Black Friday for Black Henry

PrintA couple of days ago I received the most awesome Black Friday present ever—the final portrait in John Kissee’s series of Piper Houdini characters for whom no historical photographs existed. It was an eerie rendering of Henri Gamache (left), Piper’s zombie adversary who in life was known as Black Henry.

The character Black Henry is based on Benjamin Rucker, an American stage magician in the early 1900s better known by his stage name Black Herman. Rucker, the most prominent African-American magician of his time, would perform a “buried alive” routine that began with his interment in an outdoor area called “Black Herman’s Private Graveyard.” The act would continue three days later with his exhumation, revival, and a walk to the stage venue where he performed the rest of his show. Rucker is also the alleged author of Secrets of Magic, Mystery, and Legerdemain, a book published in 1925 that contains a sampling of African-American hoodoo folk magic customs and practices.

Many of today’s young pop-culture enthusiasts are only familiar with zombies of the modern, “toxic” variety—corpses restored to life as the result of a horrifying virus or radioactive contamination from an exploded space probe. The film widely credited with launching the toxic zombie milieu into its current widespread phenomenon is George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). But in the movie, Romero never calls his flesh-eating antagonists “zombies.” Instead they are referred to as “ghouls.” It wasn’t until Dawn of the Dead, its sequel 10 years later, that Romero would actually use the term.

The iconic zombie owes its heritage to a much earlier period, when Haitian slaves invented stories of such a purgatory to prevent them from committing suicide. As Mike Mariani explains in a recent issue of The Atlantic, the zombie archetype was a projection of the slaves’ relentless misery and subjugation under the inhuman conditions that existed in Haiti from 1625 to around 1800. Haitian slaves believed that dying would release them back to Africa, a kind of afterlife where they could be free. But those who took their own lives wouldn’t be allowed to return to Africa. Instead, they’d be condemned to wander the Haitian plantations for eternity as undead slaves—at once denied their own bodies and yet trapped inside them as soulless zombies.

PP_Spider-Man_Annual_97With Henri, I wanted to return the zombie to its pre-toxic roots. It was a subject with which I had more than a passing acquaintance. In the 1990s, I had written a number of voodoo tales for Marvel Comics, including the resurrection of the one true Marvel Zombie, Simon Garth. Garth had been a work-obsessed executive in New Orleans who was kidnapped by a former employee he had fired and offered as a sacrifice in a voodoo cult ritual. However, the cult’s priestess recognized Garth as her boss, with whom she was in love. Her attempt to free Garth was thwarted and she was forced to mystically transform his corpse into a zombie who could be controlled by anyone who possessed the amulet that matched the one which hung around his neck.

I contributed to nearly all of the creature’s history in the ’90s, bringing him into conflict with such Marvel mainstays as Spider-Man and Daredevil. In Piper Houdini, I shamelessly usurped the idea of a magic talisman used to control the zombie—after all, what adolescents wouldn’t jump at the chance to have the services an undead bodyguard at their beck and call?

It turns out the use of such a magical charm in voodoo and other folk religions of African descent is not as unique as I had thought. A gris-gris or wanga is a charm, talisman, or any other small magic item (statue, sack, shell, vase, jar, etc.) that can imprison shadow-matter entities like spirits or souls. Because it contains part or all of a victim’s soul, the wanga holds magical properties that can wake the dead. This idea may have been the inspiration for the seven Horcruxes that each contained a piece of Lord Voldemort’s soul in the Harry Potter novels.

I have always been a fan of black-magic zombies and consider them more terrifying than their toxic counterparts. The idea of being trapped within one’s own body is more chilling than anything on The Walking Dead. And while toxic zombies may feast on human flesh in order to reproduce, black-magic zombies are forced to consume the flesh of recently killed prey to facilitate their healing abilities and prevent their bodies from further decay. I’ve often wondered, if they had access to an unlimited supply of human flesh, would these zombies actually reverse the process of decomposition and in so doing revive a spark of their human consciousness? If so, what would such self-awareness imply?

In Chapter 9 of Apprentice of Coney Island, Henri Gamache gets his first taste of human prey. The consequences of that harrowing experience will be explored in Book 2: Nightmare on Esopus Island, on sale in April 2016.

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