“Not This Time,” written by me, with art by Ron Salas, originally appeared in the digital anthology Secret Project, and then I self-published it in print via my first Americans UK Rocktronic Mixtape Anthology, available HERE for purchase.
Pitched as a full-length graphic novel, Blood + Brains takes the “vampires vs. zombies” premise, and pushes it to a whole new, adrenaline-infused level, where the ubiquitous zombie horde is but the first wave of monsters our protagonists must survive as they head out on a death-race, cattle-drive against werewolf motorcycle gangs, chupacabra long-haul truckers, and creepy, cancerous mutants. Penny Dreadful meets Mad Max.
My first published comics work was a special promotion for Amstel Light that ran serially in Details Magazine for 3 months in 2006, drawn by Terry Taylor, and developed by then Promotion Director Kristin Joker. Interesting note: the pitch that got me the job became Just Super 1, but Amstel or Details or both didn’t want to go with supes.
Bibi was already pretty old on the day she saved me. In the wild, gorillas can live as long as 35 to 40 years, and Bibi had just turned 45. I was 8 and leaning over the railing of the Gorilla Pitt at the New Jersey Zoo, excited by the dark, hairy creatures below, adolescent males galloping on their knuckles up and down the grassy slope, charging one another and wrestling playfully as their elders sat serenely, a mother preoccupied with the black, fuzzy newborn hanging from her neck. This mother was Bibi, I would later learn, and that baby gorilla was the cutest, most amazing thing I had ever seen. I struggled to get a better view, and as I pulled against the grip of my father holding me by the sewn-in belt of my gingham dress, the stitching snapped and I tumbled over the railing, falling 15 feet down into the pitt.
I press my face into her fur, nuzzling her neck, breathing in her musky odor that smells of animal strength, and outdoors, and motherhood. I place my cheek against her chest, and feel my head rise and fall with her breath, her heart beating beneath that breast that has nursed her many children—her children taken from her and sent to zoos around the world. I hold her hand and look into her all too human eyes, and she looks tired.
You’ve possibly seen the videos on YouTube. The gorillas below, I stretch into view from the periphery before falling fully into frame, crossing that sheer, concrete wall distance that divides we great apes from those, my head knocking against the cement gutter below, my body twisting in an unlikely position against that unforgiving ground. Zoo patrons gasp, my mother screams, children cry, a pool of blood spreading from a gash in my head as the camera zooms in on me unconscious. The gorillas are immediately curious about my presence, and the adolescent males approach my limp form. My father already has a leg over the railing to jump down when Bibi scoops me up under an arm, and drags me up onto the lawn, away from the other apes, her own child clinging to her back. The crowd gasps louder at this, my mother screams again, this time my name, “Cass!!”
I wake up and begin to wail. Bibi releases me, backs off, unsure. You can hear my mother panicked, pleading, “Cass, please baby, you need to be quiet.” The camera pans and you can see the other gorillas spooked by my wailing, some lumbering sidelong towards their pens. My father has now jumped into the pit, and another man follows him down, asking him to stop, this one with the zoo. The camera finds me again and zooms in on my face: I’m absolutely bawling, face red with fear and blood. Someone yells, “look, look,” and the growing crowd frets in unison, a lone woman announcing, “oh no.” The camera refocuses, pulls back, and takes in the scene. The most aggressive of the adolescents has emerged on the lawn—his name is Kigoma. The man from the zoo picks up a stick with one hand and tries to push my father back with his other, just as Kigoma charges towards me.
Dr. Madsen enters the small, tidy room. It’s difficult to read his expression, but then, I can’t look at him for long without losing it, and my only care should be for Bibi. My tears fall, quickly absorbed by Bibi’s hair. I caress her face and begin to whisper, over and over in a singsong voice, occasionally cracked by a sob, “Just rest, sweet girl. Sweet old lady. Just rest. That’s right, just rest, it’s time to sleep, sweet Bibi, just rest.” I can’t help but notice, out of the corner of my eye, the hypodermic needle that Dr. Madsen carries with him.
Knuckles pound the ground, and the gorilla Kigoma grunts, as he fast approaches to rip my head off. My father hollers, my mother cries, and Bibi the momma ape hurries back to my side, putting herself between Kigoma and me. The adolescent changes his trajectory to avoid colliding with the barking Bibi, her baby still clinging to her back. Bibi scoops me up again, and I faint from fright, my form limp under her arm. Voices from the crowd say, “look, look,” or “it’s saving her,” and the camera pans briefly to my mother with her hands cupped over her mouth. Hooting at the others as though to say, “stay away,” Bibi drags me further up the hill, and drops me in front of the zookeeper entrance, before trotting away with her baby. Eager human arms grab for me, take me inside. Hungry for resolution, the camera finds my father being lifted out of the pitt by an emergency crew as the zookeeper stands guard with his stick. A stranger hugs my mother.
I don’t remember any of it. One moment I was leaning over the gorilla pit, the next I’m waking up in a hospital. A couple years ago we hit the ten-year anniversary of my tumble, and so several news outlets reran the story. With me entering college at the time, the story had a nice little bow tied on the end: I intended to become a gorilla researcher. I’m sure most children would have never wanted to see a gorilla again, but I became obsessed, watching the video—then taped from a local news channel—over and over, countless times until the tape became worn and unwatchable. I would insist on visiting Bibi at the zoo, taking the train by myself once I was old enough. I invented a call for her, singing, “Biiii-biiii,” and I swear to you she recognized my voice and would come to the front of the pitt, purse her lips and kiss the air in reply. I truly and deeply loved her, and from that love grew a great passion for all gorillas. So here I am.
I was packing to go to Africa for the summer to advance my studies when Dr. Madsen called. I caught the first flight home from my small college town back to New Jersey, and rushed from the airport, directly to the zoo. At 57, Bibi is the oldest living gorilla in the entire world, and she was now dying from an aggressive form of lymphoma ravaging her body. They would soon put her to sleep. My studies had brought me closer into the network of primate specialists who worked at Bibi’s zoo, purchasing for me this last goodbye and thank you. Bibi not only saved my life, but gave it purpose, and because of that, I have the honor of being with her as she exits her own. I will miss her more than I can now imagine.
Bibi rests, sedated. I sing her name quietly, as on my many visits, and pray my presence brings her comfort as I stroke her face lovingly. Dr. Madsen holds the i.v. port that keeps her hydrated between thumb and forefinger, whispering, “it’s time,” and pushes the hypodermic needle through the rubber seal. Bibi’s pupils dilate as the fluid stops her heart, and I say out loud between sobs, “I love you, sweet girl, I love you—just rest, just rest,” stroking her gently even after Dr. Madsen announces she’s passed. The world is worse for her absence.
[Note: an earlier version of this story appeared in Panels For Primates available from Monkey Brain Comics, and edited by Troy Wilson, which you should really check out, because it has a lot of cool, ape-based stories from creators like Stan Lee, Dean Haspiel, Fred Van Lente, Colleen Coover, and so many more.]
My original identity is long lost to the oceans of time. I remember being a young Earth male living in the 21st century, 15 years old, as they would have measured it. I lived on the North American continent, in a country called the United States of America, and within that, a government known as the state of Texas, and further within that, a County named Collin, in a town titled Prosper, a semi-rural and suburban member of the greater Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. I’ll just come out with it: I was a teen boy who died on Christmas day. For reasons mysterious and fantastic, I was chosen as a Spirit of Christmas, a specialized division in God’s army, as He proliferates his Theos throughout the multiverse, mining the cavern-system of reality for all its precious souls.
Every day I work to ruin Christmas. Somewhere, somewhen, across countless worlds, every day of my immortal life—it’s my job to undo the holiday. You see, given an infinity of bubble universes all subsumed within a Manichean reality, wherein two opposing entities compete for soul-stuff, Christmas emerged as a successful recruitment for the sort of metaphysical allegiances that drive sentient beings to devote themselves to my boss, aka, your God. The Christ story was the first successful, naturally occurring conversion of a winter solstice celebration into a temporal, soul-excavation-site that self-organizes and reemerges annually until certain Armageddon events destroy whatever culture evoked them in the first place. God is no dummy, and realized what a good thing he had going with this one, and so worked to invoke Christ stories into the narratives of every sentient world, creating a new officer class in His ranks, we of The Christmas Spirit division, 4 of us in total, specialists each of us: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, the Ghost of Christmas Future, and when things go to Hell, me—the Ghost of Christmas Never.
It’s kind of difficult to explain, but a Great Dragon-Worm sleeps curled within the fabrics of reality, slowly turning as it dreams of fire, whereby time and space are but jewels encrusted across its craggy hide. And while the Great Dragon-Worm sleeps, it competes against my boss for the mining of souls, dreaming up counter-agents to God’s host of angels, generating demons who roam Earths planting seeds to sour Christ stories and turn every Christmas against Him. My brethren and I descend upon these worlds infected by the Ex Mass, and while the others work to fix a world’s timeline to turn in our favor, I research its undoing. If the others fail, I either excise the Ex Mass (and thereby remove all Christmas celebrations from that reality throughout its timeline) or destroy the world. It’s a coin toss, really. I don’t like to contemplate what would happen if the Great Dragon-Worm ever woke up.
Look, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. My colleagues are good at their jobs—excellent, even. But, again, given a multiverse, even a small percentage of failures is yet another infinity. No matter how fantastic my adventures, I admit, the job grows tiresome and I think I suffer from ennui. Just the other day, I was racing rogue elves circling the rings of an impossible planet in magical sleighs fueled by hope, and I had to syphon power from the fantasies of young, alien cartoonists just to eek out a win. I mean, how pathetic is that? As their galaxy collapsed around me, I took my victory lap, and I couldn’t help but think, is it all worth it?
There was this other time in the Silicon Realm, deep inside a hollow planet where I had confronted the Guardians of the Gone Crystal so that I could steal and shatter their holy gem, thereby sapping the strength of the surface’s ruler, Kr’rt the Conqueror, whose people celebrate Kr’rt Munst by exchanging paintings of the Great Dragon-Worm. And as I stood there, the gem crushed beneath my boot, my signal sent to the Ghost of Christmas Present that he could take the shot, I looked around the vast, dark space surrounding me, and wondered, is this all there is? Is this really me? Do I even like myself?
Between you and me, souls are pretty and all, but I sort of don’t get it. I mean, my boss and the other guy, they’re not even getting the whole thing! They’re fighting for fragments! A soul is like a diamond formed from the intense pressures of reality impacted on dust sloughed off by logos as it hums throughout the universe. But each individual person, any given personality, in any given epoch, in any given world, is but a facet of that dense and bright rock of identity. When my boss gets your soul, he’s just chipping off a piece from the source, completely unable to excavate the priceless mineral in whole. It’s kind of pathetic when you think about it. And what does He do with it? What does God do with the ontological representation of everything that you are? He adds it to his cape. He owns a cape sewn from soul shards. If you’re thinking, oh, well now I guess I’ll side with the Great Dragon-Worm, know that its minions grind the soul shards to a fine powder and collect it all in a giant bowl that the Great Dragon-Worm licks at in its sleep, presumably providing it with sustenance, but perhaps it just likes the taste.
It’s at times like this that I need to step back and be thankful for what I have. It’s not all global atrocities and extinction events. I’ve got a job. I’m immortal. I’ve even got a lady. Her soul is magnificent; I’ve seen the whole thing. In every reality, I find her iteration, a new face on a familiar entity. Her name is Annie, Wendy, Klurklurlot, Danielle, No. 7356, Phonos, Aroxes, and on and on ad infinitum. While her names and faces are countless, her soul is monolithic, and no matter if my team fails or succeeds, whether her universe lives or dies, I know that she will live on in some other world, and that I will find her and we will always spend Christmas together, in one way or another.
Anyway, thank you for listening, but I have to go now. On the outskirts of an adolescent solar system, the denizens of Extreme World have become addicted to what they call, “Dragon Cider,” a drink they imbibe exclusively during their athletic celebration of Kicks Max. My team is being called in. So, you know, don’t be a stranger. And please, do me a favor, seriously: have a Merry Christmas—or you might not get a new year.
Note: this story originally appeared in The Gathering: Despair.
[Editors note: the following narrative was transcribed from a journal found in an evacuated university located in the American Midwest.]
10/3: Ben and I caught one of the zombies today. Somehow she had found her way into the building. Ben is out with the dogs now, seeing if he can find where she got in. I’m sitting here wondering what exactly we’re going to do with her. Run some tests, I guess.
The two of us subdued the zombie easily. We wrapped her in a sheet as she staggered towards us, then bound her arms and torso with chains. I couldn’t breathe through my nose because the smell made me gag. Ben held her head back by her hair while I wrapped her mouth and jaw tight with gauze. The way the fabric stretched and wiggled as she continued to bite reminded me of a sock puppet. The gauze didn’t quiet her incoherent yelling much. Ben said to me, “Man, she looks like she used to be hot.”
10/4: It’s morning. Had a hard time sleeping. Ben is already up, probably with the zombie. We ended up throwing her in the freezer after a long day of experiments. Nothing came up under the microscope. Her cells look like what you would expect from a decomposing woman in her early thirties. No abnormalities in that regard. Ben and I were equally surprised to find her heart still beating, and removing it had seeming little effect on her constitution. That said, we’re unwilling to unchain her and observe her performance unfettered. We’re supposed to get to work on the zombie’s lungs next. Without lungs, she shouldn’t be able to scream anymore. She moans even when frozen. I think to meaningfully examine her further we will need to access her mouth and jaw. I’m of the mind that we need to test her saliva.
10/5: Ben was no go on my saliva idea. He said we’d do that after removing the brain so as to be totally safe. I argued that once we removed the brain, her subsequent zombie death could alter our findings. I told him that it looked like her jaw was swollen behind her molars when I was wrapping her mouth and hypothesized that maybe zombies develop some sort of poison sack as a part of their transformation. We know so little about their physiology. I told him that we could be heroes; we could save humanity; we could maybe get our results to Dr.Vesayaporn. Ben said to me, “Albert, it’s just the two of us now. We can’t afford another hero.”
10/6: We figured out where she got in today. There’s a small gap between the lab and the science library creating a good 20-ft-long, 1-ft-wide passageway between buildings. It’s dark back there, but we can just make out a small tear in the chain link fence surrounding the buildings. There’s a fig tree growing on the other side that further obscures our sight. It doesn’t look like any more have made it through, thankfully. I hadn’t thought of it before, but I guess she is a petite woman. She’d have to be in order to scrape through that small passageway. That explains the tearing on her head and face and the abrasions across her body. We think maybe she was trying to squeeze through as a human to get to safety, even as she was dying. Having died, the zombie pushed on through. I’m about to go help Ben block the passage now. Tomorrow we’ll be investigating whether infection is likely to spread through scratches via the zombie’s nails. We’ll to try to infect one of our rats.
10/7: While there’s something satisfying about taking this monster apart—hacking away at her wrists was particularly fulfilling, for some reason—analysis of the tissue in her nail beds has yielded no results. We were unable to zombify any of our rats by either breaking their skin with her nails or injecting them with her blood. The secret has to be in the jaw. In the saliva. In her damn teeth. Ben wants to remove her brain tomorrow and begin teasing it apart, see what we see.
10/8: It’s just after midnight. Ben sleeps. Oh god. The bitch bit me. The goddamn bitch bit me.
I can’t sleep. I was, fuck. I was just trying to remove her lower jaw. She hadn’t been out of the freezer that long. Ben was going to ruin my chance to test my hypothesis, damn it. Her heart is gone for god’s sake. Her lungs are gone. We chopped off her hands and her feet and her skin is rotting off and the goddamn bitch bit me. I threw her on the ground and kicked her face in after that. Smashed her brains with my boot. Ben is going to kill me.
10/8 (5:47 a.m.): The wound on my hand burns. That she didn’t bite my writing hand is small consolation. Removing samples from the wound, I can see some sort of retrovirus attacking my cells under magnification. I can’t figure out where the virus could have disappeared to in her tissue samples; it doesn’t make sense. There absolutely should have been remnants detectable. My arm is getting cold and I have a fever but I’m afraid to go to sleep. I need to clean up the mess in the lab. Then I need to wake Ben and tell him what I’ve done.
10/8 (10:16 a.m.): He’s locked me in my room with a gallon of water and a bag of potato chips. We don’t know how long it will take for me to die then turn. Logging the time since I’ve been bit was a good idea. I’ll be dead soon and the only thing I can think of to do is write my experiences down. I will observe the process of becoming undead with the greatest scientific acumen. For the future.
(10:45 a.m.): Just realized I don’t need to write the date down anymore. It is unlikely I will survive the night.
(11:30 a.m.): Maybe I won’t turn. Maybe we can figure this out, if we just use our brains. Maybe I’ll be the miracle, the one in a million chance, and together Ben and I can cure me and save the world.
Maybe I should cut off my arm.
Goddamn it, I’m dying.
(11:32 a.m.): What if the virus just attacks your body? Like, what if your brain, your personality, remains active? What if you know the horrors you are committing but can’t do anything about it? That would mean she knew her face was ripping off as she pushed her way through the passageway, that she knew what Ben and I were doing to her when we dissected her. That would mean I’ll know what Ben is doing to me.
(12:17 p.m.): Ben visited me, brought me more water, asked how I was. I’ve lost all feeling in my arm and the coldness is spreading throughout my torso. Ben informed me that the cells he took from my arm now appear as those of a normal, recently dead man. I feel like I’m drowning in nausea. Every once and a while my dead arm will twitch and seems to move of its own accord. When I looked at Ben standing over there on the other side of the room, I couldn’t help but start crying. I told Ben that at least he’ll have another sample to study since I destroyed the other one. He yelled at me, told me he couldn’t believe I had done this; he said, “So stupid, Albert. How could you do something so stupid?” I said, “I know, Ben, I know. But I’m dying, and maybe you can pretend I’m not so stupid for just a little while.” When he left, he made sure to turn both locks on his way out.
(12:22 p.m.): Screw him. He’s always thought he was the big brain out of all of us, but Carrie and Beth might still be alive if Ben hadn’t made me lock the door so soon. I could see Carrie out there in the yard from this very window. Against Ben’s protests, I had come in here from our hiding place in the lab. Rain slapped against the windowpane, and through the deluge I saw Carrie fall. She raised her arm to protect herself as a hollering corpse fell on top of her. Thunder eclipsed her screams. Having fallen on the sidewalk, the zombie began bashing her head against the concrete. I tell myself she was already dead when the zombie broke through her skull and began devouring her brains, but there’s no real way of knowing. We found Beth wandering the yard with a few of the other undead a few days later. She had someone’s bloody fingers stuffed in her mouth. I had to put an axe between her eyes. Ben and I weren’t thinking about science just yet, and we burned those first samples.
(12:39 p.m.): Brains. That zombies eat their victim’s brains suggests an interesting dynamic: the viruses’ hosts are in competition with one another. We know that destroying a zombie’s brain is the only thing that will stop the infected host, so it stands to reason that the zombie virus doesn’t “want” other zombies to be created, otherwise their formerly human hosts wouldn’t seek to ingest the one organ that allows for a zombie’s existence. As such, other zombies are only created through accidents, by the people who happened to get away after being bit, or by the ones who were strong enough to get away. Zombification by natural selection. I’m not sure we should even be calling this thing a virus. Further evidence supporting this hypothesis is that zombies, once turned, have not been observed to attack one another, and seem willing to operate in groups.
(1:13 p.m.): The joints in my hand ache. My fingers are stiff. It’s getting hard to write.
(4:00 p.m.): Ben, you may be the only person who ever reads this and I need to tell you that I’m sorry. For everything. You are a good friend.
(6:34 p.m.): Finally stopped throwing up and shitting. Contents of bowels completely evacuated. Hurt all over. Sweat with fever but cold. Can’t stop shaking. More and more difficult to write, breathing is labored. All I can think of is Ben and how I will try to eat him and his brains and brains brains brai