The Winnipeg Free Press | Kenton Smith | August 12, 2011
DAYBREAK reviewed by Uptown, “gripping” and “potent”
"Good news. Bad news. There’s a bunch of them out there."
You’d expect such dialogue in a good zombie thriller — or at least one that sticks close to the recurring essence of this particular fictional subgenre. Beginning with director George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), zombie movies have repeatedly featured characters facing down the slobbering undead, often while holed up in some (sometimes temporary) stronghold. If they’re not barricaded, it’s best to keep moving.
That’s also the essential structure of Brian Ralph’s graphic novel Daybreak, which after the Zombie Walk and Halloween still sits in fine bookstores everywhere, ready to provide a reliable fix for insatiable walking dead heads. Tense and downbeat, it delivers everything one could reasonably want from a good zombie thriller, whatever the medium. At the same time, it nicely illustrates the uniqueness of comics as non-moving pictures, plus words.
As the story opens, we’re plunged headlong into a still-recent zombie apocalypse, wherein the food in the backs of abandoned trucks hasn’t yet spoiled. Ralph’s gimmick is, the tale unfolds from the POV of the reader — who’s literally placed in the thick of the action. "This way," says the book’s never-named young hero, as we descend to his rude underground shelter.
From there, we’re almost literally dragged along as our primary companion scavenges for food and repels attacks, not only from the undead — to whom he’s already lost one limb — but equally dangerous fellow survivors. The overriding theme of Romero’s Dead series was the propensity of the living to eat each other, and the same cynical assessment of human nature is dramatized here.
Punctuating the tense action are several nice, macabre details, like a head found in a bed, a machete embedded in it. Or another body, its head seemingly crushed by a cabinet, which twitches — revealing it to be a still-active brain-muncher. Such moments also reflect the book’s dark streak of humour.
One of Ralph’s most striking choices is to visualize the zombies almost entirely in shadows and flashes; one taut moment features a mad dash through a zombie-inhabited room, in which not a single ghoul is shown. Reducing the beasties to an ever-present spectre of doom effectively heightens the suspense.
Yet one of the most nightmarish bits involves the reader’s own sprint through a forest of zombies. As in the most vivid of nightmares, the terror feels immediate and visceral — yet nonetheless still-vague and detached.
It’s the best utilization Ralph makes of his unique POV device, which similarly evokes dreaming in another memorable moment, concerning the fate of a fellow human survivor. One of comics’ unique strengths is the ability to emphasize isolated moments in time, and the abrupt juxtaposition of two key panels shows what impact is possible precisely by not displaying real time action.
The cartoonish nature of Ralph’s art also serves as counterpoint to the action’s grisly reality, even though it blunts the edge only so far. Daybreak remains a potent graphic novel treatment of reliably gripping material.
By Brian Ralph
(Drawn and Quarterly)