The Walking Dead
For the past couple of months I’ve been living vicariously through the aftermath of a Zombie Apocalypse, courtesy of Rick Grimes and his fellow cross-country-travelling and changing group of determined survivors. And of course courtesy of Robert Kirkman, the very talented writer and creator of Image’s series of graphic novels The Walking Dead.
I’m a latecomer to the phenomenon that Kirkman has been responsible for; and a phenomenon it has certainly been. I was familiar with and a great admirer of the first two seasons of the TV show; but it was only when I was nudged in their direction by Galway comics’ enthusiast Ian Canavan that I picked up the first few volumes of the source material.
Originally printed monthly by Image Comics in 2003, the eight volumes that I have at hand each reprint seven issues, giving a run of issue #1 through to #48; and that is a lot of travelling and a lot of story. That story begins with policeman Rick Grimes waking up from a coma to find that he has slept through the beginning of a true nightmare in which the dead have begun to return to a semblance of life. That’s all it is, though. They are in fact simply walking, decomposed, mindless appetites on legs. The smallest bite or scratch will spread the infection and there are a whole lot more of them than there are survivors. In fact, Kirkman’s tale begins at the point where most Zombie stories end. So for a change we have a chance to look at just how one group would attempt to carve out an existence in a totally and forever altered world.
Volumes 1&2: Days Gone Bye and Miles Behind Us do the necessary setting up and some basic exposition on the main characters as Rick locates his wife Lori, son Carl and best friend and colleague Shane; although unfortunately by this time his wife and friend have complicated things somewhat by having begun an affair. Indeed we soon find that Lori has inadvertently—and probably none too wisely, given the state of civilization—become a fully paid-up member of the Pudding Club; and it’s anyone’s guess whether the child is Shane or Rick’s. Honestly, the trouble that some people bring down on themselves. It’s not as if they don’t have enough problems with watching out for the family of Lurch shambling around every corner.
As early as this Kirkman shows how adept he is at presenting us, in very deft strokes, with the basics of the group dynamic. And it’s also worth pointing out here that if you (like me) had expected more or less a precursor to the network show then you can put that idea to sleep right now. The world of The Walking Dead in the graphic novels is very much a separate entity. And if you approach it like that from the beginning you will have a far better reading experience. Just one example is the relationship between those popular characters Dale and Andrea (and I have to admit that they are two of my favourites, both in the show and in the books). Let’s just say that it is very different.
Having greedily stormed through the first two books in one day I then took the advice of Simon Pegg in the Afterword to Volume 2: I went back and began reading again, this time doing perhaps just one issue every day or second day, savouring the feeling that you’re travelling and learning right alongside these people, some of whom you like and quite a few of whom you don’t. And it helps that the books themselves are vague enough on the passing of time. Sure, Andrea is keeping some kind of record but we’re not at all sure that it’s accurate. In fact the best that we can really do is by following Lori’s pregnancy. And that’s the way I’ve kept it through the subsequent volumes: just an issue here and there.
It’s by doing this that you notice the little changes in the characters. Early on there was an argument that they themselves were the true ‘walking dead’; people who were simply existing, just getting through another day that was either filled with utter terror or utter boredom, a state of affairs that struck me as completely realistic. It was only when they settled into what they hoped would be a refuge for them—ironically, a prison—and began to actually plant and harvest crops that you realised that they were not simply surviving anymore. They themselves had begun growing again, reaching out and forging new relationships and proving that even in the midst of the most appalling horrors life will find a way to go on.
Who would have thought that a tale about zombies would become a life-affirming fable?
But that of course is the point; and it may be the key as to why this has become so successful. It’s because we may have bought into it initially to see zombies getting blown to bits in inventive ways, but we’ve stayed for the long haul because we have grown absorbed in the minutiae of these peoples’ lives. That’s a pretty huge statement to make about a comic book. Yet how else can you explain that at the end of 2011 the New York Times graphic novels list had three WDs in the top four of the paperback section and three of the top nine in the hardback?
But don’t let me make this sound as if it turned into a soft soap opera along the way. This isn’t the bridge of the starship ‘Enterprise’: Any of these characters can die. And you can believe me when I say that they do…even the most unexpected ones. And as for going soft, heh. You may get somewhat inured to seeing zombies getting blasted apart (and this is fine because the survivors themselves become desensitised) but there is always some ‘human’ horror waiting to shock the hell out of you. Wait until you get a load of the scenes between Michonne and The Governor in Volume 6: This Sorrowful Life. It’s about as close to what people call these days ‘torture porn’ as you’re likely to get in graphic form.
The artwork is black-and-white and apart from the first volume, which is illustrated by Tony Moore they are all done by Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn. So there’s a nice consistency throughout.
The Walking Dead is recommended; and thanks to you Ian, for talking me into giving it a try. If you’re interested and in the Galway area you can get all (it’s now up to) 15 volumes from Sub-City Comics in the Eyre Square Centre. They also have a place in Dublin. After that you’re on your own; but a lot of mainstream booksellers carry it so you won’t have any problems. Good reading!
Volume 1: Days Gone Bye
Volume 2: Miles Behind Us
Volume 3: Safety Behind Bars
Volume 4: The Heart’s Desire
Volume 5: The Best Defence
Volume 6: This Sorrowful Life
Volume 7: The Calm Before
Volume 8: Mad To Suffer
Written by Robert Kirkman. Volume 1 illustrated by Tony Moore.
Volumes 2-8 illustrated by Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn.