KIRKMANARAMA: The Walking Dead MEGAREVIEW #1-78

Free FULL Issue: THE WALKING DEAD #49

IMAGE FIRSTS: THE WALKING DEAD Reprint
IMAGE FIRSTS: THE WALKING DEAD Reprint
 

The Walking Dead #1-78

Written by Robert Kirkman

Art by Tony Moore, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn

Published by Image Comics

Review by David Pepose

The world we knew is gone... In a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally start living. ~ The Walking Dead

Reading the entirety of The Walking Dead -- whether in bite-sized portions or reading it all in one sitting for the full megareview experience -- is, if nothing else, a lesson in organic storytelling. While comics are certainly a visual medium, make no mistake about it, this is Robert Kirkman's baby, and it's clear from very early on that he's always in the driver's seat. The collected editions of this book wisely call it "a continuing story of survival horror," and that's exactly the right way to describe it. Even with all the zombies, this is a very human story, defined by its methodical pacing, moody artwork and striking displays of violence.

Of course, it didn't always start off as a juggernaut of built-up story momentum. Structurally, the introduction to this series is very similar to 28 Days Later, which opened in the U.S. just a few months before Walking Dead was released. Still, it's almost eerie how much they parallel, down to series protagonist Rick Grimes waking up in a hospital and wandering around the eerily deserted corridors -- and accidentally blundering into a room filled with hungry zombies.

Yet one of the things that helps set Walking Dead apart from its cinematic counterpart right from the get-go is perhaps one of its most surprising visual decisions -- the decision to make the series black and white. Tony Moore, the original series artist, is able to use that otherworldly lack of color to really heighten the tension and give this book its own flavor -- with theoretically unlimited space to explore this new world, there's plenty of time to stir up uncertainty, to play up mood, to remind you of what you can't see in the shadows.

Now, what's interesting about Rick as a character is as far as the first issue goes, he's a bit of a blank slate -- to be fair, Kirkman has to pack in a lot of mood into 23 pages, but the lack of argumentativeness, the sheer agreeableness of Rick early on makes it a little tough to connect with him. And there's where Moore's early contributions become invaluable -- his slightly cartoony style gives some real expressiveness to Rick is both stylish and endearing. Seeing a tear fall down our hero's face as he gives a desiccated, starving zombie a mercy-killing is, well, what comics should be. Quiet moments like these are the great strength of the Walking Dead, that really leverages the silent medium by letting the visuals do the talking.

 

But after the first issue, it becomes clear that Kirkman isn't content on just building up characters -- he wants to explore the world. There's a very tactile sense of how he writes, where it's not just about the emotions of the characters, but the physical limitations of the spaces they inhabit and the emotional effect these places can have on them (and, by extension, us). For example, Rick moves from revulsion as he walks into a living room filled with decaying bodies, whereas on the very next page, he makes his way into a pristine barn, complete with able steed -- and a trusty axe. Buildings aren't just buildings, they're fire escapes used for high ground, while even zombie corpses have properties that are exploitable under the right conditions. You not only get a little bit of an uplifting vibe to counterpoint the smothering terror -- something you'll learn that Kirkman can take away at any moment -- but you learn that the environment is just as important a character as anyone else. It is, after all, both friend and enemy.

Soon enough, you also realize one of Moore's other great strengths -- character design. This comes in handy during Kirkman's earlier issues, where he's still feeling out the characters through their dialogue and their actions -- no one looks the same, and while Rick has a little bit of an iconic flair with his sheriff's outfit, Glenn has a more youthful appearance, with his Yankee cap and open shirt. There's a lot of different body types, hairstyles and faces to this ragged camp of survivors, and that ultimately lets the reader bond with each and every one of them quickly.

And as you keep reading, you get a sense of Kirkman's strengths. For example, when it comes to matters of life and death, well, that's where we get to his main weapon: The cliffhanger. They're not just for last pages anymore, and Kirkman has a knack for not just putting his characters in danger, but basically putting them centimeters from death. The first person actually bitten in the series is Rick himself -- he's saved by a leather jacket, of course -- while other characters in the exact same situation later get their neck torn apart. It's this trick that's used regularly in The Walking Dead, its narrative speed boost for when things get a little too casual. One sequence with ex-football player Tyreese springs to mind, where he dives into a pile of the undead, seemingly in a suicide move. So seeing Kirkman write this character out of that corner -- Tyreese sitting triumphantly on a pile of zombies, having beaten them all single-handedly -- still gives a thrill, no matter how jaded you are.

 

If Kirkman has a vice, it's that he can occasionally get a little too wordy for his own good -- particularly after Moore left the book, as he brought in more and more stories from the increasingly large cast. But it's easier to forgive when you see the sheer progression these characters. For me, it's the kids that are some of the most compelling characters in the entire series, as their arcs are just as spanning as that of the adults. There's some extremely cute moments here, such as Carl after he gets shot in the shoulder: "I bet I'm going to have a big scar!" he says. "Cool. Scars are sexy," Sophia replies. "Sexy? You don't even know what that means," Carl shoots back. "Neither do you!" Sophia shouts back. Too. Cute. And all too poignant as the series progresses, and even the kids have to make some tough decisions. Of course, they're not the only ones -- the coupling that goes on in this book is pretty extensive, but it's a great way to sympathize the characters and add in moments of characterization.

The flipside of the character progression here is the emotional fallout, and these moments are among some of the best Kirkman writes. Yeah, you can shake things up pretty easily when there's zombies all over the world ready to attack -- and yeah, if there's any degree of "formula" to Kirkman's chapters, it's the fact that no matter how safe your system is, you can count on human failings to screw it up eventually and put you right back in danger -- but seeing how everyone reacts to these moments of pain and terror and loss is what separates Kirkman from everybody else. Some of the characters, like Allen, come off as a little too whiny for their own good, which causes Kirkman's pathos to fluctuate early on -- but other moments, like Shane realizing that he's lost his place as leader of the pack, are really heartbreaking.

But let's get back to the art here -- particularly, the switch-up that occurred after the sixth issue. After close to 130 pages of stellar output, you could see why Tony Moore earned an Eisner nomination for his work on The Walking Dead. Which perhaps makes it surprising to see that the series didn't take a hit when Moore left the book. From his very first page, you can see that Charlie Adlard had a very different way of doing things, all the while hewing to Moore's character designs. Whereas Moore was a bit more cartoony, letting graytones do the work of shadows, Adlard drenches his pages with shadows and style -- his characters are a bit more craggy, a bit less idealized, evoking hints of Scalped's R.M. Guera with the drama and harder angles of Tim Sale with just a touch of the seediness of Eduardo Risso. And one thing that I really enjoy about Adlard's work is -- just like Kirkman -- he has a sense for the look and touch of things. Adlard's characters don't stay static, they change hairstyles, grow beards, get scars -- it's all signs of the passage of time, and not nearly enough books pay attention to those details.

As far as the story structure goes, while the first arc of the series sets up the tone of the family and supporting cast, it has to be the third arc -- where the survivors hole up in an abandoned prison -- that really sets the tone of the entire series. Themes of trust work in sync with Kirkman's knack for feeling out his locations and utilizing them to his advantage. It starts off a little sensational, I'll admit -- but out of the entire series, the prison is the first time we get really scared for the cast. Once you see two decapitated little girls lying in a prison barber shop suddenly begin to flick their eyes and gurgle like the undead, you get chills up your spine. It's sick, it's horrible, but it absolutely works. It's an emotional land mine that immediately spins the cast into some very weird -- yet again, organic -- directions. Whether it's Allen coldly telling his children that death is inevitable, or Rick flying into a rage when he finds the killer, or Carla offering herself to a very unexpected friend, it's here that the normalcy begins to go sour. 

Now, I've talked about locations that really changed the tone and direction of this series, but there's one character that, if nothing else, really signals the beginning of the end as far as down-to-earth storylines go. That character is Michonne, the sword-swinging badass who saunters in in the 19th issue of the series. Imagine if the Man With No Name suddenly walked into this book, and that's the feeling you get here -- it's not that she isn't properly mysterious or scary or just plain cool, but having essentially a walking archetype walk into a room filled with fully-fleshed characters is admittedly a little jarring.

But in certain ways, Michonne also adds an edge of unpredictability to the whole endeavor -- not to mention that she gives Adlard some room to show his action chops. Seeing her swing her sword around, slicing through zombie heads -- or just popping the heads off two zombie captives that, for whatever reason, she dragged across the wildnerness with her -- well, it's a nice change of pace from the admittedly talking-head execution that Kirkman had moved into. And from a character standpoint, she's all action and little talk -- and that's exactly what this story, complete with its all-too-comfortable cast, needed. Michonne might not have started out too deep, but she was the fuse to some major conflict between the cast.

Yet as I was said before, the introduction of Michonne opens up the floodgates to some crazier storylines -- particularly, the introduction of the Governor, and his post-apocalyptic fiefdom of Woodbury. Just as Michonne was an almost mythical badass force for good, the Governor is a twisted, larger-than-life villain who quickly shows his true colors. The injuries he inflicts on Rick and Michonne in particular are among the most egregious I've ever seen in a comic, and the fact that Kirkman pulls a Scorcese and does much of it off-camera is what makes it even worse. There's one page, where Glenn has to listen to everything, and it's easily the most powerful page in the entire series. Adlard does emotion like nobody's business, and it's his contributions that make the stakes so high in the fifth arc.

WALKING DEAD Digital
WALKING DEAD Digital
 

There are consequences to this action, however. Woodbury is easily the strongest arc that Kirkman has written for this series -- Rick and Glenn's escape feels tense, and Michonne's reunion with the Governor is an exercise in torture porn that doesn't feel revolting as much as it does extremely well-deserved. (And let me add, since I haven't before -- Adlard isn't just good at drawing humans. He draws gore exceedingly, exceedingly well. Who'd've thunk an eye popping out of its socket could look so professional?) And the fact that Kirkman is essentially able to double-dip into this storyline not even a year later is proof that the Governor's legacy has some serious legs. (Err, leg.) Needless to say, when Woodbury strikes back, Kirkman lives up to his promise that no one is safe -- and I mean nobody. In many ways, it's Kirkman reshuffling his cast all over again, and in that way, I think it's an incredibly savvy move: He can't fall in love with his characters like we do.

But this is where I think Kirkman becomese a victim of his own successes -- the Woodbury plot threads were so high-stakes, so over-the-top, that it's hard to top. Kirkman gives little Carl a fantastic done-in-one character piece that shows that the kid is far from a prop to make Rick's life sympathetic and/or challenging -- he's a fully-fledged character in his own right, and the fear that he has about losing his father makes for some of the strongest characterization in the entire series. "I don't think I need you anymore," Carl says, fear and hate and all-too-adult weariness in his eyes. It's a good breather issue, but the next few issues feel more like Kirkman's running in place, bringing back together some of the more fully-fleshed characters and having a couple new ones set up a number of red herrings that, in the end, don't really go anywhere. Perhaps the most irksome part of these "reunion" issues is when Kirkman gives one of his occasional cheat cliffhangers -- seeing a character hanging from a tree branch, only to survive with no explanation, feels more like a cheap boost rather than an earned one.

Yet even though some of the more recent storylines haven't quite lived up to the "Made to Suffer" arc, there are some bright spots -- particularly Kirkman's sense of characterization. The character of Abraham, in my mind, is one of the strongest latter additions to the cast in some time -- while the idea of having a grizzled military survivor is a little bit of a standard in zombie tropes, he's able to challenge Rick as an effective foil. Meanwhile, the reintroduction of the character Morgan -- only seen briefly in the first arc -- is a heartbreaking return, one that shows that Kirkman still has some very dark places to plumb for his material.

By the time we hit the eleventh arc in the series, "Fear the Hunters," you might be thinking that there's a little too much talking, a little too much "tame" encounters with zombies, and not enough importance as far as Abraham and his crew's overarching mission. Adding in human hunters might sound underwhelming in theory, but it's the execution that Kirkman absolutely nails, letting our heroes finally get a victory after so many crippling losses. In particular, seeing the children is perhaps the most chilling thing I've seen in the comic, and it certainly makes Carl the deepest, most three-dimensional kid in comics. There's some real brutality in these pages, but Adlard gives it so much panache -- whether its Carl's eyes ominously flashing in the shadows as he visits a friend gone mad, or the quick cuts on all of the blades as our survivors dispatch a hunter, but it's incredible to see how far these characters have come. And if the words "tainted meat" don't have a distinctly different meaning after you read this arc, you've got no taste. A-heh.

 

This year, however, I've been a little underwhelmed with some of the happenings in The Walking Dead. Having a red herring revealed isn't necessarily a bad thing, but there wasn't quite enough emotional set-up with Kirkman's ruse that upending the group's trip to Washington, D.C. really spurred much of a response -- for a writer who is known for being extremely deliberate with his plotting, it felt more like he tossed the idea of "what caused the outbreak" into the wastebasket, then realized there had been about nine months of stories dealing with the group's road trip up north. Most recently, the group's new status quo in what can only be described as a zombie-era Pleasantville also feels like a little bit of a dramatic non-starter to me -- Kirkman has brought up some interesting questions about the nature of power and whether or not our "heroes" have become just as bad as the invaders from Woodbury, but it feels like a false question to me: Rick Grimes is a pragmatist, not a villain, and even if he strays from right and wrong, he's always been a good man.

Still, even if some of the more recent arcs haven't grabbed me, I'll say this -- Robert Kirkman's plotting of this series is so organic, so well-done, so absolutely unique in this industry, that this series demands your time as the Best Horror Comic Bar-None. With The Walking Dead making its television debut this weekend, it spurs to mind the question of how you read this book. If there's one problem with The Walking Dead, it's that it hardly conforms to the format of the monthly publication very well -- with Kirkman's long-term plotting and lengthy conversations, the structure of each issue leads to fewer, more concentrated scenes, meaning that one issue alone might not cover enough ground to satisfy your interest. The sheer density of Kirkman's writing feels cinematic, so it's perfect for binge consumption in the trade format, or the weekly rerelease that Image announced this week, giving you more Walking Dead every week of 2011. Like its titular zombies, The Walking Dead moves deliberately, but once it sinks its teeth in, you'll want to consume as much of this series as possible.

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