It's official: the zombie plague has spread into literary comics. This season, publishers Drawn and Quarterly and Fantagraphics offer two different takes on the end of the world, both of which succeed in pushing the boundaries of horror comics while remaining true to the genre's strengths.
Infecting something new into zombie apocalypse comics isn't easy, as The Walking Dead casts a far shadow. What Brian Ralph has done with Daybreak (Drawn and Quarterly), though, is an impressive creative feat, and it's a spark of new life in the well-dug grave of the zombie subgenre. When I first received the hardcover book (it officially releases later this month), I was intrigued enough by the claustrophobic cover to take it out with me that night and read it while I shared drinks with an understanding friend. Then I read it while I ate dinner, and then I brought it home with me and read it in bed, staying up until I finished. Daybreak is fantastic. The brown-and-white-colored book opens jarringly with a character saying, "Hello. It'll be dark soon. Better come with me." The one-armed boy speaks directly facing the reader, and it's here where artist and author Brian Ralph establishes what sets Daybreak apart from its contemporaries: it's a first-person POV graphic novel, with the reader playing the part of the silent protagonist. The reader is often referred to but never in a precious or ham-handed manner, and the narrative device is successful enough to cause legitimate dread in the reader, especially in a scene in which you are sent outside at night to procure gasoline.
"Take the flashlight," you are told. "We leave in ten minutes with or without you." What follows are five pages and 30 panels of wordless terror. The flashlight casts a glow that captures rubble and, eventually, the bottom half of legs and dangling arms belonging to a pack of undead lurkers. And then you drop the flashlight. Welcome to Daybreak, one of the most engrossing comics of the year. The reader meets a grand total of three characters (and a dog) on the make-a-break-for-it journey across a limited patch of zombie-infested wasteland, yet it's thoroughly complex, harrowing, funny, and hopeless. Ralph's character designs are simple (tattered clothes, beads for eyes, occasional facial hair), ensuring that they never get in the way of an old fashioned horror story with a new twist. Ralph is all show and never tell, not bothering to "solve" the zombie plague or waste any space with long-winded exposition. The last two pages will leave you checking the locks on your bedroom door.
The apocalypse in Richard Sala's The Hidden is of a much stranger kind. The reader is left to rely on the word of several quasi-reliable characters who claim the world is ending before committing terrible acts upon others. In typical Richard Sala fashion, plots are introduced and then dropped once the scene has run its course--case in point: a blood orgy witnessed by two caterers. Glen and Sally watch as a roomful of party-goers literally tear themselves apart in the name of world's end. The two flee the scene and come across another troupe of bewildered survivors, and the bloodstained party is never mentioned again. Sala consistently introduces red-cheeked, innocent characters and then puts them through the meat-grinder, and in The Hidden he plays with mad science. Unlike Daybreak, Sala's novel features plenty of "tell," because if it's one thing mad scientists enjoy, it's expository dialogue. There are gorgeous single-panel pages filled with huge dialogue balloons, and it's to the author and illustrator's credit that it's always a hoot; Sala is a professional when it comes to tongue-in-cheek visuals (the friendly looking characters with spilled intestines) and storytelling.
As the band of survivors discover what appears to be safe haven, they are routinely picked off until the reader learns the true nature of the structure in the valley of the canyon and its inhabitants. Its ending is just as abrupt as Daybreak, but it leaves ample room for a welcome continuation. The lushly colored package is vintage Fantagraphics, of course.
Zombies, cannibals, and patchwork corpses--not at all what readers may expect from these two publishers, and yet the versatility of the creators involved and the production values on display make for B-movie reads that feel like indie darlings.