Thursday, November 8, 2012

Dearly Departed: Rebel Blood

Dearly Departed is a semi-regular column where I look back on recently completed or canceled series.    

Surprise endings are hard to pull off. Having a big, world-changing reveal at the very end of a story is often either easy to spot from far away or, even worse, so dramatically unexpected and ill-fitting that it feels forced. In Riley Rossmo and Alex Link's mini-series Rebel Blood, the final twist finds an excellent balance between being truly surprising and making absolute sense in the context of the larger tale. I'm sure some people predicted it while the book was coming out, but I certainly didn't, and even rereading the series after the fact, it's a powerful conclusion. For four issues, we follow Chuck as he fights his way through numerous human and animal zombies in an attempt to reach his family and save them from the infection. Then, rather suddenly, we discover that there were never any zombies, that his family was never in any danger, and that the entire zombie invasion was Chuck's insane hallucination. Of course, that means all the people and animals he ran down, shot, and/or hacked up with an axe were alive and innocent at the time, and so our hero becomes a villain as the story winds down. Perhaps still a man for whom we feel some sympathy, about whom we have an understanding that no one else in the book shares (save for maybe Red, see below), but a cold-blooded murderer nonetheless, and one who went on a terrifying spree before he was finally stopped.
     Chuck's mental instability and, truth be told, his unreliability, are both established right away. The second scene of the first issue shows Chuck not only attempting suicide, but lying to his boss about it being an accident and subsequently losing his job as a firefighter. At the same time, we watch his marriage fall to pieces around him while he stoically and silently does nothing to save it. Finally, we learn that Chuck is currently working as a fire lookout, spending his days all alone in a tower in the middle of the woods. All of this immediately sets him up him as deeply unhappy and at least somewhat unstable, in addition to being utterly alone. Not exactly a recipe for a man you're eager to trust.
     However, when the zombie shit hits the fan, there's no obvious reason to doubt the reality of it at first. We have not yet been shown anything we know to be unreal, and even if Chuck isn't the most dependable guy, he's perfect in the role of zombie story action hero: he's crazy, he's got nothing to lose, and he's understandably eager to prove himself in light of all his recent failings. So the groundwork laid out by Rossmo and Link doesn't automatically make one doubt what Chuck sees, hears, and experiences. In fact, for me it had the opposite effect---I assumed it was all real, and that the reason for Chuck to have such deep and varied problems was so he could slowly but steadily redeem himself in the face of this crisis, coming out the other end not only a survivor but a victor, probably for the first time in his life. It seemed like he was built for this. And of course that ended up being true, but not in the ways or for the reasons I imagined.
     Looking back, there are of course several hints that things are not what they seem. There's a zombiefied pregnant woman on the side of the road who tries to flag Chuck down for assistance---not your average zombie tactic. Or the fact that we watch Chuck get bitten all to hell by a group of infected rats, yet he never himself succumbs to zombieism. And in one of the best parts of the series, there is Danny Whitehead and his friends, a group of hunters/poachers who also live in the woods and who Chuck checks in on before heading back to town. When he arrives, he finds Danny and company already in zombie mode, yet they've lost none of their intelligence. Not the first smart zombies I've ever seen, but definitely an indication that Chuck may be misreading the situation. Plus once Danny's crew overpowers Chuck, they merely bind him and lock him away rather than, say, eating him.
     So why, with all these clues, was I fooled by Rebel Blood? Why didn't it ever occur to me as even a possibility that Chuck was making up this whole event? What, precisely, is this comicbook doing right that makes its surprise finale so satisfying and successful?
     Even before discovering the depths of Chuck's madness, Rebel Blood is a character study first and a zombie story second. It's so focused on exploring the ins and outs of Chuck's point of view that questioning it never crossed my mind. And more than that, even saddled with all his craziness, Chuck's overall reaction to the zombie infestation is actually fairly grounded and realistic. He has moments where he's overwhelmed by the horrors he has to face, but just as many moments of genuine bravery. Like anyone, his mind runs wild with worst-case scenarios, yet he also motivates himself by imagining that this whole affair will make him into a real-life action hero, earning respect, gratitude, and even fame. Perhaps most realistically, he latches onto a stranger, the only other "survivor" he knows about, a voice coming through his radio that claims to belong to a cop and calls itself Red.
     And in Red we find the craziest and most confounding single aspect of the story. Throughout Chuck's adventure, he is followed by a strange lurking figure with a head in the shape of a terrifying deer skull. Though the creature is never directly noticed or addressed, it's clear from the beginning that it has some measure of power or influence over what goes on. So when I first discovered that Chuck was never fighting zombies or in danger of anything but his own insanity, my thought was that this skull-headed demon thing was a physical representation of that insanity. But then, on the very next page, in comes to light that the detective in charge of this bizarre case is none other than Red, and one page after that we see him cast a shadow in the shape of old skullhead. So who or what is Red, really? Considering that his last line is, "Who're you?" his exact identity, nature, motives, etc. are likely meant to remain mysterious, but it seems pretty clear that, to some extent, he's the cause behind Chuck's final, homicidal breakdown. The hows and whys of it are unclear at best, but as I said, this is a character study before it's a zombie story, so the details of what caused Chuck to see these monsters don't need to be explained. The point is how he handles his madness, not where it came from.
     Besides, one of the things I like most about Rebel Blood is how much credit it gives its readers. The story moves through time, moves in and out of Chuck's memories and fantasies, and has unsettling and unexplained characters like Mr. Skullhead/Red creeping about, yet it never sacrifices clarity in its storytelling. Smart and subtle visual clues, sometimes as simple as a shift in the coloring, help to keep things from becoming muddled, and the main narrative of Chuck's battle from the woods to his house is so direct that anytime we move away from it, jumping right back in is no problem. The book requires your full attention throughout in order to stick its unexpected landing, but it also holds your attention effortlessly with its captivating and horrifying artwork, natural-yet-stylized dialogue, realistic approach to people in crisis, and flawed and fascinating protagonist.
     Chuck isn't easy to like or even understand, but I felt like I had accomplished both by the end of the series, because of how skillfully Link and Rossmo handled him along the way. Realizing that this crazy, angry dude who'd won me over was, in fact, crazier and angrier than I could have known was certainly a punch to the gut, but a thoroughly enjoyable one. I keep coming back to take the hit again, and even though I know it's coming now, it still packs a wallop. That's the mark of a great twist ending: you can return to the story over and over and still feel shock, surprise, and sadness when you reach the conclusion.

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