So we lost one of the greats yesterday: George A. Romero.
While he did create other films and was a fervent activist throughout his life, the man will always be remembered as the founding father of the zombie movie.
Fun fact: after he made his first film Night of the Living Dead Romero screwed up some paper work with the copyright office and as a result, the film is now in the public domain. You can watch it for free and I highly recommend it.
Yes, zombies are a pop culture staple nowadays. While their time as the dominant force of pop culture has waned, they’re still around making boatloads of money, especially in the comic book world.
So I thought it might be fun to talk about one of the earliest zombies in comic books, and how different a walking corpse from the 1940’s was from the present day walking corpse.
Today we’re talking about the Purple Zombie.
Origin and Career
The Purple Zombie made his first appearance in Eastern Publishing’s Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics #1 in August of 1940.
The character was created by Tarpe Mills, which was a pen name for Golden Age writer and artist June Mills.
Mrs. Mills was actually the first lady to create a female superhero, a black cat costumed heroine named Miss Fury.
Let it be said that the early comic book scene wasn’t entirely dominated by male New Yorkers, it was just mostly dominated by them.
When reading the Purple Zombie stories you can actually see a lot of tropes that plague (pun intended) the modern zombie. He was created by a mad scientist named Dr. Malinsky who was seeking to create an unstoppable army in order to take over the world,
However, it’s worth mentioning that there is no specific mention of how this zombie was created.
After establishing himself as an evil bastard, Dr. Malinsky realizes that he has the same problem Dr. Frankenstein had, that his creation realizes what it is and isn’t all that fond of his purpose. The creation bypasses years of therapy and emotional issues by strangling his creator.
You’ll notice three things that make this guy different. First, he’s bulletproof and super strong, thus avoiding the trope of zombies that need to be shot in the head and who are only effective in large groups. Second, he’s surprisingly articulate for a zombie and has no need or desire to consume the brains of the living. Third, his skin looks more black than purple which…raises a lot of very icky moral questions that are a bit more unsavory today than they would have been seventy years ago.
Nevertheless, this zombie sets out to find the people who backed his creation and remove them from the face of the Earth.
It’s never mentioned who the backers were working for, but with a name like Otto Von Heim it’s safe to assume they were working for the Nazis.
In a rather interesting twist, this zombie was actually captured and sentenced to death for the murders.
This is where he gets his purple skin, and his jailers realize that he can’t be killed.
The zombie is released into the care of Malinsky’s former assistant and swears to do nothing bug good from here on out.
Again, some kind of uncomfortable racial overtones here (it’s worth mentioning that pre Romero zombies were often associated with African or “voodoo” religions) but as origin stories go it’s pretty fleshed out and well done for the Golden Age.
Sadly, the zombie’s brush with organized crime wasn’t over. Realizing that a large, bulletproof, super strong, nearly unkillable monster could be useful in committing crimes a gangster named Joe Coroza kidnapped the Purple Zombie in an attempt to use him as a weapon.
His human friend tries to rescue him, but is forced to contend with an army of mechanized skeletons as well as the gangsters.
However, it turns out that the man who created the moving skeletons was actually a good guy and the Purple Zombie decided to join forces with him and go off to fight in Europe for the forces of democracy.
It’s nice to know that the idea of using creatures more often associated with horror to do good is older than a lot of people think.
The plan is a success and the Zombie and his skeleton pals successfully stop the death ray from killing thousands more. Their solution…cold blooded murder.
After successfully defeating the death ray and single handily winning the war (I assume) the heroes find themselves forced to land in a mysterious lab.
It turns out that the scientist forced them to land there so he could show them their time machine and in the very next page…
Jesus, this comic jumps around more than an over caffeinated toddler.
The two find themselves in 64 A.D in the middle of the Roman Empire.
The Romans do the surprisingly sensible thing and declare these two strangers to be madmen. They also understand modern English.
Thankfully, lions are no match for the two.
Unfortunately, they now have to contend with the entire city of Rome burning.
Thankfully, they are saved by the actions of their colleagues in the present day who manage to transport them out of danger into the Medieval Ages.
It turns out they’ve landed straight in the middle of the Crusades and wind up meeting King Richard I of England.
They would have been on good terms if it wasn’t for their sudden transportation to the court of Queen Elizabeth I.
Honestly, I don’t know if the author is trying to be educational, or if she’s just name dropping random historical figures who were popular at the time.
They meet up with Sir Francis Drake while he’s bowling,
(fun side note: the story is that Sir Francis was supposedly bowling when he received news of the Armada so props for possible historical accuracy)
and the two men help him defeat the Spanish Armada until they’re whisked away to the French Revolution.
I’m beginning to think the scientists controlling the time machine hate our protagonists.
The two suffer through one more trip into prehistoric times,
and then they’re transported back to the modern day where it is revealed that the Purple Zombie wasn’t actually dead to begin with. He was actually faking his death in order to escape and wound up becoming an unwitting participant in the original experiments.
So I guess you could argue that the Purple Zombie wasn’t actually a zombie.
So what happened?
The page above is the last page we would ever see of the Purple Zombie.
We’ve talked about Eastern Publishing before and how it was going through a rather turbulent time in the late 1940’s when it merged with a bunch of other publishers to become Standard Publishing and eventually stopped making comics in the 1950’s.
But even if Eastern Publishing had survived, I think that the Purple Zombie would have been doomed anyway. For starters there were companies in the 1940’s who were using zombies and monsters much more effectively and with much better artwork.
And even if the Purple Zombie had managed to become more popular, it stood no chance against the backlash against comics in the 1950’s that wound up creating the Comics Code.
With that being said I actually like the Purple Zombie. While he had a pretty average power set and wasn’t technically a zombie, he had a pretty good back story and enough heart and dedication to be a pretty good superhero.