I promised you I’d talk about something I actually liked on my blog this time, and the opportunity came along sooner than expected – the very next day, I got my trade paperback copy of Dan Abnett’s The New Deadwardians in the mail. I’d read it already, but decided to devour it a second time for good measure.
It was interesting to read it again, because I attended a creative writing event at my college in-between reading it before and reading it now, and while I was there, I actually got the chance to meet and speak to Dan Abnett as well as attend a talk he gave about the process of writing his comics and novels. And what I learnt there, that I didn’t realise when I first read The New Deadwardians, was that Abnett mostly works on other people’s IP – he’s probably most famous for the Warhammer 40k Gaunt’s Ghosts novels, which I’ve heard great things about but haven’t read, but he also does everything from DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes to Scooby Doo. As such, The New Deadwardians is actually quite rare as being one of the only original IPs Abnett’s worked on amongst a huge body of work – reading it with this in mind, it actually only becomes more impressive.
I get the impression that Abnett really relished the chance to create his own universe to play around with for once – and it shows, because the universe he comes up with is both fascinating and strikingly original. The New Deadwardians is a mystery story set in an alternate history where a zombie plague struck Victorian England soon after Prince Albert’s death; in order to protect themselves from the walking dead, who they termed “the restless,” wealthy aristocrats willingly took “the cure” – and became undead themselves, pale vampires who will live forever, if you can really call it “living.”
As I spoke about in a previous post, one of the best things about zombies is the wealth of damningly satirical metaphors they open themselves up to – the example I used was that zombies were, in Dawn of the Dead, a satire on consumerist culture, and this is the prevailing metaphor that surrounds them to this day. Vampires offer themselves similarly to allegory and satire – vampires are a literal representation of the “blood-sucking upper classes.” In the modern day, they’d probably be bankers and CEOs, but when vampire folklore was first codified into fiction it was the landed gentry who were the ones representing an economic drain on a lower class who had to work very hard to support their social superiors’ lavish lifestyles.
In this context, the idea of putting zombies and vampires together as one sort of great, unified class satire – where the vampires are the blood-sucking elite and the zombies represent the “great unwashed,” as the Victorians (and subsequently, Edwardians) characterized the public* – is obvious, in retrospect, yet so are most truly original ideas. And it works beautifully.
Stuck between the zombies and the vampires are the “bright” – the poor old normal humans of London, who must contend with an army of zombies surrounding the city’s walls on one side, and an army of vampires ruling over them in the Houses of Parliament on the other. The New Deadwardians follows George Suttle, the only homicide detective left in the Met, investigating the murder of one of his fellow “Young” – the term which this universe’s vampires use to describe their undead state, and by the way I love the way that words like “vampire” and “zombie” all have a coy euphemism, which not only gives the universe a unique flavour but is also a pitch-perfect parody of the Victorian/Edwardian attitude to the things they found distasteful.
The mystery plot is good, fast-paced and intriguing with a well-executed ending, and it does admirably well in economically packing a lot of content into just 8 issues. But the real attractions here are the character and thematic work, and the worldbuilding. There are many moments when Abnett would reveal a little bit more about the world he’s created – often subtly, through dialogue or background details, but always to great effect – and each tiny detail would suggest a wealth of further possibilities. For an excellent example of this, see the moment where George Suttle meets a young suffragette, who is campaigning for the right for women to be made Young, even as George tells her it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – hell, I could read a whole 8-issue comic series about her.
The other great strength of The New Deadwardians is, as I’ve noted, the themes which Abnett develops throughout, themes which also do a great job of reciprocally establishing subtle and effective characterization. The cast of The New Deadwardians are, for the most part, typically Edwardian; but the Young, who seem to lose all passion and vigour once they are made undead, take this cultural repression and understated stoicism to an extreme. More than once, George Suttle reflects that he doesn’t miss life, but he misses the idea of missing things. The effect is a potent critique of the systemic cultural and sexual repression which really was endemic to the 19th- and early-20th-century upper classes; and the zombies, hungry at the gates of London, represent not so much the British public as the aristocrats’ disastrously flawed conception of the British public.
All in all, The New Deadwardians is proof of a pet theory of mine – that there’s always, always, room for originality in the archetypes and concepts (like vampires and zombies) which the unimaginative tend to label as being “stale.” And there’s got to be a demand for much more of this kind of originality, if it’s going to flourish – so buy The New Deadwardians now, if you’re one of those people who thought vampire or zombies stories were “stale,” and prove yourself wrong. I really, really hope Abnett writes another series set in this universe, and it’d be a damn shame if he didn’t.
* More specifically, this phrase was coined by Victorian playwright and novelist Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, who – as you can probably imagine – would certainly have been a vampire rather than a zombie.