11 Nov

The Walking Dead: A Practical Guide

Posted by Bryan White | Thursday November 11, 2010 | Comics

The Walking DeadIn the event that you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of weeks, The Walking Dead finally premiered on AMC to rave reviews and record setting ratings. Following its second episode last Sunday, it was approved for a second full season. To many, this was a foregone conclusion and for those of us playing along at home it means a couple of things: Comics don’t have to be exclusive to the movie theaters. Horror has arrived as a sophisticated form of entertainment. Seriously. The ratings for the pilot episode, Days Gone Bye, were bigger than anything on cable before it. Bigger than mainstream, high-brow pop-culture trendsetters like Mad Men. Lots of people are going to be jumping on the bandwagon, buying up the trades and back issues. I mean, a mint copy of issue number 1 just sold on eBay for nearly $2000! So if you’re one of those bandwagoners, welcome! I’ve prepared this handy guide to the comic and show to hold your hand as you get acquainted with Robert Kirkman and Frank Darabont’s vision of armageddon. Also, this article introduces the new Cinema Suicide feature, SpoilerVision! This article will inevitably get really spoilery so I’ve written a new function that keeps the sensitive plot details redacted for those who don’t care to know. To reveal the spoiler, all you have to do is mouse over it. For instance, This is example spoiler text.

The Walking Dead 28Square one: What is The Walking Dead? I mean, originally.
In 2003, comic writer and Kentuckyan, Robert Kirkman was writing a couple of low-note books: Super Patriot for Image Comics and Battle Pope for his self-published company when he kicked off the double duty of writing the series, Invincible (one of the best superhero titles of the last 10 years) and a George Romero inspired zombie horror comic, The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead was an expression of Kirkman’s frustration in cinematic horror where after the close of the third act, we were left to wonder what happened to the cast in the aftermath of their ordeal. Particularly in the zombie scenario. Since George Romero’s Living Dead cycle never featured the same cast twice, the ultimate fates of the people we’d been so concerned with for the previous 2 hours were left up to mystery. To remedy this, Kirkman conceived of a similar setting where the ordeal of the cast would go on and on until he felt that people were growing tired of it or he felt the story had been told. This has the potential to go on forever and at the time of this writing, it has, nearing its 79th issue and still going strong, now more popular than ever.

Is the show like the comics?
For the most part. AMC’s vision of the show sticks to the core narrative and characters so far, but where Kirkman’s initial entries into the series gloss over the basics, it blows a lot of prime opportunities to build characters and important relationships while it was busy trying to figure out where it was going.  The character of Shane, Rick’s police partner and competing love interest for Rick’s wife, Lori, winds up dead by six issues in when he cracks and makes like he’s going to kill Rick. Rick’s son, Carl, intervenes by shooting Shane in the neck. Frank Darabont has made it pretty clear in interviews, though, that Shane will be sticking around for a while, though. The show also introduces some red-shirt characters like T-Dog from episode 2, Guts, who are bound to share little of the dramatic weight and operate strictly as zombie food for when the first arc kicks in and the survivors, at Rick’s insistence, are forced to pick up stakes and move the camp to a safer setting. Apparently, the show playing fast and loose with Kirkman’s version of the story is ruffling the feathers of the hardcore Walking Dead fans and its refusal to adhere to strict Kirkman dogma is driving them nuts. These people are assholes and you are advised not to read their internet rants.

Zombies. Fast? Slow? There doesn’t seem to be a consistent vision at work here.
True. In the comic they’re the slow-moving Romero variety. The furthest thing from a threat in small numbers but in larger numbers, they’re a mass of teeth and groping hands, absolutely immovable. 20 issues or so ago Kirkman introduced the concept of The Herd, a migrating mass of hundreds or thousands. The show can’t seem to make up its mind, though. In most of the scenes in episode 1, they’re a shambling mob, slowly making their way around but in episode 2 they’re running around, climbing fences and smashing windows with rocks. It’s a minor criticism so far, but the show really needs to get a grip on this and settle on what kind of zombie they’re going to portray here. If they’re capable of operating like us, wielding tools and navigating treacherous ground, then what’s the point of mobbing them up at all? One or two of these things becomes a problem at this point. With groups of 30 or 40 you may as well have them picking locks and using guns.

What made the dead rise?
Who cares? Does it matter? A lot of people curious about the show ask me this and I’m not sure what the point would be. Romero never identified it and neither has Kirkman. Kirkman says that he’ll take the secret to his grave but what this translates to is, “I hadn’t really thought about it.” The point isn’t to fix the problem of zombies. The cast of characters is a gathering of average folks like you and me, thrust into this hopeless situation that worsens with every page. Further explorations of the comic reveal that it’s not even really about a struggle against zombies. The zombies eventually fade into the margin and the comic takes on this meta-quality where you don’t see any zombies for four or five issues at a time while Rick and company deal with dwindling resources and crumbling mental states. It’s a comic and a show about surviving the unsurvivable so don’t get too hung up on the cause of the outbreak. You’ll never find out.

I really like Character X, what’s the story with that person?
It’s probably not a good idea to get comfortable with anyone on this show because I’ll tell you something: Kirkman kills off his cast like his life depends on it. A problem with comic book mortality is that no one stays dead forever so when they killed Superman it didn’t really mean shit because everyone who knew comic books knew he’d be back in 12 issues after a year long cross-title promotion. Not so in The Walking Dead. No one is safe and some of the book’s major players have died in a series of exceptionally tragic circumstances. Believe me. Even though he seems unkillable, Rick Grimes, the book’s main protagonist is as likely to die as anyone else. As a matter of fact, Kirkman has made it clear that Rick’s death is as likely as anyone else and that the book could continue without him.

Kirkman kills people off whenever he feels like the cast is too big or their story has been told and very few of the original lineup are still alive. Some of these deaths have had such substantial emotional weight that I’ve wondered if I could go on reading the comic knowing that the situation isn’t likely to ever improve or that I’ve felt like Kirkman crossed a line that he couldn’t step back from. For instance, the death of Lori Grimes and her infant daughter. However, since you asked:

Rick GrimesRick Grimes
Obviously, Rick is the main character of The Walking Dead. He’s a police officer with a department in the state of Kentucky. When the book begins, Rick is shot in the line of duty trying to rein in a wild criminal waving a shotgun around. While trying to flank the guy, he takes a load of buckshot in the abdomen and then promptly wakes up in the hospital long after the staff has abandoned the place. When he finds his home empty and some survivors that tell him that most locals flocked to refugee camps in Atlanta, Rick hightails it to Atlanta, expecting to find his wife and son there since her family is from that area. Once reunited with his wife, son and partner Shane, as well as other survivors gathered around an RV, he convinces them all to leave the area when a bigger than average group of roamers show up and kill off a couple of the survivors. It’s not long before Rick becomes the defacto leader of the group and leads the pack to a prison where, after a particularly rocky start, they find some kind of stability until survivors from a nearby walled-off town invade, crash through the fence in an APC and then cut the cast in half, scattering them to the winds. Rick’s hand is also cut off by the leader of this group. Things don’t get much better from there. Seemingly solid as a rock, Rick’s sanity slips away and he speaks to his dead wife on a disconnected phone he carries with him.

Morgan JonesMorgan Jones
In the comic, Rick’s encounter with Morgan Jones and his son Duane is short-lived. He hangs with them long enough to find out what’s happening and then leaves for Atlanta. In the show, however, they cast Lennie James in the role of Morgan and in a brilliant moment of foreshadowing, Morgan’s ultimate fate and the fate of his son is outlined by his inability to kill his zombified wife. None of this happens in the comic, of course, but many issues later Morgan is reintroduced as a haggard lunatic still occupying the house adjacent to Rick’s. Only now, Duane has been infected and Morgan keeps him chained up, unable to put his son’s body down. Expect to see James return in the role at some point in the future.

Shane WalshShane Walsh
In Kirkman’s comic, Shane isn’t a particularly well-drawn character. Kirkman never gave him much of a chance. He’s clearly close to Rick but we don’t see much apart from the revelation that he’s been in love with Rich’s wife, Lori, for some time. When Lori and Carl are forced to leave Kentucky, leaving Rick behind, she comes to rely on Shane and he becomes a stand-in for Rick. In the survivor camp outside Atlanta, Shane’s status as a cop has everyone looking to him to lead and his optimism about the government showing up to rescue them leads to him keeping the camp in one place. When he’s reunited with Rick, they butt heads about what to do with the camp and Shane eventually cracks under the pressure and makes like he’s going to shoot him. Carl intervenes and shoots Shane dead. On TV, Shane somehow manages to maintain a perfect coif of styled hair. I suspect he sends Glenn into Atlanta looking for high end hair product in abandoned stylist boutiques during his supply runs.

Lori GrimesLori Grimes
For a long time Lori was just Rick’s wife in the comic. After a while, Kirkman began to develop her into something more akin to a Romero femme protagonist. While she didn’t become an ass-kick machine, she often became the voice of reason to Rick when his hero-potential affected his decision making process in a way that had him taking ridiculous risks for short returns. She is seen scowling in the book more than anything else. Her emotional drift after leaving Rick behind when they make a break for Kentucky puts her in emotionally compromising positions with Shane who eventually knocks her up. Months after his death, she gives birth to Judith. During the attack on the prison that the survivors eventually fall into, a raider from Woodbury shoots her in the back as she, carrying Judith, tries to escape. The both die. Lori returns, in a way, as Rick’s hallucination when she calls him on a phone that hasn’t worked for a year.

Carl GrimesCarl Grimes
Rick and Lori’s son. For a good long time, Carl isn’t given much to do but following the death of his mother and sister, Carl finds himself in one unpleasant situation after another. He kills Shane, first and then is later the victim of an attempted rape that Rick narrowly puts a stop to with extreme prejudice. Later, Carl kills Ben, the surviving twin who murders his brother, when no one else in the camp will do it.

Characters on the side
Above are the major players in the series so far. They still have yet to introduce a number of characters who eventually take up space in a sometimes overwhelming cast. Right now, though, characters introduced but not fully explored yet, that you can expect to find in the further series are Andrea, Dale and Glenn. The character of Merle Dixon, played by Michael Rooker, is an entirely original character conceived for the show and is not from the comics at all.

What you desperately need to understand about this show
A lot of people think zombies and they immediately assume that it’s going to be a silly action/horror picture with a lot of zombie fightin’ and gore and while there’s no shortage of the latter and a bit of the former, this is a very morbid, sophisticated comic book with a mean-streak made of steel. The show is surprising me right now with how far its willing to go to shed some blood but this is a comic that goes to some extremely dark places. It is horror, first and foremost, and not the light kind of soft horror found in movies like Evil Dead. This is some hardcore shit that makes me wonder just how far down the show is willing to follow the comics. Major characters, fan favorites, even, die at the drop of a hat. Sympathetic characters give in to the despair and kill themselves in gruesome ways. If they choose to stick to the source material, the prison vs. Woodbury story is going to wind up the most intense thing ever put on television. Mark my words.

11 Comments 

  1. November 12, 2010 1:32 am

    John Eno

    Do you happen to know if this is going to go up on Hulu or some other streaming site?

  2. November 12, 2010 5:55 am

    pax romano

    I read several of the comics a few years back, can barely recall them now – great to see a recap of the stories / characters here. I am loving the TV Show.

  3. November 12, 2010 9:36 am

    Bryan White

    @John. It won’t. I don’t think any of the AMC stuff streams. They ran the first episode on their website for a while but the rest of it is offline.

  4. November 12, 2010 1:07 pm

    John Carmichael

    Great write-up! My hope for the show is to get something akin to what I personally got out of Battlestar Galactica. For me that show was a well written character-driven drama that would occasionally remind me that they were in space facing a mass of seemingly unstoppable robots. The zombie situation in The Walking Dead is much the same as the Cylons in BSG. The zombies serve to set up the inescapable and desolate situation. I think the real reason to watch is to become connected to these characters and ride along with them and their decisions of how to or how not to survive in this bleak new world. My hope is that AMC doesn’t pull punches and really takes you for the full ride with these characters. It has the potential to be extremely powerful.

  5. November 14, 2010 2:27 pm

    Sean O'Connell

    As a big fan of the comic I have no problems with the plots changing around. I don’t see any reason to whine about it since it benefits me as a viewer to NOT know everything that is going to happen. I feel that the story is great and the production is doing a good job so far. I do wonder about the different levels of zombie intelligence but I’m just going to look at it as a plot point to be explored later.

  6. November 22, 2010 10:16 pm

    fan

    look i am not an asshole, well i am but not over this comic>show its just carl is one of the best thig to ever come out of a zombie out break. and what really makes him that is being the badass that gets things done like when he first gets a gun and saves daddy, that is something that should not be changed cuz if they hold that out then so much more will be. and then you have an under developed kid who should not be there. other then things like that i do love the show.

  7. November 29, 2010 2:27 am

    blue

    I agree with the fan above. Just because we have high standards does not make us assholes. The comic was one of the best things that I have ever had the pleasure of reading and they’ve already succeeded in not only ruining the writer’s original vision(I don’t care if he’s involved in the television show), but making the entire plot seem ridiculous. They’ve changed almost everything that made the plot of the comics so gripping and within the first season. It’s happened before. Writers get the chance to transition their work into film or television and they see it as a chance to fix their mistakes and close off plotholes, but they’re toying with things that should have been left well alone. Their motivations for leaving the camp for example. Deciding to traverse a zombie-ridden wasteland because of an unbearably harsh winter and a lack of food seems much more believable than a trek to the source of an ambiguous cure for one bitten redneck in their group. The CDC sounds like an arc in the plot that would have stopped me from continuing past issue 6 in the comics and I won’t hesitate to stop watching the show if they keep up with this drivel. The source of a cure and the scientific center of the United States just happens to be located 15 minutes outside of Atlanta, Georgia? And where, oh where, is Carl’s gun? The fan above hit it right on the money. Carl should be a main focus of the show, but they haven’t even touched character development for him. They’ve been too focused on the trite love triangle between Rick, Lori and Shane to develop the characters that are actually going to matter in the long run. I’ll be finishing out this season, because I have(had) a lot of respect for the author. But, I’ll thank you kindly not to call devoted fans assholes for expecting something great out of one of the most epic, heart and gut-wrenching series that I’ve ever read in my entire life. It was and it will never be a comic about zombies. It will always be a look into the darkest parts of human nature.

  8. December 5, 2010 12:13 pm

    Kevin

    @blue

    1600 Clifton Rd. Atlanta, GA 30333, USA. That’s the address of the CDC’s headquarters. That is a fact, Kirkman did not know and did not care. The thought of where the CDC headquarters was located was of no concern to him, but people who live in Atlanta would know it was there and it would be logical for them to go there. That is the problem with the comic, Kirkman’s myopic vision, he has decided the tone for the comic and decided how people would react to the situation but in the end it is only his, a single person’s perspective. All the comic fans buy in to his singular vision but some people read the comic and think some of the character’s actions and thoughts are ridiculous.

    Just because Kirkman seemingly does zero research for his comic and has no ability to objectively analyze his character’s behaviors and thought processes doesn’t mean the television viewers of America will blindly join lockstep with the comic reads and buy into his vision.

    Its pretty clear from reading the comics Kirkman doesn’t bounce any of his ideas off anyone else. There are numerous instances in the comics where the thoughts and actions of the characters lack any sort of reason or believability. Reading the comic up to fiftieth issue ended up feeling like a waste of time.

    So far I like the show better than the comic simply for the fact that a lot of the little things have been handled better than the comic. An example is the TV version of Glen is far superior to the comic version of Glen at the same point in the storyline. Comic fans perceptions are skewed by the knowledge they have of all the issues they have read. At the same point in the storyline between the TV show and the comic you just feel the TV show has done a better job exploring other characters and the comic was basically the Rick Grimes comic.

  9. March 11, 2011 1:05 am

    zack genz

    cool

  10. March 11, 2011 1:06 am

    zack genz

    i like these show

  11. September 14, 2011 9:46 am

    James

    ^^^^^^

    Assholes.


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