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.