first brought to prominence with the success of Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”), as well as invoking a long-established trend in comic books for the reconfiguring and recombining of shop-worn characters from the classics of Victorian literature, sometimes mixing them into real historical situations, or else having them interact with real-life contemporary personages (Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” series being the most well-known example), “Sherlock Holmes Vs. Zombies” is a vividly colourful addition to the ranks of cult Victoriana, and presents an attractively garish vision of fog-bound turn-of the-century London ravished by re-animated zombie ‘revenants’ – in this case brought forth as part of an insane scheme by Holmes’s arch-nemesis, professor James Moriarty.
Originally published as a six-issue serial under DC Comics’ WildStorm imprint, “Victorian Undead: Sherlock Homes Vs. Zombies”, is the Graphic Novel omnibus version, bringing together all the episodes under one glossy softback cover. It’s the first in the Victorian Undead series to pair off Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great literary amateur detective against some of horror fiction’s most iconic creations. Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are apparently lining up for future adventures.
British comic book writer Ian Edginton is well-placed for this particular assignment: his previous graphic novel adaptations of Doyle’s four Sherlock Holmes novels (with art by I. N. J. Culbard) and his own Scarlet Tracings series (a title that perhaps coincidently evokes novelist Ian Sinclair’s dark, psychogeographical exploration of the Victorian imagination, “White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings”) displayed the author’s knack for convincing Victorian adventure pastiche, and a talent for lavishing his narratives with spectacular steampunk-style elements, especially in the latter’s imaginative visualisation of an alternative late-Victorian London in which advanced Martian technology has been appropriated by the British Empire after the events of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds”.
“Victorian Undead” is full of such bold literary re-imaginings, rich references to London history and geography and the wholesale co-opting of Conan Doyle’s fictional heritage in the service of a crackling traditional zombie apocalypse narrative that also cleverly evokes the industrialised slaughter of the First World War, all the while successfully functioning as an action-packed adventure yarn, with Holmes being something of a boy’s own hero in the middle of what turns into a grandly gothic zombie holocaust. Some fans of the traditional literary Holmes may find this all a bit off-putting. In a plot predicated on large-scale slaughter taking place in the capital, zombie hordes, armour-plated Victorian shock-troops and anachronistic automata of such sophistication that Charles Babbage would have had a seizure, the sweep of the action is broad and the plot leaves precious few opportunities for the kind of Holmesian deduction that forms the basis of Conan Doyle’s original tales. I fact, the tone is closer to Guy Richie’s bombastic, epic blockbuster approach than many might wish.
Yet Edginton’s narrative is ripe with references to characters and situations from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s many Sherlock Holmes short stories. Obviously Doctor Watson, the amateur detective’s best friend, confidant and literary Boswell is present as usual, as is Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s genius brother: resident of the Diogenes Club and advisor to the British Government. They’re all up against Holmes’s greatest enemy, the criminal mastermind Moriarty. But this story presents a very different version of the fiend who made his first appearance in “The Final Problem” and who apparently died a watery death alongside Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls in the original Conan Doyle tale. Edginton restages that very scene in a black and white ‘flashback’ drawn by artist Tom Mandrake in chapter four: here, a mutilated Moriarty is discovered fatally battered and bashed to a pulp on a rocky outcrop by his friend Colonel Sebastian Moran – the second most dangerous man in London, according to Holmes in the Doyle story “The Adventure of the Empty House” – who comes especially armed with a carpetbag containing a clockwork-driven electrical apparatus of polished brass that houses a bubbling green liquid which the faithful Colonel then mainlines directly into the dying Moriarty’s heart, via a painful hypodermic injection. Thus, the corpse of Moriarty is re-animated: now an insane, power-hungry cadaver who yet retains his scintillating intellect and self-awareness. Returning to London he squirrels himself away in Whitechapel, where he lives in a darkened vault-like hideout surrounded by glowing, transparent cauldrons of rotting zombiefied body parts, plotting an apocalyptic vengeance on crown and country.
The appropriation of such well-known characters for use in this heightened and outlandish horror/steampunk context, is accompanied by a seam of reference to historical reality that adds atmosphere and background to some increasingly outré plot developments. A prologue situates the origins of the zombie plague in 1854, when a plummeting asteroid brings with it a deadly virus that has the effect of re-animating recently felled cholera victims who once lodged among London’s most impoverished classes. We see Dr John Snow – the man who originally demonstrated the water-borne nature of the disease by tracing the source of a virulent outbreak in South London to one specific water pump – having to battle against a sunken-eyed corpse that suddenly lurches from its deathbed in a fetid backstreet hovel.
The story proper takes place in 1898, when the central line of the London Underground is under construction. Two workmen stumble upon a corpse that kills one of them and bites a bloody chunk out of the other’s shoulder. After catching fever, the surviving workman dies … and then re-animates as a drooling, green-skinned ghoul that the authorities have to keep locked-up in a padded police cell.
This peculiarity prompts Inspector Lestrade to call in Holmes and Watson, but menacing secret service men materialise and demand that the case be dropped and forgotten. This only piques the amateur detective’s interest all the more; Watson accompanies Holmes on a tour of the underground’s engineering tunnels, where they encounter rich layers of London’s sunken centuries old history, and also something else: a mass grave of bones and rotting cadavers … some of which appear somewhat unwilling to remain at rest!
As London begins to succumb to a plague of these creatures, Holmes soon realises that someone has been secretly corralling the undead for a specific purpose; it doesn’t take too long to work out who that person is. After a chilling zombie siege sequence at 221B Baker Street, and an epic confrontation at Buckingham Palace where zombie-Moriarty has set himself up as lord of the undead, it becomes apparent that London is rapidly being overwhelmed by the multiplying hordes of the living dead, and plans are set in motion to fire-bomb the entire city by zeppelin to stop the contagion from spreading further abroad.
The coming of a zombie plague upon the streets of Victorian London offers Edginton a further chance to indulge in some of his steampunk-influenced alternative history when armoured tanks are depicted mowing down the undead on teeming city thoroughfares: it is posited that the tank was actually invented as a zombie-destroying device after the 1854 outbreak was hushed-up by the Secret Services. Holmes ponders from the window of his rooms in Baker Street as he and Watson watch the carnage in the street below how this probably is ‘the shape of things to come.’
All of this imaginative spadework would count for little if the story artist were not up to the job of depicting the narrative’s dramatic mixture of Victorian adventure yarn and ominous horror dystopia. Thankfully artist Davide Fabbri alights upon a style that perfectly captures both these aspects with the diversity of his character designs and in the evocative detail offered up by the panel backgrounds. Holmes himself is depicted as the traditional lantern-jawed hero of Victorian adventure fiction, in a design that recalls Frank Hampson’s original’50s visualisation of Dan Dare. A very different influence from the ‘50s lies behind the design of the zombies and the cloaked cadaver that is Moriarty though, who both appear as though a ghostly nightmare vision from the pages of E.C. Comics: drooling, withered, sunk-eyed monstrosities are they indeed! The creatures are often shown biting and tearing their way through a respectable, well-dressed populace with bloody abandon.
Fabbri offers some comically attractive parody in his depiction of an impoverished London rookery in the opening prologue, where we see all the clichés associated with such places (street urchins, withered old crones, drunken workers) congregated outside a tavern called ‘The Jolly Cripple’ as the asteroid descends. From his depiction of colourful well-to-do streets to the shadowy realm of the London Underground, and on to the finale at the Royal palace (Holmes himself ends up working with the Government from Winsor Castle as the city falls into chaos), Fabbri’s art is immeasurably lifted by the striking colour work of Carrie Strachan. Sickly greens illuminate Moriarty’s initial Whitechapel hideout; whereas Holmes and Watson’s battle for survival deep in the Underground’s hidden caverns is illuminated with fiery torchlight crimson. Throughout the tale, the bright array of colours with which Strachan repeatedly regales the reader recalls the garish Eastman colors of British horror b-movies from the fifties and sixties such as Arthur Crabtree’s “Horrors of the Black Museum” or Sidney Hayers’ “Circus of Horrors”. It’s a vivid and a very memorable comic book style perfectly suited to such macabre material.
Each of the original episodes (which were once published separately) is bookended by the original series covers drawn by Simon Coleby and Jonny Rench. These are immensely detailed and stylish portraits with an appeal all of their own (their physical depiction of Holmes appears to have been modelled on that of Jeremy Brett), while the cover image by Tony Moore is a strikingly comic-grotesque portrait that immediately grabs the attention, though bears little resemblance to anything actually inside the book’s covers.
“Sherlock Holmes Vs Zombies” is an enjoyable first entry in the “Victorian Undead” series, with some satisfying Victorian-style dialogue and turns-of-phrase from Edginton, and rich and colourful artwork by Fabbri and Strachan that pops off the glossy pages with a sizzling energy. A worthwhile read.