The Walking Dead: Volumes 1-4 - Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard & Cliff Rathburn

Robert Kirkman tackles that most American of apocalypses: the zombie plague.

Feature by Bram Gieben | 15 Jul 2006

George A. Romero's 50s masterpiece 'The Night of The Living Dead' propelled the zombie into popular consciousness. Since then a host of writers have used the theme. The 80s saw a tendency towards extreme gore; more recently 'Shaun of the Dead' gave the genre a comic spin. What many zombie films, books and comics take from Romero is a rich vein of social commentary. Each instalment of his 'Dead' films has touched on some social issue, such as race relations, consumerism, militarism or class war.

The zombie plague is a very American apocalypse: characters are stripped of their families, only to see them rise up again as enemies. The things on which they depend - hospitals, schools, the government - are gone, usually leaving but one core American value: the right to bear arms. This is one of the key themes in Robert Kirkman's smash-hit comic 'The Walking Dead'.

Right from the start, guns are a central theme. When Rick (the "hero" of the piece) arrives at the camp where his wife and son have taken refuge he brings shotguns with him. Initially used for hunting, they are very quickly pointed at supposed friends and allies. Later on in Volume 3, when the small band of survivors reach a place to hide, control of arms again becomes a key theme, facilitating betrayals, murders, suicides, and brutal frontier justice.

The cast of characters is a racial, social and class mix. The beauty of the series is watching Kirkman break down the characters' assumptions and postures as their situation becomes more desperate. We see Rick's heroic actions become vengeful and authoritarian; we see those with positive religious attitudes reduced to nihilism in their grief. You can't help but suspect that Kirkman is showing us the hero to make his fall more tragic.

The zombie trope is cleverly subverted: in 'TWD' if you die, you become a zombie, whether bitten or not. This gives great dramatic impact to Rick's speech in Volume 4, where he declares: "We are the walking dead." Rick's assertion is that their fate is sealed; all they can do is stay alive. There is no going back to reality, to a 'normal' America. There is just the survival instinct, and the slow erosion of civilised values.

Artwork throughout the four volumes is black and white, giving an almost documentary feel to the proceedings, and the huge cast is skilfully drawn. Telling characters apart is rarely a problem, as can often be the bane of greyscale books. 'TWD' is lovingly rendered, each page capturing the tiny looks of doubt and despair on characters' faces. This is a delicate, subtle book, for all its blood and gore - a painstaking depiction of the slow disintegration of a small community thrown together by hardship, slowly realising that the biggest danger they face is each other.

The Walking Dead Volumes: 1-4' collects issues 1-24. Published by Image Comics. Cover Price £8.99
'The Walking Dead' monthly series Ð Issue 28 out in July, available from Deadhead Comics.