Pestilence Vol. 1: A Story of Death
By Frank Tieri, Oleg Okunev, Eric Bromberg, Brandon Auman, Rob Schwager, Marshall Dillon
After all this time, there’s still plenty of room to tell stories about zombies. Like any idea, it just takes a creative team to apply their own spin and direction to make it theirs. The Walking Dead may hold the crown as a property filled with the undead, but Aftershock’s Pestilence shows that it’s not the only kingdom out there. While the overall tone of the book won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, Pestilence provides enough to be an enjoyable horror-filled adventure in medieval times.
Pestilence follows the exploits of the Fiat Lux, essentially a squad in the Catholic Church’s special forces, as they fight off a dangerous plague that history will call the Black Death. This turns out to be a greater problem than they realize, as the sickness in reality is an army of zombies that are quickly ravaging the countryside. The series has a certain level of charm to it as most fictional twists on great historical events do, combining aspects of religion and legend to create a consistent world. How the dead fit into the larger narrative feels natural for the time period, when theological leaders were a powerful authority.
It’s mentioned in the collected volume that Pestilence was originally conceived to be a videogame, something that shows even as it has evolved into a comic. The members of the Fiat Lux for instance, do lean towards the stereotypical when it comes to their roles on the team. Writer Frank Tieri is able to counter this a little and goes farther with a couple of them, providing some layers beyond the typical knight character and exposing more evil beyond the undead. The dialogue between them is also pretty coarse, coming across as excessive at some points. However, it does fit in with the dark fantasy theme and feels appropriate during some of the volume’s more hectic fights.
Artist Oleg Okunev’s style is reminiscent of a certain ‘90s aesthetic that gives his zombies an over-the-top monstrous quality. This also applies to those who aren’t tainted, with extended smiles and manic expressions establishing a gritty and cruel environment. It works best when Okunev is able to use larger spaces to draw overwhelming grotesque mobs of enemies. Yet even in smaller areas this action feels far from confined, as art from one panel will pop out and occupy some space in others. Colorist Rob Schwager’s earthy tones and use of shadows are respectful of the time period. He also lights up scenes of gore with flashes of reds, making each swing of a sword much more impactful. However, some instances in the art where a character’s head is drawn over a scene are distracting. This is presumably done to let them have a line of dialogue while focusing on a more impressive larger perspective, but it feels that some of these floating, disconnected heads might have been solved with some captions.
The first volume of Pestilence at its best is a prime example of self-consciously excessive horror. From the way it depicts its gore, its language, and the nature of its plot, its tone is not for everyone. But for those that are fans of this darker subject matter, Pestilence’s first arc is an engaging guilty pleasure. It’ll be interesting to see how it progresses in the future past its relatively self-contained premiere.