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Books Z’Isle offers a kind of utopianism in post-zombie outbreak Montreal

In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital..

The big cross on top of Mount Royal has crumpled into a heap of twisted metal. Patrols armed with weapons made from bicycle parts protect rooftop settlements in the Plateau. The Biodome has become a vast greenhouse in a city that can no longer count on food shipments from outside.

This is Montreal as it appears in Z’Isle, a comic-book series set seven years after a zombie outbreak. The weapons come from bikes because Montreal is a bicycle town, and making do is how people in Z’Isle survive. “We don’t have a lot of guns in Montreal, and after seven years, we’ve run out of bullets,” says Lateef Martin, the comic’s energetic creator. Everyone who has survived that long, he says, knows how to handle the walking dead (called “feeders”), and how to upcycle whatever they can scavenge.

The theme of straitened means extends to the look of the vividly drawn comic, which is almost all done in sepia tones. The only colour is red, and it mostly appears when people start using their weapons – improvised crossbows, or mace-like things topped with bike sprockets.

Z'isle co-creators Lateef Martin and Isabelle Duguay (Benoit Vermette)

Z’Isle presents a detailed vision of Montreal after the cataclysm. Issue 2 opens with a panicked crowd trying to flee the Cartier Bridge, the central section of which has collapsed. A downtown vista shows a large hole punched through Montreal’s tallest building, the steeple-topped tower at 1,000 de la Gauchetière. The area around Olympic Stadium and the Biodome, which often feels desolate in real life, teems with people tending hydroponic crops.

Z’Isle has run for five print issues since its debut two years ago, and Martin is deep into the planning of a video game. A Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the game launched on Thursday at a downtown gaming bar.

The print version got a boost from an earlier campaign on Indiegogo, which topped its $6,000 goal by more than $1,200. The perks included an appearance in Z’Isle by a character developed from suggestions by the donor. That particular honour was claimed 136 times, which gave Martin and co-writer Isabelle Duguay the headache of fitting all those characters into a coherent narrative. They settled on a cast of multiple ensembles, which worked out pretty well for Game of Thrones. Even so, there’s a blur of personnel in the opening issues.

A post-apocalyptic, Montreal-centred comic and video game called Z'Isle. (Lateef Martin / Miscellaneum Studios)

“Our tagline is, ‘Everyone can be a hero,’” says Martin, a black man who also gives talks on diversity in media. Z’Isle’s cast is as diverse as Montreal itself, and the writers made a point of avoiding any kind of stereotyping based on gender or ethnicity.

The plan for the first volume of nine issues is to lay out the scope of Z’Isle’s world, and to establish the characters in their teams. “In volumes two and three, we start tearing it all apart,” Martin says. “As in any zombie story, there’s entropy happening.”

There’s also a kind of utopianism. Things often look bleak in Z’Isle, but people live in close communities, there are no cars, and the wasteful habits of our consumer society have been broken. One character muses in apocalyptic terms about “the wreckoning”: a necessary purge of corrupt ways and the start of a better world. That’s not far from the sentiment that drove the founders of Montreal, who dreamed of establishing a New Jerusalem free from the moral rot of European cities.

The collapsed Cartier bridge in Z'isle. (Lateef Martin / Miscellaneum Studios)

By setting their narrative seven years after the outbreak, Duguay and Martin can tell a zombie story that has a co-operative social context. It’s the cyclepunk counterpart to Fido, the neighbourhood zombie comedy filmed by Canadian director Andrew Currie a decade ago in Kelowna, B.C. Neither work shows any interest in the asocial narratives that drive postapocalyptic fiction in the United States. How much more Canadian can you get?

For now, Z’Isle exists only in an English version, but Martin plans to launch a French edition late next year, when his first volume is ready to be bound in hard covers – the preferred format among Québécois comic buyers. Distribution, which is limited to comic stores in Montreal, should expand once the game version is out in the world, he says.

Martin’s Miscellaneum Studios received some exploration funding from the Canada Media Fund in 2014 to develop Z’Isle for gamers. (Lateef Martin / Miscellaneum Studios)

Martin’s Miscellaneum Studios received some exploration funding from the Canada Media Fund in 2014 to develop Z’Isle for gamers. Preparations with his team of 10 have included planning a soundtrack performed entirely on instruments made with bicycle parts. Z’Isle’s Facebook page features a video demo of a “rim drum” Martin built from a bicycle wheel and other repurposed materials. The veteran illustrator has also worked in games as a voice actor, in Samurai Warriors and Livelock, a new production from Montreal-based Tuque Games.

Montreal has a robust game-development scene, though Martin says that no one has yet set a game here. The print version of Z’Isle has already provided a complex imaginative vision of the city under duress. It’s the dark foil to the Montreal seen in Michel Rabagliati’s best-selling Paul series of comic books, which last year spun off a well-attended film adaptation of Paul à Québec. Rabagliati’s optimistic, everyman narratives have become the city’s favourite waking dream about itself in comic-book form. Martin and his team aim to establish Z’Isle as Montreal’s waking nightmare.

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