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The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye
posted September 23, 2008
Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore
Image Comics, softcover, 144 pages, 2004/2008, $9.99
If you're not a habitual comic book shop devotee, you might have missed out on Walking Dead
. It's not an exaggeration to suggest it's one of the five most influential series of this decade. It and the superhero series Invincible
have made a star of writer Robert Kirkman at a time when almost everyone has to go to Marvel or DC to achieve that status (Kirkman's mainstream company work has been much less well-received). It's changed the culture at publisher Image by being the proof positive that their model can work for individual creators above and beyond their ability to secure work elsewhere. The zombie saga is also one of those books with a fan base broader than the section of the store in which it appears: I overheard an employee in a prominent shop a few months back declare Walking Dead
"the one title everyone's behind."
This first volume gives a glimpse into the greater achievement of the series to date. Kirkman is adamant that it's the entire story that's important, however long it runs, and his writing backs this up by making the narrative as much about changes in orientation and attitude as it is about the various, bigger events. What it isn't at all is about the zombies as some sort of systemic problem to be overcome or solved, at least not yet. The first volume provides a startling contrast to the series as it currently runs because the situation has barely changed but the characters are so, so different in the way they've dealt with it. Characters assemble in a loose campfire set-up rather than behind walls; whether or not a child gets a gun is still at issue, and some even anticipate a return of political authority. What Kirkman and his collaborators seem to be going for isn't hell on earth or hell is other people as much as hell is what we create in reaction to things going wrong. That is one dire theme for a mass entertainment. You can even perhaps spot an encapsulation of Kirkman's thoughts on the matter in the form of the Shane character and his ultimate fate.
Like many long-running sagas, so much of how we look at early installments like this one depends on what has yet to happen. It could go either way: burn out and get weird and indulgent or coalesce into a first-class piece of pulp. You won't get any clues from the work's craft elements. The art has been solid throughout the series and is perhaps a bit more lovely and conventional mainstream comics here in a way that, again, makes the later books feel a bit more raw, disheveled. Kirkman manages to give his milieu an inner logic even in these early issues, although the dramatic presentation unfolds in such an assured way you never doubt you're in a big ol' zombie story, if that makes any sense. I don't relate to any of the situations as real, or any of the characters as anything other than characters, although only a few devolve into types. I'm no horror fan nor am I an automatic fan of adventure comics, but I have to admit I can feel the pull of the narrative when I read a few of the comics, and if I were a weekly buyer I would depending on my budget almost certainly add current issues of the title to my purchase list for the joy of following a serial, the same way I enjoyed things twenty years ago like Cerebus
and that original Mage
series, never sure of how good a work I was actually reading at the time and not really caring. This new edition of the original trade makes me believe that Kirkman is going to stick to his guns; what he's shooting we don't yet know.