Defoe: Queen Of The Zombies

Defoe Vol 2 – Queen Of The Zombies
by Pat Mills & Leigh Gallagher
Available here!

Listeners to the MOMBcast will know that James and I enthusiastically rediscovered 2000AD in 2010. In those early days, we gleefully revisited characters from our past, and met a few intriguing new ones.

But one new series that neither of us were entirely on-side with at that point was Defoe.

The strip was certainly frenetic, and had a ton of 2000AD-standard Pat Mills imagination poured into it, with flourishes that I could tell were supposed to be either satirical or historically arch or both, but  it lacked an “in” to the story in progress, and in panels with hundreds of moving parts and no characters I recognised, the black-and-white art by Leigh Gallagher washed over me in a wave of fine-detail that I couldn’t really parse.

It was one of those odd moments where you can tell that a lot of hard and good work has gone into something, but you can’t get to grips with it. What I didn’t identify until recently was that what I was experiencing was a fairly typical reaction to being dropped into a Pat Mills saga mid-stream.

I don’t know if it’s something that’s changed in Mills’ work in recent years, or just something I never noticed when I was immersed in 2000AD as a youth and knew all of the lore and language, but his work relies so heavily on extended plot-lines, intricate ongoing relationships between characters, and the continuation and repetition of themes, that there seems to be an expectation in later chapters that the reader already knows enough about the backdrop and story to hit the ground running. That’s not an unrealistic expectation for a writer to work with, but it is at the cost of coherence for new readers.

In Defoe (and also in the most recent chapters of Flesh and Slaine), the setting and historical context of the characters is so alien to a casual reader that it can be disorienting. As usual in Mills’ work, there is a lot of political musing and satire, and without knowing more of the milieu it’s hard to seperate out what is important from what is just atmospheric.

This is a shame, because it makes it easy, reading the fourth story, to leave the series unimpressed, but digging only a little further back into the run – as I’ve been lucky to do by getting hold of “Defoe vol 2 – Queen Of The Zombies”, containing the third and fourth Defoe outings, which ran in 2000AD progs 1640-1649 and 1700-1709 – reveals a rich and earthy world, and much more clear and effective storytelling on the part of writer and artist than one realises when dumped in at the deep end.

Defoe is set in an alternate London of 1669, wherein The Great Fire of 1666 was caused by a passing comet, which also infected the land with a plague of flesh-eating undead hordes. So zombies, basically, but in a setting that we’ve seldom seen, outside of the comedy horror of Army Of Darkness.

But where there’s room for black humour in this twisted version of 17th century Britain, this strip is largely played straight. Thrown into the muck and monstrosity of the setting is Titus Defoe and his Dirty Dozenne, armed inventively by Sir Isaac Newton, and a worthy match for the undead – or “Reeks” as they call them.

An extra wrinkle is that these zombies have more complex powers and motivations than the ones that we are used to, with intelligent and cunning leaders thrown into the mix. And somewhere along the way, the doors have been opened in this world to creatures – somewhat alien of aspect and parsed as biblical myths by the population.

All of this would be plenty of fuel for a solid action-horror strip, and artist Leigh Gallagher is more than equipped to deliver both, with atmospheric and bold black and white art.

Though Gallagher’s art most immediately reminds one of Bryan Talbot’s seminal work on Nemesis The Warlock in the early 80s, that’s a lazy read of it, and it is actually part of a well-represented tradition in 2000AD for realistic and detailed black and white art, beginning with Invasion! in the first issue – also written by Pat Mills – but also visible in artists like Garry Leach, and early work by Glenn Fabry on Slaine.

However, few artists quite match Gallagher’s ability to capture the grime and grittiness of the era, and a closer look at his work shows impressive attention to composition and giving the characters real presence.

And at it’s core Defoe is a character piece that transcends those perfectly worthwhile twin aims of action and horror. Mills clearly has a grasp for the history and sociological and political questions of the time, and uses these to create convincing back-stories for each character, as well as creating some interesting new roles for people we already know from history. This environment, apparently already very contentious even before zombies started launching attacks on the Tower Of London, or walking out of the Thames, is fertile for conflict between characters on the sometimes thinly defined – or adhered to – side of good.

And Defoe, stoic at the centre of his motley crew, is a difficult figure to pin down. He has a clear sense of duty, but we often get the feeling that his idealism would not sit comfortably with our own, and at any given time he seems to have the potential to summarily execute one of his own, for treason or for being on the wrong side of his morality line.

Pat Mills being who he is can’t help using this strip to make a few sardonic philosophical or political anti-establishment points of his own, and although it’s handled more subtly here than in other work by him, it’s this factor more than any other that creates a barrier to any reader trying to come in midway through a run. Which is a shame because ultimately, when read in book form, Defoe is a really fast and dirty, very satisfying read.

I still haven’t read the introductory stories, but starting with this book works well – the second of the two stories is where I initially came in, in the middle of a chaotic and epic assault of the forces of evil versus Defoe’s representatives of… political pragmatism? But the first story here is far more accessible, as Defoe’s team first investigate and then attempt to scour a nest of monsters, and I prefer this story of the two – the writing has more of a focus on storytelling than the social-satire skewering of the latter.

All in all, a pretty damn nice book for anyone who likes alternate histories or violent action, all wrapped up in Rebellion’s now well-established attractive book production and 2000AD spine.