“…despite a rampaging elephant and a sodding arm cannon, it’s just not much fun.”
by Joe Orchard
‘Where are we going?’
‘Your guess is as good as mine.’
This, the final dialogue of Toe Tags featuring George A. Romero, neatly sums up the series.
Toe Tags was released in 2004, around the time of Romero’s nadir as a creator of zombie fiction. Not to disparage the man’s legacy, but I think it’s safe to say that, while I still have a soft spot for them, Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead didn’t quite hit the heights of his genre-defining early career work. So it is with Toe Tags, which, though not without its moments, is a bit of a mess.
We follow the story of Damien, a US college student, aspiring zoologist (I think), and all-round good dude. Unfortunately, a zombie apocalypse has rather curtailed his studies, and Damien now finds himself a reluctant and paradoxically conscious member of the zombie horde. He remembers his life, his girlfriend, Judy, and his elephant companion, Mr. Tembo (yes, really), but longs for the blessed relief of oblivion. Unable to move on, Damien instead searches for purpose in his post-mortem post-apocalypse, all while trying to keep Judy from joining him in the ranks of the undead.
I suppose the big question is, ‘Does it live up to the Romero name?’
The answer: ‘Kinda?’
There’s certainly enough death and dismemberment to fill that particular quota, but the social commentary that characterises the best in zombie fiction falls flat. The usual ‘humans are the real monsters’ theme is here, this time with a focus on the manipulation of the general populace by the political classes. While it is a nice slant on a played-out trope, it does little to elevate the work overall. At no point does it go much beyond the kind of incoherent rambling you’d expect from an earnest first-year politics major. Not that I disagree with the bare bones of the point being made (people in positions of power are indeed frequently self-serving bastards), but a little bit more fleshing out here would have been nice.
Individual characterisation in this series is pretty much non-existent: the bad guys are power-mad despots and treacherous double-agents, the good guys are there to stop the bad guys. If you want more depth than that then you are very much in the wrong place. That said, what can one really expect from a short six issues that also have to cram in a smart zombie serum, an incredibly weak Niagara Falls pun, and an undead hero with a Mega Man arm cannon and an elephant bodyguard.
Visually, Toe Tags is not without merit. If you’re a fan of things going through torsos, you’ll likely find something to enjoy here; be it a shotgun blast or an elephant tusk, you’re rarely far from something going full Alien on someone’s sternum. Unfortunately, things frequently get chaotic, making it difficult to discern just what is going on, and where. Add to this some occasionally baffling panel layouts and you have quite a muddle on your hands.
Honestly, I’m not sure what this series was aiming for. It maintains the cynical world view that characterises much of Romero’s work, but with little insight to its shallow attempts at social commentary. All the while, despite a rampaging elephant and a sodding arm cannon, it’s just not much fun. Perhaps, then, it’s for the best that Toe Tags has remained very much dead to the world.
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