Aaron Thomas Nelson's action/horror graphic novel Marlow has the distinction of being the first comic I've ever read in a digital format. I've been adverse to it since the inception of e-books, and especially when it comes to the comic medium. I still don't like it, but I sucked it up, and made a pleasant discovery along the way; I was able to get down and dirty with each panel, able to blow them up and still retain a high resolution image. This allowed me to get very intimate with the violent, corrupt world that Nelson and illustrator Matthew Reynolds created. In a way, I was thrust to the forefront of battle, certain I'd need to wipe up gory matter after finishing.
Unfolding somewhere between Apocalypse Now and Night of the Living Dead, Nelson marries two genres not commonly found cozying up to one another in comicdom: the zombie horror tale, and the black-ops underground war story. While the gory zombie violence is certainly up front, Nelson’s conflicted protagonist also offers a conscience into the story. Infusing philosophy on the nature of man, Nelson elevates things above the standard fare. Clearly, the author's influences go beyond Romero and multiple viewings of Commando. This is no Call of Duty: The Zombie Edition. Admirably, Nelson is just as interested in philosophical discourse as he is with carnage.
Meet Marlow, a man stricken with a dreadful nano-virus that is slowly turning him into a zombie. Marlow is a gun-for-hire working for Nupharm, one of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies. Providing Marlow with pills to stave off the infection, Nupharm is able to string him along for their dirtiest missions. The pills make Marlow human, but only temporarily. It is, by no means, a cure. Nupharm is content keeping Marlow on a short leash, dangling the lure of potential "cures" and profit in front of him. The only cost is human life.
Marlow's new mission takes him to the island retreat of Dr. Arcos, a Moreau-like scientist with delusions of grandeur. His original vision―nanotechnology that makes it easier for soldiers to mentally process atrocity―has evolved into something greater. He's a man with twisted visions of a divine world, one inhabited completely by subservient, “enlightened” zombies. His belief is that zombies are somehow more evolved than humans because they no longer fear death. Arcos is clearly unhinged, but in his own mind he has humanity’s best interests at heart. Marlow's own curse is the result of early experimentation with the very same drug Arcos plans to use. Marlow, along with a band of trusted operatives, heads to the island to uncover Arcos's ultimate plan, and hopefully restore financial order for Nupharm.
Joseph Campbell's novel, Heart of Darkness (the inspiration for Apocalypse Now), has clearly influenced Nelson’s work. Along with the nightmare chaos of zombie action, Nelson interjects moments of human reflection. Marlow (also the protagonist's name in Heart of Darkness), desensitized to his own horrible war crimes, finds himself at odds with his own actions and beliefs, eventually realizing the similarity between the zombies and the senseless violence he perpetuates for a paycheck. He's the Captain Willard to Dr. Arcos's Colonel Kurtz, his ideology challenged by the ideas of a messianic egotist.
Marlow is quick-paced, and meticulously illustrated by Matthew Reynolds. Each panel is striking, rendered in stunning black and white, a style which seems counter to what you'd expect from this type of book, but it works quite well here in establishing mood. Although there’s an absence of gooey colour in the guts and blasted brains, there’s no shortage of affective bloodshed.
Nelson’s work is a noble effort, his heart clearly worn on his sleeve. Where he might come up short is in execution. The book stumbles occasionally with some clunky dialogue that almost felt like a rough translation of foreign source material. The characters also made some questionable decisions, the likes of which knocked the believability down a few notches. For example: each member of Marlow’s team is keen to take out a rival operative nicknamed “The Russian”, but when they encounter him, he easily talks them into following him into Arcos’s body strewn lair with a few awkward exultations that Arcos is a great man. Some people might tell me to "lighten up", that it's "only a zombie book". To adopt that attitude, I feel, negates the foundation Nelson is building here. It's that very reason that I do offer these criticisms.
Overall, Marlow is a solid effort, especially in terms of artwork and the gravity of themes. It's refreshing to see the zombie genre tackled from an angle where neither the humans nor the zombies are viewed as mere fodder. If Nelson can tighten up a few story telling screws, he's got a good potential series. Writing the zombie version of Apocalypse Now with the ambitions of a Greek Tragedy is an absolutely good start.