Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Walking Dead Volume 1: Days Gone By (2004)

I believe The Walking Dead is now my personal single longest unbroken run reading a title. I was interested when the first issue was solicited, but I was inclined to trade-wait most series by that point, and am glad I did. That first volume was less than ten bucks, and was released quickly enough that I got to preorder the first uncollected single issue that same month for a dollar. It was jarring jumping from the shocking finale of the trade to a follow-up issue by a new and extremely different artist. Rereading the trade, I was much more conscious of the individual issue/chapter breaks, and I don't think I would have related to the story the same way in monthly installments. The book works better as a twice yearly bolus infusion of zombie soap opera, and I suspect I might not have stuck through the grind of months.

Kirkman seems to need that twelve times a year schedule. In his first and only foreword to the trade paperbacks, he explains that this was intended to be the zombie story that never ends, as opposed to the grim finality of most movies. Kirkman dismisses Return of the Living Dead in favor of Dawn, which is something I could never do, despite Romero's film being perhaps my favorite ever. Still, I understand that Kirkman needs his epic to be deadly serious, always relate in human terms, and cleave to Romero's social commentary over O'Bannon's cheeky kicks. This is the beginning of the long journey of a group of characters experiencing hell on earth, and so far, Kirkman has remained true to his stated goals.

Kirkman said of the series' star, "You guys are going to see Rick change and mature to the point that when you look back on this book you won't even recognize him." He also spends a lot of time heaping praise on artist Tony Moore. These things are related. Moore couldn't produce on a monthly schedule, and after years prior as a creative team, their partnership ended with the last issue collected in this trade. The split was acrimonious, but Moore stayed on to produce covers into the second year. A bone of contention that I've always had with the book is that there are no cover reproductions in the trades, but I'm somewhat thankful now. The new artist so made this book his own that I literally do not recognize the Rick Grimes of these earlier issues as the guy I've followed for years since. Of course, Kirkman meant the changes that would occur within Rick, and that was true as well.

It's very interesting to look at Tony Moore's work in retrospect. He has a very crisp, energetic style. He's a natural storyteller who packs in just the right amount of detail to please the eye without stalling the flow of the story. The sequence where Rick and Glenn scavenge at a gun shop in Atlanta, and things take a bad turn, is one of the rare instances in all my years of with comics where I was so excited that I had to stop reading the text and let my eyes travel panel to panel to see the action resolve. Moore's work is wonderful, and yet, I think it was best that he left the book when he did. All of his characters have friendly, comic strip faces that make it difficult to take dramatic moments seriously. His zombies are delightfully grotesque, but in a Jack Davis at EC vein that render them less threatening and tragic than they should be. There's a key character death where the victim looks less in agony than about to groan "good grief" in their best Charles Schultz imitation. The dichotomy is problematic.

It was a great thing to have Tony Moore start the book. He set the artistic bar high and hooked readers that might have resisted his less flashy replacement. The gray tones Moore established set the visual look of the series in an essential way for a black & white comic intended for a broad audience. It lends weight and shadow that is the life blood of the reality and survivalist horror of the book. At the same time, there's an innocent quality to the art that reflects the naivete of the characters at this stage of the crisis. The final twist at the end of the trade shatters any illusions of normalcy, and is the perfect point to switch to a moodier, more "vérité" art style.

I don't believe that I've ever revisited any of the volumes of this series before, and after nearly a hundred issues and 1.5 seasons of a television adaptation, it's revelatory. I sometimes think of the AMC show as a "What If?" tangent universe where a few variations yield divergent results. I'm reminded how phony that notion is. The characterization on the show is so vastly different that many "adapted" characters are unrecognizable, and I feel their being informed by the characters as they developed severely damages their personal arcs. For instance, the Lori of the show is a cold bitch pretty much from her first episode, and in the comics she did become rather unsympathetic, but in the beginning it was easy to see her as a loving wife and mother. On the show, I often find my loyalties divided between Shane's amoral pragmatism and Rick's perilous altruism. It's no wonder the audience favorite has ended up being Daryl Dixon, the white male Michonne. It's clear why Rick became group leader from this first trade, as he's the most intelligent and the broadest thinker of the band. The comic book Shane is plainly deluded and emotionally unstable, so it's no wonder Rick was readily embraced. TV Rick jumped straight into territory where his reasoning is permanently in question, while comic Rick proved himself thoroughly before making understandable missteps in uncertain times.

Another thing I miss on the TV series is the time taken to properly introduce supporting characters and ensure that they are likeable and valuable. For instance, the show threw Glenn, Andrea, T-Dog and Merle at the viewers all at once. My girlfriend couldn't understand why Glenn is my favorite surviving character, because on TV he wasn't the person who guided Rick through Atlanta, and he wasn't the lone sneak thief that sustained the group. My Glenn didn't show up until the second season. The Dale of the show has been an increasingly irritating nuisance and busybody, where in the book he was the first person to warn Rick about problems within the group, and proved handy with an ax in saving Donna. My recollection was that Amy and Andrea developed as sisters across a couple of years worth of comics, so I was surprised to find the turn in their relationship was about as swift as on the show. However, they then progressed quietly in the background, whereas the show turned that into such an in-your-face development as to be a major turn-off. At least Carol and her family were vastly more engaging adapted than their dull comic origins.

All this is to say that The Walking Dead deserves its success, because the foundations of a multimedia property were sound from the beginning. Yes, the 28 Days Later... homage opening was dumb, and the influence of zombie fad flicks of as recent a vintage as Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake are apparent, but Kirkman and Moore build from their skeletons something with real meat to hang off them. It was excellent on first read, and holds up in part because what followed remains vital, begging reflection and comparative analysis. I feel it's one of the major works of the zombie genre and the comics medium, so I look forward to that third reading in 2019.

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