Well before The Walking Dead became a ratings champion on AMC this year, the franchise had a notable following in the comics world. Starting in 2003, The Walking Dead first appeared as a monthly black-and-white comic published by Image , is still being published as such, and has been written the whole time by Robert Kirkman and drawn for the most part by Charlie Adlard (aside from issues 1 through 6, which Tony Moore who illustrated). As a comic, The Walking Dead is coming up on 80 issues and seven years, and, after having read Issues 1 through 78, it appears to only be getting stronger.
A few things strike me immediately about The Walking Dead as a comic. In the first place, for the zombie apocalypse genre, TWD is remarkably disciplined in its approach to pacing, which is to say that, while there is certainly plenty of action and many unpredictable plot turns and twists, Kirkman does not appear to throw things in unless they are a development of character, situation, or setting. Some have called TWD a very “talky” comic, but the pages are rarely if ever filled with unnecessary dialogue or narrative, and you will often find many sections where the story unfolds in tight, economic images, panel to panel, with not a word on the paper.
You don’t get seven years into a writing story about the zombie apocalypse (and maybe two years of story time) without getting past the initial thrills of a survival story. This has to be more than a 90 minute Hollywood feature, so some deeper questions are explored. How difficult do some survivors find it to let go of their loved ones – even those who have become undead? When civilization has collapsed, how might some survivors revert to deception, criminality, immorality, and evil? Is it worth having children? Do you allow children to remain innocent of how the world has changed? When there’s no more electricity and gasoline, how do you live? When there’s nothing left to scavenge from the store shelves, how do you eat? What happens to the planet when there’s five or six billion zombies endlessly searching for flesh to eat?
Charlie Adlard, who makes the most of the black-and-white format, is at his best when working in the blacks to create tremendously bold shadows and a sense of feeling trapped, although his work in lighter tones create, at times, an almost bleached-out effect. It’s as if in the world of TWD, there’s either too much light or not nearly enough. I particularly admire the way in which Adlard shades the eyes of and allows for a fully rotted-out mouths of his zombies. He’s also particularly attentive to the wounds, scratches, and scars of the characters; you really feel as if these people are deep in the fight month after month. There are images in the comics (from both Adlard and Moore), though, that are so strong, they are bound to work their way into the storyboarding of the series, as did the now-iconic image of Rick Grimes on horseback arriving in a destroyed Atlanta.
Viewers of the series The Walking Dead should be encouraged to learn – just as I did – that although Frank Darabont and his team did change many aspects of the story in the six-episode mini-season this past fall, they can still make full use of almost all of the material from the comic’s seven-year run. The relationship triangle between Rick and Lori Grimes and Shane Walsh has yet to be resolved, and Carl Grimes is a much fuller character as the story develops in the comics. The pizza delivery guy Glenn becomes much more than an excellent scavenger as time passes, and camper-driving Dale and blonde Andrea have steps to take as well. Some of the most significant characters – Michonne, Tyreese, and The Governor – and settings – Hershel’s farm and the prison – have yet to be even hinted at. In short, the television show has really just scratched the surface. As with Lost (at its best) and Battlestar Galactica (almost always), there should be the potential at any moment to have one of those “Holy crap!” scenes that brings you out of your chair.
In the meantime, if you can’t wait for the series to be back on the air in October, you’ve got seven years worth of comics you can read. Just don’t say I didn’t give you a big spoiler alert.
NOTE: My thanks to Andrew “Headshot” Miller for loaning me his collection of The Walking Dead.
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