The Walking Dead kicks off its second season of television this week, but if that’s not enough zombie mania for you, we’ve got almost 90 issues of comics to sink our rotting teeth into. I enjoy both formats of the story for different reasons, but in honor of the much-anticipated TV premiere, I wanted to go back to the first comic arc that started it all, the first six issues of Robert Kirkman’s cult classic series, collected together as Days Gone Bye.
Reading the first arc of The Walking Dead might be an odd experience if your only prior encounters with zombies are the classic films. The series uses many of the classic zombie traits and devices to tell its story, but Kirkman is after something different here. Every zombie story should have some focus on the reaction of the living to the shambling of the dead, but The Walking Dead takes the horror character study to new levels. Apart from a few very well-chosen sequences, there aren’t many zombies roaming around. This doesn’t apply so much to issue #1, but by the time you’re into issue #2, the zombies become the exception and the living become the rule.
This leaves you with an almost unconscious feeling of suspense. The TV show plays it up to much greater effect, but Kirkman lets it linger in the background. He lets his characters talk to themselves, probably much like we would all do if we were stranded in a zombie apocalypse. They try to reason their way through the scenarios they’re in. They even try to ease the stress and the unyielding fear of their new world with humor and fond memories of what came before. There are few panels in this comic – drawn fiercely by Tony Moore (and Charlie Adlard after the first six) – that feature undead lurking around corners, lying in wait for the living. But we’re in the midst of a comic called The Walking Dead, which creates its own little aura of suspense. It runs like an almost invisible thread through the whole of the book, until Kirkman lets it crescendo out into flesh ripping terror at all the right moments.
But if it’s not all about the zombies, where’s the hook? How does this book become so addictive (which, believe me, it is)? It starts with how the story begins. Nearly every zombie story you’re likely to read or watch begins as the epidemic is beginning. You watch humanity fall and society collapse. It’s a big part of the vision, those moments when the people you love are devoured and you have to leave your home behind and head for the mall or the farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. The Walking Dead changes that. Rick Grimes, Kirkman’s hero, isn’t around to watch the world die. He’s in a coma. He wakes up to find the world has passed him by, and the majority of the population is now shambling undead. There’s no slow realization that something awful is happened. It’s already happened. It’s the permanent condition now. There’s a moment, after all the chaos of getting out of his hospital and on to find other humans, when Rick – sitting by a campfire – begins to shake. He remarks that it’s the first moment when he’s had time to be scared. It’s that kind of world.
It’s that kind of approach that draws you in, but what keeps you there is Kirkman’s “no one is safe” mentality. Characters are regularly subjected to torment and death, and half of what makes it compelling is not how, but why these things happen. In so many zombie stories the undead just keep closing in until they overwhelm the living. Kirkman’s characters certainly deal with hordes of undead throughout the series, but half of their misery is brought on by their own faults, by the stress of simply having to exist in a world where things that used to be just like you want nothing more than to knaw at your throat.
The Walking Dead has often been termed a horror character study, but that’s not saying enough. Every zombie story is a character study in some way, because every zombie story – including this one – is a variation on the same theme: take some humans, put them in a situation where they have to contend with zombies, see how long it takes for them to crumble. The Walking Dead does this, but it moves, it flows from place to place, scenario to scenario. It goes deeper than most zombie stores ever hope to, if only because of its length. The result is a panoramic view of the zombie genre, for many the ultimate zombie story.