Halloween (or to be accurate, Hallowe’en) is the perfect time for a good horror story involving zombies and a struggle to get home against all odds. Therefore, there is no better time to take a look at the final three issues of one of Big Dog Ink’s signature series, “Rex, Zombie Killer”. It’s been a long ride for this mini series crafted by writer Robert Anderson, artist DaFu Yu, and colorist Juan Romera, as many creator owned series tend to be. The first issue, a whopping fifty-six page spectacular, originally began hitting conventions and comic book shops in spring 2012. Last year, the series returned to complete its’ run with a four issue mini series, shipping bi-monthly from October 2013 to May 2014. As with many small press comics, it can be hard to find it unless your shop orders it in advance, or if your shop is Midtown Comics. Fortunately, fate intervened as a random turn on the trade floor of this year’s New York Comic Con once again reunited this columnist with the Big Dog Ink booth, and the remaining three issues became available for purchase and now, review.
When there is a gap between new issues of about a year, a recap is always key. The premise of the series is remarkably simple; “Homeward Bound” meets “The Walking Dead”. After an outbreak of zombies has led to what seems to be the end of the world (or at least the end of North America), six random animals have banded together to try to not only survive, but find safe haven. The titular Rex is their leader, a Golden Retriever who was the subject of experimentation by a secret military laboratory which has given him super-intelligence; not only is Rex a master tactician, but he can easily read both maps and printed letters (skills most animals lack). He is flanked by Snowball (a snide house cat), Buttercup (an optimistic Corgie), Brutus (a rough and tumble pit bull) and last but not least, Kenji (a gentle gorilla armed with a mastery of sign language as well as a baseball bat). Their extra sized debut issue saw them not only survive against bands of zombies (which the animals dub “rotters”), but rescue Brutus (and other pit bulls, including one named Ringo) from imprisonment by a sadistic biker gang. The previous issue saw the band continue to make their way from California to Nevada in search of “Rex’s human” who the dog insists will offer them safe haven away from both zombies and neglectful people. Unfortunately, they not only encounter zombie versions of animals such as a deer and bear, but have been tracked by a band of escaped zoo apes led by another gorilla, Chuma.
The following three issues continue the story in a steady but swift pace; at five issues total (nearly six if one considers how many pages the 2012 edition had) the story neither feels too long or too short, which is a difficult balance for many comic book writers to reach. The addition of more named animal characters (such as Chuma, a monkey named Darby and Farrow, the tenacious leader of a pack of squirrels) only adds to the drama of the situation. Although Rex’s intelligence is never in question, the cold efficiency with his plan has long plagued Kenji, and Snowball has kept a watchful eye on how Rex talks and acts, always remaining close to him and thus out of danger. The addition of a rival ape to Kenji could have been an obstacle, but instead Rex quickly manipulates the proud gorilla into becoming a more obedient “bodyguard” of sorts than even Kenji is. A larger tribe of animals to command gives Rex more options for his ultimate goal – since the “home” he seeks is actually a top secret military base which is controlled by the despotic Major. The experimentation within this base was the likely cause of the “rotter” outbreak, and the scientist who Rex loves is one of many who are essentially held hostage by the Major’s soldiers and recruited thugs. In every stage of their journey, Rex seeks to both arm his new comrades with weapons claimed from sports shops or a rare secret army bunker he’s aware of, as well as train them for their eventual raid on the base. Unfortunately, not all of Rex’s new friends survive the trip home, as the climatic siege of the army base is easily the most dangerous thing any of their animals have ever done.
The biggest strength of this series is how it plays with a lot of the expectations of the genre once a reader gets familiar with the premise. While most “talking animals going home” stories have a leader of the pack, very rarely is that leader as seriously questioned or as presented as morally ambiguous as Rex often is. Rex is perfectly willing to sacrifice members of his “pack” as well as endanger them if it seems vital to his plan, whether for supplies or to test their mettle (even if he does regret those losses later). His lies by omission about the true status of their “promised land” gets at least one gorilla killed and nearly causes the pack to fracture. In addition, most “talking animal” stories take it for granted that the audience accepts them being smarter than “typical animals” in real life are; this story actually provides a logical reason for why all of the animals around Rex have become far more intelligent and adaptable than normal. In the later issues, Snowball and Farrow really rise to the fore in terms of development, even if by this stage all of the named animals are characters the reader should care about. Their perspective about life and interactions with humans are always fascinating, and Robert Anderson has done much to try to ingrain some of what one expects of certain “breeds” to act. Ringo and Brutus are always aiming for a fight, while the squirrels have a terse “fight or flight” sort of banter. The Major quickly becomes the villain of the piece, more deliberately corrupt than any of the “rotters”; while he doesn’t hog the series or have much in the way of character development (he’s a commanding officer and he’s evil), such things aren’t needed since this story is from the animals’ perspective. By the time Rex and the Major finally have their showdown at the end of issue four, it’s been properly built up and is ultimately satisfying.
As good as the writing is, it could be fairly argued that the artwork by DaFu Yu and the colors by Juan Romera are just as important and can often steal the show. Anderson is a wise enough writer to cater to his artist’s strengths as well as know when to allow the art to tell the story without bogging things down in too much dialogue. Yu’s skill with drawing the animals (gorillas especially) improves with every issue, and he has a knack for double page splashes with a lot of characters and details to them, with many things happening. The first issue included a showcase scene at a store; these later issues include sprawling looks at Vegas overrun by apes and zombies. The finale with the animals versus the military is quite a tense spectacle, as it should be. Despite what the premise implies, the levels of gore or language are inviting to a wider audience by rarely rising about what a PG-13 film would allow. As true horror masters know, it’s what the reader doesn’t see which seems the most brutal or violent.
Each issue is priced at $3.50 for 22 colored pages with no ads, which is a bargain compared to most Marvel or DC Comics out there. Most of the series can be had at the official Big Dog Ink website, and one may expect a collected trade of the entire run to be inevitable. Like all great stories, “Rex, Zombie Killer” seems simple on the surface but gradually become more complex, layered, and imaginative as it progressed. Readers who grab the book due to the exciting covers about animals and an armed gorilla fighting zombies will get plenty of that, but they will also get a solid tale about a diverse array of conflicted characters as well as more of a science fiction twist than they may expect. “Rex, Zombie Killer” is the total package, intended to be enjoyed on Halloween or any other time.
Sink your teeth into this one; it’s worth the trip.