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.
Having completely missed The Walking Dead when it first began (and then, having continued to miss it for years on end), I figure now is a good time to start looking back at the evolution of everyone’s favorite zombie comic. Robert Kirkman began The Walking Dead in 2003. Seven years ago. These days, that’s an incredible feat even for mainstream superhero books produced by the Big 2, let alone a drama/horror book published by Image. While zombies have in recent years experienced a MAJOR resurgence, from runaway hit novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to zombie film mash-ups like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland, it’s still something of a surprise to see the episode hit 70 issues, with recent critical juggernaut cable station AMC ordering a pilot for the show (filming begins in May). What was it that has so grabbed audiences?
Beware spoilers ahead
The Walking Dead‘s opening arc, “Days Gone Bye”, suggests a fair bit of that draw. While there are some clumsy elements to the book’s opening scenes, where small town cop Rick Grimes and his partner Shane confront a lunatic felon before Grimes goes down in the line of duty and slips into a coma, as clumsy moments go, it’s one that offers a number of big pay-offs down the road, from Rick’s local hero status to the debt Shane feels he owes him. Perhaps the greatest pay-off comes right away, however: giving us a POV character who manages to sleep through the apocalypse and come out a hero.
Obviously, we all knew that the zombie apocalypse was going to happen, and we knew it was going to happen right quick – that’s the entire premise, the bread-and-butter of zombie horror. The joy isn’t in watching the massive societal shift that comes with/before its rapid collapse, but in seeing it play out amidst a small group of survivors navigating the aftermath. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead – still absolutely a masterpiece, for those who haven’t seen it – was focused almost entirely around a small house with a small amount of survivors. Even the beloved follow-up, Dawn of the Dead, despite opening to scenes of national breakdown, quickly established that it would be following a small group of survivors in a shopping mall. And The Walking Dead very quickly establishes itself as a rather direct descendent of Romero.
By giving Grimes a coma and counting on the widespread knowledge of how the zombie apocalypse works (because, for some reason, we all think we know exactly how it will go down… and if you’re in college and you’re reading this blog, there’s a fair chance you actually know exactly who amongst your friends you would and would not want with you in the event), Kirkman is able to use an a bit of shorthand in building his world. When Rick finally escapes the hospital and meets the town’s last two survivors, he’s informed that the government had people head to the big cities, where they could be more ably protected by the military, we know exactly what Rick will find when he gets there. Similarly, because we know how these kinds of stories work, when Rick comes across daredevil runner Glenn in Atlanta, we can be pretty certain that Rick’s wife and son will be there, and we also know that no military rescue is coming.
It isn’t until Rick joins up with the small band of survivors that the story really kicks off and we can settle back into the drama and the horror, but the initial dynamics within the band also cause some of the book’s early slips, partly based around the occasionally clumsy dialogue, but mostly focused around the desire to have Rick be as heroic as humanly possible.
You see, it’s Rick who has to suggest that the camp needs to be better defended. What’s more, it’s Rick who has to suggest that they raid the closest Atlanta gun store for enough guns and ammunition to train the whole camp. It’s Rick who discovers how to trick the zombies into not attacking. It’s Rick who suggests Carl be given a gun despite the strenuous (and reasonable) objections of his mother, and it’s Rick who suggests that the camp be moved, both for safety’s sake and to ward against the oncoming winter. And Rick? Rick is right every time.
Kirkman’s desire to paint Rick so well, so quickly is understandable. Rick is a newcomer, no more qualified than anyone else there and vastly less experienced in the art of post-apocalyptic survival. While we know that Rick is an upstanding guy, they don’t, so this was a good way to get our POV character in a position of relative authority moving forward. It was also very, very irritating, and it repeatedly took me straight out of the story.
That said, there are also some wonderful, heartbreaking moments in this arc, and I suspect that, as much as some of the shocking moments towards the end, was what genuinely grabbed people and suggested that they stick around for the long haul. One particularly tragic exchange that stood out to me did not involve a shocking death or a gruesome backstory, but instead, a one page encounter between two of the camp’s children.
In the seemingly long stretches between zombie outbursts in the book, it can be easy to forget just how much these people have lost, the children particularly. Kirkman proves apt at lulling both his characters and his readers into a false sense of security before he brings the hammer down. And Kirkman brings that hammer down as hard as he can, providing another possible explanation for what it was about the book that so resonated with people.
No one’s safe. Well, Grimes is, at least for now. He’s still our window to this world, and I have no idea if he’ll remain so for the whole series of if he’ll meet the same gruesome fate met in this arc by nearly a third of the established cast: Amy, Jim and Shane. Amy’s death was surprising, but not extremely so – a zombie attack and subsequent death was inevitable. It was just a matter of who would bite the bullet. Shane, meanwhile, was quickly losing his marbles over the course of the that drastic action was inevitable, though the ‘how’ of his death was still good for a shock. Resident bad-ass and brutal zombie slayer Jim, though? That was unexpected, drawn out and, in the end, perhaps the most poignant moment of the opening issues.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention Tony Moore at least once, the artist for this opening arc. While Moore’s facial expressions and body language are occasionally exaggerated, the problem is rare, and is more than made up for in just how dead he made post-apocalyptic America look, undead or no. And he is of course just as responsible as Kirkman for making the zombies such a horrific presence… and thus, making Jim’s fate and the possible fate of many others so wonderfully grotesque.
As a warning? Mildly NSFW
The arc ends as it began: a moment of shocking violence perpetrated on a pair of small town friends. But now, the situation’s changed. The characters have changed. Comics are famed for their constant resistance to change, even up to a cycle of pointless resurrections that make the popular characters (or at least those beloved by the creators) functionally immortal. The Walking Dead seems almost to be a cruel parody of the concept, one in which no one is ever really safe, but everyone gets that resurrection and change is the only constant.
The Walking Dead: Days Gone Bye seems to be a pretty excellent introductory volume. It balances the character-based drama with the undead grotesqueries fairly well, and though its pacing is a little slow, Kirkman wisely never lets us get too comfortable in the presence of monsters. Still, Kirkman and Moore do fine work introducing new readers to their horrible little world, explaining the rules and making sure that, going forward, you’ll never be really comfortable while reading onward.
Coming up next Friday: The Walking Dead: Miles Behind Us
– Cal Cleary
As a very brief note, this being the inaugural entry of this new column, feedback is always welcome. Also welcome? Suggestions for future books to look at in the column. I’ve got a pretty good list shaping up, especially thanks to some recent recommendations from our readers, but new suggestions are ALWAYS welcome.
As a reminder… I’m coming at this from the point of view of a newbie to the series, as are, I would imagine, some readers: discussion of events happening later in the series will be discouraged in the comments, but not forbidden: I only ask that you mark spoilers as clearly as possible.