Did you know that The Walking Dead is a comic book?
When AMC began promoting the TV Show in 2010, I thought they were brilliant for cashing in one the growing zombie fascination of which I was most definitely a part of. Little did I know that The Walking Dead was Robert Kirkman‘s comic book brainchild from 2003 released by Image Comics. Call me a plebeian, but The Walking Dead‘s 100th issue release was the first time I had heard of the comic’s existence. It was at that moment I knew I needed to read The Walking Dead.
For fans of the show, The Walking Dead comic’s beginning is pretty much the same. After getting shot in the line of duty, Rick awakens in a hospital bed after an undetermined amount of time to find that the world has changed and the dead don’t stay down. Robert Kirkman, as homage to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, chose to do the comic in black and white. That was my first surprise, but it wasn’t my last, and I honestly think it was a good choice. It allows for the artists, Tony Moore (who’s artwork is just fantastic) and then Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn, to create an exceptionally engrossing world that easily suspends disbelief.
What also struck me about The Walking Dead title, and Rick specifically, is how, even though zombie fiction exists in their universe, no one knows that they are dealing with zombies. When I fantasize (that can’t be the right word, can it?) about the zombie apocalypse, I’m ready. I know that it’s kill or be killed (job #1: get supplies. job #2: find shelter. etc., etc.). But when Rick takes supplies from a Police Station, he only takes what he hopes no one will notice. That’s because the people of The Walking Dead are under the assumption that, while something crazy has happened, it’s all going to get sorted out and put back right. I find that kind of assumption by the characters realistic. And it’s this kind of realism that sucks you in.
The story has incredibly endearing characters, as well as completely infuriating ones. Kirkman does a good job of making me care about them. And, as I said before, I was totally drawn into the story. I think it was especially engrossing because I didn’t have a month delay between issues. I was able to sit and read around 20 issues in a row if I wanted (and I did), and that meant that I started to live in their world with them. I found myself even getting a little anxious about what was going to happen. How was a comic book making me feel present? However, in spite of this (and likely because I was reading issue after issue without delay), I soon recognized a pattern.
Death is a character of The Walking Dead, and he travels continually with the group. Unfortunately, his actions are also pretty predictable, and I soon began to expect characters to be killed off at regular intervals. Kirkman’s pattern seems to be something good happens, some mild danger, a bit more safety to catch you off guard, and then the death of a character. Admittedly, some of the deaths were a surprise, but you also quickly learn that no one should be considered safe. This is made extremely evident by a death (well, two deaths, really) in issue #48, which I consider to be the last surprise deaths of the series.
Issue #48 was probably the most difficult of the series to read. One part of the difficulty was how I identified with some of the characters, and another part was the abruptness and finality of the deaths. When I finished the issue, I literally had to put it down, walk away, and check on the ones that I love. I was so shook up by the events that I poured over Kirkman’s letters for the next couple of issues looking for some indication that he was as upset as I was about what had happened. But I didn’t find that, and that bothered me.
Here’s the thing, I’m okay with the idea of a story’s reality being like life, and by that I mean that bad things happen, sometimes senseless things, and everyone’s mortality is at play. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a great example of a universe where main characters are not given “hero protection,” and the choices of other characters and the chaos of the universe means that sometimes characters die when you wouldn’t expect them to. However, Kirkman’s The Walking Dead doesn’t completely feel that was as the story progresses. At first I accepted the deaths based on the aforementioned idea, but later they came to feel like shock tactics, and I think that isn’t great writing. This is why I was looking for some kind of emotion from Kirkman after issue #48. If he was sad or something that the events had to happen the way they did, even though he wished he could have made the universe less real and just protected them, than I would have said, “Okay, it sucks, but this is because The Walking Dead isn’t romanticizing the zombie apocalypse.” And I can appreciate an author saying, “Yeah, the breakdown of the world wouldn’t be as pleasant as video games might make it seem.” But I didn’t get that, and Kirkman comes across as a sadist, and I began to expect all the characters to die.
And I think this is the most unfortunate part of The Walking Dead. Reading all 100 (soon to be 102) issues of the Walking Dead in one stint was more intense than I had expected, but the (what I’ve come to feel like are) shock tactics have numbed me to the story and the characters. A part of me has invested enough into the comic that I want things to go well for the characters (and so I keep buying issues to see what happens), but another part of me knows that they all are just going to get killed in some kind of “unexpected” way, and that’s just how Kirkman’s going to be. I would be more surprised if nothing happened than if someone loses a limb, a loved one, or their life. The continual introduction of characters feels like fodder for this ongoing plot device.
All that being said, I love that it’s zombies (Romero style, in fact), and I love that it’s post-apocalyptic. Kirkman made characters that I want to see succeed, and he has made a world that I can get lost in (even though I keep looking over my shoulder for roamers).
~ Jim Tenkins ~