By this point in history, the words Walking Dead mean something very particular to horror fans, and especially fans of comic book horror. The massive success of Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard’s Image Comics series — which ran from 2003 through 2019 and span out no less than three television series all currently still on the air, in addition to multiple video games, webseries and prose novels — was such that the very title automatically translates into the all-encompassing brand of unending misanthropic storytelling built around the undead premise. Just reading the words “Walking Dead” conjures up images of Rick Grimes, Michonne, Negan, and so on.
But Kirkman et al’s The Walking Dead isn’t the first comic to use that title — nor is it, in this reader’s opinion, the best.
In 1992, DC released Fast Forward, a three issue anthology of short stories from the publisher’s then-new Piranha Press imprint. Featuring work from the likes of Grant Morrison, Dave McKean, William Messner-Loebs, Sam Kieth, and many others, each individual issue of the series was given a specific theme to center around. The second issue’s theme was “Family,” and the lead story in the issue came from Kyle Baker, the cartoonist known at the time for his ink work on various Marvel comics, as well as the critically acclaimed graphic novel Why I Hate Saturn. The story’s name? Lester Fenton and the Walking Dead.
Baker, despite releasing some of the most enjoyable graphic novel romps of the last few decades — check out his late ‘90s books You Are Here or I Die At Midnight for proof; each of them easily eligible for the title of “greatest apathetic romantic action comedy never made” — frustratingly remains an under-appreciated talent in the comics field, with more attention paid to his (very enjoyable) early 2000s run on Plastic Man or his artwork for the Captain America prequel Truth than the many original works he’s created. The problem might be that he rarely, if ever, fits into the tastes of the comic industry mainstream when it comes to influences, with MAD magazine and the comedy pacing of newspaper strips foremost in his work at a time when frenetic, overly busy artwork and melodramatic writing — heavily reliant on both coincidence and characters exclaiming their own names — was driving sales throughout the market.
As a result of this, however, Baker’s work plays wonderfully for readers looking for something that would rather expertly and succinctly parody genre tropes than slavishly follow them, and he’s eager enough to please that he’ll go out of his way to add jokes running the gamut from modestly smart to goofy and breathtakingly dumb, into the mix; confident enough that the majority of them will land and win the audience over even if there are some plot holes leaving the story otherwise drafty.
All of this leads us back to Lester Fenton and the Walking Dead, easily the finest comic to feature the words “Walking” and ‘Dead” in its title. The plot is, as might be expected from an 11-page short, somewhat slight: Lester Fenton and his date are interrupted by a zombie, which leads him to recall how, as a nerdy teenager in high school, he managed to uncover and then foil a zombie attack that included his own undead father. That’s it; that’s all that actually happens in the story. (11 pages isn’t a lot of space, after all.)
What makes Lester Fenton the joy that it is, though, are the many details in Baker’s execution of the story. That Lester is, whether as an adult or his flashback teenage self, a selfish jerk — he tries to distract from his date’s perfectly reasonable questions about being attacked by a zombie by telling her, “Holy cow! And you thought I was different! Most women don’t give the ‘I wish you’d open up’ speech on the first date!” — isn’t just playing against expectations, it also gives the story a comedic lead who can be relied upon to continually do the worst thing and push the narrative forward.
Evidence of this comes in the teenage Lester’s response to his father’s seeming return from the dead — calling the popular cheerleader who’d asked him out for a date, and checking, “About that date… You’re sure it’s not ‘case my father’s dead, right? I mean, it’s ‘cause I’m a nerd, right?” Perhaps we shouldn’t judge too much; he’s clearly had a rough upbringing, given that both Lester and his mother excuse his father’s zombie-like behavior by assuming he’s just returned to his wasted norm. Although, as the mother points out, “When he’s drinking, he reeks of breath mints,” meaning instead, “he must be back on hard drugs.”
If this seems far from the usual zombie story, that’s intentional. In fact, it’s essentially the Mel Brooks zombie epic that never happened. Lester’s father and his fellow zombie, Mr. Simpson, are brain dead as well as undead — “We’re alive,” Simpson says at one point, to which Lester’s father replies, “Yeah, except we’re not breathing. How you think this happened?” “I not sure,” Mr. Simpson responds. “I was dead at the time”; they later get in a fight arguing over which other corpses to dig up, and have to buy hats as a result to hide the fact that their brains are literally falling out of their decaying heads.
Eventually, the undead rising is revealed to be a plot by Satan himself, who shows up overweight, mustachioed and unimpressed by how his plan is being carried out. (To be fair, he’s unimpressed by most things; when asked how he’s doing, he says, “I live in hell.”) When the details of his plan are explained, it turns out that he hasn’t gotten any further than the zombies attacking Lover’s Lane on Prom Night; he explains his reasoning by yelling, “I’ve always hated popular teenagers who had cars and got laid. Now go!” I mean, it checks out.
By the story’s end, Satan’s plan has been defeated — Lester had a flamethrower, because this story is only 11 pages long — and the adult Lester is surprisingly blasé about everything. “A few of them got away, and swore revenge,” he explains to his disinterested date. “They’ve been pestering me ever since.”
As Lester Fenton and the Walking Dead closes, it focuses on the most important lesson of all: adult Lester won’t get a second date with the woman he’s told the entire story to, as she slams the door in his face. It’s Baker being metatextual, reminding us that we as readers have been relying on an extremely unreliable narrator for the entire story as a way to explain away potential shortcomings, while also getting in a self-conscious dig at how successful the whole story really is, in the end.
He’s being too self-effacing, however. For those of us who got the story from Baker, and not directly from Lester, it’s a wildly entertaining, wonderfully silly story that knows just how ridiculous the idea of a dead uprising has the potential to be, and isn’t afraid to laugh at our fears alongside us. Short, sharp, and unexpected: isn’t that what the best zombie stories are, after all?