A few years back I made a concerted effort to go back and watch George A. Romero’s last few films to celebrate him after he passed. It’s sad to me that George wasn’t able to make as many different kinds of films as he clearly wanted to, but he was a master of looking at the undead from different angles as you can see in films like Land, Diary and Survival Of The Dead. That mini marathon reminded me that Romero had a few comics that came out, one from DC and an extended Marvel series. Shortly after, I found myself with both Toe Tags and all three Empire Of The Dead volumes in my possession, but I waited until this fall to dig in!
Toe Tags came out in 2004-2005 from DC. I don’t remember hearing a lot about it at the time, but do remember coming across the issues in the Wizard library when I was an intern and, later, a research assistant. I never dug the issues out and I have no good reason for it, though I may have wondered whether Romero actually wrote the comics or if someone adapted one of his unmade scripts. For what it’s worth, I still don’t know if that was the case or not for either of these titles. However, with him gone, that doesn’t seem to matter because this represents one of my favorite artist’s work coming to me in my favorite art form. What could go wrong? I’ll get there.
This series, drawn by Tommy Castillo, follows Judy and Damien, two survivors of the zombie apocalypse. Thanks to the help of Professor Hoffman, Damien survived a zombie attack with his humanity but not his looks. Altogether, this trio must deal not only with a horde of semi-intelligent zombies as well as that old chestnut of the evil humans.
Here’s the problem with this story. I can’t made heads or tails of the timing. We see a flashback of Damien getting attacked by zombies three months prior to his reunion with Judy. However, we then see Judy being attacked early in the outbreak and she’s saved…by Damien…who has not been patched back together by Hoffman, which seemed to take place right after he was attacked. This might seem like a nit pick, but if the flow of a story’s history doesn’t jive, I fall completely out of it. That’s what happened with Toe Tags.
And it’s a shame because I really like the rest of it. Castillo brings a beautiful griminess to the page, which is absolutely perfect for this kind of comic. He also gets to bring to life elements you just know Romero wanted to see on the big screen, but never had the budget for. One scene finds a zoo attacked by zombies, an elephant plays a big role in the story and Damien himself is essentially a Frankenstein’s monster. The series also continues Romero’s fascination with the question of what it means to be human. There are undead folks shambling around this comic that you’d probably want to spend time with over some of the humans.
Romero carried that theme to a very different place in the Empire Of The Dead series from Marvel which ran as three 5-issue acts between 2014 and 2015 with artists Alex Maleev, Dalibor Talajic and Andrea Mutti. Now, I swear I did an e-mail interview with George about this title for Marvel.com, but can’t seem to find it anywhere either on the site or in my email. I’ll have to check my archives.
Anyway, Empire takes place in a New York City that’s done a pretty good job getting back to normal after the zombie apocalypse. That is, if normal is a growing vampire problem, a power-hungry mayor and a coliseum set-up where people come to watch zombies fight one another. That’s the status quo we enter into with the story. From there, we come to know a group of Southerners who came to the Big Apple for a huge score, a wannabe kingmaker and a doctor by the name of Penny Jones who wants to experiment on zombies like Xavier who happens to have a primitive inner monologue.
This series was going to be turned into an AMC show and it makes a lot of sense when you take into account all of the different subplots going on. I would have forgotten a number of them had I read these issues as they came out monthly, so this was the perfect format to really absorb it. In reality, a full season or two of television would be an even better way of telling this story because some pieces felt rushed, especially the ending.
These fifteen issues feel all of a part and don’t really break cleanly into the three acts. These seem more of a way to break up the art chores for Maleev, Talajic and Mutti. Maleev is my favorite of the bunch. Though each has their own style, all three feel of-a-whole as they capture the dirty world that Romero put on the page.
If you’re comparing these books to the films, Empire feels like a direct continuation of Land Of The Dead, which is fantastic, by the way. However, there is a pretty cool connection to Night Of The Living Dead as well. See, Penny Jones is the sister of Barbra and Johnny! She only mentions it once and it’s not a huge part of the story, but as a continuity-loving nerd, I loved the connection! Of the two, I’d say that Empire is the must-read and Toe Tags is for completionists, but let’s be honest, if there’s a chance to get some new Romero in your life, take it. While neither series is available on Marvel and DC’s respective subscription platforms, you can purchase digital issues on comiXology or go the analog route like I did.