Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead
I would undoubtedly say that Kirkman’s seminal work is going to longstandingly be The Walking Dead. To come into a genre that had already been ground into the dust by so many people across so many mediums, Kirkman manages to do the unthinkable, he makes a zombie story that feels fresh. His revolutionary take on it is actually quite simple, and is usually what makes a horror story successful, he focuses on the characters. Kirkman uses the zombie apocalypse as a gruesome backdrop for what is essentially a very well crafted drama about people. The series has been running over 70 issues, and is into its 12th trade and it shows no signs of slowing. It also, which I feel is often too rare, seems to be hitting a new stride as critical review of the Hunters story arc was strong and it garnered an Eisner win this year.
Rick Grimes is our main character to follow but at its heart this title wants to be known as an ensemble piece, which is interesting because Kirkman keeps killing off the players as quickly as he can introduce them. He shows us, often quite brutally, just how harsh and deadly a world full of zombies really would be. Sadly, he also shows us that the survivors can be quite as dangerous. People are just as likely to die because someone else is an asshole as they are to have the flesh eating undead chew through their jugular.
This title is one of the greatest ongoing runs in comic history and yet I almost feel bad giving this as Kirkman’s calling card. The first trade is good, no doubt, the first issue suffers from some flaws though it certainly ends on a bang, but it’s not complete. The first trade might lure you in, a bit, but I want to blow your socks off and considering the long game is kind of what Kirkman does best I’m going to up the ante and make his calling card something for the ages.
I’m actually going to suggest you give someone the Walking Dead compendium that collects the first 48 issues of the series (and you still have a few days to win if you enter our Three Years Later Contest). It’s a big commitment but I almost guarantee that if they get 6 issues in they’ll have no worries getting through the next 42. The story is phenomenal in so many areas and this compendium wraps up everything in a neat little package and ends the story so it’s set to move into its next phase but you get everything here. You can meet all the characters and get a whole stack of story and it’ll look great on the shelf.
In 48 issues of the Walking Dead you can see how much Kirkman cares about his characters, how he builds and develops their characters, and yet how he is not beholden to them and if the story calls for it they’ll get some teeth in the neck of a sword taking off their head. There are moments of levity, about as many as you could hope for in a zombie overridden world, but Kirkman still manages to make you smile, usually right before he makes you squirm. In the Walking Dead he has crafted his ultimate love letter to the zombie genre, but in doing so he’s also created one of its best entries and actually made what is simply just a great drama, zombies or not. Horror enthusiasts are not the only ones who can appreciate this comic, it’s just good story and great character work. If you are still not sure hit up the Beginner's Guide I posted a few days ago, and stay tuned for my review of the latest trade coming up soon.
I know I’ve usually just picked trades but I really believe to get the essential Kirkman experience you need to be able to see how he strings things out for so long, years when you read the floppies. It might look dense and intimidating but it’s no different to handing someone The Stand if they want to see the mastery of Stephen King. You’re setting them up for a few week’s work but they’ll be thanking you in the end.