I seem to have an uncanny knack for getting into fads just as they’re hitting their peak, and often about to begin a decline. Case in point: zombies. I’m not sure exactly when the current zombie craze began, but starting with 28 Days Later… in 2002 there’s been quite a run of zombie mania. There was the remake of Dawn of the Dead in 2004 as well as Shaun of the Dead, followed by the return of the founder of the zombie film, George A. Romero, with Land of the Dead in 2005. The Resident Evil flicks in 2002 and 2004 also featured zombies, and zombies have been quite active in videogames of late, from the aforementioned Resident to the quirky Stubbs the Zombie and the recent megahit Dead Rising.
But nowhere is the zombie love more evident than comics. A quick glance through the racks at any comic store will reveal an astounding number of zombie-related publications. Most of these are independent, but even Marvel Comics ran a popular miniseries titled Marvel Zombies, which takes place in an alternate universe where all your favorite superheroes have become flesh-eating zombies.
Marvel Zombies was written by Robert Kirkman, a relative newcomer to the comics scene. Kirkman broke into the industry with his friend, artist Tony Moore, on the independent comic Battle Pope, which depicted a brutal Pontiff who drank, smoked and battle demons with his hippie sidekick, Jesus. But Kirkman soon revealed his talents weren’t limited to humorous blasphemy. Battle Pope got both he and Moore the attention of the mainstream industry. Kirkman followed up Battle Pope with Invincible, another popular comic about a young superhero, as well as The Walking Dead, which reunited Kirkman with Moore.
I picked up the first trade paperback of The Walking Dead for a few reasons. First off, Image is giving the comic a really big push lately, so it was kind of ubiquitous. Second, I’d read many positive comments about the series around the Web. Third, I’ve been into zombies lately. And fourth, I like both Kirkman and Moore.
In the introduction, Kirkman states that for him, the worst part of a zombie film is the end—he wants to know what happens afterward, even if all the characters die. The Walking Dead is Kirkman’s never-ending zombie movie, using Romero’s films as his inspiration.
Romero set the tone for zombie films with Night of the Living Dead. Unlike vampires, demons and Lovecraftian beasties, whose opponents often require spells and great erudition, zombies can be fought by anyone with a pulse, as Simon (Shaun of the Dead) Pegg notes in the afterword to the second Walking Dead volume. That’s the appeal of the zombie film: watching everyday people deal with an onslaught of zombies.
That Joe Average factor is why Romero’s Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead aren’t quite as compelling as Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead; whereas the earlier films feature no one more experienced than a SWAT team member, the latter two feature soldiers, scientists, and a giant zombie-slaying tank.
Even when I wrote my first zombie story six years ago, before I’d seen Dawn of the Dead (and perhaps Night, I can’t remember), my first instinct was to make it as realistic as possible. My idea with the story was, “What would happen in real life if I faced a zombie?”
Kirkman recognized that was the most compelling aspect of zombie movies, and thus, what we have in The Walking Dead is essentially a continuation of the world depicted in the first three Romero films. The zombies in the book are more or less Romero zombies and follow the same rules: namely, they’re slow, stupid, crave human flesh, and if you get bitten, you’re going to become a zombie, period.
The story follows a police officer named Rick Grimes, who’s in a coma when the zombie armageddon begins. He wakes up alone in a completely deserted hospital. He quickly runs into some zombies and discovers the world isn’t quite the way he left it.
Rick flees town and heads for Atlanta to try and find his wife and son. There’s a lot more, but I don’t want to give the story away—I managed to start reading it without any spoilers, and I had a much better experience for it.
I once read that Clive Barker said a comic had never made him cry, and as such, they were perhaps a bit inferior to other art forms. I’m not 100% sure on the nature of the quote or the attribution, but I can say that until recently, I agreed with the notion. Something about the combination of the panel and the dialogue, the speed at which the story unfolded and having to read dialogue in balloons, just wasn’t that emotionally compelling. I’m afraid it just never happened for me: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, From Hell, even Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men never managed to get a specific emotional response out of me (except maybe some satisfaction when the bad guy gets his just deserts).
But The Walking Dead did it. Sorrow, despair, bittersweet joy—this zombie comic has all these things and more. In fact, it has more emotional weight than any of Romero’s films (except perhaps Night of the Living Dead). Kirkman’s storytelling on The Walking Dead is superb. His characters are true-to-life and wonderfully realized; there are archetypes here, but they’re the same archetypes we see in real life. And as someone who enjoys good dialogue, I find Kirkman’s work amazing. But it’s not just the dialogue—the structure, the pacing, the realism, it’s all very well done. Part of the effectiveness comes from Kirkman’s brilliant use of the next-page reveal, comics’ on real cognate to the shock reveal of film. Kirkman isn’t one of those prose writers who decides to try writing comics and ends up telegraphing a novel; Kirkman, like Will Eisner, Alan Moore or Mike Mignola, understands the medium and makes excellent use of it.
At least in the first two volumes, which are all that I’ve read so far. One could argue that the first volume or two counts as Kirkman’s “movie,” and that we’ve now reached the point where the scene would fade and the credits would scroll up. So now we begin Kirkman’s never-ending zombie movie experiment. It all depends on how long “never-ending” is; already I’ve heard people express some reservations about how long he can go without some sort of resolution; either all the characters die or they reach a point where they’re safe and can begin to rebuild civilization; after all, how long can a decomposing army of zombies last? (No more than five years, according to The Zombie Survival Guide.)
Regardless of the future, the first two volumes of The Walking Dead constitute some of the best comics I’ve read. They also capture the most important themes of the Romero movies; the need to work together (and the incredible effectiveness of doing so, versus the horrific consequences of infighting); the question of how Americans would handle it when their modern trappings were gone (no TV, no pizza delivery, no cell phones, no electricity); and a simple depiction of humanity trying to survive under horrific circumstances. It’s something humans have done time and again, but when you read The Walking Dead—or watch Dawn of the Dead—you get what I think is a soberingly accurate look at what that might be like. The story may sound simple—people just trying to survive in a world overrun by zombies—but it’s much more than that. In some ways, the zombies aren’t even that important; they’re simply the catalyst for the plot and its progression. Set aside the zombies and you have novels of humanity striving against nature and itself, with shades of Jack London.
The first six issues of The Walking Dead (collected in volume one) were drawn by Tony Moore, an artist whose popularity has grown enormously since his debut. He has a spare, distinct style that reminds me of John Severin. He can draw a cowboy hat as well as he can drawn a zombie tearing the flesh out of someone’s neck. The black, white and gray shading evokes the spirit of Night of the Living Dead. After issue #6, the drawing duties are taken over by Charlie Adlard, whose art style is a bit reminiscent of Mignola; it’s always a bit disappointing when a new artist comes on to a title you’ve grown accustomed to, but Adlard’s art has its own distinctive qualities.
So there you go—that’s my rave review of The Walking Dead. It’s rare that I come across a literary work (novel, film, comic or television series included) that I enjoy so unequivocally. Robert Kirkman is an excellent storyteller, and this comic is well worth a read even if you’re not into the whole “living dead” thing.