Review: 8-Bit Zombie: The Full Byte by Fred Perry, David Hutchison and Zechary Gray (2015)

8-Bit Zombie: The Full Byte

8-Bit Zombie: The Full Byte
Antarctic Press, 2015 (containing material from 2013-4)
Writer: Fred Perry.
Artists: Fred Perry, David Hutchison and Zechary Gray

Review by N Emmett.

Zilla, a video game villain who is tired with his lot, improves his life by hopping to another game in the arcade – and eventually ends up becoming the hero of his very own title. Zombie, another gaming bad guy, follows in Zilla’s footsteps. But this ends in disaster as Zombie spreads a plague to the whole arcade, with countless video game stars turning into flesh-eating ghouls. Can Zilla avoid having the pixels torn from his bones by the ravenous undead hordes?

8-Bit Zombie: The Full Byte (a collected edition containing the original 8-Bit Zombie and its sequels 16-Bit Zombie, 32-Bit Zombie and 64-Bit Zombie) is based around a simple premise: it takes a range of video game characters from Sonic the Hedgehog to Mr. Do and pits them against a zombie apocalypse. Many games are referred to, either directly or via thinly-veiled parody versions, but the comic’s most obvious inspiration is not a video game at all. Anybody who has seen Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph will know exactly where writer Fred Perry got the idea for his story.

As with Ralph, the main character in 8-Bit Zombie is a video game villain who is really a well-meaning lug, and whose in-game opponent is a tool-wielding handyman. This can be passed off as coincidence at first, considering that both sets of characters were ultimately inspired by Donkey K8bit1ong and Super Mario. But then Zilla teams up with Speedee Deedee, a cute pigtailed girl in a go-kart who is a dead ringer for Ralph’s sidekick Vanellope…

The entire fantasy setting of the comic, where video game characters hang out in a futuristic limbo between arcade cabinets, clearly owes a debt to Disney’s film. There is even a line of dialogue – “just because he’s a ‘bad guy’ doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy!” – that is lifted almost verbatim from Wreck-It Ralph.

Perry can hardly be accused of theft: the first scene in the comic, in which Zilla and his friends discuss a previous adventure, seems to have been included on the assumption that anyone familiar with Wreck-It Ralph will recognise 8-Bit Zombie as an unofficial sequel. It also seems unfair to criticise this comic for being derivative when the whole point is that its characters are borrowed from various video games.

But still, it is reasonable to ask exactly why the comic draws so heavily on Ralph when so many other potential set-ups were available. 8-Bit Zombie cannot be called a parody or subversion of its source, as it seems strangely unaware of the incongruity of mixing Disney’s happy-end romp with the nihilism of George A. Romero. In fact, Perry is essentially elaborating upon a joke which Disney had already made: a subplot in Wreck-It Ralph deals with a sunny Mario Kart-like world becoming 8bit3infested with Starship Troopers-esque insect monsters.

This is all too bad, as 8-Bit Zombie has its moments of inspiration. Street Fighter is lampooned as Office Fighter, featuring CEO Ken and a muscle-bound version of the Monopoly guy.  At another point the characters end up in an anti-virus program, represented as a hospital staffed by robots; these mechanical doctors dismiss Zilla’s concerns about zombies as mere bigotry, as the undead are as much a part of video game convention as hedgehogs and plumbers. Sitting alongside the more inventive touches are rather less original jokes, such as Ms. Pac-Man drunkenly stripping or Luigi contracting an STD – the kind of thing that could have turned up in absolutely any retrogaming webcomic in existence.

Writer-artist Fred Perry is joined by two other illustrators – David Hutchison and Zechary Gray – although exactly who drew what is not specified. The early pages in the comic use a lot of copy-pasting, as drawings of characters are repeatedly re-used with limbs and expressions altered between frames; whether this is laziness or an attempt to capture the feel of video game sprites is unclear. The artwork improves considerably later on, but still suffers from an unfinished feel – the 8bit2briskly-drawn figures spend most of their time in front of an empty white void. On the plus side, the three artists do a generally good job of keeping a consistent style between themselves while at the same time differentiating multiple layers of reality: pixelised in-game graphics, the “behind the scenes” world of the game characters, and the real world of the players and programmers.

8-Bit Zombie had the potential to be an entertaining, nostalgia-filled zombie spoof, but it settles for the obvious and second-hand just a little too often. Still, anybody who feels the peculiar urge to see beloved characters from their childhood being gruesomely murdered may well find something to appreciate…