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Daybreak, Brian Ralph (Drawn & Quarterly, 2011)

Republished late last year as a single-volume graphic novel, Daybreak was originally released in three parts between ’06 and ’08, and, in my mind, stands as one of the quintessential graphic (or “comic”) works of the past decade. Brian Ralph, the author and illustrator, is also notable for his graphic novels, Cave-In (1999) and Climbing Out (2002)—both highly recommended—but Daybreak ups the ante. So, having it picked up by Drawn & Quarterly and offered as a single book is an exciting event.

Daybreak is a zombie story.

It feels odd, saying that—like it’s a guilty admission or something. And, with that said, I feel like I need to separate Ralph’s work from the pop culture occult that’s currently thriving: Daybreak is not Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In fact, all things considered, the classic zombie elements of the story (particularly, high violence and gore) are slim. And, like Romero in his zombie-originating Night of the Living Dead, Daybreak never names the shuffling hordes which intermittently stalk through its panels. Ralph seems more interested in a minimalist setup, a survival scenario in which the zombie apocalypse is offered as a brooding backdrop.

What’s so brilliant about Daybreak isn’t that it’s a rare good zombie story (which it is), but that it tells its story through a second-person perspective. While I somehow doubt Ralph is the first person to do this, Daybreak remains the only graphic novel I’ve read in this perspective. Here is an example:

It’s a POV window in a uniform grid paneling system. We call it first person in video games, but here, with no internal monologue and, as you can see in the panel above, a one-sided dialogue using the “you” pronoun—a move that implicates the reader—I would argue second. Whatever side of the perspective-mincing fence you are on, it’s a unique view with some interesting results.

Here’s another page:

Ralph’s sense of pacing is perfect and his illustrative style, while simple in design, is extremely expressive and gravelly. Early on in the story, the protagonist, a one-and-one-half-armed man (reduced, assumedly, in a zombie conflict), shoots a flare at an oncoming zombie out of frame, the two panel sequence of aim and shoot (steadiness, then blowback) is just one example of the beautifully rendered, poetically delivered artistry. The uniquely Ralphian art style had me swooning all the way through with his consistent, speck-driven detail.

The one drawback, I suppose, is how quickly it reads. Even as three issues combined, the story can be easily consumed within an hour or so. However, if you are interested in graphic storytelling, there is plenty in Daybreak—particularly visually—to have you coming back for multiple reads. I recently read a short article comparing poetry to comics. The author mentioned a divide between storytellers and formalists, the latter group “often [being] the great innovators and pioneers.” Ralph certainly stands as an innovator—Daybreak is lush with ingenuities—but never at the expense of drawing the reader into the story.

  • Nick Francis Potter is the author of New Animals and Big Gorgeous Jazz Machine. He currently teaches in the Digital Storytelling Program at the University of Missouri.

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