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I came late to The Walking Dead party. When I was a grad student in Alaska—back when it was just a comic book, not yet a TV show—the comic book shop I frequented had them housed on the shelf just below Zenoscope's Grimm Fairy Tales, so, of course, I was aware of them. I knew a guy who thought they were the greatest comics of all time, and as an avid zombie fan, I was interested. But every time I went comic browsing, I'd leave with something else instead. It wasn't until years later, when a friend sent my husband and me Season One of the TV show as a gift, that I gave The Walking Dead a chance to win me over, and win me over it did—immediately. I flew through Season One, then Season Two, then rewatched Season One as I waited for Season Three to come out.
And only then did I start reading the comics. It's taken me a couple of years to make my way through the first compendium because, to be honest, I don't like the comics as much as the show. Where the show is complicated and subtle, the comics tend to be heavy-handed, and they over-simplify complex ideas. Instead of letting us watch the characters change gradually, let us stew in the difficult decisions Rick has to make and consider what these decisions say about him as a human being, the comics race through the post-apocalypse, and people change so quickly it doesn't feel real. For example, the Shane storyline is resolved by the end of the first chapter (which I think would be the first six issues); within five pages of meeting the Governor, he reveals his true colors; I could go on.
And that's not even acknowledging the obvious, expository dialogue, which is really my main problem with the comics. Aside from Rick's embarrassingly obvious statement, "We are the walking dead," which the show unfortunately ended up including, too, in Season Five (I mean, come on, Kirkman—hasn't that been obvious from the very first issue?), the comics have characters boiling down their complicated inner changes and fears into simple little nuggets of dialogue that lack subtlety and realism, both.
Here's a good example: after Rick has been living in this world long enough that he has killed a handful of people, often for legitimate—or at least, too complicated to say whether they are legitimate or not—reasons, he tells Lori, "I've seen so many die already—I have almost no attachment to these people at all anymore . . . and I could kill any one of them at any moment for the right reasons." Not only is it an obvious statement and lousy dialogue, it's over-simplifying the complexity of what Rick is really going through. Yes, that's kind of the meat of any zombie story, isn't it? The people you know may become a threat to your own survival in a variety of ways. Remember when Ben had to smack Barbara to shut her up in Night of the Living Dead? Remember when Peter had to put Roger down when Roger turned in Dawn of the Dead? This is a component of any zombie story. It's obvious and surface-level. It's interesting, sure, but to really offer readers something new, a good zombie story should push past the obvious struggles of the zombie apocalypse and give us something new. And that's what the show does, I would argue. The TV version of Rick is much more stoic and subtle than the comic book version.
But I am going to keep reading. Though I think the comics do a lot of things poorly, they still do a lot of things well, and if you consider that there are so many terrible zombie stories out there (every Dead movie Romero has made in the past ten or fifteen years, for example), The Walking Dead is still one of the best offerings out there today. Though I wish some of these ideas were handled with more subtlety, it's still interesting to think about the idea that the post-apocalypse might be better in some ways (no credit card debt, for example), or the fear of bringing a child into this changed world, or the ways that good and evil are not as simple and binary as we sometimes like to believe. There's lots of good stuff at play in the comics, and that's the reason the show was able to build on the foundation of the comics and turn the story into something truly great.
Plus, it's important to acknowledge that reading the comics as part of a compendium is a very different experience than reading one issue per month. You can tell where each issue ends—there's a signature in the lower right corner of the page—and I can imagine what it would be like to have to stop there and wait a month to pick it back up again. So while the Shane storyline was resolved in one sitting as I was reading it, for example, it would actually have taken six months if I had been reading it as it was released. Six months is still much faster than two years, which is how long it took the show to resolve the Shane story, but I do admit that it wouldn't have seemed as fast if I had read it as it was intended to be read—month by month, with weeks in-between each installment to give me time to think about what was happening.
On top of that, the comics did get progressively better. By the end of the issues in the first compendium (which collects, by the way, up to issue 48 plus a bonus holiday issue), the characters and storyline both were getting deeper and more complex. And I like the parallel universe feel of experiencing the show and comics together. Though I prefer the show's handling of Michonne, I liked the alternate reality of her brutally torturing the governor, for example. I like Rick with both hands, but I was definitely shocked (in a nice way) when he lost his right one in the comics. Reading the comics is like getting to read a rough draft of what later was revised and polished to become the show. It's still a lot of fun, and so, I say, onward to Compendium Two!
The Walking Dead: Compendium One
by Robert Kirkman
Reviewed on March 10, 2016
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