We're very nearly on the verge of being overwhelmed by zombies—in more ways than one.
DaybreakPublisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Length: 160 pages
Author: Brian Ralph
Publication date: 2011-09
We're very nearly on the verge of being overwhelmed by zombies—in more ways than one. Some might argue it's already happened. Monsters go in and out of vogue, of course, and vampires have been enjoying a solid run of late, but my utterly nonscientific sniff-o-meter is registering that zombies have overtaken them for the number one spot. They’ve been making a solid show of it in everything from books (World War Z, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), movies (Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, the various George Romera Dead flicks), comics (The Walking Dead) and TV (The Walking Dead, again). Even erotica has seen the publication of something called Sex Zombies, I kid you not. (Look it up. You know you want to.) We may be nearing the limits of tolerance for zombie stories, if we haven't passed it already.
Now comes Daybreak, a slickly-produced hardcover graphic novel from Brian Ralph, whose previous work was Cave-In, a hundred-page comic that tells the story of an underground-dwelling mole-man entirely without words, eschewing dialogue and narration. Daybreak doesn’t go that far—there's plenty of dialogue here—but it does rely on long wordless passages to convey much of the action. Given that this is a post-apocalyptic zombie story, much of that action involves running away from awful things, digging through rubble, and occasionally fighting for one's life.
Most important, though, is the question: is Ralph bringing anything new with his rendition of the zombie takeover?
The answer is a qualified yes. Raph's clever structural trick is to make the familiar trope of the walking dead into a second-person narrative—the reader is a participant in the action, albeit a silent one (or at least, one whose dialogue remains absent from the page). So characters peer out from their panels directly at you, the reader, and speak to you directly, and include you in the action. Sometimes, the action is something you'd probably want to avoid, but there's no choice in the matter: their world is yours, too. It's a good technique to draw the reader in, and probably the single most engaging element in the book.
Apart from that initial surprise, though, there's not a whole lot new here. The rubble-strewn landscape, with its endless vistas of rocks and lumber and broken-down machinery, hides a numberless horde of zombies and a few plucky survivors. The reader is one of the latter, and ends up having much more to do with fellow survivors than with the walking dead. The last remnants of humanity scramble to find food and shelter while staying out of sight of both the zombies and the potentially-even-more-sinister fellow survivors. (There is one entirely predictable encounter with a bearded old man whose got some ugly secrets locked up in his shelter. Nothing too surprising here.)
An overly familiar story suffering from a thinness of plot might be saved by rich, evocative artwork, but that's not the case here. Ralph's drawings are cartoony and monochrome, simple sepia-toned line drawings that manage (usually) to convey what's going on. Crosshatching and fine line work create textures, often evoking old-fashioned wood-block printing. At times this suggests a certain primitive aesthetic and, perhaps, subtly underscores the new dark ages in which civiilization now finds itself.
The style is curiously static, though, considering all the action flaring up from time to time. Worse than that, the artwork also grows repetitive, with little that stands out for the reader's eye to engage upon. The monotonous panel structure—six square panels per page, every page, two across and three down—adds to the dullness. Again, there may be a thematic reason for the regularity; in the grand scheme of things, hunting every day for food and a safe place to hide would get monotonous. The trick, though, is to convey this to the reader without causing him or her to feel it, too.
Besides all this, there are moments where the simple artwork couples with the second-person point of view to render some sequences visually confusing. Because "you" are the character experiencing these events, Ralph limits the perspective to what you would see in a given situation—running for your life, for example—but sometimes this results in confusion. Admittedly, in real life this would probably result in confusion too, but it merely adds to the frustration for the reader at certain key moments in the story.
Ultimately, this book feels thin, despite its 160 pages and satisfying heft. It moves fast and can be read in an hour, but it leaves little impact. Without the visceral scares of a film or the linguistic complexity of a novel, a comic must rely on the interplay of word and image to generate its impact. That's what's missing here—the images are too simple to be terrifying, and the situations are too familiar to linger long in the mind. There may be life in the zombie genre yet, but Daybreak fails to make a convincing case.