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The Walking Dead, Vol. 1 (Hardcover)

The best part of The Walking Dead is the premise, brilliantly summed up by Robert Kirkman in his afterword: why do zombie movies end? The answer is quite logical, as he concedes, in that people don’t want to spend their life in a cinema watching 24-hour zombie movies. Okay, most people don’t want to do that. Somewhat forshadowing the recent announcement we’d be getting a Walking Dead television series (from Frank Darabont, director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Mist, no less), Kirkman argues that comics and television are the only media that can truly support a longterm continuous narrative. What happens after your favourite zombie film ends? It’s an interesting premise to be sure. It’s just a shame that the initial twelve issues of the series don’t quite live up to it.

Better off red?

Don’t get me wrong, the series actually works fairly well out of the gate. Kirkman and his artists give us the world immediately after the apocalypse. The problem is that the first two of the three storylines here simply offer us more of what we’ve already experienced countless times. There are hundreds of films dealing with the one-to-two month period after a zombie apocalypse and there are dozens of great ones.

Kirkman’s narrative in this collection is solid, but not spectacular. Being honest, aside from the fact that he must, by nature of the story, tread water for his first few issues, there are other concerns at play. The most obvious is the sheer lack of alarm or concern that anyone has over the dead rising from their grave. Indeed, Kirkman’s cast regularly used the term “zombie” as if describing any freak happenstance of nature – like a tornado or the Y2K bug. I understand what he’s getting at – the focus is on the end of civilisation, not the cause of the end of civilisation, but it would be nice to have somebody somewhere actually seem surprised that they dead are walking. It’s only been about a month since it began, that’s hardly time for them to become blaisé, right?

On the other hand, he cleverly avoids the usual zombie clichés. In the course of this run, there isn’t a single member of the group who conceals their zombie wounds, for example – whereas there’s always one in any given zombie picture. It’s when Kirkman feels comfortable with the material to play around that we get genuinely insightful moments. Take for example the infection of a certain member of the group. Rather than cold-blooded executing him right away and rather than he committing suicide, he asks to be taken far enough away from camp that he can turn. It’s a fascinating idea and one I don’t remember seeing in the genre before. Is being killed a different experience, physically or metaphysically, from turning? It’s  great idea.

There’s another moment later on which I have seen once or twice before, but is no less powerful for it. A farmer has rounded up the wandering dead in order to isolate them in the hope that they can be cured. We know from the fact that this is a post-apocalyptic story that it won’t work out, but surely that seems a rational option in the circumstances. Assuming it were a disease, would it be too outlandish to assume we could eventually find a cure? Besides, killing a zombie only stops being murder if you can convince yourself that they are dead – you can’t kill something that isn’t alive – but, if there is a rational explaination, they must be alive and you are murdering them. It’s the kind of logic that gets taken for granted in these sorts of stories, but it’s fun to see Kirkman playing with it, as it offers an example of the potential of the book.

This reminds me of the morning after the Trinity Ball...

Zombie stories are at their best when looking at social issues. All monster movies (and all horror movies) are arguably social commentary, but the zombie genre has really moved to the forefront of such socially-conscious storytelling, dating back as early as the gender and racial undertones of George A. Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead. Kirkman wouldn’t be much of a zombie fan if he didn’t acknowledge that, at least. Unfortunately, we don’t see too much of it until the final third of this volume.

The moment where Herschel snaps at the merry band of apocalypse survivors is the moment that the divide becomes one of class. The hardworking farmer who grows his own plots looks upon these cityslickers in their RV as “free-loaders”. The divide opens up. Those who work and those who profit from the work without giving any in return. Decades of passive aggression finally expressed through that single biting word. The problem is that there’s very little of this within the volume. Instead, we get Kirkman’s exploration of gender roles – which is arguably the most painful aspect of the whole collection and the single biggest problem I had reading it.

The book is peppered with all sorts of thinly-veiled sexism. I’m not talking about a sexist character or two – the wonderful thing about end of the world stories is that it gives us an opportunity to explore the prejudices that go unspoken. However the entire philosophy of the book seems to be centred around how men hunter and gather and women… wash stuff. When one character observes this, she’s assured that “this isn’t about women’s rights… it’s about being realistic and doing what needs to be done”. Apparently you feminists will have to quite your griping and get back to the kitchen if zombies attack, right? Don’t worry, the macho men – our leads are a cop and a former NFL player – will protect you. Dale randomly observes that the group needs “someone to look up to… to make us feel safe, especially the women.” Especially the women?

Don’t worry, women! In cause you think you’re being left out of all this leadership and hunter-gathering malarky, you can contribute too! Just provide affection in return for creature comforts. To say nothing of OAP Dale and barely-of-age Amy (although we’re assured it isn’t sexual), Kirkman has his female lead, Lori, radiate towards the alpha male, no matter who that may be. He attempts to justify this with the logic that she’s doing it for her son, but surely she can protect him – it’s not like they’re actively zombie-hunting? In case you didn’t get the women-as-commodity subtext, young Gleen sums it up with the observation that “there’s just not that many women to go around”, as if he were talking about after-dinner mints. It isn’t that these are the flawed observations of flawed characters, this seems to be an unquestioned near-universal truth.

It actually gets fairly distracting after a while. Which is a shame, because it really just draws attention away from the story Kirkman is trying to tell. Part of me wonders if the sexism gets any lighter further into the run. I guess since I bought the first five volumes, I’m in for the long haul anyway. I just hope it doesn’t degenerate as badly as his Ultimate X-Men run.

I have to say, I love the black-and-white artwork. It really captures the mood – it’s got that sort of mid-twentieth-century paranoia-vibe thing going on. There is some difficulty identifying particular characetrs, but I think that’s to be expected in an ensemble this size. I actually don’t think that colouring could improve the artwork here.

There’s another aspect of the collection which really eats away at me, if you’ll pardon the zombie pun. At the back of this first hardcover collection, Kirkman essentially says that these volumes won’t contain extras, because it costs too much. In particular, it won’t contain the covers to individual issues. The reason it won’t contain the covers is because the covers are in colour and printing them that way is too expensive and printing them in black-and-white seems ineffective.

I don’t buy it. We’re talking twelve pages of colour for every three-hundred page hardcover. That doesn’t strike me as particularly unreasonable. If you want to charge me an extra euro to include the covers at the back as special features, go ahead – but you shouldn’t have to, as these volumes cost more than most hardcovers of a similar size and don’t even get a dust jacket. What happened to value for money? Instead, we get a warning not to expect them in future volumes and a head’s-up that there are only six of twelve covers collected here. What makes this even more irritating is that most of the sketches in the back come accompanied with a sales pitch for artwork sold direct from the artist’s website. Yeez, would you like to to just turn me upside down and take what falls out?

By it’s very nature, The Walking Dead can’t really soar in its first year. The central premise of the book is to offer a “continuing” zombie story, but it has to start somewhere. And that somewhere is the well worn ground of “the early days”. On the other hand, the series does have a large amount of flaws that don’t stem from that. The casual sexism is the most distracting element, but also is Kirkman’s inability to hammer home the terrifying scale fo what is happening. You’d be liable to think that the dead rising and seeking to eat the living happened every day. I can imagine that the television adaptation will have some significant deviations from the source material. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of interesting stuff here, but it isn’t an instant classic or a must-have.

We’re a bit late to the party, but next week we’ll be celebrating the 75th anniversary of DC Comics, with a look at the medium, the company and the characters in a selection of bonus features running Monday through Friday. Be sure to join us.

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4 Responses

  1. Thanks for the blogroll add! I will reciprocate as well 🙂

  2. Should have kept reading, son. Patience is a virtue.

    I just need to address these laughable claims of sexism. Seems fairly natural that the group would default to the standard lineup, where men protect the women. In case you haven’t noticed, men are far more aggressive and stronger by nature. But forgoing that, the men in that group are the ones who have been trained to use firearms. Then again, the first volume is little more than the beginning. I’m sure you expected the gender roles to be revolutionized overnight once the zombie outbreak struck. Why assign people to the tasks they perform the best when you can greatly reduce your chances for survival?

    Andrea is the best shot in the group. Throughout the series she kills the most people, saves Rick’s lives more times than anyone else and so on. Also Michonne, who happens to be stronger and a more capable fighter up-close than anyone. You must be more upset with the “underlying sexism” in all things, if it pains you that post-apocalyptia didn’t turn into a gender-neutral utopia.

    • Well, see that’s my problem – the defence that washing clothes and playing the stay at home mother is all these women are good for. Honestly, you’re telling me that Herschel is a better choice to play a more active role in the community than any of the women?

      Herschel? The guy who evicted the survivors with a shotgun? The racist? And yet, by virtue of having a penis, he is put in a position of seniority and given far more important functions than any of the female survivors? Is he “better” at that than any of Kirkman’s women?

      If he is, that’s a pretty strong condemnation of the gender.

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