Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
A while back, Gilbert Deltres contacted me about reviewing his web comic, Under the Flesh. I always like reading seriously independent comics, so of course I said sure. I figured I’d wait until today because today he launched a Kickstarter to get the first issue published, so if you’re inclined to support him, you can click right over after reading this! Under the Flesh is written by Deltres and drawn by J. L. Giles. You can read some of the first issue here, in case you’re interested. You can also find Deltres on Patreon and the comic on Facebook – Deltres has you covered!
I groaned a bit when I began reading Under the Flesh, because it’s a zombie comic. Not only that, it’s a zombie comic about a virus that infects only men, so Deltres himself describes it as Y: The Last Man meets The Walking Dead, which means it combines one of the more overrated comics of the millennium with one of the more interminable! Yay! This is, of course, just my personal opinion, and you might think it sounds awesome. However, what I think Deltres is kind of underplaying in this mix is that this is CAPTAIN AMERICA meets Y: The Last Man meets The Walking Dead. That, to me, sounds infinitely more interesting.
What do I mean? Well, Deltres begins with “Desolation Day,” in which a mysterious virus ravages the world, turning most of the men into zombie-like creatures (but not all of them, and I hope that’s explained at some point, as it’s implied it’s a “coordinated attack”). Our narrator, Lt. Ruben Lobos (yeah), is a Special Forces dude who, at the very moment of the attack, is implanted with this world’s very own version of the “super-soldier serum,” meaning nanobots. Of course! We think that Ruben survived the attack because of the nanobots, but later we find out more men are around, so it’s not that. He manages to rescue his girlfriend, Dinah, and they find refuge in a library with a group of other women and one man. Two months later, the library is approached by a biker gang, and while Ruben wants to attack them before the bikers attack them, events outside make that unnecessary. It seems to set up the bikers as recurring bad guys, as they recognize the value of a big building made of stone, but at the very end of the issue, another event occurs that is far more important to Ruben, and it appears he’s going to have to venture out into the dangerous world.
It’s not a bad set-up, by any means, even though it feels awfully familiar. Deltres, wisely perhaps, doesn’t show Ruben in action as “Captain America” in this issue, because it’s not necessary and it will probably be better to use the fact that he has powers somewhat sparingly. It’s a first issue, so Deltres has to get introductions out of the way, and he uses the threat of the bikers to make Ruben wander around the library talking to each other person getting thumbnail sketches of the principal characters. The weirdest thing about the comic is that Deltres often goes so far into cliché that it feels like he’s being satirical, but in other instances, he isn’t clichéd and the book feels more earnest. So I’m unclear about his tone, because Ruben, especially, seems like such an odd stereotype, but Deltres also shows some interesting quirks with the characterization. When they first arrive at the library, only the other man, Paul, is in there, and he, according to Ruben’s narration, is a “cowardly asshole” who didn’t let Ruben and Dinah in until Ruben told him he, Ruben, would “choke him with his own intestines.” Obviously, guys like Ruben are necessary in a world where might makes right, but Ruben seems like such an asshole himself that I wonder if Deltres is having some fun with us. Later, Paul doesn’t even care that the bikers are there, as he’s much more interested in finishing his puzzle. It’s very odd. Of course, Paul’s commitment to inaction turns out to be the right move, so I’m very curious to see how their dynamic plays out. Plus, Paul points out that Dinah’s jealousy (she is fighting with Esther because she believes Esther is putting the moves on Ruben) will probably get them killed, which is probably true (as it usually is in these sorts of stories). So it’s a very weird relationship that Ruben has with Paul, and I can’t quite figure out whether Deltres is mocking Ruben or Paul (or both).
Meanwhile, the women fall into a fairly interesting blend, from the “ass-kicking cop,” the horny teenager, the devout Muslim, the two women who I hope aren’t lesbians (not because I don’t like lesbians, but because it seems too obvious), and Esther, the alpha woman clashing with Dinah. Deltres does shoehorn quite a few characters into the mix, as he even spends some time with the biker gang that shows up outside. They’re a bit more interesting than the people inside, in fact, as they recognize the importance of a library both as a repository of knowledge now that the Internet is down and as a fortress. They’re despicable, sure, but they’re more than just regular bikers. But it does make the issue feel a bit crowded, and I hope that Deltres will take the time to make the characters a bit more complex before he inevitably starts killing them off. He does kill one character off in this issue rather bloodily, but I suppose we’re going to have to get used to that in a post-apocalyptic zombie comic. Still, Deltres is, at this point, a bit better at plotting than dialogue, which isn’t terribly surprising, so the comic works better as a high concept at this point than as a really well-written story. But it has a lot of potential.
Deltres is aided quite a bit by Giles, whose art is quite good. He does a nice job with the chaos of the world – his zombies are scruffy and ugly, and he uses a thick inking line to make them even uglier. He uses a scratchy line on the buildings, too, making the world look like it’s falling apart, and his backgrounds are fuzzy and colored in hazy, pale hues, which turns the world into more of a vague, disturbing place. Giles does quite a good job with the characters – Ruben looks like a soldier with just a bit of ‘roid rage, while Giles gives Paul a douchebag goatee. His women also fall a bit into the stereotypes of their nature, but Giles does give them some nice personality, from Tabitha the teenager and her inappropriate clothing to Jewel’s kick-ass mohawk. Giles isn’t perfect with action, but he does gore quite well, which is pretty good for an artist of a zombie comic. The characters’ default mood is anger, but Giles is able to show different degrees of anger, from Paul’s rage when Ruben messes up his puzzle to Dinah’s frustration at Esther, so it works well. I imagine that many people in this comic will be angry a lot, so it’s good that Giles knows what he’s doing in that regard!
Under the Flesh is very nicely put together – it’s a very professional-looking book, and I imagine the Kickstarter will help make the printed version look very nice, too. I’m not completely sold on it yet, because I think that Deltres is falling too easily into zombie comic clichés, but I’m actually quite interested in the idea of Captain America fighting zombies, and if Deltres is able to make that work, the book should work better. I also think he needs to settle on a tone, as Ruben seems so over-the-top that he veers a bit too far into silliness (he says Paul is a “selfish shit with an asshole face,” which made me chuckle even though I’m not sure it was supposed to). But the book has some nice tension, especially when the bikers show up and when Deltres shows what happens with them, and I think that bodes well for the comic. Giles, meanwhile, is a fine reason to check the book out, as his art is the stronger part of the comic right now, and he helps a lot with the best scenes in the book.
If you’re at all interested, I encourage you to check out the Kickstarter and pledge some dough if you feel like it. While I don’t love the book, I do think it has a lot of potential, and for one issue, that’s not a bad thing at all.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.