Sunday, December 14, 2008

Pulp Hero: Simon Garth, the Zombie!

3D Man sez: "This here's my kind of gentleman...I have to tell you the time me and the Zombie took on the flaming apes of Mora Tau. We had a blast. The best part was smoking cigars in Panama Fattie's and Simon kept eating his, fire and all. The locals loved the guy."

Introduced in a one-off story in 1953 by the esteemed Bill Everett (creator of Marvel Comics' headliner Namor the Sub-Mariner in the 1940s, and then co-creator of Marvel's headliner of today, Daredevil, bridging a gap for Everett that will reach into the far future,) Simon Garth was a coffee magnate in New Orleans already "soulless" in his dealings, brutal to his employees and dismissive of his daughter Donna who is all the family he has since his wife divorced him.

Garth takes out his failed marriage on subordinates, and smacks around a groundskeeper named Gyps at one point. Gyps is heavy into the voodoo however, and later kidnaps Garth to be sacrificed by a local Mambo priestess, Layla, who happens to be Garth's secretery at the coffee plant and is in love with him.

Freed by Layla, Garth almost escapes before being killed by Gyps. Gyps then forces Layla to reanimate Garth as a zombie, eventually to be under Gyps' personal enslavement. This is managed by the Amulet of Damballah around the Zombie's neck, which enables the holder of another Amulet to mentally control the dead man. As a Zombie, Garth cannot feel physical pain or sensation at all, and is unstoppable due to having "zombie strength" wherein neither pain nor fatigue are a factor, and any wounds he receives "heal" after a time. This is due to the curse of being a zombie, that he will never rot away. His soulless body is magically "protected" from the ravages of time and physical damage, except for the basic zombiefication of the tissues at hand. Garth also has no thought processes of his own. At least, that's the way it appears.

Hot for Garth's daughter, but knowing she'd never give him the time of day, Gyps sends the Zombie to attack Donna, which Garth refuses to do. The cloud of mindlessness dissipates, and Garth returns to Gyps and slays him.

After this, the Amulet of Damballah worn by Gyps ends up in the possession of Donna Garth, as she senses a connection through it to her father. Donna influences the Zombie to follow her, without her knowledge, all the way to Port-au-Prince in Haiti where she is seeking information about her father's disappearance (not realizing he is dead, natch.) The Zombie instinctually finds one of his oldest friends in life, Anton Cartier, who vows to help Garth return to human life. It's here that Garth exhibits enough intellect to actually communicate with Cartier, convincing Cartier the soulless Zombie is not so soulless after all.

This leads to a series of adventures for the Zombie, who encounters mad scientists and giant spiders and rampaging voodoo priestesses. At some point, Donna Garth loses the Amulet of Damballah, which is found by a ruined, bitter homeless man named Philip Bliss.

Bliss inadvertantly called the Zombie back to New Orleans, and once discovering his control over the dead man, uses him to savagely attack the "lawyers" responsible for destroying his life, leading to a mass slaughter in a Bayou courthouse.

Subsequently, agents of a strange wealthy man named "Mr. Six" find Bliss and steal the Amulet, which leads the Zombie to his new master, a cultist named Papa Shorty. Bliss and a couple of friends attempt to save the Zombie from his fate, and in the resulting carnage, Garth is freed from Papa Shorty's sway and gets revenge for Bliss' ultimate sacrifice.

Soonafter, Garth ends up back with Layla, who had tragically initiated his zombiefication to begin with. Determined to help Garth find final peace, she takes him to Papa Doc Kabel, her voodoo grandfather. Along the way, Layla and Garth are continuously stymied, as the Amulet of Damballah is found by other bystanders, luring the Zombie away to eventually do their bidding (and usually resulting in their violent deaths by Garth's hands.)

In a real twist, Garth is responsible (under the control of an evil man) of mortally wounding Layla. Papa Doc uses Layla's fading life force to grant Garth twenty-four hour reprieve from his zombie curse. Again himself, Simon Garth wraps up his affairs as quickly as he can, gaining whatever vengeance he needs to (on Mr. Six) and redemption (with his ex-wife and daughter, insuring her financial security by selling his business out from under his corrupt underlings.) After that, Garth becomes the Zombie once more, and his story ends in an odd, "real-world" way. Editors at Marvel claim the art of Pablo Marcos for what turned out to be the last issue of TALES OF THE ZOMBIE was lost in the mail, somewhere in Haiti. One imagines today a gris-gris seller's family home still containing a penciled Marcos Zombie story among the practitioner's aging files and books.

The bulk of Simon Garth's extraordinary "life" is chronicled by Steve Gerber, one of Marvel's better writers of the 1970s (MAN-THING, THE DEFENDERS) and the kind of writer who could pull off stories about a zombie.

Using the formula from MAN-THING, about a mindless shambling monster who cannot communicate or show emotion except by his actions, Gerber does the same thing with Simon Garth. Primarily, Garth is a judgement of sorts called down to bring home the point of the stories. The characters drive the story elements while the Zombie acts out his mission, and eventually collides with the holder(s) of the Amulet of Damballah. Most of Garth's clashes are driven by forces outside of himself, but the final penance comes from Fate, as always Garth brings about the definitive end to evil people seeking to manipulate him. They never last long, that's for sure.

For the final two entries of the Zombie's story, fellow Hall of Famer Tony Isabella scripted. All in all, the nine black and white mags containing Simon Garth's trials are consistently well-written, and because of the magazine's more "adult" orientation, Gerber and Isabella could touch on violence and moral degradation and horror much more explicitly. Of course tame by today's standards, the violence in the stories still holds up today.

The real star of the show is Pablo Marcos, one of a horde of Fillipino artists working for the major comics companies in the 1970s. Presumably from a shack in a tree in some jungle environment with only a small rattling fan to cleave the oppressive heat, Marcos' art on this title is nothing short of brilliant.

Luckily for me, and for all of us, this stuff has found its way to modern readers via the ESSENTIALS format. Because it was meant to be in black and white, the reproduction is solid, and Marcos' gorgeous art leaps off the page so you can almost smell the rot of Haiti, the sexuality of the priestesses, the desperation and the blood leaking onto the hungry earth.

Also, it cannot be ignored the impact of the covers of these magazines, by no less than fantasy/sword and sex painter Boris Vellajo for the first five, and the brilliant Earl Norem for the last five. The covers are frame-worthy before you even get into the Marco's swoon-inducing work inside, and the Steve Gerber story insanity to follow (though certainly not as insane as some of Gerber's work, for sure.)

This is a must-read for anyone and everyone who loves good horror stories told through a tragic Pulp Monster like the Zombie. Everything you'd ever want or need is right here in this volume. Truly a masterpiece of the 1970s and one of the reasons the decade's better moments are exquisite counterbalances to its, and subsequent unfortunate decades', excesses.

Find the Zombie, before he finds you.

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