Zombies are a horror trope that have gone through a number of phases in their undead history. Originally, they were very much the subject of pulp from their voodoo origins as unwilling victims brought back from the dead to serve evil masters. Then, in 1968, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead changed the perception of the zombie forever, making them very much a harbinger of apocalyptic visions. It became a creature of the horde, shuffling flesh-eating masses that inexorably consume mankind in a variety of siege situations.
After falling out of the mainstream in the 80s, zombies roared back into fashion firstly through the Resident Evil series of video games before a massive glut of zombie movies that continues to this day. Amidst such over-saturation comes Robert Kirkman’s comic book series, The Walking Dead.
The Walking Dead tells the story of Rick Grimes, a police officer in rural Kentucky, as he leads a rag-tag group in an attempt to survive a zombie apocalypse that has swept America and, it seems, the world. The group must battle zombies while trying to find food, shelter and also handle the psychological pressure of society crumbling all around them.
The first two trade paperbacks, Days Gone Bye and Miles Behind Us each collect six issues of the comic’s run. The first focusses on Rick’s initial confrontation with the situation and his search for survivors, while the second sees the group on the road in a desperate search for safety and supplies.
The series has been warmly received by fans and critics and has resulted in a successful TV series spin-off, but for all its grit and realism, it suffer from a major flaw: familiarity.
From the cliched “hero wakes up in hospital after the apocalypse” opening a la The Day of the Triffids and 28 Days Later to all of the usual Romero beats (someone gets bitten and slowly turns, someone commits suicide from all the horror, et cetera), there is little in The Walking Dead that horror movie fans haven’t seen before. While it may be fresh in the annals of graphic novels, it is almost tired for anyone with an eye on cinema.
What it does have in its favour is length. While movies run their course in two hours, the comic has already passed 84 issues at time of writing. This epic sprawl means we see more of a society collapsing and its attempts to rebuild. We see what happens when resources become scarce and power vacuums develop. When people turn to cannibalism. When children grow up knowing only death and suffering.
The artwork is serviceable, if unspectacular, but is extremely well-paced. Many times there are pages with no dialogue, creating imagery that is surprisingly affecting. The black-and-white art is always clear and crisp, with no ambiguity. Its matter-of-fact approach to violence echoes the writing as humanity ingloriously slides into barbarism.
Overall, The Walking Dead is rewarding, but only if the reader is willing to commit to the long haul. Perhaps lacking the originality to truly touch greatness, it is nevertheless an effective and enjoyable read.