Last Christmas, a friend gifted me a box set of Smurfs graphic novels. Now, my friend said he had three reasons for picking up this odd gift: 1, I enjoy graphic novels; 2, who doesn’t love the Smurfs?; and 3, the story contained in book 1 called The Purple Smurfs may just be the earliest instances of a zombie apocalypse, and he knew how much zombies amuse me.
I was pretty stunned! Zombies, in a Smurf graphic novel? I didn’t even know Smurfs were in graphic novel form. Turns out, the Smurf stories were originally published as comics, and sure enough, The Purple Smurfs is a storyline reflecting what seems to be a zombie-like apocalypse. While avoiding some work, a Smurf is bitten on the tail by a purple fly. Said Smurf quickly turns purple, says only GNAP and goes after other Smurfs. When he bites other Smurfs on the tail, they too become purple. At the end, it is only Papa Smurf facing the horde of purple Smurfs, armed with a cure to try and safe Smurf civilization. Sounds pretty much like a zombie apocalypse to me, and you know what? The Purple Smurfs original appearance in comic form was in 1963 (Les Schtroumpfs Noir), five years before George A. Romero’s movie Night of the Living Dead was released (1968).
Although I want to focus on zombies in literature, you kind of can’t do that without at least mentioning Night of the Living Dead, since that movie has consistently been credited with introducing the more prevalent form of zombie today – the shuffling, flesh/brain hungry, rotting, persistent zombie that won’t stop trying to eat you until it does. And as far as I can see, The Purple Smurfs are pretty close to that zombie ideal presented by George A. Romero. But are there zombies as we know them present in literature before that? Before the purple Smurfs showed up, and before Romero’s zombies become the norm? Perhaps. It depends on how you would consider a zombie to be created. If we look at the basic ‘a zombie is an animated corpse,’ then H.P. Lovecraft has beaten the Smurfs and Romero. A short story by Lovecraft called Herbert West-Reanimater published in 1921 may be the earliest mention of modern idea zombies in literature. It has a doctor inventing a serum that brings corpses to life – and they are out of control and vicious. A few years later in 1929, William Seabrook wrote the book The Magic Island after a visit to Haiti and learning about Haitian Voodoo. Within this book the concept of a zombie (Zombi) as raised by sorcery, and finally the name, was presented in modern literature.
If you want to consider a zombie as a corpse that has been reanimated through a virus or science, then the novel I am Legend by Richard Matheson was published in 1954 and beats out our purple Smurfs. Despite being called Vampires in the book, the book was cited as inspiration for Night of the Living Dead and in the most recent adaptation of the book to film, 2007’s I Am Legend staring Will Smith, the ‘vampires’ appear much more zombie-like – infected living and dead people who are violent and hungry, with little intelligence (because really, isn’t the major difference between a vampire and a zombie the intelligence and craved part of the human – blood instead of flesh).
It is really in the past 20 years that virus, scientific zombies in literature have really taken off. I’m only going to briefly mention the works that I myself am most familiar with, but I’ll have a bunch of links at the bottom of this post that you can follow for a more comprehensive look at zombies in literature.
The 1990s anthology Book of the Dead and its sequel were and are influential to the zombie subgenre. In 1996-8, Resident Evil arrived on the scene. While originally a video game, the Resident Evil franchise has grown to include movies, graphic novels and books. 2003 saw the publication of The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks and later World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War in 2007. The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman is a graphic novel series that began in 2003 and is still ongoing (and now with a tv show as well) and the book Handling the Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist was released in 2005.
Since 2000, zombies in novels have been quickly gaining in popularity. Both adult and young adult literature are rife with them: Patient Zero, Dead of Night, and the Rot & Ruin from Jonathan Maberry, The Forest of Hands and Teeth from Carrie Ryan, Feed by Mira Grant, Pariah by Bob Fingerman, Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion to name a few and there are so many more. Even Marvel comics has joined in the zombie love as early as 1973 with Tales of the Zombie and later Marvel Zombies in 2006.
So. Back to the purple Smurfs, bitten by a fly and passing along the…virus, curse? Is that graphic novel, as my friend said, the origin of the zombie apocalypse in books? No. Not by a long shot. But it is certainly one of the first few to showcase an infected individual passing along the disease or curse through bite, until no one is left to fight. Zombies have become such a large and varied myth. Risen through magic, animated corpses, infected by a virus or disease, created by chemical warfare, our next evolution…there are so many possibilities as to why and how for zombies. Maybe that’s what keeps the interest alive. Or, you know. The chilling and thrilling horror of a zombie apocalypse and fighting for your life. Could be that, too.
While by no means a comprehensive look at zombies in literature, I wrote this mainly because I was curious where the purple Smurfs fell in the scheme of things. And figured many of you didn’t even know about purple Smurfs!
These links helped me out immensely in my search:
Zombie Books | Zombie (fictional) Wikipedia | Zombie Wikipedia | List of Zombie Novels Wikipedia | I Am Legend Wikipedia | The State of Zombie Literature: An Autopsy (NYT) | Zombies in Literature