“Luther Plunkett has been a ranch hand, a cattle rustler, even a bank robber – But he’s never been anyone’s idea of a hero until his home town is threatened by a terrifying plague. Summoned to protect a precious and mysterious cargo, Plunkett will embark on a journey that brings him face to face with both blood-thirsty cannibals and his own haunting past.
“An original graphic novel of the weird, wild west from Eisner Award-nominated and Glyph Award-winning illustrator Shepherd Hendrix (Swamp Thing, Captain Sternn, Stagger Lee) and writer Ellis Bojar.”
Written by: Ellis Bojar
Art by: Shepherd Hendrix, Adam Metcalfe (colours)
Publisher: Bojar Co.
Released: 13 December 2017
I love a good zombie tale (I believe I’ve mentioned my low standards for supernatural stories before, but quality is always the preference), and it’s something that so many different ideas, characters, visuals, and settings can be applied to. I didn’t find out this was a zombie comic until I read it – though summing up as zombie comic does it a disservice – but as you can guess, that mention of blood-thirsty cannibals was definitely a point of interest. The category of Western Horror is probably most accurate, and the one the creator uses. So let’s talk about zombies.
Stories set in North America’s wild west often follow strict conventions, and are often rarely accurate. The scene was set by western movies in the latter half of the 20th century, and they became the benchmark of what a western looked like despite obviously being far more Hollywood than history. One of the most notable issues was when it came to race; from the start, movies only hired white people when they could, and so the look of the USA’s western frontier became a lot whiter in people’s imagination and impression than it really was (though it certainly wasn’t the only inaccuracy). Blood Will Have Blood at least doesn’t present a blindingly pale main cast, with our core three characters a group all with troubles of their own; a black stablehand looking to live his life in peace, a cook wanting something more from life but expecting to have to defend herself from her allies on the road (unfortunately with reason), and a wanted man doing a favour, protecting a precious cargo. Keeping to western convention though, outside of the zombies, every character that comes up is a white guy except our stablehand and cook. Also to convention is them fearing attack by local groups while travelling; although violent conflict between civilians and first nation groups was something movies made a lot of for drama and action, it was mostly very one-sided conflict with armed forces.
I feel that these days, in the age of information, there’s not much excuse for historical inaccuracy when setting something in a time and place that’s pretty easy to research first, but I know that’s far easier said than done when you grow up with an impression of something that you don’t know is inaccurate, and there’s something to be said for a setting that people will be more familiar with and immediately relate to over technical accuracy, though I think that can really only be done for good storytelling reasons. I know I’m giving the impression I didn’t like this book, but I really did; despite the last two paragraphs, the setting and characters felt naturally built, and had enough depth to not feel contrived and flat. I’m not talking about some outrageous, highly romanticised, egregiously stupid vision of the wild west here – the reason I nitpicked some more obvious and well-known inaccuracies is because this book is good enough that I can see where it could have been a bit better. I can clearly see where the author was aiming for a tale more diverse and inclusive than we’re usually given in this setting, but appears to have used only imagination rather than a mix of that and historic fact to do it, and only with the mains rather than thinking about all the background people.
The plot surrounding our protagonists as they travel and fight against the growing number of undead is interesting and not overly complicated, with the focus being on the unusual situation. And I do like how the zombie aspect was approached: the word zombie is never used of course, because it wasn’t known, and the infected are treated as just that – the victims of a strange disease, with no clear moment of death for those affected – and as though risen and aggressive attackers are just a strange problem. Of course, it goes deeper than that, and it’s clear to the reader what is being dealt with. The zombies are also given slightly more depth than usual, making signs and grouping together (not all as brainless as you’re used to seeing), to give an extra aspect to the threat our protagonists are under. There’s some usual tropes in there (both of Westerns and zombie stories), but overall it’s not a story I’ve seen a hundred times before.
Oddly, the look of the undead is not what I would have expected from something like this. They’re portrayed as grey and diseased looking, patches of blood and occasional gore (heads up for some gore, blood, and a touch of nudity and sex). I would have thought more still-human looking attackers looking less blue and less obviously marked as no longer one of us, but that’s often used where the basis of the plot is fighting back those you once knew and loved (while there’s an element of that here, it’s only a tiny one), while the other end of the spectrum is fighting those more monstrously turned to highlight the fight for life itself against gory ravening beasts. Between those is this medium, where they are partially (or want to be) believed to still be living human but are clearly visually marked as not, something acknowledged still by the main characters. I would have liked to see something about the moral quandary of killing them in relation to lack of formally acknowledging them as not alive anymore/no longer considered human early on, but it’s not really discussed. I think the easiest way to explain it is the characters sort of acting as though they’re in a modern zombie movie, except that the characters in a modern zombie movie have seen zombie movies and so already have the context for “kill everything.”
In all this talk of Westerns, I have of course been remiss in mention of the visual setting – it is of course full of lovely open plains and red rocky hills. Experienced artists are doing their stuff here. Good natural terrain can be harder to draw than you’d think, but Hendrix has done it well, and Metcalfe’s subdued colours suit the sunwashed land. Tension is built well with physical surroundings of closeness like valleys, and the usual fear of what might happen when night falls. The addition of the zombies marking their territory in a way mean that good use could be made of that good old trope of the viewer seeing the signs that the characters can’t, and visual shorthand of letting us know what to expect. Colour is also used to easily mark flashbacks out, utilising a sepia tone (quite fitting to the time) – a common trick because it works well, but is surprisingly low-key here because it’s not a sudden and sharp change from the colours of the main story, with the soft colours used in the main helping blend in the flashbacks while still being noticeable.
This is an interesting little graphic novel, all up. There are a lot of different themes it could have examined closer or leaned into; basically, it was a little frustrating because it was good but could have been a lot more with more layered writing, some more examination of the questions raised (though I know that opens the door to zombie story clichés), and a clearer central topic or subject (what are you trying to tell us as readers?) outside of the characters getting past zombies. Those things aren’t necessary for a good story, but they felt missing. It needed to either be longer to become an epic story, or more tightly written with something to leave you thinking about for a while afterwards. I can’t easily find any earlier work of Bojar’s though he’s been in comics for a few years, however I’ll be looking out for future stuff, because I think as his work develops and if he keeps teaming up with good artists, Bojar could be putting out some truly great independent graphic novels if this is anything to go by.
Thanks to Comixology.com for providing this copy of ‘Blood Will Have Blood’ for review.