Zombie mania fuels Tempe comic shop’s success

By Cullen Wheatley, For the Tribune

Rule No. 1 for surviving the economic apocalypse: Turn to zombies for help.

Not a bad idea if you’re in Drew Sullivan’s line of work. Sullivan, the owner of Ash Avenue Comics and Books in Tempe, said business in November was exceptional, due in large part to the newfound enthusiasm his customers have in a series of zombie comics called “The Walking Dead.”

“That comic book is one of our biggest sellers right now. We can’t keep it stocked,” he said of the 13-book series that has spawned one of the most successful television programs this year. The series, which made its debut on Halloween on cable network AMC, had 5.6 million viewers for its Nov. 28 episode.

The more successful the show becomes, the more comics Ash Avenue Comics will sell, but not just for that specific series. “The Walking Dead,” Sullivan said, has had a spillover effect for his business. “It’s basically introducing new customers to the world of comics.”

Luckily for Sullivan, AMC recently renewed the series for a second season.

While Sullivan can attribute some of his good fortune to the quality of both the television show and the comic itself, a large part is also due to the obsession that the public has with zombies in general.

The word “zombie” comes from “nzambi,” a word that means “god” in the voodoo cults of Haiti and the West African country of Congo. In 1940, Time magazine said “The Magic Island,” a 1929 novel by Willie Seabrook that explores first-hand the black magic and voodoo being practiced in Haiti at that time, is what introduced the American public to the word.

But it was George Romero’s 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead” that captivated Americans and has since created a subculture of zombie fanatics and, in turn, a sizeable market for anything zombie-related.

2009’s “Zombieland,” starring then-unknown actor Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson, led box office sales when it opened that fall and eventually raked in just over $75 million.

A key feature of the video game megahit “Call of Duty: World at War” is the Nazi Zombie mode, in which gamers hold down a fort and fend off countless waves of the Third Reich’s undead. The game has sold more than 11 million units since its November 2008 launch, and there have been more than 2 million purchases of a map used in the game specifically for the zombie mode, according to games industry blog Kotaku.com.

The latest edition of the game, “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” also features a Nazi zombie mode. Sales of that game, which was released Nov. 9, topped 7 million copies on opening day in the U.S. and UK alone.

Zombie novels are also big business. Max Brooks’ 2006 post-apocalyptic novel “World War Z” has spent 14 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list and was recently ranked No. 16.

A new genre of literature, the mash-up novel, is being born right in front of our eyes. Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 novel “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” an adaptation of Jane Austen’s famous work, was No. 3 on the New York Times’ list and has led to a dozen or so follow-up efforts. Among them are “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” and “Little Vampire Women.”

But why do zombies have such universal appeal? Why not mummies, the bogeyman, or werewolves?

The reason zombies are fascinating, says Arnold Blumberg, who teaches a course at the University of Baltimore called “Zombies in Popular Media” and co-authored a book titled “Zombiemania,” is because the zombie is “such an adaptable character and can reflect anything going on in society.”

In the midst of the Great Depression, Blumberg said zombies took on the persona of a mindless laborer. In the 1950s, zombies and the Second Red Scare became one and the same. The storylines in “Night of the Living Dead” reflect the racial tension during the civil rights movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A sizeable portion of the current zombie craze pulls from American fears of terrorism and biological warfare, as seen in 2002’s “28 Days Later.”

“The fact is that the ‘zombie’ has become an umbrella term for ‘loss of free will, individuality, and mob mentality.’ It’s a very powerful symbol for fear” and can explain some of the current fascination Americans have with zombies, Blumberg said.

Blumberg said that even though zombies are being used in popular media, they aren’t necessarily being used in ways that comment on society. They are simply forms of entertainment, he said.

Regardless of whether or not the zombie trend continues to see the same levels of success, some would say this: Zombies will never be completely dead.