The Walking Dead, Book One [Buy Now]

Written by Robert Kirkman
Art by Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard
Image Comics
304 pages, $29.99

What if civilization were washed away and we had to go back to life as hunter-gatherers? Before civilization, as Hobbes reminded us, life was nasty, brutal, and short. After civilization falls, life may well go right back to the basic ugliness of survival. That’s what post-apocalyptic tales boil down to, whether nuclear winter, alien invasion, plague, or zombie hordes bring the human race to ruin: With the slate wiped clean, survivors must face nature and one another on terms not seen since the last major ice age.

That fantasy appeal has launched movie after movie with the same core elements — ragtag band of survivors must face horrific scenarios while wandering in search of food, shelter, and other survivors.

In The Walking Dead, zombie horror aficionado Robert Kirkland shifts the classic cinematic version of the survivors vs. the living dead story to the comic book format. His intent was simple: He wanted a story that would go on and on, a saga not resolved in 90 minutes of grainy film images. He wanted to explore how his shifting crew of characters (key characters die all the time and new ones are encountered on the road) change over time. What would the absence of civilization do to people, to families?

How would you raise your children to be good people in a world where zombies might lurch out of the woods at any moment to snack on them? Would you even want to raise them to be good people? In many ways, this plays on our own real-world modern anxieties. We may not have zombies to deal with, but we do have terrorism, unchecked global warming, torrential pollution, an ever-increasing divide between rich and poor, and the threat of human-induced extinctions of untold species unbalancing the ecosystem in ways we can’t predict.

Actually, in comparison, the zombie scenario might not be so bad. At least it’s clear what to do about zombies when they smash through the windows.

Kirkland places a Kentucky police officer named Rick Grimes at the center of his horror tale. The opening of the story, in which Rick ends up in a coma and wakes in a hospital bed after the zombie epidemic has already brought the whole world down, is a bit too familiar (2002’s 28 Days Later, e.g.). Lots of gore, desolation, and scrambling out of the clutches of mindless hordes of decomposing citizens later, Rick finds himself in the company of fellow survivors and gets the skinny on the new way of things. He also, if perhaps a bit soon, finds his wife and son among a handful of other survivors in all the chaos.

And so there we are, once more arranging ourselves into roaming bands of hunter-gatherers: human beings returning to their prehistoric roots.

Rick quickly becomes the heart of the group, taking command and leading them in the hope of finding a safe place where they could attempt a return to the kind of lives they knew in the pre-zombie era. The truly terrifying thought, of course, is that there may no longer be a place left for that, neither on the map nor in their Hell-shocked minds.

Book one of The Walking Dead is a handsome hardcover volume that collects issues one through 12 of the Image Comics series as well as a full-color cover gallery, pencil sketches, and other goodies in the back of the book.

The stark black, white, and gray tones of the artwork lend added depth to the moodiness of the story. Tony Moore saturates the faces of his characters with emotion: horror, revulsion, relief, and fleeting moments of happiness are palpable on the page. Even the weather is made expert use of in the illustrations and story — the wind and the rain tugging at hair, the solemn emptiness of landscapes white with new-fallen snow and only bare branches in the distance, and the still cold of a starlit night.

Aside from a few aforementioned stretches (zombies aside), the book has only minor flaws. The dialogue is occasionally stilted and grows a bit long at points in the story, but overall, The Walking Dead works well as a reflection on man in extremis as well as just being a good old dead-return-to-feast-on-the-living shock fest.