Review: The Walking Dead Vol. 1: Days Gone By trade paperback (Image Comics)

Thursday, May 08, 2008

[This review comes from Bob Hodges of the To the Black Rose blog]

I heard nothing but good things about Robert Kirkman's and Tony Moore's zombie series The Walking Dead from several sources whose taste I trust very much including Ed Brubaker and my local comic shop owner. But even paying just six dollars for the first trade, I felt I wasted my money. My dissatisfaction with the series is nearly total and as far as I know, unique to myself. So I'd very much like to hear from people who think my analysis is flawed, believe the series improves in future volumes or who have had a similar bad experience.

To start with the teaser on the back of the book is both pretentious and wrongheaded. In effect it says that "The world of commerce and frivolous necessity has been replaced by a world of survival and responsibility ... In a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally start living." What does "frivolous necessity" even mean? And why is responsibility not possible in a commercial world? The implication that you are only truly living if you are struggling for survival is ridiculous. Human life ought to aim for virtue and flourishing in an Aristotelian sense, not some macho primitivist ideal of a man who has to fight to meet even his basic needs. So no Virginia, there is nothing inherently wrong with government (broadly defined as administrative unit), grocery stores, postal service, or television.

An author should not need to write an introduction to his own work, especially when that work is new. But Kirkman made good points in his introduction. He claims he does not want Walking Dead to be about gory horror (though some is unavoidable with zombies), but social commentary in the grand George Romero tradition. Also Kirkman says he plans to use the open-endedness of a comic series to document the struggles and growth of a band of survivors over a long period of time (instead of the sometimes arbitrary ending points in your two-hour zombie films). Walking Dead is not off to a good start in regards to either one of these goals.

Little social commentary in Walking Dead is not the clichéd "other humans can be more dangerous than the zombies" that the Romero's films, 28 Days Later and several other flicks have covered far more effectively. True, the danger other survivors pose and the fragility of human society may be the staple themes of the genre, but it can accommodate others. The original Dawn of the Dead dramatizes racism and consumerism with zombies and 28 Days criticizes extreme militaristic, scientific, and survivalist mindsets.

The only other commentary Walking Dead offers is that traditional gender roles will be strongly reinforced by the zombie apocalypse. This relates to the Kirkman's second failure in relation to his stated goals, portraying change in characters over time. These characters may change in future volumes, but there so banal at the outset how does it matter how much they change? Rick Grimes, the protagonist, is a blander than vanilla, square-jawed Dudley Do-Right of a cop. His wife Lori is a sapless housewife whose main purpose in life is the biological imperative to spawn off hateful, little brats like their son Carl (who to be fair is an efficient killing machine). The main antagonist in this volume is Rick's best friend and former partner Shane who is in love with Lori because she switched to him as a protector figure during Rick's gunshot induced coma. The reader should forgive her for this infidelity to her original protector/master (I mean husband), since she probably never noticed the change. Other than their different plans for survival, nothing differentiates Rick and Shane.

Lori and all the other female characters in the band of survivors all have their own protector/lover/husband. The attractive young sisters Amy and Andrea have the old RV owner Dale. Carol and her daughter Sophia are in mourning over the loss of their husband/father and young Glenn looks promising as a new one. Donna has her husband Allen. Donna is actually the only woman to question the brave old world where the women are assigned laundry duty while the men go hunting wondering "if we'll still be allowed to vote" after things return to normal. She is duly ridiculed by Lori for such independent thought and then almost immediately portrayed as helpless while a zombie attacks her. And of course she is shown to be hypocritical and puritanical to completely undermine any credibility the character might have. Lori has her own brush with independent thought when she objects to Rick arming their seven-year old son. She is of course duly and publicly overruled and then proven wrong. And despite Andrea's skill with a handgun, at no point in the story do any of the female characters kill a zombie. Whatever for when they have the men around?

The only nice and/or original touches in Walking Dead were Rick's realization that the zombies differentiate between themselves and the living through smell, the gory result of that discovery, and the fate that Jim, a mechanic who watched his family torn apart in Atlanta, chooses.

Another problem with Walking Dead is the ridiculously inaccurate picture it gives of Atlanta and its surroundings. Loren over at Suspension of Disbelief gives a few examples. These problems include that it rarely ever snows in Georgia despite the harsh winters shown in the comic, the area around Atlanta is if anything overdeveloped and woods in easy walking distance of the city would be rare, and Atlanta's overdevelopment includes suburbs in almost every direction from the city, but the comics shows a city that abruptly ends in countryside like Opal City in Starman. Georgia has large black and Hispanic minority groups, but the band of survivors is uniformly white bread (except for Glenn who looks Asian) and off course all straight. This lack of diversity in the characters is not just in terms of race and sexual orientation, but extends to their personalities and occupation reinforcing my earlier point about their blandness. Rick and Shane were cops, all of the adult women except for the younger sisters Amy and Andrea were housewives and Dale and Allen were both salesmen as was Carol's dead husband.

Genre stories involving zombies (especially Romero's films) are not normally noted for compelling characters, but generally work with the momentum of the plot and the work of the actors. As a comic book Walking Dead depends on the writer's dialogue and the artist's drawing of the characters to give them life without benefits of actors. Tony Moore's black and white art is serviceable, but I don't think the dialogue Kirkman gives the characters is enough to make them stand out for what is purportedly a character study.

The format of the trade itself is annoying, lacking page numbers, clear issue breaks, and the original covers.

Walking Dead espouses a dangerous philosophy of life and an oppressive system of gender roles as natural, portrays bland white people in an inaccurate representation of Georgia, and adds very little to the movies from which it is derived. I don't recommend reading it and wonder why it has received such good press.
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  1. Interesting. I wouldn't be so hard on the book (at least I wouldn't have been the first time I read it) but some of your criticisms are spot on. In particular, the book's emphasis on reinforcing traditional gender roles. Especially Lori, who sometimes seems to exist only to embody one negative female archetype after another (whore, overbearing mother, weak, bitch, etc.) Race does play a factor in later volumes, though not as overtly as you'd guess.

    On the other hand, as a certain by-the-numbers brand of zombie fiction, it is a somewhat entertaining read. But overall it doesn't add much to the genre, though the potential is certainly there. The art does make a huge improvement in volume 2. I only made it 3 or so trades before giving up on the series, myself - they seemed to have a pretty set (and surprisingly boring) formula by then.

  2. Very interesting review. Unfortunately I cannot give you any of the feedback that you requested, having never sat down and read through a whole volume myself. I have, however, also heard an almost universal approval of the title like yourself. Having glanced through the book I wondered what all the fuss was about as the book seemed to do exactly what you suggested: retread the territory of Romero, but with less impressive results. Thanks for shedding some light on "The Walking Dead" for me.

  3. Well, I liked it...

    Mind you, not being American I wouldnt know anything about the inaccuracies with regards to the geography and population demographics. But the emphasis on gender roles...yeah, that's a bit grating.

    I read the oversized HC edition which is equivalent to two trade collections and I found it enjoyable enough to kill an hour.

  4. I've got to agree with you. The guy at the comic shop sold it to me with the line that everyone he's recommended it to "loved it", but I found it a bog-standard, derivative zombie story--nothing I haven't seen before in various formats a dozen times over.

  5. I agree. I thought the story was very dull and for some reason i just hated how the book was written. But, for some strange reason, i am left with this feeling that i want to read the next one to see what happens. I was sort of neutral when i read the end, i thought to my self "maybe ill get the next one who knows". But i know now that i'm probably not.

  6. I agree with every word of your review. The notion that every female character needed a strong male to look after them and the fact that this idea was presented matter of factly, both combined to make me quit reading. That, and the characters were dull as hell.

  7. I can't say I agree with your review. The 1st volume just sets up the overview, these are the characters and this is what they are in. The further you go along the more you feel for the characters and their plight. Yes the woman are at times portrayed with sexist stereo types, but placed in that situation what do you think would really happen, exactly that. Rick in the 1st volume is not who he is 2 volumes down the road let alone by volume #9 when he has done and had done to him horrible things to survive. The gender roles have some reworking, Andrea is openly admitted as the best marksmen of the group and later on Michone is arguably the best survivalist / warrior of all characters in the series. Yes it is not changing any aspects of the genre but it is a good read. As for the geographical inaccuracies, come on. You had no problem with the fact that zombies were walking the earth but show Atlanta surrounded by woods and you're in an up roar. It's a work of fiction, have fun with it.

  8. It took me a while to get into WD. I bought the first 2 vols at the same time. After I'd finished the first, I felt cross that I'd bothered to buy the second - but then I read it anyway and now I am hanging out to get the next volumes. At least give it til the end of the second volume before you make a final judgement.

  9. totally agree, thanks for proving i am not the only one who doesnt like the series :-)

  10. Hold on a second. Walking Dead is a series where you have to evaluate and re-evaluate each character as they deal with the weight of the trials and tribulations they've been subjected to. You're not going to experience that in the first 6 issues. The payoff for this series lies somewhat in its momentum, as the characters change over time. I'd also say that the first volume is by far the weakest, but its more chapter one than a finished work.

  11. The review focused too much on one aspect of the story telling, the beginning, and didn't delve deeper into the story once the characters had been more thoroughly developed. As there are only 25 pages or so per comic to tell the story, the characters will necessarily be developed slowly over time.