The early 90s were a great time to be a Clive Barker fan. Looking beyond the fact that the first couple of years in that decade gave us three films sprung from his imagination (Nightbreed, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth and Candyman), we were also given three novels as well (the fantasy Imajica, young adult fable The Thief of Always, and the second Book of the Art installment Everville). In addition to these offerings, fans could also find any number of Barker-related comic books at their local shops, boasting tales either inspired by Barker’s works, or penned directly by the man himself.
Eclipse Comics’ Tapping the Vein series adapted several Books of Blood short stories into four color form, before another half dozen one shot adaptations of other Books stories were released by the indie company. Meanwhile, Dark Horse published the Barker co-penned horror/creature tale Primal, while Marvel Comics and their Epic Comics line tackled such Barker properties as Hellraiser and Nightbreed (even bringing the two worlds together in the crossover series Jihad). Yet, for all of these comics, perhaps the most eyebrow-raising entry in the famed creator’s funnybook canon is the one that’s sadly so seldom discussed.
Published in two volumes in 1993 and co-written by future 30 Days of Night creator Steve Niles, Fantaco Books’ Night of the Living Dead: London presents Barker in rare form, spinning a tale rooted in the world of George A. Romero’s classic while providing that uniquely Barkerian blend of the wickedly funny, darkly sexual and truly horrific. Boasting Carlos Kastro’s alternately gorgeous and smudgy black and white artwork which recalls the visual aesthetic from the original film, London breaks new ground in the NOTLD world not only in terms of its location, but also in how it approaches Romero’s zombie mythos. While Barker and Niles respect the rules set up in the ’68 film, they manage to subvert and twist them in ways that prevent their story from fully squaring with the mythology set forth in the later films in Romero’s series.
Spoilers ahead for those who would like to seek out and read the issues for themselves.
London’s first volume (titled “Bloodline”) opens with a lengthy prologue set on Saturday, June 16th, 1968. A plane flight from JFK to London’s Gatwick Airport is abuzz with rumors of “crazed assassins” overrunning the States, with witnesses telling tales of attackers struck down dead, only to rise again. Unbeknownst to anyone else, an American woman managed to board the plane after having just been bitten by one of the undead. When she dies and then promptly returns from the dead, she manages to infect everyone on the plane save for the pilot, who lands the plane in London – damning it by unleashing an aircraft’s worth of undead passengers on the city and kicking off what would be known as the “Twenty-Five Year War”.
Cut to 1993. The United States, France, Spain and Germany have all fallen to the zombie plague, as has the UK, where a small band of survivors primarily composed of the royal family have holed up at Buckingham Palace to ride out the apocalypse, with the undead masses held at bay by the gates surrounding it. It is here that we are introduced to Buckingham’s Archbishop Hallam, a gay priest who spends his spare time traversing the zombie-infested streets of London in an armed, fortified vehicle (bearing a cowcatcher, no less) to seek out any remaining hoi polloi to engage in rough trade with. On one such outing, Hallam manages to save a beautiful, near-mute young man from a group of zombies who have nearly overtaken him. Once they are safe back at Buckingham, Hallam quickly beds the young man.
Meanwhile, the Queen puts forth the idea that, for their bloodline (and humanity) to continue on, a child must be conceived and born to them. She insists that Prince Randolph find a wife, and tasks the palace’s two-hundred servants to finding a young woman for the Prince. Once a suitable fiancée is found in Norway’s Princess Sara Marie, a Christmas wedding is set for the pair. The first volume of the comic ends with an idyllic wedding, the royal family all smiles and nearly oblivious to the roiling undead masses at their gates.
The second volume (“End of the Line”) opens just after the Christmas wedding. Hallam continues to use the young man he rescued as his personal sex pet, even dressing him as a member of the staff to keep his presence hidden from everyone else. The young man begins to exhibit strange behavior, speaking only rarely, using makeup to maintain his complexion (surely a luxury in the apocalypse), and even shattering a mirror when confronted with his own image.
Meanwhile, Randolph finds himself not quite up to the task of satisfying his new wife – a task Hallam’s young lover finds himself all too suited for. This eventually results in the pregnancy the Queen Mother had been hoping for, though it also unveils Sara Marie’s affair. Randolph catches them both in the act, finding himself aroused by the boy and electing to blackmail him into servicing both he and his now-pregnant wife.
Months pass as the Sara Marie’s pregnancy progresses, all as both the King and Hallam grow ever more melancholy with the state of the world. On the eve of the child’s birth, the King kills himself, while Hallam discovers the three-way affair his lover is involved in. Depressed, and long since finished with any hope for humanity, Hallam kills the palace guards and opens the gate, allowing the dead to run rampant within Buckingham.
The Archbishop is quickly torn apart by the masses, while the remaining royal family are decimated as they wait for their army to save them. Meanwhile, Sara Marie goes into labor, at which point Hallam’s ex-lover reveals himself to be one of the undead. Somehow, some way, the young man is a zombie who is nevertheless articulate and cunning, passing for human with little more than makeup. The lad murders Randolph and tosses him from the balcony into the swarming zombies, then delivers his own baby from Sara Marie. He carries his undead child into the crowd of zombie onlookers, holding it aloft for them to see and stare at in awe. The final panel reads “The End?”, leaving readers to wonder what might have come from further installments in this world.
Lest you think the story described above is relatively horror lite, rest assured that the sight of this story’s zombies and the eventual hell they rain down on Buckingham is truly shocking. The story is almost oppressively bleak at times, only to be leavened by Barker’s dark wit (mostly stemming from absurdity of the royal family’s protection of the status quo in the face of oblivion). The tale also goes well beyond what one would expect from a Night knockoff. While Romero’s own thematic concerns may not be on display here, this Living Dead is no mere empty gut-muncher – delivering a story dealing with religion, class and oppressed sexuality that allows the tale to chill and linger long past the point that one has turned its final page.
It’s strange, this comic’s current standing. While it seems to be rarely known to both Barker fans and zombie enthusiasts, it manages to be one of the stronger entries belonging to either realm. If you’re a Barker fan, a zombie fan, or simply a lover of great horror comics (and honestly, aren’t we likely to be all three here?), then make certain to seek out this little-known, underloved graphic novel gem.