In 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.
Square 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.