Tuesday, 24 April 2012


Steve Balshaw looks at the ever growing popularity of Zombie fiction.

As Grimm Up North prepares for its Zombie Triple Bill this Friday (27th April 2012), and I finish reading Wayne Simmons’ breakneck, bloody and rather brilliant take on the zombie apocalypse, FEVER, I find myself reflecting on the current popularity of the undead. Not just a new influx of films every year, but TV shows, novels, comics, computer games, citywide “Zombie Walks”, even a charity - our old friend Carl Whiteley’s Zombie Aid.

Let’s face it, Grimmlins, Zombies have gone mainstream. The undead are everywhere; shambling across our screens, leering at us from the pages of comics, being pulverised on our Playstations, and wandering our shopping malls every Halloween. So familiar as to seem almost, well… cosy.

When did this happen? When did Zombies go from being the much-reviled subject of banned video nasties to the increasingly ubiquitous pop culture phenomenon they are today? When did brain-eating and entrail chewing cease to shock us? And why did it happen?

Roll back to the early days of popular horror, and Zombies were conspicuous largely by their absence. There were a few classic early films - the Halperins’ seminal WHITE ZOMBIE (1932), of course, and Val Lewton and Jaques Tourneur’s I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) - but for the most part, the screens of the 30s and 40s were dominated by other horrors: Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Werewolf, the Mummy, Jekyll and Hyde, the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Even Hammer, during its golden era only managed one, solitary Zombie film, the eerie and undervalued THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966).
Bearing in mind how effective all of these classic Zombie films are, how much each is now regarded as a genre classic, it seems strange that the walking dead should initially have been such a rare subject for horror cinema. But perhaps our perspective is unduly coloured by the benefit of hindsight. Back then, Zombies were an unknown quantity.  The other monsters were all tried and tested. They had literary origins, they had precedent and provenance. The mythologies surrounding them were already familiar from books and theatre and myths and fairytales. But if TIME magazine is to be believed, the word “zombie” first found its way into the English language in 1929, in William Seabrook’s book THE MAGIC ISLAND, which means the Halperins were really on the cutting edge of horror when they made WHITE ZOMBIE only three years later. The early Zombies, however, both in the Halperins’ film, and in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, were very much tied to the superstitions of Haiti, as were those afflicting Cornwall in Hammer’s PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, where the local squire responsible for the zombies just happens to have spent time Haiti, learning the necessary rituals.

The modern Zombie is an entirely different breed of creature. While traditional zombies do still shamble onto our screens from time to time, in Fulci’s Caribbean-based ZOMBIE FLESHEATERS, for example, or Wes Craven’s extraordinary THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, for the most part the depiction of the walking dead in contemporary popular culture has its origin in, you guessed it, George A. Romero’s seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968).

Here is where we first find the first version of the Zombie Apocalypse scenario. Here is where we first see the zombie being used as a metaphor for social change and social unrest. Voodoo is no longer to blame, but Bad Science / the Military Industrial Complex / the Government / the Man. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is  very much a product of its era. This was an age of apocalyptic visions. The late 60s and early 70s were rife with such stuff, from films such as SOYLENT GREEN and THE OMEGA MAN (based, of course on Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND, which had been an inspiration for Romero), in which paranoid gun nut Charlton Heston lived out his worst fears of black people and hippies taking over everything, to the nihilistic New English Library novels I devoured as a kid, where Hell’s Angels, mutant rats, giant crabs, or whatever, preyed on the population of an increasingly damaged and dystopian Britain.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was at the forefront of this trend, and it is Romero we have to thank for both the modern version of the zombie, and also for the ambivalence with which it is viewed. In Romero’s films, Zombies are both a marauding, flesh-eating horde - the threat, the monster - but also victims. They represent a debased, damaged, helpless humanity. In NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the military kill everyone at the end, zombies and the uninfected alike; in DAWN OF THE DEAD, the zombies wander around the shopping mall, pitifully staring at the consumer goods they once valued. As Romero’s zombie cycle progresses, the battle lines are drawn. Zombies on one side, the military industrial complex on the other, and the rest of humanity caught in the crossfire, likely to fall victim to either side.

And this is where things get confusing, or interesting, or both. Because suddenly the metaphor gets a bit… blurred. The zombies are a threat to society, but they are also victims, creatures created by that society. Depending on the politics of the individual filmmaker, they might represent the media-numbed, consumer-goods-oversaturated suburban populace,  Nazis, hippies, civil rights activists, the so-called underclass,  the Anarcho-Crusties, The Occupy Movement. Or none of the above. In short, they are a threat to social stability, but they are one that comes from within, and as such can be endlessly reinterpreted for each new age, each set of social values.  Their metaphoric meaning is not fixed, it can shift, even within the same narrative. I am reminded again of the fact that Romero was inspired originally by Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND, written at the height of the McCarthy witch hunts in the USA, which ends with the bone-chilling realisation that while the novel’s protagonist has been massacring the infected “vampires”, they have actually been (re)building a society, in which he, not they, is the real monster.

But while a horde of zombies might be a threat, an individual zombie is rather pitiful, and might even be sympathetic. Bub in DAY OF THE DEAD, for example, or Cheese, in the more recent DEADHEADS, one of last year’s festival hits, whose final destruction brought a big groan of dismay from our Grimmlins, of the kind a mainstream audience would reserve for the death of a cute puppy. DEADHEADS is also a manifestation of a recent trend for zombie slacker films (another such would be THE REVENANT, screened at the very first Grimm Up North), in which the undead might be a bit decayed around the edges and have somewhat unpleasant eating habits, but are otherwise affable, easygoing dudes, whom it is all too easy to empathise with.

The zombies, then, in short, are us. All of us. Which might explain the rise of phenomena such as the Zombie Walk, which seem to have acquired a popularity far beyond their original horror fanbase. They have become days out for the whole family; a chance for the general populace to embrace and to celebrate their “inner zombie”.

But perhaps I am reading too much into all of this. A filmmaker friend of mine once admitted that what he liked about zombies was the simple fact that you could destroy them in ever-bloodier, more outrageous ways on film, and the audience wouldn’t mind because zombies are already dead, so it doesn’t matter what you do to them. Basically, zombies are cinematic, simple as that. They offer the opportunity for full-on, guilt-free mayhem.

And of course they allow the sfx guys to have a field day.

Go here for more info on our zombie night:  http://grimmfest.com/grimmupnorth/2012/03/zombie-night-fri-27th-april/

Monday, 2 April 2012


R.I.P. JEAN GIRAUD, MOEBIUS (1938 - 2012) 
Steve Balshaw looks at the life and work of the genius comic book artist.

March 10th 2012 was a national day of mourning in France. It should be a day of mourning for us all. Jean Henri Gaston Giraud, better known as Moebius, finally lost his long battle with cancer. He was 73.

Giraud was one of the true greats. He revolutionised the comics medium not once, but several times. He won every single industry award there is - again, several times over. His design work was incomparable, his influence wide-reaching and profound. As a concept artist his visual style directly or indirectly influenced STAR WARS, TRON, ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER, THE ABYSS, DUNE, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, while his great friend and fellow visionary Hayo Miyazaki claims to have directed NAUSICAA entirely under his influence. Federico Fellini considered him “as great as Picasso or Matisse”. He was a master of his craft, a true original, oft-imitated, but impossible to equal. A philosopher, a poet, a wit, a master craftsman, a peerless draftsman. An artist in the truest sense of the word. 

You think I’m overstating the case? Then read on…

Jean Giraud began his professional career in 1956, with the solid but somewhat traditional Western strip “Frank and Jeremie”. As his style began to develop, however, moving away from the slick, clean linework favoured by his mentor, Joseph Gillain, towards something looser, scratchier, altogether grittier, so, too, did Giraud’s approach to storytelling. With writer Jean-Michel Charlier, he created his first really enduring creation, Lieutenant Blueberry, a far darker, more sophisticated work, influenced by Sam Peckinpah and the Spaghetti Westerns. With its complex characterisations and motivations, solid grounding of historical research, and sharp, tight, intelligent storytelling, Blueberry revolutionised the Western strip, and generally pushed the art of the bandes desinee in a more adult direction. It was hugely successful and established Giraud as a major talent.

Many artists would have been satisfied with this - creative and financial success, the respect of one’s peers, and a body of work that has caused a revolution within the medium. What makes Jean Giraud so remarkable, so unique, is that he never rested on his laurels for a moment. He kept on progressing, changing, evolving, trying new things.

In 1973, he left Blueberry in the capable hands of Colin Wilson and Michel Blanc and started out in a completely new direction. The result was THE DETOUR, published to great acclaim and no small bewilderment in PILOTE, the magazine that had been home to Lt. Blueberry. Though the strip was signed with the familiar “Gir”, the content was anything but familiar.

Enter Moebius, stage left. The pseudonym first appeared on work Giraud produced for the scurrilous satiric magazine Hari-Kiri in 1963 - 64, about the time he was first developing Lieutenant Blueberry. Intially, perhaps, he opted for a pseudonym to distance this loose, vulgar, throwaway satiric work from his more serious and respectable work. However, Moebius was about to make a spectacular comeback. Initially resurrected for the outrageous, bawdy, surreal fantasy THE HORNY GOOF (again, perhaps initially, to distance this strip from his work on Blueberry) Giraud clearly found the new identity liberating and from that point on it would start to become his dominant creative persona. Far from being a one-off, THE HORNY GOOF proved a springboard for his imagination to run riot. Ideas, concepts and characters introduced here would recur; developed, expanded, reimagined.

And in 1975, Moebius, as he now increasingly styled himself, developed a striking new platform for his increasingly radical visions. Together with fellow artists Philippe Druillet, Jean-Pierre Dionnet and Bernard Farkas, he founded "Les Humanoides Associes", and they launched the glossy magazine METAL HURLANT - literally “Screaming Metal”, though the American version, through which much of the English speaking world would discover their work, opted for the name HEAVY METAL.

And it was at this point that I first discovered it. It was 1978. I was thirteen. Reared on Marvel and to a lesser extent DC Comics: cheap paper, shoddy printing, bombastic superheroics. HEAVY METAL blew my adolescent mind. Slickly and stylishly produced in emulation of the French original (which at this stage it was content largely to reprint in translation), filled with outrageous ideas and incredible imagery from cover to cover. It was sexy, yes, and this appealed to my hormonally challenged teenaged self, but it was also STRANGE. It was challenging and thought-provoking. It made me see, for the first time, what the comics medium could really achieve. Here I first discovered Corben, Caza, Crepax and Druillet. But most important of all, I discovered Moebius, at the height of his powers.

In his work for METAL HURLANT / HEAVY METAL, Moebius went into creative overdrive, each new work more startling than the last. In ARZACH, he expanded on the imagery of THE DETOUR, mixing visions of the future and the past, to depict the title character’s wordless, mystical journey, by pterodactyl, across a stark, hostile landscape. He teamed with ALIEN writer Dan O’Bannon for futuristic Private Eye strip “The Long Tomorrow”, acknowledged by William Gibson as an influence on NEUROMANCER and by Ridley Scott as a major inspiration for BLADERUNNER. He offered a cynically minimalist answer to an eternal question in the troubling IS MAN GOOD?, and a disturbing portrait of the attitudes of the Far Right in WHITE NIGHTMARE.

Perhaps most significant of all, he created THE AIRTIGHT GARAGE, which features the efforts of recurring Moebius character Major Grubert to build his own universe on an Asteroid named fleur. Originally titled THE AIRTIGHT GARAGE OF JERRY CORNELIUS, and featuring an idiosyncratic version of Michael Moorcock’s ambiguous assassin in a supporting role, this is nevertheless no work of simple homage. Indeed, Moebius later admitted that he had not actually read Moorcock’s stories at the time. In later versions, he renamed the Cornelius character Lewis Carnelian, describing him as his own “version” of Jerry. This is understandable. 

The world of THE AIRTIGHT GARAGE is entirely sui generis, a unique melange of science fiction, fantasy, absurdity, black humour, and comics iconography. There is a bizarre cameo by Lee Falk’s Phantom, and a page of superheroic action the layouts of which derive from an old George Tuska IRON MAN strip. There are lots of silly jokes, throwaway ideas and narrative dead ends. There is a truly joyous sense of an artist at the top of his game taking a line for a walk, winging it, making it up as he goes along. And yet it all comes together wonderfully. Expanding on characters and situations first introduced in THE HORNY GOOF, Moebius takes his freeform, non-linear, stream of consciousness approach to storytelling to new heights of abstraction and in the process begins to explore increasingly spiritual and philosophical issues.

At which point, another figure enters the mix. A fellow genius. A fellow visionary. Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of EL TOPO, THE HOLY MOUNTAIN and SANTA SANGRE. A man who had tried to do with cinema what Moebius was now doing with the comic strip. No wonder they hit it off so well. Their initial collaboration was on a dark, disturbing, surrealist horror story THE EYES OF THE CAT, which every true Grimmlin should seek out. It will give even the hardiest of you nightmares. But it was with THE INCAL that the Jodorowsky / Moebius collaboration hit its stride. A dense, complex, philosophical science fiction epic, it chronicles the saga of the appropriately named John DiFool - a loser, a bum, a holy fool, whose journey to enlightenment does not end particularly well. It is a masterpiece of the form, filled with startling visuals, complex characters, brilliant, groundbreaking ideas. It couples an epic universe-spanning narrative sweep with an intimate, engaging human story of growth, and (failed) redemption, and has a truly heartbreaking, killer ending. And the art is beautiful.

If Lt. Blueberry is Jean Giraud’s most famous work, THE INCAL is Moebius’s. It is the piece in which all of his relentless experimentation, all of his restless pursuit of new storytelling approaches, his visual poetry and extraordinary design and draftsmanship, all of his philosophical and spiritual questing after truth, and all of his dark, earthy wit found total expression.

So it is rather surprising that he should opt then to collaborate with Stan “The Man” Lee on Marvel’s Silver Surfer. Perhaps he saw a kindred spirit in the cosmic philosophising of Galactus’s tormented former herald. Perhaps he wanted to try his and at superhero comics for the American market. Perhaps it was simply a way of saying thank you to the publisher who was at the time putting his work out in America. Whatever the reason, the result is, of course, unique. No matter what Denzil Washington might say to the contrary in CRIMSON TIDE, it’s a lovely piece of work. Minor for Moebius, yes, but deserving of the various awards it won.

And yet still Giraud continued to experiment, to try new things, to challenge and provoke with each new work, right till the end. Even in the midst of his final illness, he was creatively unbowed. From 2000 to 2010, he published Inside Moebius, an epic illustrated autobiographical fantasy in six hardcover volumes totalling 700 pages. It was both a reflection on his career and a revisiting of key moments within it. A kind of expanded version of THE DETOUR in which Moebius appears in cartoon form as both creator and protagonist trapped within the story alongside his younger self and several longtime characters such as Blueberry, Arzach, Major Grubert and others.

Perhaps, knowing he was ill, struggling against that illness, he was striving to produce some final testament. Something that would link all of his achievements together, but the result is typically, mischievously, digressive; self-deconstructing and post-modern, mixing autobiography, philosophy and self-analysis with jokes, puns and pratfalls. It looks back over the whole of his art, both as Jean Giraud and as Moebius, because it is only through the totality of what he achieved that we can understand how remarkable he was. And then, only partly.

French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterand said that with the simultaneous deaths of Jean Giraud, France had lost “two great artists”. I would go further. It has lost multitudes. Giraud continually reinvented himself. His twin identities held within them whole worlds, whole universes of creativity. It is impossible to sum up what he was and what he achieved in his career. I cannot begin to even try. All I can do is recommend people unfamiliar with his work to seek it out, and join those who know and love it in raising a sorrowful glass in tribute. RIP, Jean Giraud, RIP Moebius. The world is a darker, sadder, dingier, more miserable place for your passing.