by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore
144 pages, Image Comics
Review by Pat Black
I’ve written the title and the authors and the number of pages and the publisher and finally my own name, but here’s a question: Why bother reviewing The Walking Dead? I can’t add anything. Should I review breathing next? Should I review existence?
You probably know lots about this graphic novel or its TV adaptation without having actually seen or read it, like me. It’s the story of American everyman copper Rick Grimes, who emerges from a coma in hospital after getting shot tackling a bank robber, only to find the world has ended while he was sleeping. He gets out of bed, puts his clothes on, and tries to find his family, encountering difficulties along the way.
Specifically: zombies. The groaning, shuffling, rotting undead, hungry for living flesh. Rick has to look lively. He escapes the video-game-level nightmare in the hospital – just - and then hits the road.
He eventually journeys to an Atlanta teeming with zombies. After a narrow escape or two, he hooks up with a community which includes his missing wife and son, and led by his fellow copper and best mate, Shane. Living in the woods just outside the city in their cars and camper vans, the community tries to survive as the zombies close in around them. Not everyone makes it, but you already knew that…
The Walking Dead seems to have been going on so long that it’s practically dead on its feet – series after series, shock after shock, more soap opera than horror story. The media gets everywhere now, so you can hardly have missed it, or references to it. You’ll probably know about people like Negan from only the briefest skim of online entertainment news. Ditto the shocking deaths, the gore, and the fact that Egg from This Life has been turned so convincingly into an American policeman. Hey, remember when you had to actually watch shows to know things like that? You had to sit down with This Life in order to know who Egg was, back in the day. You don’t need to have watched or read The Walking Dead to know who Rick Grimes is. I’m the proof.
But this is a general whinge, and nothing to do with Robert Kirkman’s work.
I’ve read it now, or at least the first part of a sprawling comic book epic, comprising six issues. As a story it’s hard to fault – exciting, scary, sad, poignant, and gory. As you’ll have spotted it’s not original, though. Man in a coma waking up to find the world changed? We’ve already seen that in a zombie(ish) story, 28 Days Later. Before that, we saw it in Day of the Triffids. And the zombies abide by the modern rules of the genre. But this is to be expected; few fictional constructs are more rigidly defined than zombie lore. Rules get bent or broken in werewolf stories or vampire stories, but sometimes you’ll get a vampire who walks during the day or a werewolf who changes without recourse to lunar cycles, and snorts at the idea of silver bullets in that way only old dogs can. You get little deviation with zombies, though. The late George A Romero didn’t invent the idea of zombies, either, but he surely perfected it, so much so that people rarely mess with the furniture half a century on from Night of the Living Dead. So, The Walking Dead’s Zombies eat human flesh; they can die – for good - via a bullet to the head, or just a general interruption in their brain tissue. They transmit the virus by biting you, after which you die, then un-die. And just as in Romero’s work, the surviving humans, with all their faults, prejudices, lusts and jealousies, must band together to survive as the undead close in. The Walking Dead has plenty of those bits.
Speaking of bits (the kind that drop off), there’s one gruesome novelty in this story that I liked: artist Tony Moore’s walking dead rot properly. I‘ve often wondered – and hopefully It’s Not Just Me – what would happen with zombies regarding insect infestation, if the undead were to exist in real life. Surely beasties and larvae would help the natural processes along, and you wouldn’t get too much trouble from a disarticulated skeleton. In the warm months, there’d be a zombie mass die-out (or die-die-out) as mother nature gets busy on that smorgasbord of decomposing meat. But you rarely see this in zombie films, even though it’d be a really horrific effect to perfect on screen, and a perfectly achievable one with state-of-the art make-up and computer graphics.
Max Brooks, in his Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, explained that the zombie virus repels insects and slows down the work of bacteria, which I believe was the first time anyone’s actually tried to solve the paradox of rotting zombies which don’t rot properly.
But I’m happy to say The Walking Dead goes the other way; you’ll see the monsters’ skin seething with vermin here. “Give us a kiss!” you would say, before puckering up. In fact, few details are spared in this book, whether that’s in showing you decomposition, spurting blood or the effects of a bullet to the head.
There’s a statement about gun use and gun ownership when one character saves another who hadn’t wanted him to have weapons by killing a zombie with a headshot. The Walking Dead saga comprises 176 issues and counting at time of writing, so this outcome may well be rendered ironic thanks to subsequent episodes. And without guns you’d have a lot less drama in zombie stories, I get that… Just, God spare us a world where owning a firearm is a necessity.
Another great strength to this story is its sense of action underpinned by solid drama and believable characters. Little wonder it translated so well to a long-running TV show, flesh-eaters and flying brains aside. First you’ve got Rick trying to find his family. Then, once he finds them, it turns out they’ve been looked after by his mate, Shane. And not only looked after, in his wife Lori’s case… Always, the test isn’t just family loyalty – it’s got a lot to do with the moral choices Rick Grimes makes, and how much he can hold onto his essential decency while the world goes to hell around him.
What really inspired me to put the words down here was the most frightening thing about this frightening book: the blurb on the back. It goes something like: “When was the last time you really had to do something for yourself? When was the last time you had to find and prepare your own food? When was the last time you had to fight to stay alive?”
These are troubling questions. I can see myself reporting for duties after the army shows up to save us during the undead apocalypse. “What can you do, son?” the guy at the desk would ask. “You got any skills? You build things? You put up houses? You fix fences? You do any farming? Animal husbandry? Hmm. Can you fire a gun? Do you have a gun? Handle guns at all? Even once? No? Have you got any skills we could use? Typing, you say. Well. Think you can adapt to using a shovel? Get shovelling, then. You’re on latrines duty.”
What real skills do you have? It’s a sobering question. And with the passage of time, lack of skill isn’t merely restricted to mechanical matters and nuts n’ bolts practicalities, or even survivalist fantasies. Think about coding, computers, and the digital world. This is everywhere, but how much do you really know about computing? Here we find a new frontier of technical knowledge, and I freely admit I know nothing about it beyond zeroes-and-ones. Most of us would have to phone someone if something goes wrong (and hopefully not with our phones). Or – admit it – we’d simply buy more hardware to replace whatever conked out.
Here is my sum knowledge about coding:
10 Print “bugger all”
20 Goto 10
Who knows when the breakdown will come? Not to go all Chicken Little on everyone, but cities, city states, empires and whole societies fail. It’s happened before, it’ll happen again. There may come an age when London is ruins, or underwater, or a desert. The ancient Babylonians thought they were the bees’ knees, too, but they’re a long time out of the game. The curtain might come down sooner than we think. As I said, it’s a sobering thought.