Reviewing such books are even more difficult when they’re as good as Moonstone’s ‘Rotten’ and the reviewer wants to tell you everything about it in order to justify just why you should be reading it.
I’ll tread carefully, and instead focus mostly on WHY this book is so good, which also accomplishes the goal of touting its many virtues and will hopefully convince you to give it a try.
The easiest descriptor for Rotten is that it is a zombie comic set in the old west. But before you make any mistakes or assume that this is ‘The Walking Dead’ with six shooters and southern drawls, let me dispel those notions entirely.
This is not a zombie story about a world that has gone completely to hell. It’s about a world that may or may not be on its way to the fiery perditions. And, as with any good zombie story, whether or not there’s to be any hope for mankind depends entirely on the dispositions of the ‘mankind types’ inhabiting it. However, the fact that society still exists in 'Rotten', and is so vividly portrayed on a number of levels, helps to separate this book and give it its own identity.
Splintered into their small communities, each region the protagonists find themselves in lives under their own code of conduct and set of territorial rules. As most people in those days weren’t well travelled, had limited access to national/international information and were products of their small environments, it only stands to reason that when people come in from out of town with the intent of solving problems, the greater world views of the would-be heroes will clash with the small minded sensibilities of the homers they’ve come to save.
This is a problem for William Wade, reluctant secret agent working for President Rutherford B. Hayes, and his partner J.J. Flynn, the more brainy and resourceful half of the pairing. Wade seems to be the muscle of the two and Flynn is the smarts, but this is not to shortsell either of the characters in their partner’s key attribute-Wade has enough ingenuity to get by and Flynn knows how to put the hammer down when he has to. However, it’s clear why these two have been made into a team and it is a natural pairing that the writers have given wonderful chemistry to. They’ll need each other for the job they’ve been given: hunt down and deal with supernatural problems.
This is the old west. It’s not like they can just flash a badge or documents from the president and everyone accommodates them. There are a ton of social and political logistics for them to have to work through. From the three arcs in the comic so far, we’ve seen what happens when special agents show up to do their job in
A.) a corrupt mining business run by an unscrupulous boss,
B.) a religious community that refuses to accept the findings of medical science even when it’s right in their faces, and
C.) a remote army base where boredom, isolation and dwindling resources have reduced the troops to disinterested malcontents who have allowed the military order at the camp to wither to a state of near dystopia.
As you can imagine just by reading the above paragraph, Wade and Flynn aren’t going to have an easy time getting through to any of these broken souls. They all have their own perceptions of what the zombies are and they’ve all made their own conclusions on how to deal with them. There is no standard operating procedure to enforce because in a place and time like the old west, the law was a flimsy thing, selectively interpreted by each community individually. And when frontier justice performed by people given the right to bear arms is commonplace, rolling into a problem area and issuing government decrees isn’t really a viable solution for a couple of secret agents lacking in resources any greater than their own capabilities. This isn’t the modern day: battalions of armed troops aren’t easily mobilized and search warrants don’t come with dozens of armed and armored ATF agents ready to bust on to a scene and tear a place apart looking for clues.
And lest I forget to mention it, Rutherford Hayes wasn’t exactly a widely embraced president back in the day. Many considered him to be a corrupt politician who somehow swindled his way into office, and because of this not everyone is receptive to Wade and Flynn showing up and expecting cooperation just because they work for Hayes. While the perception of corrupt politicians is nothing new, mix that with isolationist justice systems and an 'every town for itself' mentality and you have a far more volatile situation to consider. Wade and Flynn can't always play it straight with the people they're investigating. In the few instances where Hayes is brought up, commentary by the surrounding characters suggests opinion on him is widely spread, and violence over the matter isn't unlikely.
Notice I haven’t brought up the actual zombies yet or talked about them in any detail. That is because, like ‘The Walking Dead’, ‘Rotten’ and all good zombie fiction, they are merely the foils for very human storytelling. They represent all our vices gone irrevocably out of control. Worthy zombie fiction finds ways to make us look at ourselves through our ghoulish counterparts. It’s not about the gore or the brain eating or the ‘quality zombie kills.’ We are not in Tromaville here, and ‘Rotten’ is not the kind of story that winks at itself, tongue planted firmly in cheek. If you like zombie fiction that allows you to turn your brain off, I recommend you rent ‘Return Of The Living Dead 5: Rave To The Grave’ or ‘Dance Of Death’, which won’t leave any lasting impression beyond ‘I’ll never get those ninety minutes back.’
The writers, Mark Rahner and Robert Horton, understand this and write the story in the real world of the time. The social dynamic is an important element to capture in any period piece and these two seem well enough versed on the era to pull it off convincingly. Where there seems to be a question on how to proceed, they've reasoned out what might be the logical flow of events based on decisions made and actions taken to that point. As a reader who enjoys intelligent fiction, I can assure them that their efforts to write a compelling and realistic story of this type are appreciated.
It also helps that their characters are just vivid enough to be believable but never so overwritten that they are trying to force the issue. There is a very wonderful, subtle characterization to everyone in the book and they never spend too much time trying to convince you of their personalities or distinctions. They write what they feel are ‘real’ characters and if you can accept that, fine. If you can’t, they waste no time trying to buy your suspension of disbelief.
The artwork by Dan Dougherty, isn’t what I would describe as lavish or overproduced. It looks weathered and beaten, much like the world the characters inhabit. The old west as portrayed in ‘Rotten’ is in mid death rattle before shuffling off this mortal coil. Fences look like they will break if you sit on them. The horses look dehydrated and exhausted. The people all seem forlorn souls, lost and abandoned by fate. The lighting used to illuminate the world of ‘Rotten’ feels like perpetual twilight, even in the morning. It helps that there are few details left out. Dougherty takes effort to fully furnish a bedroom or the living quarters of down on their luck miners so that you have a real sense of the space and place these people occupy. Looking at the pages of ‘Rotten’ is an almost visceral experience. There is one series of panels near the end of the fourth issue where I could almost feel a Native American woman’s dirty, tangled hair just by touching the page.
When ‘The Walking Dead’ first started, I had this implacable feeling that I was at the start of something big. I am feeling the same way about ‘Rotten.’ There is a sadness to the best zombie fiction because it asks us questions about where we are headed as a species, and it’s not at all shy about pointing out to us exactly what it is we stand to lose and, just as importantly, what we've already lost.
Anybody who knows me knows I consider ‘The Walking Dead’ the best monthly comic I’ve ever read. In the course of my thirty plus years of reading comics, no series has sustained its momentum over sixty five issues the way Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse masterpiece has. If ‘Rotten’ can continue to be as compelling a read for that long, it will also go down in my book as one of the finest monthlies I’ve ever read.