When The Walking Dead showed up on television’s AMC I was as happy as a zombie in a maternity ward. At last, the greatest metaphor for exploring the human condition, zombies, was getting its due, and for all to see on a free network! The payoff was that the show was really good. So good in fact that it made me want more.

I was surprised to learn that there was a comic book based on the show; hey, I like comics, and, I like zombies. Still, I knew better than to get enthused. I had been a reader of other post-tv/movie-comics like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Serenity and even, long ago, Star Wars, all of which were extensions of – but not improvements on – the original media. With this tepid prejudgment I pursued this Walking Dead comic no further and just re-read World War Z by Max Brooks to satisfy my undead cravings.

Soon after, I learned from a friend that The Walking Dead comic was not based on the tv show, but rather the opposite. This changed everything! Suddenly the comic became the media on which millions of dollars were spent to translate to an onscreen medium. Instead of the comic following the successful show, the successful show was following the comic. So if the pattern was consistent, the original media was almost sure to be better than its translation or extension.

I picked up a copy of The Walking Dead issue #1 (Kirkman and Moore). I read it. I read it again. My passion for comics has been renewed.

Prior to this comic experience, the closest I had come to feeling like I had read something truly special in the comic genre was when I picked up a novel called Batman: The Ultimate Evil (Vachss) many years ago. I had some other good experiences with the likes of Superman: Red Son (Millar) or Kingdom Come (Waid) and have had many satisfying years reading The Order of the Stick (Burlew) and, of course, various incarnations of The X-Men. But this was different.

Here’s some of the play by play I noticed in the first couple pages.

Page One: Hey, this is in black and white. Gritty art. Those weeds on the side of the road are fading into the distance; very good perspective. Faces on the page are relatable in an abstract kind of way. They’re clearly individualized though no attempt at photorealism being made… quite dramatic. That wicked pump-action-rifle-wielding escaped prisoner in cell 3 really grabbed me.

Page Two: hey, this is like 28 Days Later (Boyle); dude wakes up in a hospital bed. It’s Sheriff Rick (actually “officer” Rick). But look at the shadow play! You can see the whole figure of Rick. The grayscale’s so stark. The artist conveys so much emotion in the faces and body language. Really outstanding.

By page 5 I already felt drenched in the mood of the comic; that mood being the disturbance that comes when something is very wrong. The visual point of view (POV) is used really well. The POV pull-outs to capture the big picture, then get close up to get the character’s reactions or thoughts. On page 6 it becomes very clear we’re dealing with zombies and on page 9 we begin to see more of the big picture, the outdoor desolation, the amount of trash and length of the grass acting a bit like a clock for how long Rick has been out of the picture. This is well thought out. This black and white pen drawings are really potent. Even the walls of the cells on the page contribute to the tone of the narrative.

In the TV show, there was an early scene where a mangled zombie drags itself towards Rick and I remember thinking, wow, they’ve really pushed the limits of TV special effects makeup. This is big budget stuff. My wife who was watching with me (I’m lucky enough to be married to a woman who thinks zombie stories are as interesting as I do) was physically repulsed in the kind of way every director hopes for. On page 10 of the comic artist Tony Moore showed me that moving pictures have nothing on him. Let’s take a look.

A young woman lays in the grass next to her bicycle. One of her legs is detached. In sounds it seems she is trying to speak, or to ask… is she wanting something? Her body is ravaged and decayed, her guts missing. Her long wavy hair, once bright, now frames her most horrific gaunt face. Who was she, how did she come to be here? We know she is a young girl because of her long pale hair, and because her tank top, torn, exposes one partially eaten breast. She turns her head (which appears to be her only functioning part) to face Rick who gasps deep down in his soul. She/it seems to continues to try to communicate something. Something in Rick soul clearly breaks. Is it horror, or pity, or disgust? Whatever it is he only breaks free when he remembers to take the girl/thing’s bicycle – a mode of transport desperately needed in what is now clearly now a matter of life and death. He tries to go but he doesn’t get more than 10 yards before the POV pulls back, giving bigger perspective. In it a single barren tree is all that is in the background of the 35 mph sign where, in the grass nearby the girl/thing still lays. This POV also shrinks Rick down to the only thing in the middle of a barren roadway. We cannot see his face anymore, but we don’t need to because Rick’s body tells us the story as he collapses to the ground, bike falling aside, his face buried in his hands. Rick has been broken. But then he gets up and carries on. Like getting out of the hospital bed after surviving being shot, Rick has this time survived being a different kind of broken.

There is more than impressive art in this book, there are social undercurrents as well. For instance, we can tell Rick’s family lived on the outskirts of town in a modest home with an American flag on the porch – a very American ideal. Then Rick soon finds himself in the home of Morgan Jones and his son Duane, who are black. It is interesting that the first living people Rick meets are not white. The Jones’ are the ones to take in Rick, the white man, and explain the new world to him. This places them above him in the new order… or maybe they are not above him but are equal to him. Either way, the social ranking system seems to have been reset. What further equalizes Rick and Morgan is that when Rick gets to the police station he gives Morgan full access to the weaponry there and tells him to upgrade to a police car as mode of transport. Together they have rewritten the socioeconomic contract without having spoken openly of it.

Still, it’s clear to the zombie enthusiast that all those guns and bullets are eventually going to run out. And Morgan stops Rick from shooting a zombie by the station’s car park warning him he might want that bullet later. It is clear Rick has a lot yet to learn.

Rick displays a sort of blind optimism in thinking that he can just drive to Atlanta to his in-laws where he’ll certainly find his wife and son. No big. This optimism is appealing to the reader, even if it is naïve. Given the unspeakable circumstances of the world Rick has woken up to, he must have something to hold onto, and we as readers must hold on to it with him. Rick seems recharged once he gets his wide brim hat and uniform back. He looks the role of officer-of-the-law, and he feels it too pointing out to Morgan that giving him access to weapons and a police car is the best way he can think of to protect and serve given the circumstances. With this new confidence Rick begins his journey to find his family and some abstract notion of normalcy.

But before his journey fully begins, we learn the one key thing we need to know to understand the character of Rick. As he parts company with Morgan and drives off in his police car, the night sky is full of stars. In the dark he drives back to the hospital and to that fateful 35 mph sign. In a single page of panels you can virtually hear the silence of the night. You can imagine Rick’s headlights creeping across the barren roadway. He probably has his window open to listen for anything important but also to get some fresh air moving through his lungs. You can almost hear the gravel in his tires and he pulls to a stop by the 35 mph sign. Rick has come to find closure with the girl/thing lying in the grass. She hasn’t moved since he saw her last. She looks up at him, speaking, asking…wanting? We can hear the echoing report of Rick’s pistol in the darkness. A tear escapes his eye. He gets back in his police car and drives off into the darkness under the starry sky. Whatever fate awaits Rick, we know that he is a man of compassion, a man who believes in right and wrong, a man who does the right thing even if it’s hard. In this corner of the world where the dead walk determined to destroy the living, Rick – imperfect man that he is – is our hero.

I am always wary of those who assign greater meaning to things than seem to exist simply because they want things to have greater meaning. But I truly feel, as do so many others who have read this book, that there is a depth and range here that can’t be denied. Is it too gory for some? I certainly hope so. Nonetheless, it is important to know that the title “The Walking Dead” could just as easily be referring to the last hands full of humans as it could the mindless eating things that seek to devour them. Zombie stories (the good ones at least) are not about dead things eating brains, they are about us and what we do when the shit hits the fan. Do we surrender to our own evils or rise to our greater potential? Do we become more human or more like the walking dead, slaves to our endless hunger with no redeeming quality? Is there even a difference?

What we have here with The Walking Dead comic is good story telling in a medium still overlooked for its ability to tell good or important stories well. The Walking Dead reinvigorates the zombie genre and the comic medium. The Walking Dead clearly takes a large stride forward and tells a tale that has durability and artistic merit. In a word, TWD is literature.

Works Cited

28 Days Later. Dir. Danny Boyle. 2003.

Burlew, Rich. The Order of the Stick. Giant in the Playground, 2005.

Kirkman, Robert and Tony Moore. The Walking Dead. Image Comics, 2003.

Millar, Mark. Superman: Red Son. DC Comics, 2004.

Vachss, Andrew. Batman: The Ultimate Evil. Warner Books, 1996.

Waid, Mark. Kingdom Come. DC Comics, 2008.

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