This article contains discussions of extreme physical and sexual violence, as well as graphic imagery. Reader discretion is advised.


Monsters have a firm grasp on all forms of media: from movies and television to novels to the most wonderful world of comic books. Throughout entertainment history, monsters have been used to explore the audience’s fears and questions on morality. For example, home invasion movies like THE STRANGERS are usually metaphors for foreign threats. Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN delves into the ethics of science and the morality of playing God. However, the lore around these monsters constantly changes.

Vampires vary from pure evil beings set on spreading their curse to sexy, morally gray bad boys (and girls) who just want to chill and drink nonlethal amounts of blood. Even Frankenstein’s Monster can fluctuate between a brainless beast and a creation which only desires companionship despite its missteps. Hell, werewolves are normal humans the vast majority of every month. Things are a little different, though, when you bring zombies into the equation.

The origin of zombies varies from comic to comic. It can be anything from long-dead bodies clawing out of graves to an apocalyptic virus sweeping through the living world. For characters with guns and machetes, the zombies are pretty much collateral damage. No matter the origin, it’s rare for zombies to be seen as anything more than dead bodies with an extra dose of danger.

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Why are so many of their depictions devoid of sympathy? Is it because they’re not so sexy? Is it because they’ve already died once and their second chance at “life” never should have existed? If so, how are zombies more of an abomination than other undead monsters? Furthermore, at what point are the human actions against zombies considered immoral? There’s no single, easy answer. For starters, though, we can look at several different comic depictions.

They Got Soul: IZOMBIE

IZOMBIE from Vertigo has a different take on the zombie lore; this twenty-eight issue series has a set up that’s a little complex. Every living creature has two souls — the oversoul and the undersoul. The oversoul exists in the brain and is responsible for thoughts, memories, and personality. The undersoul exists in the heart and makes up emotions, appetites, and fears. A zombie is one who is without the oversoul whose existence runs purely on the more visceral undersoul. While it’s not unheard of for zombies in this world to be shambling and mindless, so long as they sate their hunger often enough, they maintain their wits.

That said, despite a hankering for brains and pasty skin, protagonist Gwen Dylan is not your typical zombie. She keeps to herself mostly, whereas other zombies tend to band together. She even distances herself from her family, so as not to upset them. On top of that, Gwen takes no pleasure in eating brains. She insists on only feasting on the brains of the already deceased. She lives in a crypt and works as a gravedigger, which not only provides easy access to her nutritional needs but also maintains her code against not hurting living humans. When zombies in this comic consume brains, they temporarily gain the memories and thoughts they contain. Gwen sometimes carries out final wishes or unfinished business for the deceased. Gwen uses her unfortunate circumstances to help when she can, trying to prove she’s more than a monster.

IZOMBIE #1
Image from IZOMBIE (2010) #1, courtesy of Vertigo.

Zombies are People, Too

Unfortunately, zombies in this world are often misunderstood by supernaturals and living humans alike. A group of monster hunters blows into town, and they set the goal of obliterating a recent zombie outbreak. They shoot first and don’t even ask later. The saddest thing of all is that Gwen is probably more generous than most people with both souls. A creature from another dimension intends to devour all of the souls on Earth, and Gwen is the only one who can stop it. She also has the power to devour souls and uses all of her strength — sacrificing her life on Earth — to defeat the creature.

READ: For more IZOMBIE, check out this article!

Gwen’s complete selflessness and the way she touched lives inspires her friends and family to help zombies rather than hunt them. Yes, when they go too long without food zombies can become violent. However, the undead need help to maintain their grasp on humanity. It’s possible to rehabilitate zombies, rather than slaughter them en masse, in IZOMBIE. So long as zombies keep up with their nutritional needs, they are capable of functioning in society the same way as humans are. If it’s possible to help someone who thinks and feels, there’s a moral obligation to do so.

Sympathy is Sexy: ZOMBIE TRAMP

From the publisher Action Lab Comics, Dan Mendoza’s ZOMBIE TRAMP is…interesting, to say the least. Janey is a call girl for the rich and famous. That is until a dirty cop tries to have sex with her and then feed her to his undead son. Fortunately, Janey manages to escape with only a zombie bite. Janey’s sexualization ties into my earlier point — are monsters more sympathetic the sexier they are? In IZOMBIE, Gwen is a beautiful woman. In this comic, Janey is a horror femme fatale of impossible proportions and outfits that get skimpier with every issue. Yet, the comic makes a deliberate effort to portray Janey as angelic — especially as she reveals more of her body. With reference to a baptism by blood and being born again, she may be an angel of death, but it’s clear her sexy revenge is meant to be seen as righteous.

Her righteousness is interesting, especially with the usage of “tramp” in the title. Such insults tend to imply an inherent lack of morality, but this comic seems to lean on Janey’s down-on-her-luck desperation as a crutch. It seems to try and “other” her from other prostitutes for some reason, as though she is the one good woman who has to resort to selling her body. However, I find this comic put very little into her characterization beyond her sexualization. Unlike Gwen, I don’t see a single act of individualism from her throughout the series.

ZOMBIE TRAMP (2013) #3
Image from ZOMBIE TRAMP #3 (2013), courtesy of Action Lab Comics.

Can the Undead be Anti-Heroes?

ZOMBIE TRAMP embraces both the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope and the horror cliche of undead revenge. Janey’s heart aches (literally) with the need to kill all who have wronged her — collateral damage be damned. Her actions upon selfish madams like George and dirty cops like Rudolf are gruesome, but one could see it as gritty justice. Clearly, we’re supposed to root for her revenge once her death grants her the power to seek it. Does the fact that she slaughters bad humans make her less of a monster? She also strikes out against fellow call girls, ripping them to pieces to use their limbs to repair herself. Sure, prostitution is technically a crime, but that hardly makes those women bad people. At the end of the original comic series, she even attacks a group of curious teenagers for seemingly no reason.

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It’s difficult to definitively say what this comic accomplishes as far as zombie morality. It makes it clear that living humans commit atrocities every day, and Janey doesn’t appear to commit more than they do simply because she’s a zombie. For the most part, she seems to even the score. ZOMBIE TRAMP makes it hard to say the slaughter of all zombies is just since humans appear to be just as dangerous as the monsters. As far as making zombies sexy, I don’t see anything inherently wrong with the thought. However, if it’s just an excuse to objectify a female body without any human feelings attached, then it’s pretty gross. Writers should apply the sexy lamp test, even when the women are undead.

Hope for the Hopeless: THE WALKING DEAD

THE WALKING DEAD is perhaps the most popular zombie comic currently. The cause of the zombie outbreak in this comic isn’t divulged, and writer Robert Kirkman has no intention to offer an explanation. It’s clear that this comic doesn’t have its focus on finding the solution. Rather, it’s all about the actions the survivors take, which makes it a really fascinating comic to morally analyze.

In a post-apocalyptic world where everyone is trigger happy, one character stands out with his hope. Hershel Greene believes that one day in the future there might be a cure for the zombie outbreak. Rather than killing the “walkers” on sight, he holds them up in his barn. Does he do this out of genuine hope, or because one of his sons is a walker? It’s hard to tell. Either way, it certainly backfires, as one day the zombies escape from the barn and take the lives of two more of Hershel’s children. It’s difficult to say if there is a point to any of this without the truth of whether or not there’s a cure. Still, I think it’s important that Hershel even tries. Nobody knows for sure that zombies are beyond help. I love that he doesn’t immediately condemn them, simply because it’s the easiest way.

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In fact, perhaps if there were a more united and organized effort toward containment, the zombies wouldn’t have escaped at all. Two heads are better than one of course, and there could’ve been someone with a more efficient containment process if they had Hershel’s amount of faith. Even more people helping would have made ushering zombies into the barn easier. Maybe those kids — and those barn zombies — could have been spared. 

THE WALKING DEAD #43Image from THE WALKING DEAD #43 (2007), courtesy of Image Comics.

Do Unto Zombies as You Would Have Them Do Unto You

In the comics, Michonne leads around two “pet” zombies. They’re without arms or jaws to prevent injury, and their mere presence wards off other zombies. Were it a normal, safe world, mutilation of the dead would be seen as immoral. However, because they’re not quite dead, things shift into a different perspective. Given Michonne’s circumstances — surrounded by a horde of Walkers with no other chance of escape — I get it. In a weird way, maybe it’s even the moral choice because this act prevents more human deaths. Michonne doesn’t abuse the chained walkers. Without lower jaws, however, the zombies can’t eat. Clearly, sustenance isn’t necessary for their existence, but no one can really say if the lack of human flesh or brains makes the zombies ache from hunger. Still, Michonne doesn’t find entertainment in the suffering of the undead, unlike others.

READ: Check out this review of THE WALKING DEAD 169!

The Governor, on the other hand, is unquestionably immoral. He ties Michonne up and repeatedly and brutally rapes her, taking pleasure in her pain. Sexual abuse against human beings is one of the most villainous acts possible, but does that villainy extend when the abuse focuses on the undead? In issue #43, after Michonne has…”dismembered” the Governor, the Governor removes the teeth from his zombie niece, Penny, and kisses her on the mouth. 

How inhumane can a person be to someone who’s not quite living and not quite dead? I think even clear cut necrophilia is immoral, so to commit an immoral act upon someone who is not really dead has to be even more immoral. That the Governor apologizes to the zombified Penny makes his deed worse in a way. It means he still attributes consciousness and feelings to the girl as if she were alive and well. I think zombies still contain some form of life (we call them undead for a reason), so whether you consider them to have feelings or not, they don’t deserve acts of pure cruelty.

READ: Check out this article on the depiction of sexual abuse in comics!

What Constitutes a Zombie?: CROSSED

When analyzing morality in zombie infested worlds, it’s important to have a firm grasp on the definition of a “zombie.” Do they have to be undead? Mindless? Violent? Have the tummy rumblings for noggins? Two out of four? The comic CROSSED from Avatar Press presents interesting implications for zombie morality. In this sick, stomach-turning comic (seriously, it made me hurl), the shambling monsters aren’t actually dead. A sickness passes between living humans which turns them vicious and primal. Those infected — the “crossed” — rape, pillage, and slaughter others in increasingly brutal ways. The state of the world is too dangerous for anyone to stop and develop a cure, and I think, ironically, this comic builds the best case for shooting on sight in self-defense.

CROSSED makes a clear argument that all of mankind is on the brink of brutality. There is violence inside of all of us, just waiting for an excuse to be let out. One of the men in the group of survivors, Geoff, admits that before the apocalypse, he took pleasure in the kidnapping and torturing of young men. Cindy tells Stan that the reason she’s so calm is because violence is nothing new to her. Her husband was abusive, and she had to take matters into her own hands and kill him, for the benefit of her son. Stan finds the journal of a dead army captain, which details how he was sent on a mission to accompany scientists to disable nuclear power plants, and then execute them so they’d never enable the plants again.

READ: Check out the undead comic SLAB!

CROSSED #0
Image from CROSSED #0, courtesy of Avatar Press.

Who Are the Real Monsters?

However, the crossed are still humans, aren’t they? There could still be a cure, even if nobody’s looking for it. Furthermore, what effect is the violent self-defense taking on the uninfected? Is it turning them into monsters, just like those with the sickness? At one point, the group of survivors stumbles upon a group of children whose teacher keeps them alive through cannibalism. Fearing for both the future of the cannibal children and anyone who might cross their paths, our protagonists Stan and Cindy take it upon themselves to execute the children.

Certainly, it was wrong of the teacher to expose the children to such a thing, but historically, it’s not unheard of in survival situations. Should the children have been held responsible for fighting for survival in any way possible in desperate times? Was it wrong of Stan and Cindy to kill children for this desperation? Are these acts of brutality any more immoral than the violence wrought by the crossed?

What’s this Add Up to for Zombie Morality?

All of these atrocities in these comics are very human: well within the dark, yet realistic nature of mankind. Most of them even took place before the apocalypse. In IZOMBIE, the humans didn’t want to try to understand the zombies before slaughtering them. The ZOMBIE TRAMP world considers prostitutes to be expendable. In THE WALKING DEAD, humans consistently committed evil against each other with intent, while the Walkers are just taking their place atop the food chain. One has to consider that maybe the horror of zombie comics doesn’t come from the undead at all.

READ: Check out this review of DEAD OF WINTER #1!

Zombies in horror media are clearly analogs for humans. The question of zombie morality is really a question of human morality. So if, like in CROSSED, zombies are portrayed as people who become monsters through plagues, viruses, and infections, does this have upsetting consequences for the way our culture values the lives of the disabled or chronically ill? The disabled community is often already treated as though it’s expendable, and putting a more intrinsic value on those who are “healthy” and able-bodied could subconsciously affect the way society views us even more. In the case of IZOMBIE or ZOMBIE TRAMP, what are the implications of society’s beauty standards? If an overweight woman receives a cancer diagnosis, there is no shortage of judgment about her lifestyle choices when compared to a fitter woman. Zombies represent the capability that every living person has to hurt another.

Still, the answers to any of the questions brought up in this article aren’t black and white. Every person has a different belief set, so opinions on morality are naturally going to vary. Personally, I see no immorality in self-defense. I understand fear. However, I also believe in hope. So many of these comics take place in worlds where there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. That’s not a world I like to believe in. If I were in an apocalyptic situation, I think I’d probably hold out hope. Zombies are, or were, people. Maybe I wouldn’t understand it. Maybe it would get me killed. Still, I think hope is a way to cling to humanity. If you have to lose your humanity to stay alive, maybe living isn’t worth the price.

What are your thoughts as a reader? What would you consider moral within different zombie lore? Let’s get talking in the comments below!

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