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.
The Walking Dead‘s second story arc, “Miles Behind Us,” illustrates one major strength the series has that most zombie fiction does not: it keeps going. While the campfire setting of “Days Gone Bye” is hardly common, the story beats it hits definitely are, from the confident, talented new arrival to camp to the romantic jealousies and, ultimately, to betrayal and death. But where most films end, The Walking Dead is just beginning. “Miles Behind Us” isn’t completely free of the most familiar trappings of the zombie story, and Kirkman honestly seems to have little interest in trying to defy conventions too much anyway, but it’s expansive nature suggests that Kirkman’s simple premise may have nevertheless been one of the best things to happen to zombie fiction in some time.
Just like last time, Kirkman opens the arc with a major revelation. And though the big reveal in this arc may not have as much narrative kick as the previous one, which introduced us to the apocalypse, it also gives us a twist that could only really play out in a long-form story:
While it’s hardly a new plot twist, even in zombie fiction, the ongoing nature of the story means that we’ll get to see all the complications, everything that can go wrong – or right, but what are the odds of that? – play out in a slow burn. It’s a relatively minor way to amp up the tension, and in some ways a relatively cheap one, but Kirkman doesn’t stop there: there’s a pretty good chance it’s Shane’s kid. It’s a soap opera twist, but it’s also a soap opera twist that adds yet another dimension to Rick’s slow degradation.
Which means that, yes, Kirkman smartly begins to give our hero a few flaws. In fact, this arc already sees the previously collected small-town sheriff almost constantly on edge. We first see Rick begin to come apart in small ways – after the revelation that Lori is pregnant comes out to the camp, Dale pulls Rick aside to reiterate his suspicions about Lori’s relationship with Shane, and it’s a conversation that Rick does not take well. Rick’s real breaking point, however, comes later in the issue, after his son Carl gets shot. Rick? Not happy.
While Rick is talked out of killing the man and Carl is ultimately saved, Rick never fully recovers. In the first arc, Rick meets Shane’s initial reluctance to move the camp with reason, agreeing not to move but making sure his viewpoint was heard and discussed. A similar confrontation in this arc, however, with Rick clearly right and Hershel clearly wrong, ends in a pretty serious fight. Now, Rick has to be talked down by newcomer Tyreese.
Last arc, I singled out a single, small moment as the one that most gave me hope for the series: a brief chat between Carl and Sophia, another of the camp’s children. Amidst all the death in this batch of issues, the darkest moment in the issue comes in an argument between Lori and Hershel. As it heats up, the quickly degenerating farmer, Hershel, pulls a gun on Rick and throws the entire camp off his farm. Here, though, Kirkman follows up the climactic moments of “Days Gone Bye,” in which Carl shoots and kills Shane as he’s threatening Rick, in the most chilling way he could: by having Carl, adorable cowboy hat and all, begin to pull a gun on Hershel as Rick is threatened. No one notices, but I’m confident that this will come back up, and when it does, it won’t be pretty.
One glaring problem that struck me repeatedly in this arc was this: the characters all have the exact same voice. They use the exact same phrasing. They all sound the same. As we meet an increasingly varied cast, including in this issue an ex-NFL pro, his teenage daughter, and a vet-turned-farmer, it becomes more obvious, and more detrimental to the storytelling. In “Days Gone Bye”, I complained because the dialogue was a bit clunky at points – this remains true here, but it’s becoming clear that not only is the dialogue clunky, but it’s like that across the board.
The Walking Dead features no narration, no captions of any sort, in fact. This is probably a very good idea. While there are some narrative tricks to play to avoid this, the fact of the matter is, if you have a narrator telling you the story, you can be pretty damn sure of one thing: the narrator survives, at least long enough to get the story down. What’s more, the audience typically becomes more attached to the narrator, more invested in their story than the others, which makes the death of a supporting cast member resonate less and the death of the narrator hurt more. Should Rick Grimes ever die, or at least become a less important character as the group dynamic shifts, having him be the narrator could really hurt the book.
That said, without narration, dialogue becomes that much more important, as does the art, as both have to pick up that narrative slack. The dialogue, unfortunately, does not do so, and some excessively talky scenes can really throw the pacing of the book off when everyone’s voice begins to run together and you find yourself not particularly caring who’s speaking. On the other hand, whenever Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn, the new art team (replacing Tony Moore), are given a lot to work with, the result is excellent, as in the pregnancy example above, or in this completely wordless scene:
Shane’s hat hanging off a cross, Lori front and center, her brow lightly furrowed and her face almost completely covered in shadow. It says a lot. Unlike most everyone else, Lori doesn’t look sad; she looks angry. Adlard and Rathburn may lack the polished, crisp quality of Tony Moore’s art, but their scratchier art fits the story’s more frantic, fraying tone, and their more stylized art gives them more room to play around with shadows, something they often do to great effect, and while their facial expressions are a little more exaggerated than they were with Moore, it still hits all the right beats.
It’s difficult to say whether or not “Miles Behind Us” works better than “Days Gone Bye.” “Days Gone Bye” was a more traditional zombie tale, with the survivors stuck in a single location. Food or travelers were never a problem for them. It was pure survival horror – long stretches of waiting punctuated by brief acts of shocking violence – and, despite its flaws, it knew exactly what it was going for. “Miles Behind Us” feels less confident. Whether it’s the fact that it seems like two arcs jammed together, the fact that they’re always moving or the less conventional structure, “Miles Behind Us” definitely doesn’t come across as quite as polished.
That said, I think I prefer it. The flaws of “Miles Behind Us” stem from its breaks from the traditional zombie structure. It’s fairly ambitious as it sets out on the road. New characters join the party, while other characters leave – and not just because of death. Kirkman uses his newfound freedom to do a little exploration. How nice would a gated community be during a zombie apocalypse? What about a farm? A prison? What qualities are you looking for in a survivor… and where is your breaking point? Where “Days Gone Bye” was a competent opener, “Miles Behind Us” seems to serve as a warning of what’s to come. I, for one, can’t wait to see where that is.
– Cal Cleary
The Unread Canon #1: The Walking Dead: Days Gone Bye
Coming up March 26: Punisher MAX: In The Beginning
Coming up April 2: The Walking Dead: Safety Behind Bars