Ever since I saw Zombieland a few months ago, my appetite for the undead has hit the roof. I finally bought a copy of one of my favorites, Shaun of the Dead, going back to Max Brook’s amazing World War Z, and am now catching up on the survival horror comic book epic The Walking Dead.
I say epic, because that is writer and creator Robert Kirkman’s intention, an epic story, sprawling cast and locations, a character driven and emotional rollercoaster of a comic. This is no mere slash and run, shoot the head gore fest, though that does happen often throughout. This is more of a portrait of man in a changing, lawless world, and how he changes with it.
Robert Kirkman is the man responsible for the classic and classy Battle Pope. A stinging action book also of apocalyptic proportions, Battle Pope was hilariously blasphemous, toting a cigar smoking, bar brawling Pope, complete with Jesus for a sidekick. (my favorite part was the “what would I do?” t-shirt JC sported)
For this book, Kirkman has altered his style greatly, telling a serious story sans tongue in cheek or adolescent humor. In fact, this book is deadly serious. It’s an intense study focusing on the breakdown not only of society, but of the individual.
Our hero is Rick. He’s a small town cop who goes down in the line of duty and subsequently wakes up in a hospital bed a la 28 Days Later. In fact, Rick’s awakening and initial wanderings are almost step for step those of Cillian Murphy, only we’re talking about rural Kentucky instead of London. Rick seeks out his wife and young son, who aren’t at the house naturally. He heads to Atlanta and eventually meets up with a band of survivors in the woods, and look, there’s the fam. A bit of luck after all. The rest of the book is concerned with the group struggling to survive not only their undead attackers, but the coming winter.
This is the kind of book that does not hesitate to kill off characters at a moment’s notice, so yea, most of the supporting folks are going down eventually. Things are increasingly bad in the woods, so the group gets a hold of weapons and an RV, traveling a bit before settling on an abandoned federal prison, where they stay for a long stretch.
So far, at 60 plus issues, the timeline for the events has reached around a year, maybe year and a half, and these characters go through major changes in the process. Without their previous lives, some adapt better than others. Some learn they’re a dead eye with the rifle. Some with a samurai sword.
Kirkman really allows us to get to know these people, at times playing it like a soap opera, at times a simple ’round the campfire confessional. This has the distinct effect of making every death, every loss that much more intense. You literally gasp when some of this shit goes down. (at least I did)
The best parts are the ones when events move quickly. Scenes of target practice and gardening are all well and fine, but this is familiar territory for the zombie genre at least. But, when a helicopter goes down overhead, or the survivors undergo an assault by the living, things quickly heat up and the action is really superb.
Kirkman’s greatest strength in the book is his realistic, but all together enthralling plot. I mean, holing up in a deserted prison is brilliant. What a concept! The discoveries and obstacles are always thrilling, the zombie fights are always engrossing, it keeps you turning pages like few books out there.
This is all aided by the excellent art of both Tony Moore and, later, Charlie Adlard. In a pale and gray composition, the hungry monsters are absolutely repulsive and awesome. Great concepts, perfectly disgusting. The zombie art is worth the price of admission on its own. Adlard’s scratchier style is also a great help to give the characters true misery and pained expressions. We can see the strain, see the worry, the stress. It’s dirty and rough. It’s perfect. Romero would be proud.
I would only say this, Kirkman needs to keep working on the dialogue. A lot of characters basically talk exactly the same, with only little catchphrases standing out. There’s one guy who says “you follow me?” after every fucking dialogue bubble sometimes. I get it. He says that. Do I need to read it fifteen times an issue? Other characters all use these awkwardly sounding little expressions like “let’s just say” or “man/bro/c’mon” before and after every word. Does anyone talk like this in real life? Let’s just say it’s annoying as Hell sometimes, you follow me?
See? That’s annoying to read!
In fairness, I thought the dialogue’s gotten better as it’s gone along. And the story has taken a lot of twists and unexpected turns, making it a new kind of angle on the zombie story. Kirkman himself has said that the worst part of any zombie movie is that it ends. We want to know what happens next. We want to know what became of these characters after we had to leave them. This book does that. It’s the never ending story of zombie horror. And a damn fine read.
My suggestion is collecting (or borrowing from the library like I did) the hardcover collections. They look really great, and encompass 12 issues each, enough to keep you up late into the night. There is also a massive volume collecting the first four hrdcovers, or 48 single issues. That’s a lot of zombies!
If you want a taste of this book, the first issue is online for free. Check it out.