The Webcomic Overlook #103: Dead Winter

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” — Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

Currently, zombies are my favorite creatures prominently being featured in horror movies. They’re probably the only horror monster that hasn’t been horribly reconstructed and bastardized for boy-crazy teenage girls. There was a a bit of a scare when the Pride & Prejudice & Zombies was announced. Why, if the horror of zombies were combined with the overpowering machismo of Mr. Darcy, then you would have the sexiest monster of all! Sexier than even Taylor Lautner! Fortunately, Seth Grahame-Smith retains Mr. Darcy’s original status as a human being. He, instead, fights legions of the undead alongside his beloved Elizabeth Bennett, narrowly averting the genesis and proliferation of sexy zombies.

However, I don’t mind injecting a bit of humor in zombie stories. While zombies have so far dodged the romance novel shelves, they do make great foils in comedies. Look at these humans who can’t walk of talk right! Ha ha! I’m sure I should at least be partially ashamed from a humanist point of view, but damn it, they’re dirty brain eating cannibals so they get everything they deserve.

While today’s review of S. Dave Shabet’s Dead Winter is not about a comedy webcomic, per se. It is a zombie comic, with touches of apocalytic wasteland and spaghetti western genres thrown in. Still, the comic is sprinkled with nice touches of light-hearted humor. Look, just because you’re stuck in a zombie apocalypse doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. By the way, there a few panels in Dead Winter that are Not Safe For Work (none of which are linked in this review, so consider them safe if you’re browsing on work hours), and comics feasting on dead bodies are not usually Safe For Children.

Dead Winter‘s style is very cartoony. Shabet has very distinctive character designs that fall on a wide range that is, at the same time, internally consistent. Some characters (mainly the women) have rounded designs that bear similarities to Octopus Pie, Scary Go Round, and Dragonball Z. Others are so grotesque that they look like they stepped out of American McGee’s Alice. And yet, despite the range of styles, the character designs are very kinetic. We often get to see exaggerated poses on the wiry, rail thin characters that contribute to strong action sequences but will give heart attacks to people who are sticklers to proportion. At the same time, heavier characters lumber with a perceptible heft; you can almost feel their ham-sized fists pummel you when they swing around with the haymakers. The hand-drawn aesthetic, rendered in glorious black and white, is also gritty, which fits both the urban hellscape and the visceral, bloody reality of a dog-eat-dog world.

Dead Winter is full of action sequences as well, which tend to last longer than the average webcomic fight sequence. When someone encounters either a zombie horde or a hostile group of humans, there’s a good chance that the resulting beatdown will go on for five pages or more. This may annoy readers who prefer concise storytelling. However, the action sequences do resemble the over-the-top scenes that you would see in a blockbuster movie. As a result, Dead Winter delivers on both bone crunching zombie action and hard hitting crushing of both zombie and human alike.

The comic is split between two protagonists who are easily identifiable through their highly visible red accessories. (Red being typically the only color in the webcomic other than black and white.) The first is a young woman named Lizzie Cooper, who is a frustrated waitress at a dingy diner and a self-proclaimed pacifist (I.e., a doormat). She begins the story trying to keep her sanity from cracking after having to deal with a day of outrageous demands from her overbearing Dickensian boss. When not chafing at the 9-to-5, Lizzie has a very healthy and colorful dream life, where she confronts aspects of her personality that represent both a warrior woman who dresses like a character from Final Fantasy and the inner child within. (The inner child is sickeningly sweet, by the way, but that’s to be expected. In Dead Winter, all children are all the anime cherubs are so sweet to the point of being grating.)

Then the zombie breakout happens. Like the first half of Shaun of the Dead, Lizzie is too wrapped up in her personal problems to notice at first that the stupid, shuffling people walking down the street are actually hordes of the undead that should be feared. She marches down to the diner, besieged by zombies, and tells her boss emphatically that she quits. (A stroke of luck, that: I imagine greasy diner food would not be much in demand in this brave new world.) It takes her a while to realize that the customers may be in the mood for an new brain-based cuisine, which pushes all her panic buttons to overload.

Lizzie gets into a car crash. This turns out to be a good thing. She is rescued, tended to by her new friend Alice, a sweet gal with medical expertise. Together they navigate the difficult streets of the city and hooked up with a pocket community of humans still trying to survive in the city. Fortunately, it turns out that Lizzie’s unglamorous life of bussing tables and cleaning floors have given her skillset that is surprisingly transferable to her new job of zombie ownage. (Moral of the story: tip your waitress nicely. She knows kung fu.)

The other story follows Black Monday Blues, a contract killer who is way hard, man. You know how hard this guy is? He walks around putting on and removing his red shades all day, and he doesn’t give a rat’s ass if he draws comparisons to David Caruso. That’s how hard he is. Through some fairly confusing flashback, it’s revealed that Monday is involved in some sort of international high stakes paintball game, where paintballs have been replaced by real guns. To be honest, the comic sorta lost me here. The game might actually have been discussed in a metaphorical sense. I’m not sure. But, hey, gunplay!

Oftentimes, we see Black Monday in the streets delivering ownage to people who are not zombies. I’m guessing that addlepated cannibals don’t provide much of a challenge. Anyway, Monday is a bit of a noble ronin. He’s a hardass, true, but he’s also a guardian angel to little girls that need rescuing and loyal to the people he’s trying to protect. He has to soften up in later pages when Lizzie requests that he kill no one (even during a brutal turf war between the Police and the Army), but, in a way, it ends up making him even more badass.

I know what you’re thinking. Two characters of opposite dispositions — one earnest and sunny; the other, cold and emotionless — in one webcomic? This has the potential of a fantastic Annie Edison/Jeff Winger style romance. Sadly, Lizzie only gets courted by a guitar strumming tool and a loser fiancee who tries to axe her in her sleep just because a friend told him it was a thing to do. Meanwhile, Black Monday love seems to be reserved only for murder and designer sunglasses. It looks like the only way these two will ever satisfy the inner fangirl within and get together for sessions of passionate staring will be in my top secret Dead Winter fanfic. However, there IS a narrative tie between Black Monday’s insane tournament and Lizzie’s dad, who looks like a time traveler form Victorian England. There hasn’t been a payoff yet, but The Webcomic Overlook predicts a lot of Frenching.

Life in Zombie America is pretty much the charmed life of a first-person shooter. Looking for blunt, heavy objects to use as clubs. Using said objects as clubs on zombies. Finding shelters to barricade. Drinking beer with the ladies. Evading the cops. And, when all else fails, going down in a hail of glory and taking as many of the stinking, rotten flesh eaters with you. Dead Winter is a world full of Mad Max types and cowboy bounty hunters. It can be depressing, yes, with people dying around you and the gaping maw of zombie inevitability creeping from all sides … but it can also invigorating. It’s not like these characters’ lives before the zombie apocalypse, especially Lizzie’s, was anything to write home about, was it? (Excepting Black Monday, of course, who is totally hard.) That’s the dirty secret of post-apocalyptic literature: deep down inside, it’s your ideal fantasy world.

Dead Winter is unique for being one of the few webcomics that tries to take advantage of the potential in not being confined to the printed page. Page #100, which was reposted on a webcomics message board, is what brought Dead Winter to my attention in the first place. The page is a sequence of fire, explosions, and Black Monday, in his most David Caruso-like moment, walking away with his shades like a serious mofo. The cinematic sequence is designed to immediately grab your attention, and it works.

However, I think the animated touches are most effective when used in scenarios that are more low key. Another sequence that happens a few pages later is more successful, which shows the world growing unfocused as we see it through Lizzie’s eyes. Or when Black Monday flips through the channels, realizing that while there’s electricity, no one’s broadcasting. I count both instances among the most effective uses of animation in webcomics.

Dead Winter only makes missteps when it tries to show any emotion beyond unadulterated rage. Lizzie’s inner dialogue between her child self and her warrior self don’t really work on me. And then entire sequence where Guitar Playing Tool strums the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” I just rolled my eyes and groaned, “Lame!” I mean, seriously … imagine a folk version song in your head sung by a twee little bastard and tell me that you don’t want to cave the twerp’s head in.

In the end, though, the zombie action wins the day. I have reviewed other zombie comics (The Zombie Hunters and Last Blood), and my main issue with them is that the stories felt disjointed and incoherent. It’s as if the writers were itching to get to the money shots and whiffed on the build-up.

That is not the case with Dead Winter. Shabet shows exceptional patience and restraint. The build toward the mayhem of the zombie apocalypse is slow yet consistent. There are stretches of characters lying in bed, taking showers, playing video games, and driving down long stretches of road. “Hang on to your britches,” Shabet seems to say. “Once we get to the violence, it will be fantastic.” And it is. The set up builds anticipation for the murderous ballet that follows. The action sequences that follow are finely honed vignettes of mayhem that tells a cohesive story and is a treat for the caveman within.

That’s why Dead Winter is the best zombie webcomic I’ve ever read. When I want to read about zombies, I don’t want anything more than over-the-top action and copious amounts of blood and guts. And just like a hard dude with rose colored shades and a hankering for the taste of a nice cigarette, Dead Winter delivers.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)


About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on January 16, 2010, in 4 Stars, action webcomic, fanservice, horror webcomic, manga style webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics, zombie webcomic and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I’m not sure if I agree. I think that Dead Winter works because the Zombies are the background detail. They are not the crux of the comic. Instead, survival is, and on the very human aspect of surviving catastrophe. Conflict (and physical conflict at that) is often at the core of the survival genre. You could replace the zombies with any other generic disaster (such as intense cold from a volcano-or-asteroid-induced winter, or famine from a global killing drought, or whatever), the “infection” with just dying from normal infections, and you would still have the Man vs. Man conflict that is inherent in Dead Winter.

    Your final image was very telling, and it is the core of what the comic is about. Dead Winter is a story of survival and of man’s need and ability to do anything to live… and also the need to retain one’s humanity while doing so.

    This is why we have the opposing natures of both Liz and Monday. One represents the ultimate in civilized behavior. The other, the ultimate in human survival. And both are being blended as a result of conflict and of being introduced to one another… even as Liz is putting aside such beliefs as her pacifism so to survive, so too is Monday lessening his own ultra-survivalist aspects and being “civilized” to work with others… because ultimately, survival alone is not enough. Society, interaction with others… this is what is needed for humanity as a whole to continue.

    Rob H.

    • Good points, Rob. Actually, when you think about it, the best zombie movies are the ones where the zombies aren’t the main attraction. Which is what makes them effective monsters: focus is always on the humans dealing with them. “Dawn of the Dead” is often cited as the best zombie movie, but the zombies were never the real threat. The humans could have gone on living in the mall, no problem, if that biker gang hadn’t smashed through and opened the breach. The 2004 remake was even more poignant: it was apparent that the humans had secured the mall and could have lived there indefinitely. It was the awareness that they were really prisoners, though, that forced them to take the chance and make an escape.

      In other words, the theme of survival has been an essential component of zombie stories ever since Richard Matheson wrote “I Am Legend.” That’s where the allure comes from, I think … not necessarily the blood and guts (though I don’t deny that others feel differently). That’s why I came to the conclusion that it was the best zombie webcomic. To me, a good zombie story has to have lots of action, but it also has to have scenes were people barricade themselves up in abandoned buildings, go on supply runs, and deal with the living who may not be on friendly terms. And I thought Dead Winter delivered that swimmingly.

  2. I agree with you Rob that zombies should be secondary to the central characters. However I don’t feel they are replaceable with natural disasters. Natural disasters don’t hunt you down and try and eat you. 🙂

    I think The Walking Dead is a great piece of zombie fiction, and explores much of what you are talking about. It’s quite obvious that the survivors of the zombie apocalypse are capable of far greater evils than the zombies themselves.

    IMHO zombies are the best horror fodder for storytelling as opposed to the current fave vampires. Zombies don’t try and seduce you, they are not vulnerable to sunlight. There is no humanity left in them, and they are constantly driven by hunger. They never stop, so you always get a sense that survivors in a zombie story are on the move.

    That being said, I think there is always the potential to expand the typical zombie story even further.

  3. I think I’ve decided that this comic is one example of how NOT to deal with updates. The main page states Tuesdays and Fridays. It’s more accurately on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the updates are always late night to just after midnight on average.
    Note to webcomic artists: always cite your schedule as being one day after you intend to finish the strips.
    A second example of how not to handle updates would be Zebra Girl. Get in the game Joe England.

  4. Your penultimate graf:

    That is not the case with Dead Winter. Shabet shows exceptional patience and restraint. The build toward the mayhem of the zombie apocalypse is slow yet consistent. There are stretches of characters lying in bed, taking showers, playing video games, and driving down long stretches of road. “Hang on to your britches,” Shabet seems to say. “Once we get to the violence, it will be fantastic.” And it is. The set up builds anticipation for the murderous ballet that follows. The action sequences that follow are finely honed vignettes of mayhem that tells a cohesive story and is a treat for the caveman within.

    for me, anyway, harks back to your mention of spaghetti Westerns in your initial description of the comic.

    Specifically, Sergio Leone.

    Most specifically, my choice for the greatest Western everOnce Upon a Time in the West.

  1. Pingback: The Gigcast » Blog Archive » Webcomic Wire - 1/17/09

  2. Pingback: Webcomic Wire – 1/17/10

  3. Pingback: Strip News 1-22-10 | Strip News | |

  4. Pingback: Critics not a-mew-sed by Blade Kitten, the video game based on the webcomic Blade Kitten « The Webcomic Overlook

  5. Pingback: The DEADcomic Overlook #137: Left 4 Dead: The Sacrifice « The Webcomic Overlook

  6. Pingback: Merry Christmas from the Webcomic Overlook « The Webcomic Overlook

  7. Pingback: Strip News 1-22-10 | Strip News | ArtPatient | ArtPatient

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: