For decades, zombies have been a thinly veiled metaphor for the real-life things that scare us. Death shambles along, and no matter how long we run, it catches us. A horde of zombies can represent group-think, mindless consumerism — take your pick of metaphors, as long as “mindlessness” applies. But what if there is an intelligence behind it? Evil spreading like a virus makes the metaphor grow uncomfortably closer to what the world really feels like right now. At least we can consider it fiction, right? Right?
Maybe that’s why Cullen Bunn and Jesus Hervas’ new The Empty Man #1 (BOOM! Studios) hits so hard. A follow-up to a mini-series from three years ago, it’s got the beats of a zombie outbreak story — but it’s not about zombies. Those who catch the virus remain comprehensible, if not exactly lucid. They report seeing “the Empty Man” before giving in to madness. The CDC has gotten involved, religious movements have popped up worshipping the virus, and society is no closer to an answer. As a caption box states on page 1, “…I think there is something wrong with all of us.”
The first issue offers more questions than answers, as it should. It also brings a creeping dread, glimpses of horrible behavior both natural and supernatural, and that’s why it resonates. Though Bunn occasionally dabbles in superheroes for DC and Marvel, it’s his horror comics where he really shines… darkly. His characters are human, frail, struggling to do the right thing, while trying to survive with something of themselves intact.
Hervas matches with layouts that capture the scope of the horror, while also zeroing in on very personal reactions. Purposefully or not, some scenes hearken back to Charlotte Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which just shows how flexible horror can be. Is the problem that we’re repressed, trapped, broken… or just wrong?
We have met the Empty Man, and maybe, he is us.