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Graphic Novel Review


 
 

The Walking Dead: Days Gone Bye

2004 - available in soft cover

Written by Robert Kirkman. Art by Tony Moore.
Black & white. Letters: Robert Kirkman.

Reprinting: The Walking Dead #1-6

154 pages

Published by Image Comics

Cover price: $9.95 US.


Perhaps the oddest monsters are the Living Dead. Not to be confused with Zombies or Vampires, The Living Dead are walking corpses that grunt stupidly and subsist on the flesh of the living. They're odd because they aren't rooted in folklore like most monsters, but owe their origin to the 1968 horror film directed by George Romero, Night of the Living Dead. Of course, the basic concept of the malevolent, rotted, ambulatory corpse dates back farther (I'm sure more than a few EC Comics horror stories employed such) and true cinematic connoisseurs will note that Night of the Living Dead itself was basically a rip-off of the 1964 Vincent Price film, The Last Man on Earth, which was based on the Richard Matheson novel, I am Legend. But for all intents and purposes, Romero's flick has been shamelessly ripped-off -- or homaged -- in so many horror flicks and short story anthologies since its initial release that it has essentially spawned its own little genre of horror fiction.

It's not every storyteller who can claim to be the father of a genre.

I think Night of the Living Dead is a great horror film. I've occasionally seen other films in the genre that are worth a look, but I'm not, you know, a nut about the idiom. What I didn't realize, though, until now, is that there are other people who are. Nuts about it, I mean. And comics writer Robert Kirkman is one. Which is why he created The Walking Dead, an on-going comic that follows the few survivors in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by anthropophagic corpses, of which this TPB, Days Gone Bye, collects the first six issues.

To Kirkman, Living Dead stories are as much a genre as a courtroom drama or a western, and as such have their own fixed clichés. These Living Dead look like Romero zombies, shuffle like them, can be killed by a blow to the head like them, are more dangerous in large numbers than individually, like Romero's. With some genres, there's often the desire on the part of a writer to add his own spin. I am Legend/The Last Man on Earth, for instance, was technically about vampires...but wth a novel twist on the vampire legend: zombified vamps rather than the usual suave Euro-trash with fangs. Not so Living Dead stories.

Perhaps the only original idea introduced in these first six issues (assuming it is original) is that a living human can disguise himself as a Living Dead, and fool the other Living Dead. Which is a nifty idea, and provides this TPB with its most suspenseful sequence.

Kirkman's series even begins with a sequence that seems lifted -- down to the overhead angle on the hospital bed shot -- from the movie 28 Days Later (which was a Living Dead movie in all but fact). I liked 28 Days Later, but it was a wholly generic regurgitation of other, arguably more creative sources (from the novel Day of the Triffids, to the movie Night of the Comet).

But I realize the appeal of Kirkman's The Walking Dead is precisely that it isn't trying to break new ground.

The story concerns Rick Grimes, a small town Georgia police officer who wakes from a coma to find the town mysteriously deserted and crawling with Living Dead. Eventually he hooks up with survivors camped outside Atlanta, some convinced the army will be by soon to rescue them, even while others suspect there's no government left (Atlanta itself is completely overrun by Living Dead).

If Kirkman isn't offering us much that's new, that doesn't mean it can't still be entertaining.

But a problem is that Kirkman joins the legion of modern comics writers caught up in their own perceived profundity. In his opening introduction, Kirkman waxes on about how ambitious his series will be, and about all the social significance inherent in Living Dead stories, and promises a character growth for Rick so profound we won't recognize him by the series' end. Unfortunately, sometimes setting out to write a "great" story is like trying to run before you can walk. An earlier generation of comics writers (Stan Lee, et al) sometimes wrote "great" stories...but they set out to write "good" stories, and the greatness took care of itself. Kirkman, who maybe sees himself as the next Dave Sim (whose Cerebus epic ran 300 issues), almost seems to be selling this series on where the saga's headed...when he should be focused on where it is now.

These issues aren't bad, but they're kind of slow, with the survivors in their little camp, living from day to day. Kirkman wants to focus on the people more than the monsters. But he doesn't entirely pull it off. Toward the end, one of the group is killed, and the others deliver heartfelt eulogies...for a character that I think barely spoke two lines in the entire book! By the end of six issues, many of the characters remain at best only vaguely defined.

Nor are the characters' reactions to what's going on around them entirely convincing. It's unclear if living dead movies are supposed to be a part of this reality or not. No one says so, but no one seems that surprised by what's occurred (no one asks what are the living dead, how do they function, why) almost as if they were already familiar with the cliché of walking corpses that eat human flesh and so they don't feel a need to understand the mechanism behind it.

And I'm ignoring the dubious notion, shared with 28 Days Later, that a guy could wake from a weeks long coma and be fit enough to run about and fight the living dead.

Kirkman doesn't really explore some of the possible dynamics and conflicts that might arise among people trying to form a kind of mini-society (of a dozen people) from chaos. Rick and his best friend, Shane, argue over whether they should move the camp somewhere safer (Rick's idea) or stay where they are because they'll be easier to find if rescue comes (Shane's idea). They argue about this...but neither seems to consider the idea of bringing it to the others for a vote. Apparently democracy went the way of running water.

The fact that Kirkman himself proudly sells this as high minded stuff means we have to take any (perceived) sub-text seriously. Instead of really exploring the ins and outs of trying to survive after an apocalypse, we get an extended sequence where Rick argues for the importance of letting a seven year old carry a loaded gun (one can imagine the NRA will be putting The Walking Dead on its book club list), to which his wife objects -- until she learns better in a particularly contrived and even sexist scene. In fact, an undercurrent of sexism crops up more than once. From the scene where a woman is chastised for objecting to doing the washing while the men hunt, to a scene where the living dead attack, and all the women panic, some dropping their guns, while even the meekest of the men calmly dispatch the ravenous dead heads.

Of course, even if you take issue with these themes, that's not necessarily enough to ruin a story -- a sub-text is, after all, just that, and secondary to the surface story. I've always had a certain fondness for post-apocalyptic tales, grouchy misanthrope that I am. And the sequence where Rick and another character sneak into Atlanta by disguising themselves as the Dead is creepy and suspenseful. But overall, Kirkman seems to deliberately eschew the horror/adventure scenes, without really substituting an affecting human drama. A story arc involving the tension between Rick and Shane doesn't develop all that well, or offer many surprises, though its culmination provides the book's climax.

The black and white (and grey) art by Tony Moore is pretty effective. A mixture of realism and detail with just a touch of caricature (think the great John Severin of Cracked Magazine), it looks almost as though it would be better suited to, say, an autobiographical series about growing up in Brooklyn or something. Which is the point. The flavour Kirkman is going for is one of mundaneness, where real people struggle in this unreal environment. But Moore is also good at drawing the rotting corpses shambling along and the comic, it's worth noting if you didn't realize, isn't for the squeamish. On one hand, because it's drawings, it's not as gory as a comparable motion picture would be...on the other hand, it's actually gorier, because Moore can draw in grislier detail than an image that flashes across the silver screen, and there aren't any puppet strings or matte lines around the creatures to assure you these are just special effects.

Because (in his words) Kirkman is in "for the long haul" in creating his "sprawling epic" one can understand that he doesn't want to play all his cards right away. But, at the same time, this does represent six whole issues of the comic, which ought to be a good sample of the work. This first collection of The Walking Dead is capably put together, but it's deliberately paced, the premise is (intentionally) unoriginal, the characters not especially well defined or that interesting, and the plotting minimal. Other than the sequence of sneaking into Atlanta disguised as Living Dead, it's not like each issue sets up a situation to be resolved, or an obstacle to be overcome. Walking Dead: Days Gone Bye is O.K....but we still have to just take Kirkman's word for the greatness to come.
 

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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