Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Walking Dead - A Beginner's Guide


The Walking Dead is a zombie comic that has earned much praised over its seven years of publication. It was one of two comics that launched Robert Kirkman into the A-League of writers in the business (with Invincible being the other). With a TV show on the way, courtesy of AMC and superstar director Frank Darabont, it seems like a good time to have a look at why so many people like the series, and why you might want to pick it up if you already haven’t.

This isn’t just a recap of the storylines that have been told so far, however there will be some spoilers head, consider yourselves warned.

Also, don't forget to hit up our Three Years Later Contest as we celebrate the third anniversary of the site by giving away the omnibus of The Walking Dead, which is the first 48 issues, and there's a Fraction Invincible Iron Man omnibus as second prize.

One can’t help but worry that Robert Kirkman is going to see out his career as this generation’s Frank Miller or Robert Liefeld. He’ll be the cool one to hate, the hip one to always say you never really liked. The ground broken and the ideas delivered will be forgotten because of a few missed promises and some zany swings that struck out the team at the end of the eighth instead of sending the ball beyond where the park lights roamed.

Kirkman has had his ups and down when it comes to comics, he’s dipped his fingers into a lot of tasty pies; owning some, ruining others. I don’t know how I, within my own heart, feel about Kirkman but I do know that I love some of his work and I’ll always be grateful for that. You can’t write a man off just because you didn’t personally appreciate the nuances of Marvel Zombies 2. The Walking Dead’s first trade was the first thing to get me back into comics years ago. I still get every trade as soon as it ships, that has to mean something.

With this in mind, I cast my eye over his entire run for The Walking Dead. A comic that I can easily say is one of my favourites of all time and has many reasons for being so high on my list. Herein I’ll try to explain to you why this comic rocks so hard.

The Zombie Genre

Zombies have become more than just a plot point or a faceless slasher-type baddie, zombies are now big business and they’re also their own genre. They may have surfaced before (in 1932’s White Zombie) but George A Romero hit the nail on the head with his Dead Trilogy (as it was known before he decided to vacuously add to the universe far, far too many times) and there have been few flicks that capture the mythos of the zombie well while still being an enjoyable flick.

Many have seen zombies as a cash machine, a genre for genre’s sake, and thus most view it as an area of story telling that is sub-par, at best. Others use the genre as a perfect back drop for some excellent tales. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg absolutely nailed it in Shaun of the Dead, a flick which has a stellar script if you ever really break it down, and Danny Boyle and Alex Garland offered us 28 Days Later… These are probably obvious choices so I’d look to more subversive fare, like the Re-Animator series or Pontypool, that stretch just what a zombie is and how you can present them. Or you could simply sample Peter Jackson’s NZ zom-com riot, Braindead, or even the schlock of Dead Heat with Joe Piscopo to have a bit of a laugh.

Unfortunately, for every one of these examples there is an absolute mountain of dreck. Zombies have been overused and played out, sadly, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be good examples still surfacing. You may have to dig through upturned earth to find them but they can be out there. Every genre still has more to give.

Sadly, it seems already cliché for a comic to have zombies now, no one wants to consider a pitch with zombies in it anymore. We’ve seen pretty much every possible incarnation of Z-Day in all mediums from movies to books, to games to comics; or so we had thought. When Kirkman first pitched the series he was told that it seemed a mite stale and so he added an addendum to the tale; the zombies were only the beginning and they constituted the beginning of an alien invasion. Once the series began, however, all involved realised that this story didn’t need anything else as it was already firing on all cylinders, and I really thank them for that smart decision.

The Walking Dead, like many classic predecessors, doesn’t explain why the zombies are there, that’s not the interest of the story. It merely dumps us in the middle of the fire and makes us watch to see which characters get burnt first. Much like Rick Remender said in the essay at the back of his first Fear Agent issue, we’ve become too obsessed with making things work and discussing the theoretical politics of it all instead of simply enjoying a balls-to-the-wall story for what it is, enjoyment of escapism.

To say you enjoy the terribly heart breaking moments in TWD might make you seem a little off, but most zombie fans tend to be a little off anyway so it shouldn’t bother you. There are laughs in the series as well as gore and tears. There are some brutally shocking moments and many of them don’t feature an undead creature at all, much of the nastiness comes from the human characters within the tale. And therein lies the brilliance of this series, it invests completely in the characters because they are all that will ever matter to us. Zombies are the set dressing of the tale and the characters are the true drama on the stage. All good horror needs to be rooted in drama and TWD gives us many characters and you have to care for them because none of them are safe. Ever.

Character Building

The fact that The Walking Dead has stood out severed neck and mangled shoulders above the shambling crowd says something about its decency as a story. Many zombie slices of entertainment are easily forgotten but Kirkman’s magnum opus gave us something most horror flicks tend to neglect, characters we care about and try our best to understand as we watch them constantly change and evolve due to the external influences that daily affect them. And these characters do change.

Throughout the course of over 70 issues there have been upward of 40 detailed characters who all had a shot as part of the revolving cast of the title. Some live, some die, thus is the nature of living with zombies. I will detail some of the main characters below, and select them as being my favourites.

Rick Grimes

Former Officer Rick Grimes is the main man that we follow, though at many periods the title acts as more of an ensemble piece with a wide range of characters. Rick was shot at the beginning of the title and went into a coma; when he awakened the world had already ended. He was lucky enough to catch up to his family and from there he’s been living hand to mouth, just as they all must.

There’s never been a solution for Rick, survival is the only key. The group that he travels with constantly look to him as the leader; this could be because he still wears his cop jacket or because he’s just a man who looks like he knows what he’s doing. Either way he’s struggled with taking charge of the care of so many people. It’s a lot of pressure and each issue shows another way in which the pressure is cracking the façade that he initially tried to keep well polished.

Rick started the series headstrong and pretty sure of himself. As they have travelled more and found out just how messed up the surviving humans can be, he has started to slip. He’s not the usual square jawed hero who we are sure will save the day. Rick has flaws, many of them created by living in a world where the reanimated dead are constantly trying to eat you and the few survivors you meet often turn out not to be trustworthy for a variety of reasons.

Rick becomes more interesting as the series goes on, as we find out that his wife cheated on him (when she thought he was dead back in the hospital), or when we find out she is subsequently pregnant and the dates just don’t match with Rick’s return, or the fact that he’s watched a prison inmate slaughter young children, or found a city being run by a sadist (a man who keeps his own zombie-daughter chained in his living room), or a group of people hunting survivors and eating them purely because they have no other food. As you can see, the world is a sad and wearying place for Rick and each blow takes its progressive toll on him.

Watching the idealistic hero of this set piece slowly crumble has been a fascinating study of just what pressure can do to a man. He tries so hard to be good but when faced with some tough decisions Rick has been forced to kill others as well. Nobody can be perfect in such an imperfect world. He even admits that he’d sacrifice everything and everyone around him just to protect his family. The realism of the situation has finally razed his previous law-upholding persona to the ground.

As it stands now, Rick is a far different man from when he started this journey of survival. There are many cracks deep into his psyche and it seems to be a race to see if he’ll snap against someone else, against the world around him at large, or against himself in some manner. Ultimately, he’s a fascinating man to keep your eye on and watch truly evolve as the actions of each plot affect him.

Carl Grimes

Rick’s son was nine when the zombie invasion began. It’s a young age to begin such a serious story and so Carl was, rightfully, relegated to the sidelines to a fair degree; though he did have his impacts, considering he shot a man through the throat at the end of the first arc. He killed another human and that should change any character but certainly should affect a young boy. Things like this do not go unchecked, Kirkman makes sure to tally up all of the emotional scars and display them at interesting times.

The constant surrounds of death certainly do affect Carl as he tries to show how tough he can be, and how in charge he feels he should be. His father is the leader and you can see the weight of the crown already wearing heavy on Carl’s head as he looks to the future. Pressure on a boy can manifest in many different ways and so when that pressure can lead to death of many in horrific ways then the manifestation can be even worse than you would imagine.

Kirkman has slowly made Carl one of the main, and most interesting, characters within TWD. Most of the time I don’t particularly like Carl, I do not agree with him nor appreciate his actions and views, but just because I don’t agree with the views of a child doesn’t mean he’s not an amazing character to add to a scene and watch it expand. I think because I generally don’t agree with him and his ways is why I find him so interesting. The kid has so much going on inside and that captures me on so many levels. You want to hate him, care for him, and simply observe him.

So far, Carl has killed others (and he has done it again since that first arc) as well as taken a girlfriend. He’s chewed out his old man plenty of times and then just as quickly lay crying in his arms. Kirkman plays Carl as being a relatively real boy who isn’t a set in stone character but more someone still being moulded. There are inconsistencies with him as there are with most kids. They’re fickle and with zombies added should always be well disturbed. I believe that Carl just might be the future of this title if they allow him to continue to age and possibly reach his teenage years.

Michonne

This mysterious lady turned up 19 issues in but was guaranteed to make a splash as she brought with her two chained zombies with missing jaws and arms as well as a katana blade. This is how you survive in this world. Some may see her as a bad-ass chick cliché but the more Kirkman has given us about Michonne the more we understand that she’s just another person getting by any way she can. Shutting down a lot of emotion has worked for her, as has talking to thin air for quite some time. We find out much later that she’s actually talking to someone, and she knows it’s crazy, but she also knows it helps. Anything to help her forget or get over her two daughters who never made it through; survival is a relative condition and it’s only what you make of it.

To make matters worse, Michonne also has some of the more horrible moments in the series occur to her. She is captured by The Governor and brutalised and submitted to all forms of torture, the only solace being that she is able to give so much back to him when the tables are turned. She is methodical in her approach of retributive justice, explicit and precise, and afterwards she does her best to shut it all out. She has dealt with the situation and knows her only hope of salvation is to move on. It’s shattering to see a woman have to do these things just to feel in control of her situation.

Michonne shows through as a quality character and one that adds great depth and range to the surviving group. It is even interesting to see that Michonne knows how to slip in a joke once in a while, it’s not often but it’s nice to see. Not everyone is completely soulless and emotionally bankrupt, not yet anyway.

I don’t want everyone to be the same and where Rick stands as the leader for the destiny of the people Michonne instead stands as the leader of her own destiny. You can hitch your wagon to her star but you can’t guarantee she’ll look back to ensure you’re okay on the ride. In total, Michonne is definitely someone I’d want in my surviving party were the zombie plague to hit.

Tyreese

I liked Tyreese from the moment he appeared; he’s not a man to pull any punches. His first tale of survival is how a once friendly old man tried to rape his daughter as they foraged for food. Tyreese killed the man, not that he meant to but he certainly wanted to, and so he’s unsure of himself because he doesn’t feel bad about it. He’s another broken survivor of this new world.

Julie, Tyreese’s daughter, and her boyfriend Chris also join the party and sadly this only leads to more heartbreak for Tyreese as the teenage couple decide to have sex for the first time and then commit a suicide pact, neither wanting to live on in such a sad world. The pact is botched and only Julie dies, however when Tyreese finds the scene Chris quickly joins her. It is this steadfast ability to use violence that makes Tyreese a man to be feared but in this world he’s also respected. He has convictions and he knows what is most important to him, and he’ll do anything to protect and serve it.

As far as actually dispatching zombies and protecting the groups goes, Tyreese was an ex-NFL player and his size and power make a great defence most of the time, even though he couldn’t use a gun to hit the side of a barn. Tyreese even wound up locked in a room packed full of zombies. Upon returning later, they find him still alive as he decimated every single thing in the room. It is sheer determination and grit that forces Tyreese to never give up in the face of constant trials that the world throws at him.

He is certainly not to be underestimated but he is also flawed. He strikes up a relationship with one of the others, Carol, but later cheats on her with Michonne. It’s one of those stupid things that happens, but it does happen and so it’s refreshing to see that nobody is perfect in this tale. All of those little social problems that occur in the real world still happen to this group of survivors. Just because they’ve only got each other doesn’t mean they don’t know how to screw each other over. They’re all still fallibly and predictably human.

It’s interesting that Tyreese is never considered as a complete leader. He’s a guy everyone wants on their side, he’s strong and capable, but he’s always second fiddle. Whether this is because he is single, against Rick’s family man, or for other reasons isn’t explicitly delved into but you can see him get frustrated when he doesn’t agree with Rick’s decisions and their arguments are brutally real and compelling.

Tyreese’s complete character arc is very well written and you know he’s going to continue being a good soldier until something goes wrong. He’s no longer got any family to work for and he rarely seems truly happy ever again. He’s a true warrior and a man of very high regard.

Carol

Among all the strong and fearsome characters, Carol stands out as a beacon of what happens when someone survives and they’re not a survivor. She’s a weak and unsure person who simply continues to make the same bad mistakes that drove her life before the world ended around her. She had a child with an abusive man and still concedes that he was okay except for the abuse. She’s a person that is only defined by those she can latch herself onto and so never developed her own true character. She is a protagonist at best, rarely an antagonist.

Early on, things work out for her with Tyreese but once that goes to shit she is pretty much screwed. She makes an attempt on her life and then lunges toward whatever fleeting happiness she thinks she can find, which is in asking Lori, Rick’s wife, if she can essentially join their marriage. With the world in chaos, she thinks new rules might be able to apply and they could be a happy trio of parents with two children and one on the way. This suggestion gets the sort of response you’d expect and so Carol spirals downward. Her final speech is horrifying and perfectly written. This is a woman who does not know how to survive and will accept just about any solution offered to her.

The Governor

As I’ve stated before, the zombies aren’t always the main threat of the tale. Usually they are a back drop and for a while each character was their own worst enemy. Their doubts, fears, and personal problems fuelled much drama but eventually the series got itself a true villain in The Governor.

The town of Woodbury was under the usual assault when the zombies came so Philip worked to get a few city blocks squared away and fortified. Those who were safe with him saw him as a good man, a leader, and so he became The Governor. Over time, The Governor slowly descended into the madness of a fiend. His daughter became infected but instead of doing the right thing he chained her up in his home and fed her parts of people who eventually went against his terrible rule. She is surrounded by the heads of many sitting inside empty boxes. It’s the sort of filth you’d expect to see a deranged serial killer sitting amongst.

When survivors from the main group stumble across Woodbury they assume it’s all of their prayers answered, until the torture and the rape begin. They very quickly see The Governor for the batshit insane loon he is and do their best to stop him taking over the prison in which they’ve been living for some time. The Governor rallies his ‘soldiers’ to go and get the people in the prison, who he explains are the bad guys. It’s a sad twist to show how easily fooled and led people can be. They were obviously looking for any port in the storm and sadly found the wrong one but the downpour was too heavy to truly see where they were. Many don’t completely trust him but they know they don’t have anything and they really want something.

The Governor gets a dispatching fitting of a true villain as in the end has his townsfolk turn on him when they realise all is lost and they were never found anyway. His reign of insanity made for a very interesting set of arcs in the tale and finally shook up the status quo so that none of the survivors were left in a stable position with their home for so long, the prison, rendered unusable.

Sergeant Abraham Ford

One of the latest additions to the cast of characters, Ford has proven himself already a very interesting man. He’s a massive man, an ex-serviceman, a danger to others, and a fierce protector of what he believes in. And ultimately you have to realise that he staunchly believes in himself.

Ford is travelling with two other people, his girlfriend Rosita Espinosa and Doctor Eugene Porter, a wickedly smart man who wears a trash-cut mullet purposely to hide that fact from others. They’re on their way to Washington and they believe they have a very strong purpose for their quest.

Of course, the first thing that happens when they meet up with our surviving group is cause a bit of friction, especially between Ford and Rick. They’re both alpha males, though slightly different types. They’re also both used to unquestioningly being the leader since all the shit hit the fan, even if Rick hasn’t always enjoyed being leader it’s a job he takes seriously and he can’t risk getting his charges into trouble again, not after the entire Governor fiasco.

It is then interesting that Kirkman gives us some insight into the character of Ford and why he has become the way he is. It’s not that he has a soft gooey centre all waiting for someone to spy and dole out the hugs like it’s the free love 70’s again. No, we learn Ford’s dirty little secret and all you can do is begrudgingly respect the guy. Admire him, but probably always from a safe distance. He’s broken and you can only wait until something makes him completely crack. Again.

I really dig Ford and cannot wait to see what else is in store for him in the future. If Kirkman is smart he’ll use him just like Tyreese and hopefully write his arc just as well.

The Story Comes First

The Walking Dead has always felt, at least to me, like an organic tale. It meanders about with plenty of action, drama, and humour and yet most of it does not feel forced. Characters rarely speak out of turn or character. There have been a few massive info-dumps given by characters but they so rarely do things that leave you scratching your head.

That’s not to say characters don’t act differently at times. This is one of the major catalysts for solid drama in that someone’s convictions, and thus actions, change over time and it can take others a while to see just what this will mean. Rick starts off as a police officer, someone who upholds the law, but then he savagely beats (and I mean savagely because the man’s face is fubar and Rick’s hand is mangled) a man who preys on those in his group and kills some of them. Later, Rick declares that if you kill then you die. But Rick has also killed a man who threatened the safety of his group, and he did it in such a sneaky and backhanded manner. Not the noble or honourable thing to do but most likely the right thing to do for his given situation.

So many characters operate in that grey area between right and wrong because as the world has changed then so has the society in which you inhabit, and from that the norms that we once held everything up to for basis are gone. Long gone. You make your own destiny in a world filled with the undead at every turn looking to eat you and survivors often out to hurt you or take what you have leaving you easy pickings for the zombies.

Kirkman spoke about wanting to have Rick and Lori break up much earlier in the series but whenever he tried to write the scene the words wouldn’t come out of the characters’ mouths and he refused to slam them in there. In the end, the couple decided to keep working on their problems and stick it out. I like that Kirkman can admit that his characters are so strong in voice and he’s not dragging them through the motions just to get to his next moment.

It is also obvious that no one is safe in this story. Plenty of characters have died within the pages of TWD and most of them haven’t been the Red Shirt kind of disposable losers loitering in backgrounds and mugging for pencil time. Dead people in this title were once those we cared about, ones we loved. If a scene calls for someone to die then off with their heads! You even get the impression that Rick isn’t invincible and if his time is up then he’ll shuffle loose this zombie-infested coil. I figure that eventually that time will come and the reigns of the show will be given to Carl but you can’t guess here. Nothing is sacred when the undead walk the Earth.

Longevity In This Town

TWD is over 70 issues and has many years in its back catalogue. Kirkman has written absolutely every scene and only collaborated with two artists, Tony Moore for the intro arc and Charlie Adlard for every issue since. Sales for TWD have consistently and steadily gone up where it is now a Top 100 book, and to have that for an Image comic is pretty damn good, it outsells nearly anything else they put out. TWD has been released in collected volumes of 6 issues, 12 issues, 24 issues, and now a mammoth collection of 48 issues (which you can get at our contest, natch). And people keep buying them. The first issue has been printed in roughly seven or eight various guises over time and people keep picking it up as a new gateway, when it came out as a $1 special gateway issue just the other month it ranked #28 on the sales chart. The trades usually sit in the higher end of the Top 10 and with a show on the way you can absolutely bet the bank that they all go back up there again for a spell.

To think that TWD is now a mainstay in the comic scene and is being filmed as a television show is an amazing thing. Creator-owned projects are hard to get off the ground in comics but TWD has launched itself as being the definitive creator owned comic that just keeps on keeping on. It’s a stalwart of quality and now has a pretty tight shipping schedule which is greatly appreciated.

As for an actual end to this story, Kirkman has said that he’ll keep writing it as long as he can. If he can get decades out of it then he’ll die the happiest creator that ever lived. I like that mind set, so long as the quality continues I’d be happy to see this tale out with him wherever he takes it. This comic, the first trade, was what got me back into comics in the first place. And from there Kirkman has never abused my trust and allegiance, TWD always delivers.





Conclusion

I can’t speak highly enough of this series, and with the length of this article you probably don’t want me to continue to. Suffice to say, it’s about more than just zombies. It’s about the human condition, it’s about pathos and hubris, it’s about whatever slang you want to throw at the wall but all it means is that this is about good comics. Good stories. And that’s what we should always be clamouring for. There is no doubt in my mind that this is also going to make one kick ass show and I hope many people will then refer to the source material because they’ll be guaranteed to have their socks knocked off, their hair blown back, and their boat floated. Of this I am certain, so give it a go.

One bite and you’ll be infected.


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8 comments:

Anonymous said...

My beginner's guide is: go read the first trade. There is no need for explanation or discussion. Just go read the dam thing.

Wez said...

Excellent series.

It got a little bit slow after the Prison but it has finally picked up again.

The Compendium is by far the best value for money of any omnibus out at the moment.

brandon said...

Walking Dead is probably my favorite series of all time and a) I hate black and white books and b) I hate zombie movies and stories.

For me, the prison arc (if you can call it an arc at 24 issues) is the most compelling story I've ever read and has a payoff that is unthinkable.

It amazes me that Kirkman can build up these characters and kill them off at will. It makes the story so unpredictable that each issue is literally a must read before you open it up.

A side note, two of my favorite characters are Andrea and Axel and both are used excellently in that arc.

Nice article.

Radlum said...

Great article, however, it could have been nice to mention Glenn; the guy may not have much of a personality, but I like that he is basically an ordinary guy just being useful during the outbreak, in contrast to Carol.
Anyway, as previous comments say, just buy the Compendium or the first trade, you can't go wrong with this series.

Philipe said...

I'm with @brandon on this one. I always hated zombie comics and black and white comics. But I absolutely love TWD and I could not recommend it more. The characters behave like real people would and you really care about them.

Love it so much that I can't wait for the trades, I follow it issue by issue.

Matthew said...

Radlum's right: where's the Glenn love? Without Glenn, the group wouldn't have lasted a fortnight.

Other than that, great write-up. The Walking Dead is not only a great comic, it's quite possibly the greatest incarnation of the zombie genre yet. Kirkman's a wonderful writer, and Adlard has a near-perfect cinematic eye.

The Dangster said...

I'm asian, so of course I love Glenn. Who is written well and not stereotypically.

The thing about Glenn: Yes he's useful, but what I see, is that he's the only person whose life is BETTER because of the zombie attack.

distant relationship with his parents, delivering pizza and stealing cars. Now he's one of the useful group members and has a girlfriend.

The Dangster said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

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