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The Zombie With No Name

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

Are you the best crack team of culture vultures on the internet, or are you the best crack team of culture vultures on the internet? It takes a certain kind of person to answer a goofball query like “What was the first cowboy zombie?” with straight up answers like:

Jeremiah: “I instantly think of Lucio Fulci’s work in the late 1970s when it comes to westerns and zombies.”
Jess: “I could get a good article out of that, if I had the resources to investigate it thoroughly.”
Ivan: “This, good sir, is a worthy quest for such as we.”

Plus Chris T representing with his beloved super-apes, and Sean D stepping up to suggest EC Comics (of course!), and not one person even suggesting that this is a ridiculous question to ask, let alone get worked up about. I tell ya, the Planetary field team’s got nothing on my Friends list.

Now, then. Chris’ sick obsession with hot clockwork-on-corpse porn notwithstanding, he is right to remind us that there may be no single smoking zombie. The super-ape phenom is a good sister example of the sort of thing we’re talking about: a visual trope that’s practically a cliche within the subculture and practically unknown without. (Although, was the super-ape boom really in the 1960s? I would have guessed it was the early 1970s, ie post Planet Of The Apes. Which could then have provided the Ur-Super-Ape. Obviously intensive further study is in order. And funding for same. Quickly, to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada!)

[Edit: Intensive further study has been completed, and Chris was right, I was wrong. The Ape Age of Comics apparently dates all the way back to the 1950s.]

“Hey, I heard we’re going to Ape Island!”
“Yeah, to capture a giant ape. I wish we were going to Candy Apple Island instead.”
“Candy Apple Island? What’ve they got there?”
“Apes. But they’re not so big.”

All that said, I’m certainly prepared to give the first horror western award to the mighty Robert Howard, especially on the double say so of Jess & Jere. (The other “Jess,” and Jere, that is.) But my guess is we probably won’t find many bona fide cowboy zombies in the 1930s pulps, because I don’t think (but please do correct me if I’m wrong) the zombie qua zombie was really realized in pop culture until a few decades further along. When Val Lewton made I Walked With A Zombie in 1942, to most people “zombie” still meant “doped up Haitian” rather than “brain eating corpse.” I think.

Sean might just win the cookie for his suggestion of pre-Frederick Wertham’s EC Comics. Not as the originator of the horror western, surely, but as a key vector that burned the image of the cowboy zombie—the dessicated corpse, the snaggly teeth, the tattered Confederate uniform—into the soft little brain tissue of the baby boom kiddies who grew up to seed it all over our culture.

Say, that reminds me. There’s a cowboy zombie story in the McSweeney’s / Michael Chabon Treasury of Thrilling Tales by none other than Sherman Alexie. It’s as nasty and moralistic as any of the EC Cryptkeeper’s yarns, and simultaneously one of the most straight-up genre pieces and one of the most memorable stories in that oddball collection.

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In Search Of… Cowboy Zombie Zero

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

Howdy, pardners. Hunker down by the campfire, I got a serious question for y’all:

Cowboys and zombies. What gives?

I was reading this book, see, Zeppelins West, by the hyper-prolific Joe Lansdale. Nothing to write home about, just your basic weird western alternate history with cowboys and zombies. Well, it does feature gay sex between Frankenstein’s Monster and the Tin Man of Oz, and Buffalo Bill Cody’s disembodied head floating in a jar. One of my basic rules of life is, you damn well better read or watch anything that features a living disembodied head floating in a jar. Not sure where my basic rules of life come down on hot tin-man-on-reanimated-monster action.

Anyway, cowboys and zombies. Zombies and cowboys. Within the circled wagons of geek culture, it’s a recognized trope, right? Even a cliché? Jonah Hex, Tex Arcana, Deadlands…. Apparently the Dust Devils RPG took Gen Con by storm last year in part because it was “a western without zombies,” and people found that so refreshing.

Lisa asked me what I was reading, and I told her, “just your basic weird western alternate history, with cowboys and zombies.” And Lisa says, “Anon?” Which is old western talk for “What the hell you talking about, Mabel?” (See the novels of James Fenimore Cooper if you don’t believe me.) Never mind what Entertainment Weekly tells you, la culture de la mainstream and la culture du geek are not yet interchangeable.

But all this leaves me cogitating. Where did this mini-genre of weird westerns—and specifically, of cowboys and zombies—come from in the first place? How far back does it go? Tex Arcana was in Heavy Metal in the 1980s. Jonah Hex was a DC comic character in the 1970s, but I think back then he was pretty much just a Clint Eastwood Man With No Name pastiche. No zombies that I know of.

Is there a really obvious work I’m missing? The fact that it’s always zombies and cowboys—never vampires and Indian braves, or werewolves and grizzled prospectors, or flying polyps and saloon girls with hearts of gold—suggests to me that all these works might have one single pop cultural ancestor among them. The African Eve of cowboy zombies, if you will. Or of zombie cowboys. Whatever.

How about it, geek culture polymaths? ? ? Anyone have any ideas?

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Philo Philes

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

I’m reading and enjoying Glen Gold’s Carter Beats The Devil. It’s a novel about the adventures of a Houdini-style illusionist in the 1910s and 1920s, who gets mixed up with the mysterious death of Warren Harding, Yale’s Skull and Bones society, and the fight for control of television. It’s in much the same vein as Kavalier & Clay, and if it’s only, say, 75% as good, that’s hardly a stinging criticism.

The book gets extra points from me because one of the key supporting characters is the real life Philo T. Farnsworth. Philo Farnsworth was an earnest, gawky farm boy born in an honest-to-gosh log cabin near Beaver City, Utah in 1906. He grew up on a potato farm in Idaho, rode to high school on horseback, and never went to college. When he was nineteen, he pretty much invented electronic television.

The invention of television is a messy, complicated story, and it’s almost impossible to pick one single “Inventor of Television” out of the melee of mad Scots and visionary Russians and guys in basements in Cleveland who all had a hand in TV’s birth, but Philo is a definite contender. He was the first to use a scanning electron beam to create a picture. All previous efforts were mechanical, and usually involved spinning giant wooden disks. (Lovers of outre steampunk technology take note.)

Philo’s story is great—he was just this “aw shucks” milk-drinking Mormon kid who got the idea for the parallel scanning lines of the electronic picture tube while tilling the furrows of his family’s potato farm. He married his high school sweetheart at age 19 and said to her on their wedding night, “Pemmie, I have to tell you. There’s another woman in my life. Her name is Television.”

The whole thing sounds like a made up Boy Inventor story—Tom Swift and His Electronic Picto-Vision! In fact, I often think it should have been one. It could have been serialized in Chum Magazine in the 1940s, or made into a Disney double feature with Davy Crockett, called “The Boy Who Invented Television.” Young Philo would have made a great 1950s TV character. He could have worked with the Pinkertons maybe, having wild adventures across the West with his best girl Pemmie at his side, doing battle with his ingenious electrical inventions against the top-hatted fat cats of the evil Radio Trust.

About five years ago, I wrote the script for a comic book called “Channel Ocho,” about two crypto-TV-archaeologists that searched for mythical “lost” TV shows. Sort of a Planetary meets Nick-at-Nite kinda thing. The hero and his nemesis were named Farnsworth and Zworykin, after Philo and his main rival. Maybe I should dig that puppy out of mothballs.

Alas, in real life, the top-hatted fat cats of the evil Radio Trust (aka David Sarnoff and RCA) screwed Philo over pretty darn good. He never got the recognition he deserved, and though RCA eventually paid him off for the patents they squeezed out of him, he spent much of his life bitter and unhappy about how he and his great invention had been misused.

There’s a couple of books about Philo out now: The Last Lone Inventor, by Evan Schwartz, and The Boy Genius and the Mogul, by Daniel Stashower. There’s also this tribute site with the excellent URL farnovision.com. All of them basically follow the romantic “noble-lone-inventor-versus-greedy-fat-cats” model. But Malcolm Gladwell wrote an interesting New Yorker column (saying “interesting Malcolm Gladwell column” is usually redundant, IMHO) about Philo’s story, turning the model on his head. Gladwell says the story exposes the value of big corporations, and points out how much happier Philo’s life would have been if he’d only worked with RCA rather than tried to go it alone. I don’t know. It’s one thing to say Philo was naïve and stubborn and that he paid dearly for trying to fight the big boys. It’s another thing to say that this is therefore how things ought to be.

But anyway. Mad props to Philo T. That’s all I really wanted to say.