Dark Horse’s Zero Killer, written by Arvid Nelson with art from Matt Camp, is one of those books that has been around awhile (since 2007) but doesn’t get much attention. I’m not sure why this is- perhaps its bold honesty and striking imagery is not favorable by an all too sensitive society. Perhaps it’s something else. Whatever the reason, it’s one of the few comic books that has successfully impacted me in a “world think” way; where upon completing reading it, I spent some time dwelling on the message of the book, and the state of humanity in 2010. Moments like these are all too rare in an age of viral videos and Lady Gaga’s, but somehow Zero Killer managed to strike a chord with me, and it’s still resonating.
Imagine a world where combat in Japan during World War II ended not by an atomic bomb explosion over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but rather by a costly invasion of the country by the Allies. When the war ended, Japan was divided between north and south, with Democracy and Communism representing their respective sides. Time passed and tensions between the Communist East and the Democratic West became more tense with each year, until finally, the world erupted in nuclear war in 1973 in an event later known as ‘Zero Hour.’ 90% of the global population was killed in the strikes, and those who survived were cut off from the outside world, finding refuge in the ruins of buildings and skyscrapers, as the majority of cities are buried beneath thousands of feet of radioactive ocean water. Yet, the survivors found a way to live on.
This is an abridged history of the world in Zero Killer.
But now the year is 2007 and our setting is New York City. The survivors of the nuclear holocaust more than 30 years earlier, and their descendants, have aligned themselves with one of the many gangs which populate the city. Their home bases are major New York landmarks like the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Pan Am Building, and the Twin Towers. Corrupt, power hungry factions of the military along with remnants of the political leadership of the U.S.A., live separated from this society and have been dubbed “headhunters,” as they swoop into gang territory via helicopter, abducting survivors and taking them back to their labs to perform questionable experiments on them. The purpose of these experiments is up to speculation, but the common theory is that scientists are trying to find a cure for the nuclear fallout that has infected humanity; noble intentions perhaps, but entirely self serving and inhumane in execution.
All of this is but the backdrop to our story, however, which follows a lone “trashman”- a man whose job in society is to hunt down renegade gang members and bring them back to their bosses for punishment- named Zero Killer. Zero Killer, a fit, sharp witted survivor has his own checkered past, but now he has his mind set on one thing- Africa. Africa, the sole place that has escaped the deadly nuclear strikes, being dubbed a promised land in these troubled times. Nobody knows for sure if the rumors of Africa are true, but one thing is certain: the thought of making it there incites hope in a world gone mad.
Along the way Zero Killer meets a woman named Stark who becomes his unspoken best friend and a side kick of sorts. She helps Zero perform an important task he’s been charged with by representatives from Africa; if he completes this task he can be on the first chopper out of New York and on his way to paradise, but if not, his dream of heading to the promised land will remain just that- a dream.
The art in this book is spectacular. From the cover of the first issue, to the opening shot of the Twin Towers to the subsequent 200+ pages, Zero Killer seriously delivers on the visuals. You could spend considerable time taking in each image, staring at devastated buildings of downtown New York, allowing your mind to wander through a multitude of “what if” scenarios that could bring us to this point in the real world. I found myself gawking at the opening page for a handful of minutes, leaving my thoughts free to speculate on the horror that could befall our planet at any given time. Matt Camp really brings his A game, giving this post apocalyptic world great detail and vivid imagery. The colors by Dave Stewart strongly compliment Camp’s work. It’s very vibrant without being overwhelming, providing a real, rusty, damaged feel to the book.
But the real hero of Zero Killer is writer Arvid Nelson. The man is brilliant. This is my first venture into his work, and he blew me away. His characterization is deep (including the leaders of the various gangs who have short, yet impacting appearances) and his plot believable with minimal exposition. Speaking of, his method of delivering the expo was great; brief, informative text blurbs at the end of each chapter, shining light on the state of this chaotic world. It’s very Jonathan Hickman-esque, a la The Nightly News or Pax Romana (if you haven’t read either of those, you’re doing yourself a disservice as a comic book fan). It’s a productive way to deliver the exposition without taking time away from the story. He also leaves the ending wide open for a sequel, which if made would be a bonus, but if not, this solo volume of Zero Killer stands perfectly fine on its own and should survive the testament of time.
Nelson really cranks it up a notch with the extras he provides in the back of the book, after the conclusion of the main story. He pens a lengthy timeline of events that lead us up to the first page of Zero Killer, taking us from 1945 all the way to the present day in a very detailed and informative yearbook-style format. It’s uncomfortable imagining the United States losing the Space Race of the 1960s, and even more uncomfortable imaging New York City getting hit with Russian nukes in Central Park and the Lower East Side. But that’s what happened in the world of Zero Killer.
Furthermore, Nelson gives the reader a much needed slap of reality in his afterword. It’s a two page essay about our lack of awareness regarding the world, and it’s the part of the book that really hit home for me. He mentions how recently bunkers have been uncovered that were designed to protect U.S. politicians in the event of a nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, and how similar doomsday safeguard rooms and vehicles are in place for our political leaders today. But what about the rest of us? What happens to us in the event of a nuclear Armageddon while our so called leaders fly or hide away to safety? “The very people responsible for plastering the earth with mushroom clouds would have saved themselves and left the rest of us to our fiery and unpleasant fates. And let’s not forget who pays for all their ‘Strangelovian’ hidey-holes and private escape jets. We do,” Nelson says. Difficult words to swallow, but once the pill is down, we realize how true they really are.
Nelson also points out how we’re so focused on the Middle East and our iphones that we often forget about a region that has been having its own Holocaust for decades- Africa. “We said ‘never again’ after the Nazi Holocaust, but we didn’t mean it.” He goes on, “Here’s a fun little fact: three thousand children die of starvation every day in Africa. That’s the number of people who died in the 9/11 attacks. Every day…Why is it that when three thousand people in one part of the world die, it’s a tragedy, but when three thousand children die in another part of the world, it’s not worth five seconds on a twenty-four-hour cable news program?” A goddamn good point. One that makes you seriously think about things, and upon reflecting, makes you ashamed to live in the world we live in. But what can we do? What is in my power as a lower middle class American to make a difference in this world?
There’s more, but you get the point. It’s questions like these that Zero Killer evokes from its reader, and it’s because of these “think deep” questions why I love this book so much. It may also be part of the reason why this gem of a comic book has gone virtually unheard of for the last 3 years. So do yourself a service and give it a thorough read. Your own humanity may thank you for it later.