Last year I received as a Christmas gift Image Comics’ The Walking Dead: Compendium One, a massive tome collecting the first 48 issues of the American monthly comic book that recently inspired a highly popular AMC miniseries. Being in Japan (and generally averse to watching television), I have yet to view the series itself and give it a fair appraisal. The comic book, however, is absolutely fantastic. I’ll be getting back to my Romero Retrospective later this week, but for now I’d like to talk a little bit about what is quite possibly the greatest zombie epic ever committed to trade paperback form.
When we meet our protagonist, Kentucky police officer Rick Grimes, he is in the middle of a heated roadside gun battle with an escaped convict. Rick is heavily wounded and falls into a coma, waking up in the hospital weeks later. In a plot development reminiscent of the final scene in Resident Evil (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2002), our would-be hero finds that he has just managed to sleep through a zombie apocalypse, narrowly escaping the flesh-eating hordes in the hospital and discovering that the town around him has been completely overrun by the plague of walking corpses. Without giving too many spoilers away, Rick manages to reunite with his wife, Lori, and his son, Carl, who were able to evade the undying menace along with a ragtag gang of survivors. Death follows the group as they attempt to find a safe haven to settle into, eventually arriving at a prison complex that they stake out as their new home. More dangerous than the threat of ravaging ghouls, however, is the deterioration of human relationships that gnaws away at the foundations of their tribe. The end of the first compendium ends on a cliffhanger, just as all appears to be lost. The second compendium is yet to be released, but the complete series is currently available in trade paperback, hardcover, and omnibus editions.
Much like the great zombie epics of the silver screen, what truly sets TWD apart from other literary or comic book adaptations of the genre is the strength of its characters. Human relationships play a pivotal role in the story’s progression, often overshadowing the more obvious issue of the world being filled with people who just won’t stay dead. The main character of Rick is the one with whom the reader will most easily identify. In the beginning, his clearheaded thinking and quiet but firm leadership abilities set him up as a hero. However, this is a story about humans being pushed to the utmost limits of their ability to adapt and cope with a harsh and adverse reality, and so it isn’t long before Rick’s decisions become questionable. Like the other characters, he too exposes his weakness, and falls prey to hypocrisy, deceit, and poor decision-making. Writing a flawed character certainly isn’t difficult, but creator Robert Kirkman gives us a genuinely likable character that we cheer for in spite of such flaws. This realism propels the story forward and keeps us on the edge of our seats.
Another positive point: No one is safe. And I mean no one. Given the fact that Rick is the main character, we can be reasonably sure that he will survive, but that’s not to say that he won’t see Hell before the curtain closes. The body count rises and the suspense never lets up, as likable characters are suddenly done in just when we finally thought we knew them. This precarious balance is maintained well throughout the story, and gives testament to Kirkman’s excellent storytelling abilities.
Breaking away from the tradition of full-color American comic strips, the monochromatic scheme of TWD matches perfectly with the gritty realism of the situations and characters that it portrays. Originally penned by Tony Moore, the artwork was taken over Charlie Adlard from Issue #7, resulting in a rather noticeable change of tone in the overall work. While Moore’s backgrounds and settings were more intricately detailed, I found that Adlard was able to more effectively convey the emotional turmoil of the characters through their features, a skill which becomes especially essential as emotions intensify and tensions reach the breaking point in the later issues. As such, the change in artists could almost be seen as moving along with the logical progression of the story, and the shift is not so noticeable as to be terribly distracting.
While occasionally lapsing into hackneyed or predictable dialogue (“We are the walking dead!”), the solid writing and realistic characters remain fairly consistent throughout, a quality that was surely a large factor in the acceptance of this work in receiving the 2010 Eisner Award for Best Continuing Series. There is a great deal of originality present in the tale, considering its genre, but the creators are not afraid to throw in some subtle references to past legends. In my first read-through alone, I noticed that there is a young African-American boy named Duane Jones (the actor who played Ben in Night of the Living Dead), and Rick and Lori have a daughter named Judith (most likely a reference to Judith O’Dea, who portrayed Barbra in NOTLD). Overall, The Walking Dead is a stirring and unique tale both as a comic book and as a zombie epic, and it surely deserves a place on any zombie lover’s bookshelf.
While we’re on the subject of comics, if you’re in the mood for something a little more light-hearted, be sure to check out my dear friend Gregory Snader’s four-panel webcomic, Gothy Goths. In film-related news, Yoshihiro Nishimura is heading to the Brussels Fantastic Film Festival to promote his latest film, Helldriver, and The Machine Girl director Noboru Iguchi is set to begin filming his new horror flick tomorrow here in Japan! It looks like there will be some exciting developments in the near future, so I will be sure to keep you posted!