In Which It Turns Out That Zombies Plus Superheroes Equals An Unexpectedly Good Read
There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Lisa and Grandpa are complaining to each other about how no-one ever listens to them. No-one listens to me, Lisa sighs, because I’m too young. No-one listens to me, Grandpa mumbles, because I’m too old. And then, Homer sticks his head round the door and announces cheerfully, “I’m a white male aged eighteen to forty-nine. Everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are!”
That’s kind of how I felt when I read Ex-Heroes. There’s no shortage of stories about Zombies, or Superheroes, or Zombies Versus Superheroes. But the idea that someone who can, you know, actually write proper a book with a plot and characters and surprises and everything would volunteer to write one…well, that’s when I started thinking that actually, I must have reached some magical milestone where the world is being run entirely for my personal, selfish benefit.
So, the plot. First thing to say is, there actually is one. Ex-Heroes is set in post-Zombiepocalypse Los Angeles. The uninfected survivors are crammed into uncomfortable compounds and living off mushrooms, plus whatever they can scavenge from raids on LA’s increasingly mean streets. They’re being guarded and supported by a bunch of Superheroes, whose Superpowers handily began manifesting more or less at the same time as the Zombiepocalypse struck. Everyone’s hungry and scared and pissed off. Apart from the odd episode of frantic, dirty sex and a bit of Zombie-baiting, no-one seems to be having any fun. As cabin fever sets in, people are starting to feel as if, somehow, the Superheroes must be part of the problem…
When I started the book, I was expecting it to go one of two ways. Either the survivors (with the help of the Superheroes) will make a break for it and find some new, Zombie-free sanctuary somewhere cold; or the survivors (with the help of the Superheroes) will find some sort of Doomsday Weapon that allows them to destroy all the Zombies in one glorious splurge. To my surprise and pleasure, neither of these things happen.
Instead, there’s some stuff about magic, and some stuff about gangs, and a really interesting theory about why the bite of the Zombie would prove so fatal. There’s a totally surprising plot-twist (I should have realised that the Clever guy who I instinctively felt would also speak with a British accent would also prove to be Secretly Evil, but there you go; I didn’t), and a Giant Dinosaur (who is utterly kick-ass, by the way. Really. Can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoyed the Giant Dinosaur). There is a fantastic set-piece ending with a compelling end-of-level baddie, and the ending strikes just the right balance between okay-we’re-alive-but-the-world’s-still-shot-to-hell angst, and fragile-green-shoots-of-hope cheeriness. I’m trying hard not to spoil here, because this is a story where you actually can’t tell what’s going to happen just by reading the title. So you’ll just have to trust me here; the plot is good.
Second, the genre elements. The Empire of the Ambulant Dead seems to get bigger every time I look up from my keyboard – these days you can even discuss the finer points of your Zombie Plan on Mumsnet – so most of the time, the pleasure of the Zombie genre is seeing how they’ve managed to mix it up this time. I really wasn’t expecting anything new. I really wasn’t expecting it, but – who knew? Peter Clines actually managed to find some totally new space in the well-trodden Zombie territory.
The nickname “Exes”, for one thing. It’s a small detail, but I really like it. It’s clever, and appropriate, and snappy, and well-rationalised. Up until this book, my favourite was The Walking Dead’s “Walkers”; but “Exes” blows that out of the water. Then, there’s the way the Exes are both monumentally stupid (to check if there’s one waiting for you on the other side of a door, just make some noise and listen for frantic scrabbling), and casually fatal (early on, someone gets bitten by an Ex he essentially has under control, just because he’s not concentrating properly – like a Chihuahua biting the vet). Clines’ take on the child-Zombie trope chilled me, at least, to the bone – the scavengers meet an Ex with an Ex-child on a wrist-leash, “most of its face raw and bloody from being dragged across miles of pavement, [with] bones and teeth everywhere”. There’s a pleasing re-hash of the old shooting-Zombie-celebrities-for-points joke, where the ultimate Zombie-kill (Angelina. Did you really need to ask?) is taken by some guy who isn’t even playing the game properly.
Given how effortlessly great the Zombie part is, it’s disappointing that the Superheroes element isn’t anything like so well-handled. There are a million different ways to be a Superhero, but basically only one to be a Zombie. So it’s a surprise, and not a good one, that there’s not much in the Superhero part that’s genuinely new. The Heroes are all somewhere between the X-Men and the Watchmen (like the X-Men, they just woke up one day and realised they could do cool stuff; but like the Watchmen, they sweat, pee, get dirty and occasionally get to have angst-ridden sex). There’s a guy who has to wear sunglasses in case he fries you with his Cyclops-eque gaze; there’s a creepy Energy guy (Doc Manhattan) who is also telepathic and confined to a wheelchair (Xavier). There’s a sinister Vampire type guy who reminds me of a male Rogue, and Mr Hero Number One Guy, The Dragon, is a rough-hewn sweaty chap who is indestructible (Wolverine), inexplicably sexy (ditto) and has the power of flight (Supermaaaan…).
And the women…oh, for God’s sake. Right; deep breath, and here we go. The women fall into the traditional Superhero trap of being exquisitely perfect in every dimension. Of the two major female characters, one of them is gorgeous, super-intelligent, wrote a best-selling novel, romped through college in about six weeks flat, prefers men but also likes women, and once modelled for Victoria’s Secret (srsly) – but really only wants to get nailed by a hairy guy with sweaty armpits. The other one is gorgeous, super-intelligent, designed and built a Military-grade exo-skeleton that totally wiped the floor with all the other Military-grade exo-skeletons dat wuz built by Da Menz, delivers the set-piece smackdown at the end of the book when Da SuperMenz haz all been handed their asses by Mr End-of-level Baddie, inexplicably has self-esteem issues…and would be much happier if she, also, was getting nailed by a hairy guy with sweaty armpits. Although not the first hairy guy with sweaty armpits. Obviously. I mean, let’s not set up any sort of character-conflict between two women here.
There are also a number of other women, who are dead and only appear in flashback. In the past, they were gorgeous, super-intelligent, fantastic home-makers, etc. who did really cool Kung Fu stuff and / or were domestic goddesses, and their entire function was to be so utterly and achingly perfect that their deaths break the hearts of their partners, who were plainly batting way above their average.
I don’t know why these otherwise talented writers have such a struggle when it comes to women. When it comes to writing men, some of the Superhero boys are pretty much note-perfect. Twenty years since I first read it, Miller’s Dark Knight still moves me to tears (although I do also cry when Spock dies at the end of Wrath of Khan, so I’ll admit my sob-fest threshold may be set a little too low). Why the addition of a second X chromosome sends their characterisation skills all to pieces is a mystery. However, I have a couple of theories. Theory One is that they are so desperate to reclaim the genre they love from its traditional dismissive sexism towards female characters that they go entirely too far in the other direction, frantically over-endowing every woman they write with all possible virtues. Theory Two is that Peter Clines is hairy, has sweaty armpits and really doesn’t know that many women. I’m prepared to be wrong about both of these. But I’m not prepared to withdraw my charge that Mr Clines – along with Mr Miller, Mr Moore and Mr Morrison – has absolutely no idea how to write women.
But let’s finish on a high note, which is the writing. Now, I do want to be a little bit careful here. The thing is – as we all know – most pulp fiction is completely mediocre. This means that, when Pulp is written by someone who doesn’t just use their pencil to pick their nose with, everyone gets totally over-excited about how good it really is. (I’m thinking here of the idiot at the New York Times who breathlessly described the characters in Watchmen as having “stunningly complex psychological profiles”. I do quite like Watchmen, but – The Comedian? Rorschach? Night Owl? Silk Spectre (either of ‘em)? Stunningly complex? You serious, boy?)
So – since I don’t want want to sound like I’ve lost the plot – I’m not suggesting that Ex-Heroes is up there with the likes of Never Let Me Go or The Handmaid’s Tale. But that’s totally okay, because it doesn’t need to be. What it needs to be – and what it is – is fun. The dialogue is sparky and snappy and a delight to read. The action is clearly visualised, properly-paced, entertaining and well-described. There’s the right quantity of schlock and arterial spurt – enough so that you remember you’re reading a Zombie / Superhero mash-up, not so much that you can’t read it one-handed while you’re eating your dinner.
And you will want to read it while eating your dinner. And in your bath. And on the phone. And under your desk at work. And at three in the morning, when you really ought to be asleep. And when you’ve finished, you’ll probably have this compelling urge to tell everyone about it. Because finally, you’ll have a Zombie / Superhero book you’re not ashamed to own up to liking. This book isn’t perfect, but it is enormously good fun. It charges joyfully along, well-paced and charming and relentless, in the manner of someone really funny and engaging telling you their very best anecdote at a party. It’s like the very best sort of fan fiction – an homage to a well-loved genre that also manages to break new ground, written as a pure labour of love.
I don’t know how many other people there in the world who, like me, really want to read Zombie / Superhero mash-ups, and are greedy enough to expect good writing into the bargain. (From the look of the Amazon reviews page, I’m guessing we’re more numerous than we might imagine.) But if you, like me, think this is a simply awesome idea, then you’ll definitely want to buy a copy.
You can buy Ex-Heroes from Amazon, here. It’s a somewhat eye-watering $13.95. But it’s worth it.