The Revenant Signifier
: The Zombie in Comics and Cinema

  • Stephen O'Donnell

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This thesis explores the zombie’s rise to prominence in popular culture, with a focus on its development within the comics medium. The zombie is not just a ‘floating signifier’ (according to Jerrold E. Hogle), but a revenant signifier, actively and aggressively linking with existing concepts, and transforming them. The thesis also considers both the zombie figure and zombie genre within the parameters of several media – comics, television, film, and literature. The medium of comics is examined in detail as it has evolved through the influence of the zombie just as the zombie has been reshaped by each new representation.
    In contemporary horror comics, The Walking Dead series is not just commercially successful, it exploits properties of the medium (including panel arrangement, transitions, repetition, and the liminal space within the gutter) to thoroughly explore the metaphors and allusions that have been associated with the zombie. I discuss these metaphors by charting the zombie’s development. A lack of pre-twentieth century literary texts featuring this creature frustrates easy comparison with the monsters of Gothic fiction. Rather than evolving within the novel form, as its rival horror icons have done, the zombie has maintained a visual and visceral identity, maturing with each new incarnation, and becoming ever more gruesome: the walking corpses of ancient texts; a symbol of eternal slavery within Haitian Voodoo folklore; and its modern interpretation as violent and virulent monster. The recent notion of a zombie plague has redefined the creature as a representation of modern fears, and has led to ‘zombie apocalypse’ becoming a commonly-used fantasy scenario. The zombie’s connection to apocalyptic literature is simultaneously ancient and contemporary, with the creature being a signifier of social disorder and disrupted identity.
    While the emphasis throughout is on the shifting relations between media, comics are the main focus of this study. The symbolism present in the zombie, and the political and cultural ideas stemming from its slow maturation are revealed within The Walking Dead and sustained through the functions of the comics medium. Through the application of Scott McCloud’s comics theory, the closure between panels and the transition within the gutter enhance these ideas, and provide further understanding of the zombie as depicted in comics. The visual/textual relationship within comics is compared with Jacques Lacan’s modalities of consciousness, and the psychoanalytic reading provided here explores the crises of identity within the zombie, and within the fragmented narrative of the comics medium. Alternative psychoanalytic readings, and the physiology/pathology of the zombie itself are undertaken, revealing the creature to be responsive to Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject, and Slavoj Zizek’s postmodern reworking of Lacanian ideas.
    The thesis also returns to notions of the Gothic, haunted spaces, and the role of suburbia in the zombie narrative. This is augmented with a study of intertextuality and the “revenant” status of the zombie, and of comics. Through incorporating the critical theory of Kristeva, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Jacques Derrida, and by positioning in parallel comics theorist Thierry Groensteen’s concepts of braiding and arthrology, I emphasise the operations of the zombie figure in the comic book, and other media, asserting that the zombie is a revenant signifier continually returning and transforming, never resting, but endlessly cannibalising and reconstructing debate about identity, morality, and society.
    Date of Award2015
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorChris Murray (Supervisor) & Brian Hoyle (Supervisor)


    • Comics
    • Comics studies
    • Zombie
    • Gothic
    • Revenant
    • Psychoanalysis
    • Walking dead
    • Suburban gothic
    • Hyperframe
    • Closure
    • Transition
    • Panel
    • Gutter
    • Braiding
    • Horror
    • Terror
    • Identity
    • Signifier
    • Intertextual
    • Arthrology
    • Comics code
    • Cinema
    • Gaze
    • Film

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