The Unread Canon: The Walking Dead: Safety Behind Bars

Everyone has a set of entertainment by which they’ll swear, the ones they’ll eventually convince every friend to watch/listen to/read.  Sometimes, those suggestions are echoed time and again all over the place, and even the most jaded, world-weary or dirt-poor fan of the medium has to get curious about just what all that fuss is for.  That’s why I’ve started The Unread Canon, my attempt to experience a great deal more of comics than I already have and take a look at the books that, over the past few years (or, in some cases, decades) have achieved passionate, vocal critical and fan supporters that have nevertheless managed to slip by me and to try and look at how they grew, how they aged, why they work, or why they might not work so well anymore.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the dialogue in The Walking Dead.  That’s because, by and large, the dialogue in The Walking Dead is both pretty bad and the single most distinctive flaw in the book.  This volume really pointed out why, both because it showed some marked improvements and because a number of pretty terrible exchanges very clearly illustrate one of the biggest problems.

If you don’t mind me stealing a quote from fantastic actress Olivia Williams… “In a way, I think that’s why the therapy generation has killed scriptwriting, because all you ever get is people going, ‘Hi, I’m feeling really angry right now.'”  The fact of the matter is, people don’t talk like that.  When you’re with friends, when you’re with enemies, when you’re in the most awkward situation in the world… you don’t talk like that.

It’s here, of course, that I have to apologize – the edition of the book that I have is the extraordinarily thick omnibus edition, the one that makes it extraordinarily difficult to scan.  With the scans_daily archives gone and, inexplicably, this volume being the only one on Amazon that doesn’t let you look inside, I’ve had a hard time pulling decent images up, but I’ll do my best to fix this for the future.

Compare, in this volume, two moments.

The first involves last volumes increasingly mad farmer, Hershel, who threw the half-starved heroes off his farm at gunpoint after a bizarre tragedy that everyone predicted came to pass.  Here, penitent, Hershel gives us a lengthy monologue in which he pours out his feelings for Rick.  And their situation.  And their new location.  All completely honest and forthright.

A little bit later in the chapter, Chris and Julie finally enact their long-hinted at violent plan: a suicide pact.  There, we learn that you come back as a zombie even if you die of something completely unrelated.  The sequence in which this happens is slightly clumsy in light of, say, Shane’s death, but it makes sense.  A few pages later, Rick, previously the series’ flawless hero, gives a brief, vague speech to Lori before jumping on the back of a motorcycle and going… somewhere.  Rick doesn’t tell her where.  Or us.  We have no idea what he’s doing.

When he finally arrives at his destination, we have our suspicions confirmed (or denied): he pulls up to Shane’s grave.  As he’s faced with zombie Shane, Rick delivers a monologue not unlike Hershel’s, except for one thing: there is subtext.  Rick’s disdainful expression.  The monologue’s rambling, unfocused nature.  The urgency with Rick came, and the tone that veers wildly from disgusted to curious to betrayed.

The second scene has it all.  Rick’s disappearance lends drama to the prison, as the authority figure has disappeared, leaving a group of enraged, shell-shocked civilians to watch over the four convicts.  We don’t know why and we don’t know how long he’ll be gone.  Furthermore, when he gets there, he doesn’t tell us what he’s feeling – he shows us through a well-characterized monologue that works in conjunction with Adlard’s art.  The maxim for all writers everywhere in all mediums is “Show, don’t tell,” but so often, Kirkman’s characters just tell us everything we want to know and assume that we’ll be satisfied with that.

An example of the improved 'tell, don't show' method.

Now that I’ve spent a few hundred words covering why exactly the dialogue often doesn’t work, I have to add this: it shows marked improvement in this volume.  Rick and Tyreese especially have bucked the habit of explaining their motives in excruciating detail, possibly because they are the two ‘alpha males’ of the group, but most characters show a pretty fair bit of growth.  Allen’s dialogue has turned into rambling, nihilistic monologues about the inevitability of death, often delivered to his two young children.  Andrea has become angry, confident and volatile, while Dale has become more tender, her caretaker and lover.  Even Hershel shows some promising signs.

Allen is a madman. This can only be a good thing.

Aside from the dialogue, though, I also have this to say: this was easily the most exciting volume of the series.  The gang moves into a prison, quickly realizing that the massive fences, barred-up sleeping spaces, and huge food stores combined to make it a pretty ideal place to ride out the zombie apocalypse.  Upon arrival, however, they find four inmates alive and well in the cafeteria.  With crimes ranging from tax evasion to murder, the tension rises dramatically as the prisoners are set loose to mingle with the other survivors, and things only heat up when a few of the camp children turn up decapitated and cut up.

Themes of suspicion and distrust run rampant throughout the arc, informing nearly every subplot that pops up.  Andrea and Dale no longer trust their safety to the camp; Lori no longer trusts Rick’s temper; everyone suspects Dexter for the murders; Rick doesn’t trust that Shane would have come back to re-kill him.  No one trusts anyone anymore, which means we’re in the perfect place for zombie apocalypse hijinks.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: zombies don’t help, but humans are always the bad guys in any self-respecting zombie story.

Adlard and Rathburn have gotten more and more adept at illustrating the action sequences, and their stylistically heightened art continues to use shadows to great effect.  Given a dramatically tense story arc, the two of them did an excellent job of making the facial expressions say what the dialogue often couldn’t, and crafting a few genuinely memorable images.

The arc ends with a, uh, strong suggestion that they’ll be leaving the prison.  I hope this isn’t the case.  There are only so many times you can have them on the verge of starvation, traveling from unsafe haven to unsafe haven before it gets dull, and I think we’re fast approaching that point.  At the prison, they have a chance to form a genuine society, and to be honest, that’s something that zombie fiction hasn’t really delved much into in the past, but The Walking Dead: Safety Behind Bars sometimes suggests it will do.

Near the end of the volume, Rick Grimes, the selfless hero who, until now, has been as close to perfect as anyone could be, loses his fucking shit.  To put it politely.  Rick and Tyreese both spent this arc taking unnecessary risks and generally coming closer and closer to the edge of sanity, but Rick’s moments near the arc’s end, where he beats one of the inmates so severely he shatters his own knuckles to the point where that hand will never work properly again.  It’s the moments after that where it gets truly interesting, though – Rick sentences the man to die, declares himself de facto leader of the survivors, declares himself the sole arbiter of justice, and summarily dismisses his own wife when she challenges him.

And it all works.  Rick has, in 18 issues, gone from a Mary Sue POV character to a controlling, violent warlord, someone capable of startling brutality in the name of Order.  And that’s a big, big part of why I hope they remain in the prison – what would a society shaped by Rick look like?  How would it function?  What would happen when it encountered another group?  And how will Rick’s responsibilities change him?

I don’t know, but it’s an interesting question.  As much as The Walking Dead began as a competent survival horror piece, it’s recent genre change into post-apocalyptic drama suits it far better.  The first two volumes were clearly inspired heavily by Romero, and while this isn’t a bad thing at all, “Safety Behind Bars” illustrates a more independent series, defined far more readily by itself than by anything else.  The first two books were good; though I don’t know what future installations hold, I’d point to this arc as being the one to suggest why it might be great.

- Cal Cleary

The Unread Canon #3: The Punisher MAX: In the Beginning

The Unread Canon #2: The Walking Dead: Miles Behind Us

Coming up March 16th: The Punisher MAX: Kitchen Irish

Coming up March 23rd: The Walking Dead: The Heart’s Desire

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2 Responses to The Unread Canon: The Walking Dead: Safety Behind Bars

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