By Rick Remender, Jonathan Wayshak, and Jordan Boyd
From 2009-2010, seemingly over night, the zombie genre took the world by storm. Through the triple threat of Zombieland, The Walking Dead, and the zombie modes in Call of Duty the trend of the zombocalypse infected ever media frontier. However, 6 years later zombies are starting to look more than a little tired. They’re still making zombie movies, comics, and shows it’s just they aren’t as all-consuming or popular as they used to be. However, the will for the zombie fantasy of a fallen world where nearly all of humanity has been turned into slathering meat bags we can kill without guilt is still very much alive and well. That’s the particular fantasy that Devolution #1 is trying to zoom in on.
The set-up is brilliantly simple, to the point it’s shocking no one has tried this idea before. A retrovirus has caused most of humanity as well as several other species to devolve back to a prehistoric state. Our hero is a woman named Raja, a lone survivor of the devolved wasteland traveling across Nevada amid the hordes of violent cavemen and dinosaur birds. The set-up is a brilliant jump from the classic zombie take over set-up. Zombies have always worked on a multitude of fronts, but one of the main ones is that they’re represent something of a literalization of how we’ve come to regard other people in an age of increasing digitization and isolation. In a time when we’re getting more and more used to being able to rush through things and cut out tedious human interactions, zombies work as a representation of the fury we feel when forced to work through slow, fallible, inter-personal situations. Swapping out cavemen for zombies is a lateral move that completely preserves this idea, keeping the antagonists as essentially “dumb graceless morons who are always in the way,” without sacrificing the human look and feel of the cannon fodder like orcs or robots would. Additionally, the comic captures the fantasy of fighting off “the savage horde” but without the neocolonial implications that come with similar narratives like Zulu.
Where Devolution breaks down is in trying to tell an actual story beyond the brilliant post-apocalypse fantasy set-up. Raja isn’t simply roaming the wasteland she’s got some kind of cure or the like and she’s come upon a human controlled compound full of incredibly ugly and unpleasant Nazis and racist and confederates and the like. This goes hand-in-hand with the very pretentious origin for the devolution flue; that the government was trying to cure humanity’s belief in God. The whole book is peppered with these moments of extremely ham-fisted and in-your-face moments of extreme nihilism and human ugliness that are so aggressive and meaningless, it can’t help but be a turn off. That’s always been a problem with Rick Remender’s work and while Devolution isn’t quite as bad as Low, it gets pretty insufferable in the second half. This goes beyond the standard zombie pabulum of making all the characters irredeemable monsters as a way to try to trick the audience into thinking something deep is happening because oppressive bleakness has been coded to suggest meaningful storytelling. There is a deeper meaning here; it’s just a very alienating one that makes you actively disengage from the comic. We’re just constantly being bombarded with how awful humanity is and how everything is meaningless and hatred will always endure to the point you just want to throw the comic in the trash and go read something not written by the world’s most depressive man.
The artwork for Wayshak is a real standout, capturing the grotesque and distended look of the cave people perfectly. They’re still identifiably human, but with exaggerated featured and very freaky, ugly faces. The whole world of the cave man apocalypse is pretty great all around, a vegetative wasteland full of crazy vines, mammoths, and dinosaurs. It’s a much more vibrant and engaging setting than the normal boilerplate post-apocalypse stuff you see in most urban wastelands. Jordan Boyd’s coloring is additionally great, marked with beautiful warm yellows and deep jungle greens, it’s all so lively and bright rather than the oppressive tones of the dirt spectrum that usually infect this genre. The only downside is that the panel construction is a little simplistic, nothing really interesting just very basic, by the numbers set-ups. Still, that’s not a huge problem and the artwork overall remains engaging and unique to the material.
Overall, Devolution is mixed at best. The artwork is great and the core concept is unique and engaging, but the actual story is just so brutal, oppressive, and bludgeoning there’s no fun or engagement to be had anywhere in the book. It’s a comic about cavemen and dinosaurs dropped into a modern setting, but all it wants to do is shove your face into the mud of human ugliness for daring to believe in things or be optimistic. It feels a lot like a bait and switch that way and ends up a situation where the more you think about it the angrier it makes you, especially with how sophomoric its greater ideals are. It’s especially disappointing considering how many better comics there are about the end of the world that manage to be so much more harsh without reverting to cheap tactics or hateful storytelling, like BOOM! Studios Memtic or Image’s The Spread. Bottom line; this is a good idea in desperate need of a better writer.