OBSOLETE THING…MUST BE EXPUNGED!
Instead of gearing up for another season of AMC’s The Walking Dead by reading through Robert Kirkman & Charlie Adlard’s source material yet again, I thought I would delve into some of the recent weirder…more “hipster” takes on the undead phenomenon. For the last nine years (I’m gonna give credit to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later) we have been flooded with zombie story after zombie story. For a brief period there zombies even seemed to be more popular than those lovelorn vampires; we were living in a new golden age of horror where it was safe again to cheer on flesheaters without fear of mainstram ridicule, but then came Twilight with its mopey sparklers and blah, blah, blah, blah. Still, those six episodes of the AMC show have brought new enthusiasm to the munchers again, and have even brought more readers to the utterly brilliant Image comic series. Seriously, if you’re not reading The Walking Dead than you are missing out on some of the finest (and bleakest) horror fiction out there. But, like I said, I’m not here to continue the Kirkman strokefest. I want to introduce you bastards to a couple of indie darlings attempting something new with the living dead.
Illustrator Brian Ralph has been garnering lots of indie cred lately with books like Cave-In and Climbing Out snatching up all kinds of Eisners, Harveys, and Ignatz awards. I’ve passively enjoyed his work for a while, but had not really mustered up great gobs of enthusiasm until his latest book hit the stands. Daybreak, published by Drawn & Quarterly, is a remarkable post-apocalyptic survival saga that’s less about The Land of the Dead and more about the tiny decisions behind munching down on canned cream corn or canned dog food. The zombies themselves are barely visible in the book, they’re just backdrop to the day-to-day horror in which our characters must endure. When they do show up it’s mostly rotting hands reaching from beyond the panels or shuffling feet cresting over hilltops. A constant threat that will inevitable pay off.
What truly sets Daybreak apart from other books is its silent, first person point of view that has the effect of transforming the reader into a helpless main character. You wake up and a rather cheery, one-armed man is telling you that it will be dark soon, join him in his makeshift cave. From here on out, you’re partners. On the neverending quest for food, you must fend yourself from the occasional perimeter zombie and the once-in-a-while encounter with your fellow man. Daybreak like the best Romero or Romero-imitator knows that man is the true threat, and you should always be weary of a guy driving a tank, a tractor, or an RV. Those are vehicles for the mentally unbalanced.
Brian Ralph is a cute cartoonist. His characters have a touch of that ‘Lil Orphan Annie quality, even when they’re sad or mutilated and covered in blood they look happy…or at least content with their station. My favorite two pages in the book happen early; a horde of zombies are attempting to storm the storage bin and our one-armed friend has to swing wildly with a hatchet to keep them on the other side of the door. He succeeds, drenched in gore, slides his back against the door to the floor, takes a chug of closet wine. The little fella looks beat, but it just is what it is. Ralph’s comic strip art makes the most extraordinary horrors look so ordinary. And that’s why Daybreak is worth the read. Books like The Walking Dead are filled with such gravitas; Daybreak might not be the type of book that will keep you up at night, but it does give you a sense that this is the kinda boring awful your life would be when the dead rise. Boring as a positive? Yep. Trust me.
Now, Richard Sala’s The Hidden is a stunningly creepy book. The End of the World has happened. Cities have gone up in flames, the birds have fallen from the skies, and well-dressed ghouls stalk the streets butchering those in their path. A couple of survivors, Tom & Colleen, come down from the mountains to witness the horror. In a cave system, they discover an old man who appears to have lost his memory despite knowing just where they can hide from the monsters of world’s end. Can they trust him? As it goes with most zombie tales, probably not.
Sala’s art style is similarly cartoony to Brian Ralph’s but where Ralph’s characters never seem to lose their cheery charm, Sala’s victims when met with total horror reflect the ugliness of the situation. They go from simple and cute to simple and hideous. Probably the most unsettling moment of the book depicts one of the early flesheating outbreaks in which dozens of horny old cocktailers begin to ravage the flesh of their young guests. Having read fifty pages of scared, but somewhat Tintin looking characters suddenly transform into gnashing monstrosities is unnerving to say the least. The cuteness of the art turns on you, it becomes ugly, brutal and there is no going back.
The Hidden is not a straight up zombie story; Sala attempts to throw in as many genre tropes as he can mixing up the Romero with some mad doctor Frankenstein, maybe some frontier Ravenous, a little Clockwork Orange…or is that a dash of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games? Whatever the case of inspiration, the result is a beautiful bit of ugly horror with Dapper Dan flesheaters, mad (sometimes hunchbacked) scientists, stir crazy golf enthusiasts, and free flowing blood geysers.
Sometimes the more cynical readers of the Big Two (Marvel & DC) will venture out to smaller publishers like Image for The Walking Dead or Spawn or whatever, but they’ll stay away from some of these more hipstery looking independents. And sometimes they’re wise to do so. But there is a lot of great stuff out there and both Daybreak and The Hidden are well worth your time if you’re looking for something a little fresh from the zombie genre.
IT’S BIG BOOTAY!
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