Monday, June 07, 2004

Review - The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye

The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye
By Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Cliff Rathburn
Published by Image Comics

I don't like zombie movies. I never have. Really, I don't like any movies that involve hordes of undead guys swarming down on innocent warm-blooded folk. If you ask me why, I might tell you I just don't harbor enough sadism to enjoy watching innocent people being torn to shreds, but those quick of wit and knowledgeable of my tastes will point out I go ga-ga over Tolkien's super-elephants stomping the guts out of regiments of good-guys. If I'm honest, I'll tell you I too often live vicariously through the characters whose exploits I follow, and living, vicariously or not, in a horror flick is a risky proposition. The world of Nosferatu and Freddy Krueger is usually too unforgiving for me. There's just not enough spiritually uplifting, life affirming, cock envy fulfillment moments of the hero finally righteously smiting his foes; there's just people getting slaughtered in the worst ways imaginable. Give me the choice of either dying at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields or in that Mexican night club in From Dusk Till Dawn, and I'll let Babar step on my head a dozen times before I'll be Sex Machine's midnight snack.

While The Walking Dead features hordes of undead and some gut-wrenching gore, the series is less about fighting zombies than it is a look at how people deal with catastrophic events, how it changes them, and what it says about the beliefs we hold so dear.

The series starts off with a bang (or a "BOOM" if you follow the sfx), with the protagonist Rick Grimes -- a police officer in a small Kentucky town -- and his partner in a shoot out with an escaped convict. Grimes is injured in the battle, and by the second page he's already immersed in a post-apocalyptic world where the bulk of humanity has been transformed into flesh-eating zombies. He awakes from a coma, ignorant of the past few weeks' events, knowing only that his world has turned upside-down in, what seemed to him, a space between breaths.

Kirkman puts a lot of trust in his readers and it pays off. He doesn't waste time with exposition about how or why the world is filled with grunting cannibals. Later on, we learn some of what happened after the undead began to appear, but Kirkman doesn't give any hints as to what struck down humanity, and ultimately learning the why's or the how's doesn't seem that important. After all, while The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye, collects only the first six issues of the ongoing series, and it may be too soon to tell, it seems unlikely that Rick Grimes will be going on any crusades to save the world. He didn't awake from his coma uttering vows of vengeance and justice; he just wants to survive.

Considering so many of Robert Kirkman's other stories are satire/parody superhero romps like Battle Pope and Capes, Rick Grimes is easily the most believable and familiar of Kirkman's protagonists, and despite the fact that his work has never been short on violence, The Walking Dead is definitely his darkest tale to date.

Robert Kirkman's talent isn't the only to evolve with this series. Tony Moore's pencils have never been better or more realistic. There's still the element of cartoon, in fact there were a few panels here and there that reminded me of Kieron Dwyer's recent run on Avengers, but Moore's work is essential to the starkly real feel of the story. And considering how many people in the story show up as either undead or just plain dead, you have to give him credit for all the flies the poor guy had to draw.

While so many comics are printed without color simply for financial reasons, the black-and-white format of series drives home how gray and grim the world has become. It also mirrors how the lives of its characters become so viciously simple. One of the few aspects of the story the more politically-sensitive reader may take issue with is the choices the characters are forced to make. Stripped of civilization, some of the survivors question whether or not too many of their ideals are being left on the wayside. When a group of women wash clothes in a stream -- while the men hunt for food -- one woman comments, "When things get back to normal, I wonder if we'll still be allowed to vote." Later, Rick Grimes and another survivor argue about Rick's insistence that even the young children be made to carry handguns, and the scene which subsequently justifies Rick's decision is enough to make any card-carrying member of the NRA weep with joy.

Though I honestly don't know anything about the man's politics, it seems doubtful Kirkman's trying to slip in any survivalist propaganda here. This ain't Red Dawn. It's a sober look at what happens when all of our complicated ideals are put on hold for the essentials of life and perhaps, if anything, it's asking if our beliefs can't withstand cataclysm, were they ever worth a damn in the first place?

All social commentary aside, The Walking Dead can be a very scary comic book, and that's a lot more impressive than it sounds. Most horror comics don't genuinely scare anybody. Most horror comics give you big, hulking bad guys followed by dark clouds of fire and chains and overall evil cool stuff. Most horror comics just make you wonder when McFarlane is going to come out with the action figure. What renders the zombies of The Walking Dead so chilling is the matter-of-fact way they are presented. They become a natural part of the landscape. Even during calm moments of the story, they're always on the edge of possibility.

There are a few cliched Hollywood moments, mostly in the action sequences of the story, but overall The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye is a good, suspenseful, intriguing story with lots of promise, and just may be a welcome turning point for one of the industry's emerging writing talents.

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