NOTE: For the purposes of this review I’m covering volumes 1-5 of the hardcover collection (volumes 1-10 of the trades) since that’s what I’ve read. Presumably I’ll do a Part 2 once I’ve read the rest that’s out there so far.
Obviously, spoilers for both the book and the TV show abound.
You must’ve heard of it. I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the English-speaking world who hasn’t. It’s drama. It’s intrigue. It’s action. It’s motherloving zombies.
It’s The Walking Dead.
It first got my attention with the television series back in 2010. I was instantly hooked; zombies are a big enough draw for me on their own, but there was also really strong characterisation and focus on interpersonal relationships as well – so much so but without getting too soap opera-y. The six-episode span felt a bit short but a lot was packed into it, including some of the best zombie city-battle scenes I’ve ever witnessed on film. Season 2, whilst taking a bit longer to get going, was also great with the zombie eating and asshole characters, and the finale left me squealing with joy for what would happen in Season 3 – because I’d read the comics up to that point.
I only got a hold of the first hardcover volume of the comic series about a month or so ago, as the second season was wrapping up, and it’s a testament to the comic’s ability to suck me in like milo in a drinking straw that I’ve since read five volumes’ worth of story in a short space of time amongst work, university and saving the world from the brainwashed victims of the Kardashian Klan.
The premise is fairly simple from the beginning; Rick Grimes, local sheriff, is shot and near-fatally wounded during an attack on some bad guys. He wakes up in hospital roughly a month later to find the world he knew has been infested with the undead, everyone he knew is either dead or has just disappeared, and society is in a total shambles. Thus Rick begins an odyssey across the country to find some semblance of normalcy and the possible whereabouts on his family.
That’s the first issue.
From there the plot takes more turns than a jittery driving student with Parkinson’s. There’s a farm, a prison, copious limb removal (and not just of the undead), and a really freakin’ high body count. Seriously. This story has the highest main character attrition rate I’ve seen since the remake of Battlestar Galactica. Unless your favourite character is Rick, don’t get too attached to the characters – chances are they’ll be dead in a few issues.
While I already knew most of the first volume from having watched the TV series, the latter volumes are nicely varied, if a little slow in some places. There are a number of moments – usually at the end of a volume – that leave you on the edge of your seat, and the suspense captured is one that’s a rarity among comic books these days. The ‘anyone can die’ maxim really leaves you with a sense of vulnerability; nobody in the group is safe, and everyone’s a target. It keeps the atmosphere tense and exciting, and ensures that the foregone conclusion of “Oh, they’ve been with the series since issue 1, they won’t die until the very end” is impossible.
On the flip-side of that coin, however, it does make it hard – especially in the fourth volume – to really engage with a character you know will die shortly. The high mortality rate sometimes feels like some characters are only killed off for the sake of dying, rather than for dramatic appeal, and there’s a strong sense with many of the newly-introduced characters that they’re only there as cannon fodder later on. The hardest-hitting deaths are the well-characterised ones, including 3 very memorable – and tear-jerking – examples in Volume 4. The less well-done ones – including two deaths in Volume 2 that came out of nowhere – feel sometimes like they’re only there for shits and giggles, which can detract from the atmosphere a bit.
As well as that, there are a few non sequitur subplots added that contribute little to the story over all and in most cases come right out of left field to pad out time in the narrative. The most annoying part of this is that most of them aren’t given an appropriate conclusion, left hanging either because the characters involved died or the writer just got bored of it.
On top of the above, the prison arc – which dominates 3 hardcovers’ worth of narrative – does drag a little in the middle, and makes me a little apprehensive about how it’ll be represented in the TV series since it seems to remain mostly in the same place the whole time. There is an arc where Rick and a couple of others go exploring – incidentally meeting the most horrific comic book villain I’ve ever read – but for the most part it’s prison orange uniforms and jail cells at night. Hopefully they’ll find some way to add variety when this comes about in the TV series, or else I’ll be seeing orange jumpsuits in my dreams every night for a few months.
The character interactions are what lie at the twisted, depressingly black heart of the story. One of the masterstrokes that Robert Kirkman nails is his ability to flesh out almost every character the protagonists come across, whether for good or evil; bit part players that only have one or two scenes are, for the most part, expanded on and given unique and engaging personalities (some more than others). For example, I dare you not to feel a bit sad when Alice the hot prison nurse dies. Seriously, she made shorts. They were cute. Oh, and she was a stressed-out flawed character with believable struggles and a strong moral core, but it’s the shorts she’ll mostly be remembered for.
The artwork is black and white, and while this didn’t act as a draw card for me early on it’s definitely grown on me. The first half of Volume 1 feels a bit cartoonish in terms of the art design, but as the series progress Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn allow the art to evolve and become grittier and grungier. By the end of Volume 5 it very much puts me in my of people like Alex Maleev and Michael Lark, but the fact that this is achieved with only black and white colouring makes it, in my mind, a bit uniquer. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you’ve gotta love the way they can make grey shading look like an exploding jugular vein now and then.
The dialogue is like Neo from The Matrix‘s compassion for humanity; one of its biggest strengths and greatest weaknesses at the same time. The first volume seems to skip over meaningful dialogue and focus mainly on the action – which is alright, since it’s establishing the premise – but later volumes alternate between deep, evocative narrative between characters and forced, glurgy dialogue that was probably nicked from an unfilmed Days Of Our Lives script. I’d say after 5 volumes it’s about a 50/50 split as to how much of both is in the series so far – for instance, most of the conversations between Rick and Tyreese come off as natural and intuitive, and you really get a sense of them being good friends despite all the shit that goes down between them. On the other hand, most of the dialogue between Rick and Abraham (the latter of whom is currently my favourite character) comes off as two high-schoolers bickering over something inane. For most of Volume 5 their dialogue consists mostly of “Dick”, “Ass” (as in “you are a”), or, regularly in Abraham’s case, “FUCK”. They do reach a bit of an equilibrium by the end, but I still feel like I’m watching The O.C. rather than a zombie apocalypse when they fight.
On the whole, though, it’s certainly a unique take on a zombie holocaust and it should go down in history as one of the most memorable graphic novels ever. Make sure to watch Seasons 1 and 2 of the show first, mind, as there are plenty of really good plot twists that would be spoiled by the comic otherwise.
Oh, and stay away from Wikipedia.
BEST QUOTE: “[upon being told Christmas is tomorrow] Don’t tell anyone! Do you hear me? I don’t want anyone to know! I don’t want to have to explain to my son that on top of all this other shit…Santa can’t find him. Let’s just skip Christmas this year, ok?” – Rick Grimes