Just finished 41 issues of The Walking Dead. Best described by the author himself as “a zombie movie that never ends”, TWD is Robert Kirkman’s other genre-bending work ( Invincible being the first, a fresh superhero story for our times ). With the help of artists Tony Moore, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn, Kirkman has crafted a story that made my jaw drop in virtually every issue and plough through the books breathlessly. Let me put it this way – if there was a law against speed-reading in the digital world, I would be arrested by now.
What makes The Walking Dead different from other zombie books/movies/comics out there? Quite a few. The series is NOT about zombies – it’s about people in a world overrun by zombies. The shambling, flesh-eating horrors that we associate with the classic genre are all there, but there is no point in the storyline yet where the zombies are the all-encompassing focal point. For that matter you could replace the zombies with – I dunno – flesh-eating plants that can walk ( don’t laugh, go read
Night Day of the Triffids) and the intensity of the storyline would not change an iota.
From page one of the first issue, the story has been about people. REAL people. People I, you and probably every reader can identify with. People whose concepts of morality are tested with every decision they have to make in a changed world. And it’s pretty obvious that Kirkman does not go around painting strokes of black and white on his characters. Well, with the exception of two characters in 41 issues, and both of them do things that will haunt you for quite sometime if you let fictional characters into your head when you are reading. His characters have actual maturity graphs – Rick Grimes, the protagonist whose point of view we begin the series with, is a small-town cop who has never fired a gun in course of his work. By the time we are done with the first twelve issues, Rick’s character has changed, and it only takes you a minute to flip back to the first issue and find out for yourself. Character developement, folks. Considering that the mainstream comics industry is populated with writers whose main idea of character development is to kill the hero’s girlfriend, change his costume, or make him darker just for the heck of it, TWD is….it’s good. It really is.
The cast of characters evolves over the series, as a real survival horror story should. People get introduced over time, the numbers thin, and obviously you are given sufficient insight into the characters’ lives and motivations. The stories are six-issue arcs, each arc focussing on a new challenge, incorporating new facets to the lives of the characters. And then Kirkman does horrible things to them.
A note about the artwork. Tony Moore started off as the artist when the series began, his black and white art enhanced by Cliff Rathburn’s greytones. Moore was a very capable artist, but apparently could not meet deadlines very well. From issue 7 onwards, he was replaced by Charlie Adlard, British artist who had worked on some Marvel titles like Hellfire Club and DC series such as Establishment. Moore stayed on as cover artist, while Adlard and Rathburn continued as the regular art team. The sense of disappointment I felt when Moore left the title grew progressively less as the series progressed, just because Adlard was SO good. He eschewed dynamic panels in the favour of the “traditional” grid layout, and his use of blacks in his art was masterful. He was nominated for an Eisner for his work on TWD, and it’s easy to see why. He even took over the cover artwork sometime in the middle of the series, and some of his designs are impeccable. ( Some are very story-driven and not much up to par, I must admit. )
Two Charlie Adlard pages, from issue 20.
A Charlie Adlard cover:
Another thing that works in favour of The Walking Dead is its open-ended nature. Kirkman has not divulged details of when the story would actually end – he had tentatively mentioned issue 75 as a wrap, but the 41 issues have covered only about nine months into the lives of the characters, and Kirkman’s storyline seems to be getting more ambitious with every arc. Increasing sales only help bolster his confidence, I figure, and that’s not a bad thing at all.
Early issues of the Walking Dead had very low print runs, and the scope of the increasing fan-base has made them eBay high-sellers. The good thing about Image comics is that they have done all they could to keep all issues of the series in print. The stories are collected into trade paperback form every six issues, and recently they are being reissued in twelve-issue hardcover format. For people who like their omnibus editions, the first 24 issues – with an ending that turned the premise of the series over its head – were collected into a massive limited edition hardcover volume, heavy enough to ward off stray zombies should you run into them. Kirkman has promised that the next 24 issues will also be collected this way, and that honestly gladdens my heart.
One last note about the individual series – the letter columns are many pages long, and provide fertile ground for discussions about the horror genre, zombie movies and why Kirkman is a right bastard for killing off beloved characters.