The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye by Robert Kirkman & Tony Moore
In his introduction to The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman explains that the best zombie stories feature waves of blood but also come with strong undercurrents of social commentary. If the back of this graphic novel is to be believed, Kirkman will explore how “in a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally start living.”
Kirkman mentions George Romero’s zombie movies in his introduction, but his take on the zombie is more than homage to Romero’s movies. While Romero’s zombies often satirize our consumer culture, Kirkman’s undead are presented in contrast to our complacent “lifestyles.” The walking dead literally hunger for life, while most of Kirkman’s readers, it seems, merely endure it.
So it is no surprise that “Days Gone Bye,” the first story in The Walking Dead series, begins when Officer Rick Grimes wakes up from a coma. His return to life is paradoxically, but not coincidentally, a return to a world dominated by the walking dead. Artist Tony Moore depicts Rick, survivor of the mundane world, in straight, efficient lines, but this flat representation of the living stands in stark contrast to the walkers, who are always depicted in fantastic, gory detail. They claw for attention, and it is no surprise that they get all of the best splash pages when “Days Gone Bye” begins.
However, as Rick’s quest unfolds, he slowly transforms, as does the depiction of the living. Rick travels to Atlanta, only to discover that the walkers have overrun the city. There, Rick meets Glenn, another survivor. In the mundane world, Rick was “just” a cop and Glenn was “just” a pizza deliveryman. Now, Rick is evolving into a leader and Glenn is exalted for his ability to deliver goods. Their proximity to death leaves both Glenn and Rick greater than they ever dreamed of being in the mundane world. They have become heroes, and they slowly earn the right to a more detailed, albeit more grizzled, depiction.
Glenn leads Rick to his camp, where Rick is reunited with his wife, his son, and his old partner, Shane.
As “Days Gone Bye” progresses, it questions whether proximity to death and desperation really forces people to “finally start living.” In his introduction, Kirkman suggests that his social commentary will explore the “social fabric” of our lives, and what stands out in these pages is that the social fabric of our lives consists of mundane details. It takes time, but the mundane world eventually works its way out of the nine-panel page to its own splash page: a laundry line of clothes drying at the end of the day. Though dull, it remains the world that most of Kirkman’s survivors long for, and Moore finally adds detail and beauty to the mundane world.
The transformation of the artwork makes sense, especially given that these heroes would trade all of their heroism for things like supermarket cleansers. Rick might enjoy teaching his son to fire a gun more than he lets on, but he does so because he longs for a safe world in which to raise his family. It should not come as a surprise that the final panel of this graphic novel depicts Rick holding his son.
Our world may sometimes strike us as boring, but graphic novels like The Walking Dead remind us to appreciate it. “Days Gone Bye” offers readers an escape from society’s cleansers and its shopping malls: the zombies are gross, the violence is plentiful, and the gore is never more than a page away. However, the real achievement of “Days Gone Bye” is that it is able to inspire in the reader a sense of nostalgia for the world we already live in.
Before THE WALKING DEAD became a hugely popular television show, it was a hugely popular black-and-white comic book series. I have Volume 1: Days Gone Bye which includes the first story arc – one that appeared in the first six issues of the original comic. Days Gone Bye is scary, gross, and downright horrific. It grapples with close-to-home themes like family and how far you’d go for the ones yo love. It’s also a gory and sometimes dismal take on the zombie infection story. I’ve seen the first season of the television show of the same name and for me the comics are a far superior and more compelling story.
I can’t speak for the later comics, but this volume has some stunning art. To me, in principle, the black-and-white style seemed at odds with the horror aspect, but in practice it is nearly flawless. Colour is not needed here to convey the strong emotions the story calls for. The zombies are disgusting and terrifying, the survivors are scared and believable, and the settings are crisp and real. The lack of colour in the pages is not a lack at all, as the line work is deliberate and careful in telling the visual story.
They may have had an easy go of it given that this story is set in our modern day, but the world in which flesh-eating zombies are real is extremely believable in its gravity. It’s a dark, sad story in which much of humanity has died and come back to consume the survivors. What levity there is hardly ever acknowledges the monstrosities that used to be loved ones and instead focusses on good times, good days, or triumphs in survival. In Days Gone Bye there is very quickly a sense that everyone has experienced deep and profound loss; however, we also sometimes get a fleeting idea of how each character is dealing with that loss extremely differently.
It is the different kinds of coping with the world that lends a depth to each of the characters in Days Gone Bye. There are some characters who are clearly struggling with things like PTSD, profound guilt, and other mental challenges in the face of what the world has become around them. There are also characters who grimly march on, or who seem oddly unfazed by most of what is happening around them. These reactions solidified the characters as human, as well as piqued my interest and prompted me to keep reading. How these flawed and hurt people were going to deal with future challenges was something that kept me reading.
The main problem I had with Days Gone Bye was the amount of drama. I personally am not one for inter-human conflict, and Days Gone Bye had plenty to go around. From the prudish older woman who sees the others as godless to the ex-cop who constantly needs to assert his dominance in the group, I found myself bored with their inner-group squabbles and looking forward to the next ‘real’ challenge they needed to face. This type of drama did not make it a bad story, but I would look at THE WALKING DEAD as more of a drama with some science fiction ideas than the other way around.
Having seen the corresponding episodes to this portion of the comic, I would absolutely recommend the comics over the television show. To me, the story is better suited to the visual print medium where atmosphere is built with the incredible line work and smart dialogue rather than the overtly gritty narrative portrayed in the show. I also find the characters in the show to be utterly insufferable, whereas the comic tends to lend the entire premise and characters more gravity. Overall, my preference is for the comic in that showdown.
THE WALKING DEAD: Days Gone Bye is a visually stunning and engaging beginning to what I feel safe in assuming is a dynamic, drama-filled series of stories about survivors in a dying zombie wasteland. I look forward to reading the rest, even if I take a pass on the show.
Great review! I’m not a fan of horror overall because of my early exposure to horror films, but I’ve become interested in the genre because of horror comics, which take out the unnerving music and surprise elements of horror films that bother me so much. Horror comics leave, as you make clear in your review, the parts that intelligent fans of horror have been telling me for years: there are thematic points that can be made through horror that can’t be made in any other way. I think you do an excellent job of explaining how this comic does have thematic depth. I’ve had a copy of this volume on my shelf for a few years now, but feel ready to read it now that I’ve seen your review. I’ve already learned to love Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, and the horrific elements in Sandman; I hope to add Walking Dead to that list. Thanks, Ryan!
Yes, I agree with this and I liked what Ryan said at the end of his reviews. Perhaps what I like best about horror (not the gory kind — I never read that) is that it makes me feel so good about the real world, or at least the part of it I live in.
Speaking of horror and the real world: Ryan, I hope you will be okay up there in the path of the hurricane. Be safe!