Friday, October 23, 2015

Wow, the already-dead Vertigo comic iZombie is hardly like the hit CW show it unleashed

One of Gwen's best friends in iZombie is a were-terrier, which means that whenever it's a full moon, he transforms into a broke-ass Ocean Beach private eye.

iZombie--the first CBS procedural outside of Elementary that fortunately doesn't feel too much like "a Dad show" (it airs on the CW, a joint venture between CBS and Warner Bros., so that qualifies it as a CBS show)--was one of network TV's most pleasant surprises last season. I don't care for the "Dad show" writing of most procedurals, and the case-of-the-week structure that's such a fixture of those procedurals initially made me doubtful about latching onto iZombie when it debuted. But the farcical and mildly supernatural elements iZombie added to that structure--like how whenever assistant medical examiner Liv Moore (Rose McIver), a zombie who must snack on brain matter to keep herself from going full zombie, wolfs down a murder victim's brains to grab clues from the victim's memories, she also absorbs the victim's personality traits--immediately won me over as they freshened up a walking corpse like the tired case-of-the-week format.

What's a Dad show, by the way? It's any procedural with an alphabet-soup title. The forensic heroes in these interchangeable procedurals quip a lot but aren't all that compelling when Daddy takes their one-liners away. It's "keep it on in the background while folding laundry" TV that doesn't require so much attention from exhausted, pooped-out and drowsy dads who find Mr. Robot or Rick and Morty to be too taxing for the brain or too morally ambiguous as light entertainment. It's fast food TV.

Criminal Minds is particularly shitty and unwatchable: it plays into every 92-year-old Fox News viewer's fears about how the world outside his door is going to hell in a handbasket. It fetishizes serial killers and is full of everything I despise about both the serial killer genre and torture porn, so it bugs me that smart comedic performers like Paget Brewster and Aisha Tyler have attached themselves to a dour, pretentious and repugnant show that's so beneath them. And I know the Asian American blogosphere worships the modern-day Hawaii Five-0 because the show gives juicy roles to Asian American actors--sure, as an Asian American, that's a nice thing to see--but I otherwise don't understand the worship: Five-0 is essentially another right-leaning Dad show from CBS.

CSI: Santa Cruz clearly doesn't have the budget for lens flares or sunglasses.

It's the iZombie cast outside of either their typical wardrobes on the show or their character makeup. Robert Buckley looks strange without Major's usual cuts and bruises and Utopium-caused haggardness.

Loosely based on a comic DC's Vertigo imprint published from 2010 to 2012, iZombie is, like any other CBS procedural, full of forensic experts who quip and often drop geeky pop-culture references, but it's far from a Dad show. The sharp writing and not-so-dour-and-pretentious sensibility of Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas and frequent Veronica Mars writer Diane Ruggiero-Wright, iZombie's showrunners, are among the reasons why iZombie never feels like I'm spending a week inside the mind of a 92-year-old Fox News viewer. The elderly murder victim whose racist personality traits Liv acquired in "Grumpy Old Liv," the second-season premiere, is clearly Thomas and Ruggiero-Wright's way of mocking the 92-year-olds who eat up Criminal Minds or CSI: Cyber.

iZombie may be imbued with the DNA of Veronica Mars--Liv is the same kind of plucky detective heroine who, during Veronica's run, captivated fans of neo-noir, feminists, feminist fans of neo-noir and neo-fans of noir feminists--as well as the DNA of what Ruggiero-Wright has cited as the part of The Matrix where kung fu skills are uploaded into Neo's mind, but a bit of Orphan Black seems to have also been slipped into the show like the chunks of brain matter Liv slips into her lunch. The show is a weekly acting exercise for the New Zealand-born McIver--and she's been killing it, whether as an immature frat boy, an extremely sensual artist, a stoner who talks to imaginary friends or, this week, a melodramatic, stiletto-obsessed "Real Housewife of Seattle"--like how the scenes where Tatiana Maslany has to play either a clone impersonating another clone or a clone impersonating another clone impersonating another clone are a crazy exercise each week for Maslany.

It also features the best ensemble on a Thomas show since Party Down. There isn't a weak link in the iZombie cast. Sure, Detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin), the Seattle cop who turns to Liv for help on his cases, is a tad underwritten as an audience surrogate, but he's an effective foil to both the personality changes Liv experiences (Clive has, like the Santa Barbara Police Department on Psych, been led to believe her visions stem from psychic abilities rather than zombie ones) and the morgue humor of Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti (Rahul Kohli), the supervising M.E. who keeps Liv's zombie side a secret from the rest of the police.

Blaine is perhaps the best hapless gangster since Christopher from The Sopranos.
But lately, Blaine's been getting some competition from the equally hapless Dodd Gerhardt from Fargo.

As drug dealer Blaine DeBeers, the now-former zombie who got high on his own (tainted) supply of a drug called Utopium--the cause of the underreported emergence of zombies in Seattle--and was responsible for Liv's transformation into an Undead American, and Vaughn Du Clark, a narcissistic energy drink magnate who's perhaps even more ruthless than Blaine, David Anders and Steven Weber, respectively, are the best kind of villain for a show based on a comic: they're blessed with comedic timing, but their performances are also carefully modulated and they're never prone to treating the material like camp or pantomime. Anders' turn as Blaine, the machinations of Blaine and the downward spiral of Major Lillywhite (Robert Buckley)--Liv's amusingly long-suffering ex-fiancé--from idealistic social worker to completely broken, Utopium-addicted killer of zombies are key to why the non-procedural half of iZombie is rarely "keep it on in the background while folding laundry" TV.

Before penning YA novels and creating shows with both passionate cult followings and unfortunately short life spans, Thomas was a member of several Texas rock bands--which is funny because people who aren't familiar with his TV work frequently confuse him with Matchbox 20 singer Rob Thomas, so his past as a musician in Texas hasn't exactly helped to distinguish him from the Matchbox 20 guy--and his not-so-hackneyed tastes in music led to a lot of well-chosen existing songs on Veronica Mars. Those same tastes have also been integral to the existing song choices on iZombie. The show opens each week with a great forgotten tune, "Stop, I'm Already Dead" by the now-defunct Deadboy & the Elephantmen. The scoring work of regular Thomas show composer Josh Kramon is equally solid, like whenever it emphasizes the primal nature of Liv's zombie side with just the use of percussion.

The various pleasures of iZombie made me curious about the original source material, which Vertigo is reissuing this December in the form of iZombie Omnibus, a hardcover that will collect all 28 issues of the Vertigo run. But iZombie fans who are familiar with only the TV version don't have to wait until December 6 for the hardcover to drop. They can already glimpse all 28 issues via Vertigo's four iZombie trade paperbacks: Dead to the World, uVampire, Six Feet Under and Rising and Repossession.

I was surprised to find out that the iZombie TV show is to the Vertigo comic what Japanese Spider-Man is to Marvel's various Spider-Man books: all it retains from the comic are the title character's looks, wardrobe and powers. Everything else is new. And no, Liv doesn't get to pilot a giant robot like Japanese Spider-Man does, although that visual would someday make for a nifty fantasy sequence on the show, if Liv ever eats the brains of a murdered tokusatsu nerd.

Too bad they didn't ring the house that gives away comic books instead of the shit they got. My favorite house as a kid on Halloween remains the house that actually handed out comics to trick-or-treaters one night.

The show is only mildly supernatural and confined to just the zombie culture in Seattle, whereas the comic is completely supernatural and focused on a wider range of creatures. I wouldn't blame Thomas and Ruggiero-Wright for not wanting to surround Liv with vampires; ghosts; a were-terrier; a chimp possessed by the were-terrier's dead grandpa; a teenage Frankenstein's monster; a Monster Squad-like team of government agents that takes orders from an undead President Lincoln; a Lovecraftian giant monster from another dimension; and a youthful-looking mummy who educates the heroine in both the concept of "oversouls and undersouls" and the apocalyptic threat of the Lovecraftian monster. Thomas and Ruggiero-Wright would end up blowing their weekly budget to smithereens if they chose to faithfully recreate the comic.

"True Blood kind of covered everything, they introduced so many underworldly creatures and did it so well that it'd feel like copying. And Being Human covered similar ground as well. We don't feel like we're reinventing the wheel, but...there's not too many fake psychic zombie detective shows on the air, so we're trying to be a little bit different," said Ruggiero-Wright to Newsarama.

The creation of sci-fi novelist Chris Roberson and artist Michael Allred, who provided the artwork for the CW version's opening titles and whose art I've been a fan of ever since I picked up a copy of an X-Statix TPB, the title character doesn't go by the puntastic name of Liv Moore. Instead, her name is Gwen Dylan, and her access to the brains she needs once a month in order to hold on to her personality and her pre-zombie memories is made possible by her job as a gravedigger in Eugene, Oregon. But unlike Liv, Gwen has no memories of her family or the events that led to her transformation into a zombie. So while Gwen tries to piece together the mystery behind her current existence as a revenant, the spirits of the dead bodies whose brains she snacks on communicate to her and urge her to take care of unfinished business for them, whether it's mending an estranged mother/daughter relationship or solving an unsolved murder.

Roberson and Allred's comic is not at all like a crime scene procedural and is more of a hybrid of a much less sexualized True Blood and a hangout sitcom where every major character is either a classic movie monster or a compromised take on a monster, like one of Gwen's best friends, Spot, the aforementioned were-terrier who prefers to spend his nights gaming or reading superhero comics rather than attacking the citizens of Eugene. The combination of Allred's Silver Age-style penciling and the beautiful color schemes by Allred's colorist wife Laura especially pops off the pages whenever Gwen and Spot are joined by their friend Ellie, the ghost of a teen who died in the '60s and prefers to float around in brightly colored '60s miniskirts and Gwen Stacy go-go boots.

Ellie's poignant backstory is at the center of my favorite standalone issue of iZombie: issue #12, a showcase for both the versatility of guest artist Gilbert Hernandez of Love and Rockets fame and the clever lettering work of Todd Klein, iZombie's regular letterer, as well as the designer of the New Teen Titans logo and the letterer for Sandman. An issue where the ghosts at Ellie's cemetary attempt to entertain each other with stories from the cultures they were raised in sounds dull on paper, but Roberson and Hernandez do wonders with it, like when they spoof the Harvey comics that were popular during Ellie's childhood or partially channel Native American cave paintings for a moment of Native folklore. Featured in uVampire, issue #12 is a good example of what a comic can do that a network TV procedural can't, unless it wants to take a breather from conventional whodunit-of-the-week storytelling for one week and do a Rashomon episode.

I keep forgetting that Debbie Harry was the best part of the Scarface soundtrack, aside from the sound of a chainsaw tearing through some motherfucker's flesh.

Gwen herself is as alluring a figure as Ellie and a couple of the characters in the Hernandez issue are, and that's perhaps due to the Allreds modeling Gwen's looks after Debbie Harry. So if you ever thought the beloved frontwoman of Blondie deserved to be the star of her own comic like how Prince and, from 1952 to 1971, Jerry Lewis were inexplicably the stars of their own DC titles, the iZombie comic will kind of scratch that itch.

There's one other element the CW show has retained from the iZombie comic, in addition to Liv receiving visions after the consumption of brains and looking exactly like the Debbie Harry-ish Gwen (by the way, the attractive sight of Liv in the crime scene tape dress at the partially clothed frat party in "Zombie Bro," Roberson's personal favorite episode of the show so far, is Liv at her most Debbie Harry-ish). That element would be a cast where people of color, particularly an Asian guy, get to be placed in prominent roles. Gwen's sole love interest is a monster hunter of Asian American descent named Horatio, which should please Asian American readers who are unfamiliar with the iZombie comic and are tired of Asian men being either emasculated or excised from screen adaptations of source material where they had substantial roles (I knew something was wrong with the frequently underwhelming Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. right when Agent Jimmy Woo was left out of the cast). And about halfway through the Vertigo comic's run, Roberson introduces a second undead heroine, Kennedy, a deceased soldier who was brought back to life by a similarly resurrected Abe Lincoln to lead the Dead Presidents, a team of monsters Lincoln assembled to handle the paranormal. The no-nonsense Kennedy--who winds up being a more dynamic zombie heroine than Gwen when the latter becomes angsty and withdrawn and secludes herself in the crypt she calls home after she discovers why she became undead--would make a great lead in her own Dead Presidents spinoff comic. Kennedy also interestingly resembles the recently slimmed-down Yvette Nicole Brown from Community and The Odd Couple, an actress who, by the way, has a special connection to zombies: she's a Walking Dead stan who frequently appears on Talking Dead, AMC's post-Walking Dead talk show.

The Dead Presidents don't know what to make of the return of President Conan O'Brien's post-Tonight Show beard.
I'd actually rather watch Shirley's new spinoff with Steven Weber than The Odd Couple.

When Vertigo cancelled iZombie in 2012, Roberson and Allred got the chance to wrap up Gwen's saga in a three-part finale, but the epilogue that concludes the final issue is a badly rushed collection of moments where Roberson ends up violating his own belief that a comic book story should be allowed to flow naturally and that "writers should resist the urge to load a page up with lots of balloons and captions." I don't want to have to ever think about the demise of the Thomas/Ruggiero-Wright version of iZombie because the show is such an entertaining ride right now, but hopefully, its series finale will be a smoother conclusion than the comic's.

Although it's extremely different from the show that followed, the comic has its charms and is visually dazzling, thanks to the Allreds' artwork. But if I were pressed to choose which incarnation is the more satisfying of the two, I would have to go with the CW show, simply because of the chemistry between the actors and McIver's charisma whenever the personality of the corpse of the week takes over Liv, a side effect that never occurs in the comic.

Liv may be already dead, but McIver's definitely not acting like it.

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