Warning: The following review contains spoilers for Zombie Tramp #21.
For the most part, Zombie Tramp is the sort of comic you read when you’re looking for a nice dose of off-the-wall, adult-themed fun. But every once in a while, we’re introduced to a piece of Janey’s past that demonstrates writer and creator Dan Mendoza’s ability to craft a tale of absolutely heart-wrenching drama. Zombie Tramp #21 is one of those issues, and it just might hit harder than any installment of the series to date.
In fact, this particular issue of Zombie Tramp includes a few things that we didn’t really see a whole lot in the most recent story arc. Not just a satisfyingly dramatic glimpse at Janey’s past—which, to be fair, is something we did get semi-recently in the Valentine’s Day special—but also a reminder that Janey Belle tends to inhabit an interesting place in the comic book world. In mainstream superhero comics, you have protagonists who are often saving entire worlds when they aren’t tied down to specific cities. By contrast, Janey is a tramp in the old-school sense of the word, wandering the highways of America in search of food as she takes down rapists, perverts, and people who are just plain assholes.
The main target for Janey’s undead wrath in Zombie Tramp #21 is all of the above. His name is Tyrone Fisk, the pimp who introduced Janey into the world of prostitution when she wound up on the streets after her dad was arrested for a crime she committed. She appears to have designs on breaking her old man out of prison, largely to overcome the massive guilt she feels over his arrest and subsequent incarceration. But first, she has to pay Fisk a little visit.
Janey’s flashbacks of her initial meeting with Fisk present us with some of the most unforgiving panels ever to grace the pages of Zombie Tramp. After treating her like the Julia Roberts to his Richard Gere, Fisk suddenly imprisons Janey, beats her up, gang rapes her with his cronies, and has the rest of his girls force her to shoot up heroine. We’ve seen Janey get raped before, in a high school date rape scene that previously won my admiration for one of the most gut-punching panels I had ever seen in a Danger Zone comic. But in Zombie Tramp #21, TMChu manages to create a couple of panels that are so horrifying, I actually had to stop reading for a second to gather my wits.
The most amazing thing about these panels is that there technically isn’t much to them. Colorist Marcelo Costa keeps everything sort of faded, not unlike the type of coloring I’ve seen in many horror comics. Because that’s what this is. Not because it’s about a flesh-eating dead woman, but because what happened to her is truly horrifying beyond anything that most of us could even imagine experiencing in our lifetimes.
Rape in entertainment media can be a touchy subject, so it’s worth noting that TMChu treats the subject with the respect and gravity it deserves. While Zombie Tramp certainly has no problems with nudity, it’s clear that these panels are not meant for the readers who just want to get their rocks off. And the terror of this flashback draws attention to the fact that we almost never see Janey nude unless she’s in her zombie form. That is, we only see her in a sexual light when she is literally empowered. The debate over whether or not a woman can be empowered by embracing her own sexuality is something I’ll leave to people with more knowledge on the subject (my Y chromosome interferes with my ability to cite experience on the matter), but it appears to be a choice that Mendoza and crew have made with Janey, and it works as well here as it always has.
As dramatic as this issue gets, it isn’t too long before we’re back in the world of off-the-wall horror. Apparently, Fisk has some connections to a freaky voodoo villain by the name of Papa Yagga. He and his men are able to get the drop on Janey, leading to one of the more gruesome fight sequences we’ve seen since the start of the ongoing series. It seems like Zombie Tramp would eventually run out of ways to show people’s limbs getting ripped off, but something about the sequence in Zombie Tramp #21 feels a little more raw than what we’ve seen before. This comic occasionally has a bit of cartoonish feel to it, and that is almost completely absent from this issue.
Also relatively absent from this issue is Janey’s usual quirky banter. This makes sense, as this is a rather serious mission for her. She does have a relatively funny monologue near the beginning where she provides her take on the abusive relationship between the two main characters in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, but even this feels a bit stoic due to the weight of the memories causing Janey to think about the book in the first place. Aside from that, the only real comedic beats are two or three lines near the end, including Janey’s catchphrase. Regardless of the context, I can’t help but smile when I see a speech bubble with her go-to battle cry of “Mother bitch!”
Zombie Tramp #21 takes the series to new heights, reminding readers that Janey Belle is far more than a chesty delivery system for humorous quips. The fact that Janey is able to transition from a story arc involving evil cheerleaders to one involving the most horrific experiences from her past (with a nice setup for a rendezvous with Xula) is a testament to Mendoza’s range as a creator, and it is one of the reasons Zombie Tramp continues to be one of my favorite comics around. The relative lack of humor may be upsetting to some who have only read the past few issues, and there are a few typos and misplaced homonyms that could have used some editing. Nonetheless, this is the best issue of Zombie Tramp I have ever seen, and will be a wonderful reminder to long-term readers of just how much this series can achieve when drama and characterization take point.