Walking Dead, The, Volume I by Kirkman, Robert, et al, 2006

Walking Dead, The, Volume I by Kirkman, Robert, et al - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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I make no secret of the fact that I am a full-fledged, dyed-in-the-wool, zombie aficionado. Even though horror generally is not where my literary or cinematic interests lay, if I am being honest I have to say there is very little that I will not stop doing or put down in favor of a gorey zombie movie or book. And in that regard the oughts have been mighty good to me. Not only have we had a slew of zombie themed novels, graphic books and movies, but those that produce them are putting their undead creations under the proverbial microscope and are tweaking zombie lore in a way not seen since Romero came along. This week's review is of an excellent omnibus of zombie comic books called The Walking Dead, by Robert Kirkman, et al, that tells a virtually never-ending story of group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse

Kirkman has been working on his The Walking Dead comic series for going on six years now. The series is a major monthly for Image Comics, and shows no sign of slowing down. On top of that the AMC television network is getting set to launch a major new TV series that is based on the books in October, 2010. Volume One, reviewed here, consists of the first twelve monthly issues of the comic. It is the story of a band of survivors of a zombie apocalypse as they make their way through ghoul infested lands and forage for survival. It centers around the family of Rick Grimes, including his wife Lori, and their seven year old boy, Carl. The story started out almost exactly like 28 Days Later began. Rick wakes up in a hospital - after a horrible injury – only to find that the civilization has already fallen. He then began an adventure that reunited him with his family, who had taken up with a caravan of other survivors including Rick's old patrol partner, Shane. This first volume takes the reader through the caravan's decision first to wait for help from the government, then later to leave the Atlanta area once they had given up on their rescue fantasies, as zombies started moving from the metro area out to their rural camp. In this story the zombies are as dumb and slow as ever, and pose no threat to an armed party of humans, except when the humans are surprised by a large gang of them. The humans can basically pick them off from a distance, or club them when they get closer; no problem. That leaves plenty of time for scandal, insecurity, infidelity and lots of other generalized small-group social breakdown. And that is what The Walking Dead is really about.

Kirkland, the creator of the comic, has said in interviews that what he really wanted to explore in The Walking Dead were the things that happened after the credits rolled in all the zombie movies.

Really, it bugs me every time. I'm watching them hop in that helicopter...and then what? It just ends? Credits? I sat through all that...for what? To not know if they made it, to not know where they're living now? I mean, what happened to Barbara AFTER she was pulled into the herd of zombies? Did she survive? Did she get away? It never SHOWED her get eaten. I want more. I ALWAYS wanted more.

I wanted a zombie movie that never ends. I wanted a zombie movie that allowed us to watch the characters grow and change over time. One that allowed us to follow the end of the world to its natural conclusion. One that showed us everything that didn't just END when it was time for the credits to start rolling.

I’ll start with a plot review. The plot of this first book is every bit as important as the characters that populate the story, because what happens to these people is vitally important to who they become and how they survive. That’s not always the case with genre literature, but here the characters changing attitudes are probably more important than the story itself. Rick Grimes, the main character, was a police officer who was injured during a prison break. Several weeks after his injury - which he spent in a coma - he woke up to find the hospital deserted. In short order Rick learned that the undead had killed virtually everyone, everywhere. He escaped the hospital, barely, and went to his home in search of his wife, Lori and their seven year old boy, Carl. When he got there his family was gone, but he found Morgan and Duane Jones, father and son, who were squatting in Rick’s neighbor's home. Morgan filled Rick in on what happened while he was in his coma; he said that the government had told people to congregate in defensible positions, like Atlanta, which was the closest major city to Rick's small village in Kentucky. Rick set off, leaving Morgan and Duane because they did not want to brave the city.

When he got to the city Rick encountered an enormous horde of the undead. Apparently moving people to one location made the conversion of the living to the undead very easy. Rick would have been eaten had it not been for Glenn, a living human who helped Rick out of a tight spot. Glenn had been scavenging the edges of the city for weeks and knew how to avoid the zombies. After they escaped the two walked to the countryside where Rick, in difficult-to-believe moment of coincidence, was reunited with Lori and Carl, who were part of a small camp of survivors that included Rick's old police partner, Shane, and Rick's savior, Glenn. After the standard hugs and kisses things got a little strange, because Lori was having trouble dealing with her guilt over abandoning Rick, leaving him helpless in the hospital, and because Shane had kept Lori’s bed warm in Rick’s absence. In fact, Shane was in love with Lori, but the feelings were not reciprocated.

Family tropes figure enormously in this book, not only because of Lori's infidelity (which Rick never really found out about), but also because Lori and Rick fought over how Carl would be raised in this new, high-risk environment. Rick, ever the pragmatist, wanted to arm Carl and teach him how to handle a pistol. He saw what was going on around him and knew that if he didn't give Carl a fighting chance he would probably not make it. Lori hated the idea of her seven year old boy packing heat, but eventually caved on the issue as long as Carl was taught to never pull his gun before he was given permission to do so by Rick.

After the Grimes family reunion Rick was introduced to the rest of the survivors. There were fifteen of them altogether, including Allen, who was the husband of Donna and the father of young twins, Billy and Ben. There was Jim, a quiet redneck, Dale, an old man with an RV which housed Andrea and Amy, two college-aged sisters. There was also Carol, who was the MILFish mother of Sophie. The group lacked cohesion at first, mostly because Rick and Shane vied for control. Everyone but Rick could see the love triangle that was forming. Most of them thought about choosing sides but before such a decision was required, a bunch of zombies that had wandered out of Atlanta attacked, killing a few people including Amy outright, and Jim, who was bitten badly but did not die for several days. After that shock wore off Rick and Shane stopped their subtle one-upmanship and fought outwardly for control of the group. Shane wanted to stay put until the government came to rescue them, while Rick wanted to start wandering to scavenge for supplies and stay ahead of the horde. One afternoon Rick and Shane went out to hunt. Shane drew down on Rick away from the camp and was set to murder him, but Carl had followed the two men into the woods and shot Shane through the neck, killing him. I can only imagine how a conversation with Lori went about that incident. I guess it is then, when Carl uttered, "It's not the same as killing the dead ones, Daddy," that it hit home that the zombies would probably be mere backdrop, and the real story would be about man's inhumanity to man. That really is what the books are about; the extent of change that people go through when day-to-day survival is no longer a given.

Following, everyone in the gang assumed that Rick, as the survior, would be their leader. They began to scavenge and look for defensible shelter. Hunger set in quickly as their options started to dwindle. In the remaining six issues they found a neighborhood called Wiltshire Estates, which unbeknownst to Rick was infested with the undead. Rick made the decision to stay there one night when they were all tired of being on the road. The next day the houses they were in were surrounded. They lost a few more people getting away, including Allen's wife, but they also met someone who turned out to be a great friend to Rick; Tyreese, and ex-NFL pro, along with his daughter, Julie, and her boyfriend, Chris. After his wife's death Allen pretty much lost all hope, even though he had two twins to raise. Moods, as you should be able to tell, are a fickle thing in this group. As it turns out, Allen was the character that I hated the most. He abandoned his children because of depression over the loss of his wife. No matter how hard I try, I just cannot get my head around that, or come to sympathize with him enough to stop hating him.

A few days after fleeing the Estates Rick and Carl were hunting in the woods when Carl was shot by another hunter who mistook him for game. Otis, the hunter, was full of remorse, and in order to save Carl, took the boy and his dad to his place, a compound owned and run by veterinarian named Hershel Greene. Hershel saved Carl and invited Rick's group to join his own, made up of his family, Lacey, Arnold, Maggie, Billy, Rachel and Susie, and their neighbors, Otis and his girlfriend Patricia. Hershel was kind and had a defensible farm, but Rick leaned a few days later that he was keeping his dead family and friends locked in his barn. Hershel was shocked that Rick could suggest that he "murder" his loved ones, but soon enough the dead broke out of the barn and killed a few of Hershel's surviving kids. Rick used the instant as an opportunity for moralizing in the context of a zombie-infested landscape, then took his leave of Hershel and his brood. Glenn stayed on at the farm as he had shacked up with one of Hershel's daughter's, Maggie. A few days later Rick's group ran across a maximum security prison. The fences were still standing and the building looked solid, so they planned to rid it of zombies and move in behind its multiple fences. Volume one ended with that discovery.

I was struck by the importance of family in this story. Given that the characters are all nomadic foragers, I was wondering if Kirkman would go the route of “it takes a village” to raise Carl. Thankfully he hasn’t. Rick and Lori are the two most important people in Carl’s life, and Rick has made it abundantly clear that if anyone messes with his kid, they’re toast. But Kirkman has spent considerable time building up the proverbial village here. Consider; Rick is determined to locate his family after he wakes up, even though they were likely dead. Morgan refuses to move his little family, for fear that his son will be killed, even though they are about out of supplies. Allen loses his mind when a part of his family is killed. Andrea focuses on family building with Dale after her sister was killed, Hershel wants nothing more that to “save” the dead members of his family, and after being bitten Jim wishes to be left outside of Atlanta so that after he turns he can begin searching for his wife and kids among the undead. I think protective notions of family drove just about every decision in this book. There was very little selfish action taken in it, and those that became selfish, or even displayed selfish tendencies, died pretty soon thereafter. Kirkman also has a lot to say about love, but more on that later.

Zombie authors, more than any others I think, rely on the work of authors and works that came before. Even more so than science fiction, zombie literature is consumed (no pun intended) by its readers with comparison in mind. They typically have a pretty broad and deep understanding of the texts that have come before, and compare the current text with their understanding of the way the genre as a whole has developed up to that point. The result of this informed reading usually means that whatever they are reading at the time changes their own understanding of the genre as a whole. That creates a pretty dynamic subgenre, but it also means that zombie entheusisists have to throw down to keep up, or else they will be left behind. As a relative newcomer to splatterpunk I run up against this all the time. Few of the texts read easily at first, save for those by the masters such as Brooks or Kirkman, because they are steeped not in tradition, but in innovation. The way that I measure the value of a zombie story is to ask myself how the author changes the lore of the genre and what new tweaks he or she brings to add to the plethora of accumulated “zombie knowledge.” As you have already read, Kirkman had a big idea here; he wanted see what happened after a zombie apocalypse played out, and the surviving characters started thinking about the long term. But he also gave his characters a lot to think about. Part of the process of this story entails a small group of "lessons learned" by the characters after interacting with (read: killing) the zombies. Each hardbound volume presents new facts and observations. I am really curious to see where Kirkman is going with all of this, because some of these are novel. In this volume the characters learned the following:

  • Zombies are good pack hunters, but lack the skills to take down prey on their own;
  • Zombies should be killed silently, because loud noises, such as gunshots, attract others;
  • Zombies can be fooled into leaving the living alone by rubbing the blood of the undead upon one's clothing;
  • Most zombies just sit around, but some are "roamers," and never stay put;
  • The gang found a really weak zombie that could not get up. They killed it thinking that the cold had immobilized it, but none of the others were frozen solid.

More observations will come in later volumes.

There were a few problems with the book, especially in the first few issues. Some of them should have been caught and fixed; some of them are just endemic to graphic novels. As an example of the former, consider an exchange between Rick and Glenn, a forager from the caravan. Rick had only recently joined them, and was thinking about how they could better protect themselves. Rick speaks first:

When you go into town...have you ever seen a gun store or anything like that?

No, but I never really go into the city that far...why do you ask?

Really? A zombie apocalypse has happened, everyone wants to eat you, your canned food reserves are dwindling, your position is undefended, your considering becoming scavenging nomads, and Glenn needs to know why Rick wants a gun store? Really? That exchange, to me, was exemplary of the book's lack of editorial control, which I think was another problem.

I also noticed a bit of a pattern in the writing that I had not noticed when I read these books a few years ago, but there is a system that the writers use to get from one calamity to the next. It runs something like this: 1) Stress builds, 2) the humans come into contact and kill a small number of zombies, 3) out of fear from the encounter with zombies, the various pairs of humans get together and confirm their deep love for one another with syrupy declarations of it; 4) someone in the group does something stupid, which not only betrays that love to the other, but sets the whole group on edge, 5) a major zombie assault occurs, 6) the humans win, but barely keep it together, 7) someone dies, chooses to leave the group, or they encounter another group and decide to join forces. This general pattern repeated itself four times over the first twelve issues. I found that repetition a bit annoying, but as the series went on Kirkman stopped doing it so much. I wondered if he was saying that the characters were losing their hope in others, or if they were just turning inward out of desperation and depression.

Most of the good zombie books out there are about something other than the undead, and this one is no exception. The Walking Dead is about survival, for sure, but it's also about family, the building of a village from nothing, finding new strengths in a new environment, and letting go of the dead. In many places, but not all, it's also about the killing and casting off of things that have no place in civil society; about paring down to bare necessities. The book also has something important to say about interpersonal relationships, but I don't think I'm ready to articulate that yet. Hopefully I will before I, or Kirkman, finish.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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