Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Total Immersion: Daybreak

Brian Ralph came to prominence with the publication of Cave-In, a wordless story that followed the adventures of a monkey-like character exploring an underground kingdom. It was the clearest distillation of the Fort Thunder group of artists inspired by video games, role playing games, super hero comic books and fine art, wherein the environment is every bit as important as the characters, if not more so.  Daybreak (originally published as a series of three magazine-sized comics by Bodega) transplants this aesthetic to the zombie genre, thrusting the reader into the story by making them a silent character whose first-person view dominates the story.  In this manner, Daybreak mimics the action of a first-person shooter where one's character avatar is entirely off-screen.

What makes the book such a chilling read is that most of the action, and the zombies themselves, are also seen off-screen.  We only get shadowy views of the monsters and charred arms and legs sticking through doors and windows. There is no explanation given as to what caused their emergence or how the world got to be the way it is. It's simply assumed that the reader understands what's going on, and this implied understanding cleverly dovetails with Ralph's skill in quickly bringing a reader up to date with exactly what's at stake in the first few pages of the story. We're introduced to our fellow protagonist, a cheery one-armed man who graciously shares his possessions with you as you move from one charred, burnt-out environment to the next. Every panel is filled with rubble, broken objects and just plain stuff--the detritus of civilization. 

Ralph slowly amps up the action as we learn that it's our fellow humans that are the real cause of concern, not just zombies. Ralph heightens tension with any number of tricks: a driving rainstorm that darkens each panel for several pages. We tumble around the page as a car the one-armed man is driving with you in it tumbles over and over after an accident. The unseen protagonist and their friend are captured by a lunatic who plans to feed them to his "family", a group of zombies he had in his attic. The one-armed man is bitten, leaving the reader/protagonist with a horrible decision to make: when do they kill their former friend? The final page is especially unsettling, because it's unclear just how far along the one-armed man is in becoming a zombie, as we see his facial expression change subtly from panel to panel in a manner that suggests the spark of humanity is still in his burnt-out eyes--but for who knows how long?

Backstory is irrelevant here, because the only narrative that matters is being alive. The question that Ralph poses is what does humanity mean in a world that's the apotheosis of Thomas Hobbes--nasty, brutish and short?  With no laws and no rules, what does ethics mean in this world? Ralph suggests that one's choices while one is still human are the only thing that matters. The one-armed man still wound up as a zombie despite his generosity, but at least he wasn't a head-toting lunatic like the man who tried to kill him with his "family."  Ralph puts the reader through the wringer in scenes where the unseen protagonist is wandering around in the dark with a flashlight before discovering a gang of zombies after he spies only their legs. The frequently silent storytelling approach is doubly immersive: we are immersed in this world thanks to the details in each panel, and we are immersed in how to negotiate this world thanks to panel-to-panel transitions, black-outs, and quick cuts. Ralph's storytelling is absolutely masterful, filling the reader with dread and fear even as he injects moments of hope and black humor, alternating between blindingly quick moments of violence and languid looks around the environment. When the unseen protagonist is unconscious, the story goes on without them, a disorienting but effective technique that helps break tension at particular junctions while resetting it at the same time.The tiniest victories have a great resonance in this story, even as each defeat feels like a harbinger of inevitable doom. The six panel grid works nicely to keep the pace of the story steady, though I did miss the bigger pages of the original comic.

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