It used to only stand for coded shade thrown at fans exclusively consuming Marvel comic books, but in the past two decades, the phrase “Marvel Zombies” has taken on an all-new, all-deadly (after)life!
Originating circa an industry-wide popularity surge of shambling corpses championed largely by Robert Kirkman and company’s The Walking Dead for Image Comics, what allegedly starts as a joke during one of Marvel’s famous creator retreats becomes so much more. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that Kirkman himself is largely involved in the early years.
While “What if Marvel Zombies were real zombies?” is pretty much a “nuff said” proposition, who knew it’d have such legs? The entire original saga is currently available in three expansive Complete Collection volumes. There’s also a new comic about to start things over again, Marvel Zombies: Resurrection. It’s even set to feature as an episode of the forthcoming Disney+ What If? live-action series.
In the spirit of all this, let’s examine where this gloriously undead grotesquery of a franchise has dragged itself up from, chomping into some of the meatier bits along the way.
The Backdoor Pilot
Despite such a leading concept, the Marvel Zombies don’t star in their own title right away. Instead, they first appear in an unlikely manner during Mark Millar and Greg Land’s tenure on Ultimate Fantastic Four (check out the complete CBH reading order for issues!). Furthermore, the reader is introduced to the saga in the aftermath of the zombie plague outbreak.
As sudden and jarringly left-field as this nightmare alternate reality comes into being, the “can’t look away” factor is equally tremendous. Just this one little snapshot invokes bucket-loads of morbid curiosity- questions more involved than a mere three-part story can properly flesh out and assuredly requiring both dedicated prequels and sequels.
Jonathan Hickman-centric readers should take note that these UltFF stories occur prior to that universe’s Reed Richards’s heel-turn into The Maker. The interdimensional contact between the Reeds is also something of a (coincidental?) precursor to the cross-reality mechanisms central to Hickman’s own multiversal work on titles such as the mainstream Fantastic Four and New Avengers.
Magneto: Humanity’s Savior?!?
What’s that saying about war making strange bedfellows? Okay, sure maybe the Mutant Master of Magnetism pointed the otherworldly carrier of a necrotic plague at the Earth in the first place just to assert his dominance over the simple humans but who knew it was gonna backfire into a global extinction-level disaster?!?
Part guilty-conscience/ part strength-in-numbers, Magneto proves he’s capable of great heroism by holding the super-zombie hordes at bay long enough to allow civilians of the doomed Earth-2149 to flee to the Ultimate Universe. It is quite literally a sacrifice play.
Following Magneto’s new survivalist stance, his Acolytes end their separatist ways and become integral allies with Earth’s remaining human population.
With Great Power Comes Great Hunger
Finally getting around to telling the “Day One” of it all in the 2007 one-shot Marvel Zombies: Dead Days, Kirkman and artist Sean Phillips open on Marvel’s most accessible POV character: your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. Except right from jump, things are already not well…
Arriving home after being bitten by Colonel America, Peter Parker futilely tries to warn his loved ones about the impending danger. He only succeeds in demonstrating how f’d up it all is now by transforming into a zombie himself and devouring Mary Jane! All the while, he’s advising Aunt May to lock herself away. (It doesn’t do any good.)
It’s worth noting here that once the zombies feast, they have moments of “clarity”. In the case of the already guilt-prone Spider-Man, his tendencies only magnify. Throughout the entirety of the saga, Zombie-Spidey’s sense of power and responsibility serves as a continual refrain- much to the annoyance and consternation of his undead compatriots.
Eat Me (For Science)!
Reed Richards is known for his cold, analytical detachment. There’s certainly a period throughout events such as Civil War and World War Hulk where he’s downright unlikable to say nothing of his continually questionable judgement as a member of Marvel’s so-called “Illuminati”.
That being said, the Reed Richards of Earth-2149 is perhaps the most messed-up version ever! After watching Zombie She-Hulk consume his children, he’s able to study a specimen. Fascinated by his findings and to the disgust of his wife, he declares the zombie plague an “improvement” on life.
Running an experiment, Reed injects his teammates with the virus without their consent or knowledge. As the change takes over, he implores them to consume him as he wants to experience the sensation first-hand. Yikes!
The Insatiable Hulk!
The “um, actually” of real-world science always necessitates a certain degree of suspended disbelief in any fiction. It’s just a given- the whole “shut up and go with it” of it all.
However, it’s always fun when “Physics IRL” is invoked in horror-comedy. The example here, kids: You simply can’t put ten pounds of whatever (let’s say, semi-digested body parts) into something that only hold five. It’s something the Hulk learns the hard way when, after voraciously over-eating, he transforms back into the much-smaller Bruce Banner and ruptures their stomach- leaving their abdomen irreparably destroyed!
It’s hard to say where and when Earth-2149 diverged from the Prime Marvel reality but one thing’s for sure, the Roy Thomas-era Silver Age Avengers are all prominently featured.
For those keen-eyed history buffs, it harkens to a brief time when the Black Panther wore a half-mask exposing the bottom portion of his face. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be the only thing in this reality he’ll have half of- as Zombie Hank Pym is keeping the unchanged T’Challa prisoner in a secret lab! Sedated and restrained, Pym is slowly hacking off the Panther’s limbs and selfishly snacking on them away from the greedy hordes.
In this reality, Pym also manages to alienate his wife. Once escaping the lab, Zombie Wasp’s bodiless head becomes the crippled Panther’s greatest ally and makes a case for rehabilitating the undead.
One pivotal difference in the timelines is that the Silver Surfer and Galactus don’t make their famous arrival on Earth until after the zombie outbreak. It’s bad timing on their part, most certainly, but what it does for the franchise is game-changing!
Really, you’ve eaten all the regular people, eaten a whole bunch of super-people too. What’s next on the menu? How about cosmically-powered invaders who are here to eat your planet, btw? Talk about an ironic turn-around…
For the sake of perpetuating the nightmare to the nth degree, a core Zombie “Super-Gang” now possesses the Kirby-kracklin’ Power Cosmic and leaves Earth to feast upon other worlds. Yep, and then they all lived happily ever after. The. End. (As if…)
Who’s The Guest-Star Here, Anyway?
In mainstream Marvel continuity, the Black Panther and Storm briefly feature in the Fantastic Four alongside the Thing and the Human Torch after the first Civil War event. It doesn’t last for very long but writers Dwayne McDuffie and Reginald Hudlin get some great synergy going between their respective titles.
Case in point, the “Pan-tastic” Four take a classic-flavor extended interdimensional journey in the Panther’s solo book courtesy of some weirdo Jack Kirby artifacts from the 1970s: King Solomon’s Frogs. These apparently sentient golden doo-dads control some kind of localized space-time field and have their own warped sense of humor. In terms of calculated transport, it’s a bit like that Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” skit involving Homer and the time-traveling toaster.
So, what does this have to do with zombies? Well, the frogs strand the Four on a Skrull planet. Awkward and not great given the long history but what the heroes don’t realize at first is that they’ve materialized on a Skrull world in Reality-2149!
And guess who’s flying in deep space looking for tasty, new extra-terrestrial treats? It’d be a lot cooler if those frogs would make with the quick getaway, huh?
The Real Monsters
Zombie stories aren’t only about humanity’s struggle against death personified. There’s normally also underpinnings about the fragility of society and how much trust and faith is placed in that other surviving person next to you. If anything, that’s where the most compelling tale is usually told.
However, like in most post-apocalyptic scenarios, once the dust starts to settle and order begins to re-establish, it’s funny how all the old beefs come out- like nobody learns anything from the terribleness. In this regard, Malcolm Cortez, son of consummate 90s X-jerk Fabian Cortez, may actually be the greater evil of future Earth-2149.
The younger Cortez’s call for a return to mutant supremacy upsets the fragile status quo of New Wakanda with not only an internal power struggle against the now-geriatric T’Challa but once the Zombie Galacti return, the division nearly costs the whole of humanity all over again.
In the end, Malcolm tricks all of his zombified competition onto a now-functioning dimensional portal, shunting them off to elsewhere and leaving himself as an unopposed despot with a manageable-sized population under his immediate dominion. It’s an altogether different kind of grim for a series trading so heavily in the macabre.
Robot Love Story of the Ages
As a genre, “zombie” isn’t exactly known for its romcom elements- what with the constant impending doom where no character is truly safe. However, if those love interests are inorganic it probably ups the chances of survival, doesn’t it?
Android protagonists Machine Man and Jocasta have endured a passing ships in the night type of relationship since the early 1980s. It’s not until 2008’s Marvel Zombies 3 that they’re able to put it all on the line for each other.
The only thing standing in their way this time is the mission itself: retrieving a blood sample from a living Earth-2149 human so a vaccine can be created in the mainstream universe.
Transported to the ruined world by ARMOR (the SHIELD of alt-reality peacekeeping), MM and Jo not only encounter a live human in Vanessa Fisk, wife of the Kingpin but they also discover that Wilson has been using his resources to create an endless supply of human clones. These are grown exclusively for consumption by other zombies of means for profit.
Triggered by flashbacks to his own origins of being mass-manufactured and factory discarded, Machine Man alters the mission and destroys the facility.
New franchise writer Fred Van Lente really dials up the dark humor as you can practically hear a studio audience-esque sad trombone groan of “Oh, Wilson…” as the Kingpin takes solace in his loss by devouring the wife he only just protected from all others. Womp womp…
The saga of Machine Man and Jocasta is also once again unfolding in the current iteration of Dan Slott’s Iron Man.
The breakout character of this new direction, though, is easily the zombie version of Deadpool- quickly reduced to just a chattering skull and nicknamed “Headpool”.
The “Merc with Only a Mouth” not only stars in MZs 3 &4 but will go on to feature in various adventures featuring all manner of cross-reality iterations of himself- particularly the appropriately-named title, Deadpool Corps.
A New Kind of Man-Made Weather Problem
It’s science that got them into this mess and, by god, it’ll be science that… somehow makes things incredibly worse?!
ARMOR’s chief scientist, living vampire Dr. Michael Morbius, is charged with getting escaped zombies under control. Tracking Headpool and his associate, Marvel’s original non-brain-eating Zombie (Simon Garth), to a remote Caribbean island Morbius Hope’s to head off the plague carriers before they reach a major population center.
Of course, as this chain of events occur right in the middle of the villainous take-over period of Dark Reign, nefarious elements are also working to capitalize on weaponizing such a horror. To this end, the Night Shift is deployed.
It doesn’t so well for them when Morbius botches an attempt to isolate the airborne zombie virus. Instead, the virus assimilated with a nearby cloud and becomes part of the localized weather system, raining bloody lethality upon all it descends upon. The Night Shift are among its first victims and are effectively turned inside out by the flash necro-storm.
Old Zombies, New Universe
The displaced zombies of Earth-2149 finally re-materialize in an all-new reality without their Galactus powers. That’s not all that’s different as Zombie Spidey instinctively goes to fire his web shooters but instead winds up spraying a fibrous mass of his own veins out of his wrists. Welcome to Earth-Z!
In Marvel Zombies Return, the core gang is scattered across this new world and stories appear slightly more anthology-based at first. However, that changes as the series goes on with Earth-Z seeing an escalation of events emulating the neverending parade of comic crossovers in the main Marvel reality quite closely.
It all reaches a crescendo when a zombie-infected version of the Superman-esque Sentry proves too much to contain, forcing the hand of Earth-Z’s Watcher and shunting the corrupted hero to a parallel universe.
Where does Zombie Sentry go? Why, Earth-2149, of course. That’s right- the interdimensional entity that Magneto-2149 first contacts to plague the humans in Dead Days is the very same being, meaning this whole nightmare saga is largely nothing but a giant, self-contained continuity loop!
Similarly, another continuity loop occurs when the zombies of Earth-Z briefly crossover with Earth-8101, a world populated by simian versions of all the familiar heroes and villains. It’s better known as Marvel Apes.
It’s all seems kinda silly and whimsical until you realize that zombies and apes are the two novelty offshoots Marvel decides to run with concurrently during 2009, so why not have them meet?
In terms of the overall Marvel Zombie mythos, though, it is probably the most skippable chapter.
The Homage Sampler
As if the actual chronology of the Zombies saga isn’t confusing enough, this where the numbering/titling of sequels starts to get squirrely. While Return follows the further adventures of the original gang, MZ5 continues to focus on mainstream Marvel characters dealing with the otherdimensional virus.
This time out, Machine Man teams with Howard The Duck and the duo traverse the multiverse cataloging various zombie strains. The five issues are all fairly stand-alone with each featuring a different Earth with a unique type of undead situation. Even though you get guest appearances from the likes of Killraven and his Free Men to serious things up a little, you can tell the whole affair is a light-hearted and kinda meta love letter to real-world horror masters with overt nods to the likes of Romero, Raimi and others.
Zombie Supreme Is Not A Pizza!
To this point, the mainstream Marvel characters interacting with all these chomping death machines hasn’t had any real stakes regarding protagonist fatalities. Can’t we get some POV characters we’re not attached to- like a team of military specialists?
Ask and Marvel Zombies Supreme shall deliver…
Very much in the vein of Schwarzenegger’s gang of soldiers of fortune in Predator or the Space Marines in Aliens, Guardsman Alpha Squad is deployed to the eerily quiet super-r&d facility Project Pegasus. And yeah, not all of them are gonna make it out.
Seems some science genius tried to clone one-time Pegasus residents, the Squadron Supreme, but got super-powered zombies instead. Whoops.
Add points for the extreme Mark Gruenwald tribute permeating the entire piece if that’s your sort of thing. Really, the anchor hero is USAgent’s old sidekick, Battle Star. No. Seriously.
Most of all, this side-series is probably best remembered for seeing the resurrection of hero Jack Of Hearts- the last of the Avengers to return from the infamous Scarlet Witch “Disassembled” incident.
This 2012 addition to the Zombies canon is no less transparent in its stylization, either. Think the “send in the Marines”- type of vibe from the preceding Zombies Supreme but only go way more old school this time out. Nazis and a whole Dirty Dozen connotation, too.
Points for one of the most outrageous plots to come from the franchise: Nazis in another reality win World War II by willingly unleashing an Asgardian zombie plague on themselves and look to expand into the multiverse. Of course, the only ones who can stop them are a team of yesteryear heroes nobody’s ever really heard of and a talking duck.
Double points for this five-parter staying as cohesive as possible with creator changes occurring between issues.
Zombie stories aren’t often known for their “feel good” appeal but somehow that’s exactly how this one-shot connects. Maybe it’s because it serves as the capper for this particular story cycle- particularly with Fred Van Lente’s return as writer. Maybe it’s the holiday-specific subject matter.
This one isn’t so much frightening, gruesome or suspenseful as it is the “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” of the whole franchise. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s still very entertaining and offers a twist with the protagonists that makes you go back and re-frame their early introduction but don’t stare too close trying to peg down which of the pre-existing universes Marvel Zombies Halloween actually takes place in. Does it matter?
The big takeaway here: It’s all a story and there will always be another…