Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Unhappy Campers - Kirkman, Moore & Adlard's The Walking Dead

Zombies. I love 'em. Can't get enough of them.

The birth of the current strain of post-apocalyptic zombie story can be traced back to George A. Romero's landmark 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead and the moment when a doofus in specs (looking not unlike one of the Proclaimers) lurched around a graveyard saying "I'm coming to get you, Barbara!" The joke was on him. Within minutes, he was zombie food.

If Night of the Living Dead was the first born child of the zombie apocalypse, then travel that line a little bit further back and you hit that child's bloodthirsty progenitor - Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend. Whilst the relentless creatures at the dark heart of Matheson's novel are vampires rather than zombies, all of the major tropes of zombie fiction are already here: rapid societal collapse; a devastating and largely unavoidable pandemic; survival; and the concept of the enemy as something that used to be us (and, equally terrifying, something that we can still become).

(I won't veer off into a reflection on the subsequent movie adaptations of Matheson's novel - The Omega Man or the recent Will Smith version - because that would be one digression too many for this little ol' blog post).

Since Romero's original Dead film, the zombie movie has thrived and proliferated, currently enjoying a particularly fertile period with variable results. But they all fit to the same basic templates, largely due to the time constraints of a feature-length movie. You've got about 90 minutes to get in, unleash the flesh-hungry critters on your rag-tag band of random survivors, throw some gore at the screen, and get out again. And there's your movie. There are a lot of different ways to play that particular tune, but the skeleton of the story is essentially the same.

But what if you could dispense with that limitation? What if you could stretch that time frame to do more than just set-up your scenario as an excuse for bursts of gut-munching and decapitations? And that's when you start looking at other mediums better suited to the slow-burn.

Which leads me to Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's monthly comics series from Image Comics - The Walking Dead. (Tony Moore was there for the initial six-issue arc, with Adlard taking over from there). I enjoyed the first two volumes of the book, but there was a slight feeling of been-there, done-that even though there was a great deal to enjoy and the execution of the story was exemplary, because the first two books are familiar exercises in world-building in the early days of a Grave New World. But I wasn't completely and utterly hooked until Volume 3 - Safety Behind Bars got its rotting teeth into me, because that was the point where I really started to see the bigger picture.

Unlike the majority of zombie movies, where the living are almost as disposable and loosely sketched as the shambling undead, The Walking Dead is all about the long game. Kirkman follows the lives of an ever-changing group of survivors from the moment that the zombie apocalypse begins and continues forward over a growing period of time. There is no end point. We can follow the characters as they fight and change, adapt and survive, live and die - month after month, year after year. The stories work better when the zombies are the set-dressing and the living are foregrounded.

And that's what makes The Walking Dead such an outstanding piece of work. The real enemy isn't the unending supply of gnashing corpses. The enemy is the living. We see survivors under stress and the terrible and wonderful things that people can do to and for each other in order to survive. And because we have the opportunity to spend time with them and get to know them, every casualty is more keenly felt. It's not just an expendable cast member for a cool sight gag involving unravelling entrails.

Don't get me wrong - Kirkman and Adlard leave plenty of space for horror and excitement and fun and surprises. But they still get to grips with the practical minutiae of living in a world where civilisation as we know it has ceased to exist and they make it compelling. And the best thing about comics? Unlimited budget means unlimited imagination. A shot of two talking heads costs the same to create as a rampaging horde of zombies replete with dripping jaws and flying extremities.

Kirkman plays by Romero Rules - the dead are slow and mindless; you can "turn" without a bite (natural death will still provide the same end result); and Romero's Cardinal Rule - Never, ever explain how it happened. Zombie stories that try to provide some sort of rational or scientific explanation for the apocalypse always somehow diminishes the story. I can't overstate the allure of the Unknown. If you subtract the "Why?", everything else is so much more unnerving.

I'm a late-comer to The Walking Dead, and I burned my way through the first nine volumes of Kirkman's ongoing epic in the space of a week. Can't wait for the next one.

The Walking Dead is available in monthly installments from all good comic shops, or in a variety of collected editions from fine purveyors of printed matter.

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