Zombies are everywhere. From movies to television shows, video games to comics, their ubiquity means many people are aware of the rules associated with them. Despite how these tales describe modern society as terribly unequipped and unprepared to deal with a zombie outbreak, chances are that if one were to really occur, many would know how to react accordingly thanks to the genre’s pervasiveness. Pity to the unsuspecting people, then, who would have to deal with such a predicament in a society that is far from modern. Based in the late 1800s, this is the narrative foundation for Dead or Alive #1. The sharp title is referential to both the bounty that is set on the main antagonist (that, in turn, gets our intrepid trio wrapped up in the proceedings) as well as the ambiguous nature of his status after a shaman curses him with the something akin to the zombie virus. With a serious lack of technological advancement and no knowledge or familiarity with the undead subject matter, the situation is likely to be never-endingly tense for these characters.
Successful zombie-based stories tend to balance taut character drama with scores of raw action. Witnessing how unsuspecting people deal with unreasonably trying times is a potentially great well to draw from. Similarly, while violence could counter that thoughtfulness, it can also prove to be a great vehicle for portraying emotions in ways that words cannot. Dead or Alive #1 so far fumbles both of these opportunities.
There are certainly some bright spots in character interaction (eg. the scads of unique agenda-driven factions should make for some grand standoffs down the road), but as this is the first issue, the outbreak is only just beginning. Any substantial character development to be had from it is relegated to later issues. Most of the established characters are neither fleshed out, nor mysterious, nor charmingly aloof enough to be engaging.
Of the three main protagonists out to capture the dangerous bounty, one is a down-on-his-luck gambler who’s only in it for the money. One is an easily impressionable friend that agrees to the farfetched and genuinely imbecilic plan just for the sake of being defiant. (Reacting exactly like a child who doesn’t understand what’s best for their safety, he’s of the “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” ilk.) It’s difficult to support these first two characters because selfishness and greed are the root of their vigilantism. With no backgrounds revealed, we don’t know if they intend to use the prospective reward for anything other than the vices they’ve mentioned.
Thankfully, the last of the trio operates with something of a moral compass. She is the sole character so far with even the faintest semblance of a background story. And while her vigilantism is certainly driven by revenge (a quality many can relate to), her sense of justice makes the rest of the vanilla cast tolerable.
While the potential for great character drama remains, the hope for any decent action wavers, as it’s poorly displayed and difficult to follow. For example, in one instance, one character tackles another. It’s a simple scene, but you don’t see the former charge toward the latter, or the point of contact. Instead, you’re left with the two characters lying on the ground, after the fact. Without any build up or middle ground, there is no pay off; there is no sense of motion. This scene, and the many like it, ends up feeling lifeless and clunky. Unfortunately, the rest of the presentation is as full of missteps as it is achievements.
The art is dolefully inconsistent as character details, like facial hair, disappear and reappear panel to panel. Moreover, the perspective is particularly suspect. Characters are sometimes illustrated well enough that they represent the adults they’re intended to be. More often than not, however, these same characters then get depicted with elongated torsos and unnaturally short appendages. (Anytime characters are shown with outstretched, but strangely short arms, they begin to resemble small children.) To compound that, there’s an astonishing lack of depth. During an action sequence, a gun is tossed into the air and you’re given a top-down view of the scene. Unfortunately, it appears as though the gun, which should feel like it’s flying toward you, is just lying on the ground (and is amusingly huge).
In addition to how flat everything looks, the background scenery switches on a whim from nicely detailed lining to almost rough draft-quality sketching. Interestingly, even some of the more detailed settings seem unfinished. The difference is that these feel unintentionally incomplete and take away from what any panel is trying to accomplish. Conversely, the coarser, simpler backgrounds actually benefit the presentation, framing what is important in the scene with great focus. When the art manages to be what it intends to be, it’s beautiful. Character faces are expressive and the various colors used are vibrant, yet surprisingly fitting given the Western theme – there are plenty of vast, sandy deserts to traverse, any residences are spaced to the point of seclusion, and the one town present is practically bare. Each of these desolate elements offers a very lonely tone to add to the tension and they are illustrated spectacularly.
Hopefully, the gravity of these characters’ situation is soon realized. Zombie apocalypses are unique in that, while patently absurd, the concept that one could happen is so prevalent that when you witness it in fiction, it’s inevitable to compare how you would react under the same circumstances. Many of Dead or Alive’s readers should be familiar with the zombie genre and its basic rules, so it’s easy to become exasperated with characters who make foolish and obviously self-destructive decisions.
(True to form, the characters’ problems so far are borne from exceedingly poor decision-making. A character attempts to stop a determined, rabid attacker by haphazardly jumping in front of them. Not jumping at them, mind you. Jumping in front of them. It’s nothing but suicidal and, so far, aside from one main character, I would be fine with anyone here falling victim to the cursed outbreak.)
In order for this story to achieve its potential, it needs to counteract the frustratingly fickle/stunning artistic presentation by focusing on character interaction and growth. With zombies rooted in dark magic, the lawlessness of the Old West, and main characters who are inherently disadvantaged, Dead or Alive can be something truly unique.
TL;DR Setting zombies loose on an unsuspecting old-world populace has the potential for great character development as they learn to adapt to these harrowing circumstances. The first issue hasn’t come remotely close to achieving that yet as it ends on an irritatingly predictable cliffhanger before anything substantial happens.
Published by Red 5 Comics, Dead or Alive #1 is written by Scott Chitwood, with art by Alfonso Ruiz, and colors by Garry Henderson. You find it at your local comic book shop or you can purchase it here.
A review PDF of Dead or Alive #1 was graciously provided to Spandexless by the publisher.