Marvel Zombies: the macabre origin of the superheroes turned into the undead that we have seen in ‘What if …?’
It has been one of the most talked about and anticipated episodes (since in the initial trailer you could see a cadaverous Captain America) of ‘What if …?’, The Marvel animated series that poses parallel stories which we already know from the MCU. What if Agent Carter was Captain America? What if Black Panther was Starlord? And in this case … what if there were zombies in the Marvel Universe?
The stories of the series are indirectly inspired by a comic of the same title, ‘What if …?’ who has lived different incarnations since its birth in 1977. Traditionally with the ominous Vigilante as the narrator (although not always, due to the character’s own trajectory in the publishing house), it has been a much loved headline by fans, and has posed all kinds of alternative stories -from a Punisher whose family never died to Aunt May as herald of Galactus. But the Marvel Zombies do not belong in this collection.
The night of the living superheroes
The first Marvel Zombies (which, by the way, is the nickname by which fans of the house are affectionately known) They weren’t in the shape of these explicit undead from the ‘What if …?’ episode, but arrived camouflaged. It was in numbers 21 to 23 of ‘Ultimate Fantastic Four’ in 2005, written by Mark Millar and that took advantage of a runrún that had been commented for some time: the possibility that the characters of the Ultimate Universe (which would largely inspire the counterparts MCU films, especially aesthetically) will end up meeting their original models of the classic Marvel Universe.
And so it was with the Fantastic Four of the Ultimate Universe. Just these 4F classics they were actually cannibal beasts from another dimension, where human flesh had run out. And they invaded us to devour us. All a 100% Millar hooligan (remember: ‘Kick-Ass’, ‘Wanted’) that turned the iconic classic Marvel heroes into hungry zombies in the purest style of the savage Italian films of the eighties (although its clearest reference was the then very recent ’28 days later ‘and’ Dawn of the dead ‘, the starting gun for the assimilation of the zombie by mainstream culture).
A couple of years before the appearance of these numbers of ‘Ultimate Fantastic Four’, Robert Kirkman began to write the long-running series ‘The Walking Dead’, which with its television adaptation would become another emblem of the arrival of modern zombies to the collective imaginary. Marvel would call him to continue Millar’s idea into a franchise of miniseries and special issues that would develop the idea of Marvel heroes turned into zombies, and that would last throughout that decade.
Kirkman’s wicked sense of humor, his ability to dynamite and ridicule all the dignity of Marvel heroes based on rotten faces and mutilated bodies it appealed to the most iconoclastic fans, which was helped by the quasi-expressionist drawings of Sean Phillips. And, above all, the grotesque and hyper-realistic covers of Arthur Suydam, which reformulated classic Marvel covers, but in a zombie key.
Always focusing on monsters and not on their interactions with humans, as Millar did, Kirkman developed as tragic antiheroes this fauna of Earth 2149, who are devastating all the worlds to which they arrive because of a terrible hunger. Images to remember like Captain America (here, Colonel) devouring his own brain shape these early Kirkman series and a one-shot, ‘Dead Days’, which recounts the beginning of the plague as a prequel to Millar’s story.
This is the start, but the franchise would continue almost without brake: In the second and last of the miniseries written by Kirkman, the zombies return to Earth after devouring all life in the Universe. There they find that the surviving humans have settled in Wakanda, which reveals how the episode of ‘What if …?’ has been inspired by comics.
From there the successive miniseries lose some of their interest when they are integrated in one way or another in the big events only for fans of Marvel, although the determination to use secondary characters in the house, such as the Midnight Children, gives a certain air of series B to some comics that never lose their hooligan tone. Among the most notable experiments are a crossover with Dynamite’s comics from ‘The Army of Darkness’ or a hilarious clash with Deadpool.
In recent years, the franchise has seen a couple of reboots. The 2018 one is titled ‘Marvel Zombie’, it takes place years after the plague, and Spider-Man, Daredevil and Falcon have to protect the surviving humans. In 2019 comes ‘Marvel Zombies: Resurrection’, another reboot with a suggestive starting point: Galactus’ corpse contains infectious and lethal creatures that infect various groups of Marvel heroes who come to investigate.
In all it pecks the great episode of ‘What if …?’, which is not cut short in terms of violence or grotesque execution of icons, takes ideas such as the gargantuan zombie and spreads it with elements taken from other iconic comics, such as the image of Spider-Man with the cape of Dr. Strange. An episode that reminds us that nothing is forever, and Marvel heroes even less so.