The Walking Dead – The 2015 Weekly Writer Challenge: Robert Kirkman (Part 2)
52 weeks. 52 different writers. 2 trade paperbacks or hardcovers a week. Each week I’ll take a look at a different writer and read two different collected editions from within that person’s repertoire to help in the examination of their work.
In 2003, shortly after launching the superhero title Invincible for Image Comics, Robert Kirkman launched the zombie horror series, The Walking Dead. Image Comics was dismissive of publishing what they felt would be “just another zombie series” so Kirkman lied claiming that the zombies were actually all part of a plot that featured aliens invading Earth. This premise was somehow more appealing to Image Comics so they pushed the project forward and as of this writing (thankfully) no zombies have appeared in the series. In 2010, Kirkman began producing a television adaptation of the comic, that has since gone on to be one of the most successful shows in cable television history.
The Walking Dead Hardcover Volume 1
Rick Grimes awakes in an empty hospital weeks after getting gunned down in the line of duty but a lunatic with a shotgun. Struggling to his feet and calling for any form of assistance, Rick rapidly comes to the conclusion that he is alone. Gathering his clothes and some courage, Rick begins to search the hospital for any sign of what may have transpired during his comatose state. To Rick’s horror the entire hospital has been overrun by the undead who hunger for living flesh. Narrowly escaping with his life, Rick sets out to his home to discover that his wife and son are not there and much of the town has been deserted. He discovers Morgan and Duane in his neighbours home, seeking refuge from the zombies that walk the street. Rick lends the father and his son a hand by providing them with weapons and a vehicle from the police compound lock up before heading out towards Atlanta in hopes of finding his own family. With nothing more than a horse and a bag of guns, Rick bravely charges into Atlanta only to discover that the major city has also been overrun by zombies. Now with little hope of finding his family, Rick must fight for survival every day for the rest of his life as the world he knew is all but lost.
Robert Kirkman begins his epic zombie survival story here with the first hardcover volume of The Walking Dead. A thrilling breath of fresh air to the zombie/horror genre, Kirkman’s The Walking Dead paves the way for the future, redefining the way readers will come to view both genres for years to come. Simply put, Kirkman crafts a survival horror story the stuns the reader into silence as they turn page after page, anticipating what comes next. Kirkman throws world building largely aside in favour of telling character driven stories with The Walking Dead, focusing on the life and times of former Sheriff Rick Grimes as well as his family, allies, and enemies that he develops on the slippery slop to surviving one day at a time.
It’s a little odd to go back and read The Walking Dead now versus when it was at the high of its popularity. It’s a series that reads at its best in large doses, hence why the collected formats of the trade paperbacks, hardcovers, and the colossal sized compendiums are so popular amongst readers. I vividly recall reading the first compendium at around the time the second season of the television adaptation for the comic had come out and then read the second compendium shortly there after. In being able to consume the comic is such large dose, and not taking a critical stance on the series, I found myself adoring what I was reading. Now, reading the first twelve issues in the hardcover format, I realize that there’s a lot of great and awful things about the series. One of the largest weaknesses of the early stages of this story is the dialogue. It’s an instance where you can see the inexperience Kirkman had as a writer when the story came out over a decade ago as much of the dialogue is (and this is putting it kindly) atrocious. Time after time you’re pelted with dialogue that does nothing for the story or doesn’t tell you anything about the character, making the characters feel like cardboard placeholders until the next major story beat comes along and wreaks havoc upon the unfortunate existence of Rick Grimes. The character interactions aren’t rich or enlightening, they’re mind numbing and hurt to read. It’s not a stretch to sit here and say that the dialogue through the first twelve issues of The Walking Dead is genuinely cringe worthy, basically leaving you begging for a zombie to come up and bite someone so the characters stop talking with haste.
As much as the dialogue is god awful (along with the pace of the plot being shaky and questionable at times) there are still plenty of redeeming factors to the zombie epic that Kirkman has created. One of the best parts of this first volume is Kirkman finds ways to keep the wheels spinning in original ways. In a survival horror story the key goal of the characters you follow is to survive, something that Kirkman experiments with time and time again as he gathers a unique cast of characters together. He takes your family man in Rick Grimes, whose sole purpose is to survive to see his family survive, and combines him with characters like Glenn, Andrea, Dale, Herschel, Shane, and so many other characters that it almost becomes difficult to keep track of them all. A young man like Glenn, someone who was a nobody before the zombie apocalypse, naturally fits into the role of a scavenger, searching for food and supplies for the group because he has nothing to lose by going out into the world and exploring, lacking any form of emotional tethers to the group. Characters like Dale or Herschel, on the other hand, are men who have experienced loss at the hands of the zombies already but bring wisdom to the cast as well as a sense of safety, with Dale offering safe transportation for characters while Herschel provides shelter on his farm. The two characters fit into the archetype of being your wise, elderly figure who can and will make important calls but naturally fall behind the limelight of a leader like Rick. These characters form the backbone of your cast with other members like Shane, Andrea, Tyrese, and more, providing different elements that help heighten the drama of the story.
Even with a wide array of different cast members, Rick Grimes is still the runaway lead of a story that largely ends up being his story of survival. The first chunk of the story deals with his search for his missing wife and son, before transitioning off into his attempts to help a large group of other characters survive. Rick is a natural fit for the leadership role, being a Sheriff before the zombie outbreak occurred, and never seems to shy away from doing what he needs to ensure the survival of “his” group. There’s something about the character that makes him equal parts enigmatic and badass, endearing you as this tragic hero who is in a constant cycle of hope and despair. There is never any true victory attainable for the character as the only way to “beat” the zombie hordes is to survive, seeing as they vastly outnumber the living in this story and even then it’s an inevitability that every character will die at some point. To Rick, there is no clear way to stop the zombies for good so the story becomes about surviving at any cost, with there always being unfortunate casualties of survival. Even in the later stages of this volume, you can see the strain of leading this group of survivors beginning to take its toll on Rick, having to ensure these people end up with warms beds and full bellies everyday of their now difficult lives. It’s part of what makes Rick the perfect lead character though, his desire to forge onwards in the face of adversity, knowing fully well that the only way this all ends is likely with the death of all these people he has grown close to.
It seems important to close out this look at The Walking Dead with how different it is than your average zombie/survival horror story, even if it heavily borrows elements from both genres. Kirkman quickly establishes that the zombies are a threat in this world but is even quicker to start paving the way to what really creates true conflicts for the characters: other humans. It’s an ever-present theme throughout this entire first hardcover collection, with the end of both chapters one and two being punctuated by decisions made by other human characters. It gives this zombie story a unique sense of humanity that can be lost on readers who just want zombie carnage the entire time. It’s largely what makes The Walking Dead shine so brightly, that since the first arc the story has always been about how the humans are the true danger unto themselves, even when the world is falling apart around them.
Collects: The Walking Dead #1-12
Best Character: Rick Grimes
Best Line Of Dialogue/Caption: “My nose itches…” – Glenn
Best Scene/Moment: Showdown in the forest – Issue 6
Best Issue: Issue 5. Issue five is the dramatic climax of the first chapter in this hardcover collection, where you see tensions nearly boil over between members of the group and the catastrophic consequences of what happens when you let your guard down for even a second. It’s sad, fast paced, and sure to catch you off guard if it’s your first time reading this story.
Why You Should Read It: It’s not a hyperbole to say that The Walking Dead is the best zombie comic ever. Kirkman builds characters you fall for and come to care deeply about before brutally killing many of them, starting off that terribly addictive trend with this first hardcover collection. It’s a comic that will make you think you’ve seen it all when it comes to zombie/horror comics but then Kirkman crosses lines you didn’t even know existed. This first hardcover is just a simple open salvo for what’s to come further on down the line in a series that’s like wine, always getting better with time.