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.
Last week, I put forth the hope that Rick & co. would remain in the prison, to build a suitably brutal post-zombie society and slowly decay as the world around them drops even further into hell. As a note, I am not normally this mean-spirited – I just think that that scenario would be immensely entertaining to watch, and so demand that the fictional puppets dance for me.
Though it seemed like they would be heading out, “Heart’s Desire” begins with another zombie attack, and once again, Kirkman’s philosophy that the zombie’s aren’t the real danger shines through: despite the frankly enormous mass of zombies no one gets hurt, even a little. In fact, the only death occurs when Rick, realizing that Dexter isn’t going to let him and his people remain, shoots Dexter in the head near the end of the firefight, suggesting that anyone could have done it, and that Dexter had merely been clumsy enough to get in the way of some crossfire. Firm “no killing” stance? A thing of the past, which even Rick admits was a naive fantasy born from his inability to let go of the past.
It’s amazing, four arcs in, to look back at what’s come before. The Walking Dead starts off slow. Competent, yes, and engaging enough to draw and hold an audience, but it nonetheless reads as a second-rate Romero for a time: enjoyable, but easy. I am comfortable saying that that phase of the book is over. Between “Safety Behind Bars” and “Heart’s Desire”, I don’t even think this is a zombie story anymore. Yes, zombies still attack, and sometimes someone even gets bit, but that isn’t the point, if it ever really was. In one of the most memorable exchanges in the issue, hero Rick Grimes declares that the zombies were never ‘the walking dead’ – that was the survivors who had fooled themselves into thinking tomorrow would be better.
We lose a few more characters here, but we do get introduced to one new character who has a big effect right away: Michonne. Michonne doesn’t have much to do in the issue, but she accomplishes a lot with what she does. Namely, Michonne spreads chaos. Where the rest of the world seems to have organized into groups, Michonne stands alone. The rest of the world fears the zombies; Michonne keeps two as pets. Everyone uses guns and barely makes due; Michonne wields swords. Michonne is a bad-ass, no question, and she was given a more blatantly bad-ass entrance than any other character in the series to date.
Despite all this, however, Michonne spends the entire arc doing little but screwing around with people. Having surrendered her weapon, she still very nearly tears the group apart, first by seducing Tyreese away from Carol with a blowjob (which leads to a heart-breaking scene between Carol and Tyreese in his bunk that ranks among Kirkman’s best small dramas) and then by just generally presenting drastically different faces of herself to different members of the group. She surrenders her weapons readily, destroys her pets as soon as they request, and doesn’t protest at being put in a cell… but she’s outright hostile to Andrea for no discernible reason, and doesn’t seem to keen on Lori, either. Still, her tryst with Tyreese prompts some major events, including a suicide attempt by Carol and a coup against Rick’s de facto leadership of the group.
Of course, the dialogue continues to be a problem. Less clunky than in the first volume, yes, and Kirkman does display a great deal of growth over the past 20+ issues, but it feels like the exact same mistakes are made time and again. I probably won’t talk about this again, barring any particularly egregious mistakes, but I cannot stress enough how detrimental I feel the dialogue is to the remainder of the book. It’s frustrating and, moreover, at its worse, it can make re-reading certain segments of the book downright tedious. That said, it seems to be so ingrained in the work that I can’t imagine it changing much.
I’m 24 issues in, now, and the most marked improvement I’ve noticed is this: dramatic timing. Some early issues were relatively clumsy in setting up dramatic moments, and that occasionally combined with shoddy dialogue to give us scenes like the one above, but two years in, Kirkman has gotten MUCH better at dramatic timing. The group makes perhaps THE biggest discovery of their new lives in the form of what appears to be a working generator, but promptly forget about it – even I forgot about it until a second read-through! – because Allen, in a not-unexpected moment of recklessness, gets bitten. Then, to up the tension even further, Rick decides that now is the best time to try an impromptu and, uh, mildly dangerous way to stave off Allen’s zombie infection.
That is as visceral a scene as Kirkman, Adlard and Rathburn have provided. The middle page illustrates why I think Kirkman’s dialogue is a flaw – it interrupts the rhythm and overexplains a scene, but to no effect: we know what has to happen, we know what’s going to happen, and we want it to happen. We want to see if Allen will be okay. I have a hard time imagining Tyreese raising a serious objection over Rick’s methods here, but Kirkman needed the page for exposition. In not trusting his reader to make that leap and keep up, though, he ended up saying too much and damaging an otherwise stellar scene.
I don’t talk enough about Adlard and Rathburn and what they bring to the table. I always manage to find a few things to say, but I really cannot point out enough how utterly vital they are to the tone of the book. After Kirkman gives us his exposition page, they come back with a vengeance. The fourth page in the sequence is brutal without being excessive, visceral without being explicit – it’s just what we need to pull us back into the action. They have a number of memorable images throughout the book, and I know that their work on that page was fairly simple and hardly revelatory, but it was rock-solid and gripping, which is just what the book demanded after Rick’s lecture… especially when you look at the fifth and final page of the sequence. Not Allen’s screaming face, which is compelling, but obvious – no, Rick, standing in shadow, taking off his belt. It’s an inherently intimidating image that successfully manages to dehumanize Rick as he ‘gets the job done’.
It’s also an excellent way for us to end this session. Next time I return to The Walking Dead, I’d imagine we’ll see more fallout from Michonne’s arrival, as well as from the decision to ‘democratize’ the survivors. The Walking Dead has grown considerably beyond its relatively simplistic origins at this point, and I’m looking forward to continuing to see how it narrows down its own world and brings order to all the chaos.
On a couple final notes, I want to apologize for the lateness of the article and introduce a new book into the lineup. I try and get these up reliably, but until I have a slightly more settled schedule in my life, I will definitely continue to struggle. I will also be moving this biweekly, to try and help out with that. I can only apologize and hope for the best. On a similar note, I wanted to expand the scope of The Unread Canon slightly, so I will be adding slowly adding some new books to the rotation as I wind down what’s available to me with these ones. So, I hope you’ll all approve of the first new addition: Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life arrives in four weeks.
– Cal Cleary
The Unread Canon #5: The Punisher MAX: Kitchen Irish
The Unread Canon #4: The Walking Dead: Safety Behind Bars
Coming Up May 22nd: The Punisher MAX: Mother Russia
Coming Up June 5th: Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life