The Austen-tatious Undead

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Escalating far beyond the disposable fad it seemed a few years back, the current pop culture obsession for zombies has thrown up some unlikely pastiches as it has run its course. Few, though, would seem quite as intriguingly incongruous as author Seth Grahame-Hill’s spoof novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, published last year. Now this unlikely mix of Jane Austen and the shambling undead has come to comics courtesy of writer Tony (Doctor Who, Hope Falls) Lee and artist Cliff (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) Richards’ graphic novel adaptation.

England in the 19th century and the country has fallen victim to a strange plague, as the dead rise up from their graves and roam the countryside. Forced to adapt to a frightening new world, where the bite of an “Unmentionable” will curse the victim to a horrifying fate, the Bennet daughters have been trained as a unit of unflappable zombie killers. When the arrogant Mr. Darcy arrives at the Bennet family home an unlikely romance develops between him and Elizabeth Bennet. But the road to happiness is paved with misunderstandings, social faux pas, ninja warriors and their cannibalistic, decaying neighbors…

Were it not for the success of the parent novel I would have wondered quite what the potential audience for a concept like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies would be. For a start it’s difficult to see how anyone not already versed in Austen’s novel could really take much away from either the book or its comic counterpart. That's because, without that decent working knowledge of Austen lore, one wonders quite how the casual reader could enjoy the central premise or fully appreciate the interweaving of the undead element into the Bennets' world.

A huge print run for that original Pride and Prejudice and Zombies novel, however, would seem to indicate otherwise. Either the unlikely crossover audience between Jane Austen aficionados and Night of the Living Dead fanboys is far greater than anyone could have reasonably anticipated or I am jumping to outrageous, generalised conclusions about how well-read horror fans are outside their genre of choice. Or perhaps there are just enough blokey readers out there so sick of hearing their partners droning on about Colin Firth’s wet shirt scene in the 1995 BBC television adaptation that the possibility of Mr. Darcy becoming zombie bait is too tempting to pass up?

Whatever the reason, the mini-phenomenon surrounding the novel does much more than merely suggest an audience exists for this type of patchwork parody. But how well does it work on the comic strip page? It’s fair, I think, to point out that in the comics world adaptation writers can be perceived as being on a hiding to nothing. A poor comics version of a prose work will draw the usual, expected criticism but a successful one is often overlooked as being “just an adaptation”. This, of course, woefully ignores the skill necessary in effectively tranferring a story from one medium into another. There’s an art in doing this, and in doing it well, that rarely gets the praise it deserves. We just have to look in the direction of Roy Thomas’s excellent recent work on the Marvel Illustrated line to see examples of novel adaptations failing to get the warranted level of critical plaudits.

So it needs to be underlined here that Tony Lee does a commendable job in translating prose storytelling into the language of the comic strip form. The transition is smooth and flowing and is ably served by Cliff Richards’ nuanced black and white artwork which is deceptively understated throughout. Indeed, Richards does an excellent job in combining genteel costume drama and in-yer-face gross-out zombie action without ever allowing the jumps between genres to feel forced or uncomfortable. No mean feat when you consider a premise that is, by its very definition, playfully and unashamedly contrived.

The real fun of the book comes as the reader awaits those familiar story beats/plot points regarding Lizzy Bennet, Darcy, Mrs. Bennet et al. and seeing in what manner they are given a zombie-centric spin. Interestingly, though, this is also one of its weaknesses as well. The informed reader knows full well that certain characters have to survive to play out certain plot functions later in the proceedings and, thus, the normal tension one associates with the overt zombie conflict scenes is largely lost. It would be a short parody indeed if the more irksome members of the Bennet clan were immediately chowed down upon by ambulatory festering corpses before concluding their designated narrative roles.

The wit within Austen’s characters’ original dialogue is such that it’s more likely to bring a wry smile to the reader rather than provide any laugh out loud moments. With the embellishments of the deliberately ridiculous undead-related vebal asides, and the addition of the zombie-slaying sequences, that refined humor is pushed into something far more slapstick; sometimes even entering the territory of the Carry On… films. Perhaps surprisingly, given its somewhat one-gag nature, the amusement to be found in the juxtaposition of 19th century manners and flying zombie body parts rarely wears thin. Whether I would want to read graphic novel versions of the plethora of associated follow-ups and bandwagon jumpers though - Sense and Sensibility and Sea-Monsters for example – is another matter entirely. I rather suspect that would be stretching the joke to the bounds of breaking point.

If you’re unlikely to make the effort to read Austen’s masterpiece in its original form then perhaps picking up Nancy Butler’s recent impressive adaptation of Pride & Prejudice from Marvel and enjoying it back to back with its zombie counterpart would make for an enhanced reading experience. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies gets plenty of mileage out of one basic joke, but it does so with such endearing economy that it is impossible to dislike.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Graphic Novel is available from Del Rey in the U.S. priced $14.99 and from Titan Books in the U.K. priced £9.99.  

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  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs May 13, 2010 at 2:42pm

    wow you actually recommend it? now I will have to lookout for a copy ... praise from the Oliver means cash out of my pocket :)

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver May 15, 2010 at 9:34am

    Heh... the responsibility! ;) It was a fun read but for the enjoyment definitely comes from having a decent working knowledge of Austen. Anyone who hasn't read P&P will be approaching it with a definite disadvantage.

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