I hate zombies. I loathe the marketing of “culture.” But I admire Chester Brown. And I think I love Chester Brown’s comic strip about zombies attending cultural events.
For those of you who don’t live in Toronto (and, believe it or not Torontonians, these people do exist), for the past several years the city’s streets, newspapers, etc. have been plagued with an ad campaign called Live with Culture that features happy people doing artsy things, like painting! or dancing!, their grinning mugs plastered with slogans like “TO LIVE with art” or “TO LIVE with dance” (note how TO is also short for Toronto—clever, no? no). From October 4 to November 8 2007, I briefly found myself no longer resenting this campaign’s intrusion into my eyeball space when a Live with Culture comic strip by future MP Chester Brown appeared in six weekly instalments in NOW magazine. The strip tells the story of an undead zombie guy and a living human girl who notice each other at the theatre, at a concert, at a gallery, and who finally arrange a date to see the long-in-limbo movie version of Brown’s Ed the Happy Clown. As is typical of Brown’s work, which has dealt with such other mile-a-minute thrill rides as 19th century Canadian history and word-by-word adaptations of the Gospels, it sounds boring. And it kind of is. But, again like his other work, it’s boring in a way that’s surprisingly funny and involving.
It’s involving, to begin with, because Brown is a cartoonist at the peak of his talents, one of the best working today. He’s mastered a use of the page-as-grid, complementing its metronomic pace by showing events in strict sequence and from a static framing, so that the rare instance of a high angle, a close-up, or a shift to a different moment in time, bears greater significance. This set-up gives the final panel of each strip the feel of a punchline, even though on their own they’re not especially funny, and provides some well-earned heft to the couple’s climactic kiss. Brown makes this all seem offhand, completely natural and invisible—boring, almost. But even a seemingly throwaway panel, like the one picturing a dance troupe on stage, has a career’s worth of work behind it ensuring its simplicity. Depicting movement in comics is easy—one panel begins an action, the next completes it—but Brown shows movement here in just one single panel, by suspending all of the dancers in midair. There’s also so little detail here—not one face or distinguishing mark—and yet Brown still manages to create a real, concrete sense of space. Like Robert Crumb or Jim Woodring, Brown expertly applies texture effects, only he doesn’t rely on relentless hatching or on varying the width of his brushstroke to create the illusion of three dimensions. Instead, Brown’s every line, uniform and a bit wobbly, seems to imply roundness and form. His is a remarkably consistent world: Claymation figures against diorama backdrops, living their lives to a regular, mundane beat.
That mundanity, though—or the illusion of mundanity—is what makes it funny. Even Brown’s sense of humour is deceptive in its simplicity: he’s based his comic around the notions of “live” (har har, live/zombies, how about that for clever, admeisters?) and “culture,” slyly skimming these precepts from only the very surface of the ad campaign (which is the level at which such things operate, anyway). For me, at least, those are both suspect premises on which to base any work, especially one that aims to make with the funny. For one, zombies are often an excuse for lazy stabs at either weak comedy (they’re slow! and inarticulate! and you can mangle them with impunity!) or toothless allegory (hi Joe Dante, what’s up George Romero?). For another, any talk of “culture” invariably smacks of the self-congratulatory, blinkered, and humourless, amounting to nothing so much as a big pat on our own backs for being so damned well-bred. Allow me to paraphrase an exchange of dialogue from the strip to show what I’m getting at: “You’re pretty cultured…,” says the girl, in part, and the zombie says, “You’re pretty cultured yourself.” Ick. Of course, Brown’s actual dialogue reads, “You’re pretty cultured for a zombie” (italics mine), and therein lies all the difference between back-pat and piss-take.
Brown undercuts both these concepts—zombie, culture—by making their presence so glaring that they become jokes in themselves. Like Pineapple Express, in which everything is funny because they’re high, here everything is funny because he’s a zombie or because it’s a cultural event or, frequently, some combination of the two (“I just think it’s nice that a zombie is taking an interest in the arts”). When the zombie has a crush, it’s funny only because he’s a zombie, not because of anything intrinsic to the situation, which is far from extraordinary. Or, when the girl goes to an art gallery, it’s funny because she doesn’t just go, but also explains that she’s going, reinforcing narrative information in an absurd fashion. Brown’s characters speak in blunt, declamatory sentences, which often serve as the barest excuses to deliver exposition, or to manipulate story events. The series of strips begins with distressed citizens screaming, “Oh no! Toronto is being invaded by zombies!” which is basically the only panel in which it’s a big deal that there are zombies around. In another strip, one zombie says to another, in front of a local concert venue, “There might be some people to eat in there.” “Okay, let’s take a look,” says the other, and then they’re inside. This kind of bare-bones storytelling—set-up, delivery, no elaboration—is winning and comic in its straightforward awkwardness, not unlike the weird courtship of the two main characters (“Is she really interested in me? I’m a zombie”). This may be slight stuff, but as with Brown’s earlier brand of nonchalant surrealism in strips like “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop” or “The Little Man,” its slightness is its virtue, and its charm.