Back Issues is a feature discussing comics series one collection at a time, in the hopes that A.V. Club regulars will read along with us and participate in a group discussion of each major arc. This week: The Walking Dead trade paperback #1, Days Gone Bye, covering issues #1-6. This current, four-installment run of the feature will cover the series up to its 24th issue.
Days Gone Bye plot summary: Small-town Southern policeman Rick Grimes is shot during a standoff and wakes up from a coma in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. His house has been abandoned, but when he travels to Atlanta, he reunites with his wife Lori, his young son Carl, his former partner Shane, and a small group of survivors. Tensions mount between him and Shane over the group’s next step, especially since Shane is in love with Lori and resents Rick’s arrival and his attempts to push the group into action. The arc ends with a fatal confrontation between Rick and Shane, symbolizing the definitive end of Rick’s old life.
Tasha: So here’s the thing about zombies, Noah. Supposedly they were a resurging fad, but now they’re over, and everybody’s sick of hearing about them; that claim crops up every time a new zombie book or movie is announced. And yet AMC’s TV adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s comics series The Walking Dead climbed in the ratings this year, with the second-season finale pulling higher ratings than any episode to date—and higher ratings than anything else on basic cable in a bunch of the most sought-after demographic categories. (The season is also up for three Emmys this year, in editing, makeup, and visual effects.) Meanwhile, Kirkman’s comic recently hit issue #100, which it marked with the grotesquely graphic murder of one of the series’ longest-surviving characters. That issue has become the biggest-selling independently published comic of the 2000s, with more than 380,000 copies purchased to date.
So with the series simultaneously hitting a high-water mark in two different media—and the new season of the show starting up in October—this seems like a good time to go back to the beginning of The Walking Dead and look at how far it’s come since the series launched in 2003. The plan here is to cover the first 24 issues of the series, when the comic was establishing itself, and evolving most rapidly; we’ll be reading the first four six-issue softcover compilations one by one, and discussing some of the things we see here, from how Kirkman uses zombies—at this point, probably established as our society’s most flexibly symbolic monsters—to how these characters change over time. What we won’t be doing in this first installment is talking about the art, which is going to seem like a huge oversight for a conversation about a graphic novel. But we have good reason for it, because everything changes with the next book. We’ll get into that and our thoughts on the series’ two main artists with the second installment.
But first, it’s worth mentioning that we’re coming to this from opposite ends of the spectrum. I’ve never seen an episode of The Walking Dead, but I’ve read the comic up to issue #100, and I’ve followed many of Kirkman’s superhero series as well—Invincible, The Astounding Wolf-Man, Capes, Guardians Of The Globe, Super Dinosaur. So I have no perspective on the show, but a lot to say about Kirkman and comics. And I wouldn’t call myself a zombie-movie fan at all, but I at least keep up on George Romero and Danny Boyle. How about you?
Noah: I watched the first season of The Walking Dead and liked it, but not enough to make sure I had cable when season two premièred. This is my first foray into the comics, but I spent a lot of time with zombie movies in my teens, so I feel pretty comfortable with the tropes of the genre.
You’re right that The Walking Dead is an outlier from the fading zombie fad. What might make it an exception is that it flouts the traditional format of a zombie story, in that it continues even after a particular plotline has finished. Kirkman says in the intro to this first book, “The Walking Dead will be the zombie movie that never ends,” and he’s stuck to his word. Because the zombies’ presence, and threat, are constant, never to be truly escaped, he’s able to free up The Walking Dead to be something more than a Romero film. Even in these first six issues, he’s less interested in standard zombie action scenes and more in the simmering issues between the main characters. He takes a “come for the zombies, stay for the characters” approach, and I think that’s why he’s been so successful. That said, I think he doesn’t quite nail the characters in these first few issues, Rick and Shane especially. Do you agree?
Tasha: Hm. I’m not sure what you mean by not nailing them. They certainly aren’t fully fleshed-out characters in these few issues—but then, they haven’t been through much yet. (Particularly Rick, who skipped a lot of trauma by stealing 28 Days Later’s protagonist-in-a-coma trick.) Going back to these early days after the exhausting gore of issue #100, I’m fascinated by how different these characters are, how open and emotional and innocent they seem. In the earliest issues, Rick is still crying at the sight of a particularly pathetic living corpse. He’s blithely talking in terms of when everything’s back to normal, even worrying about whether his new buddy Morgan might ding up a borrowed-without-permission police cruiser, or “put too many miles on it.” By the middle of this six-episode set, he’s already arguing Shane away from that kind of thinking—the changes come fast in this first chunk of the series—but he’s certainly a remarkably different person at the beginning than he is later on.
But I suspect that isn’t what you’re talking about, so much as how they’re characterized. Rick’s habit of talking to himself (or his horse) so he can deliver exposition even while alone is awkward, and the drama between him and Shane is strident and forced, a love-triangle soap opera intruding on a much greater drama. And with everyone, Kirkman is trying to get across a lot of information in a compressed space, enough to differentiate a cast once the biting and shooting and screaming inevitably starts up. For this story to work, he needs readers to care right away when someone dies. But this is a big cast to establish, and not all of that information comes out naturally or comfortably. Is that what you’re objecting to, or is it something else entirely?
Noah: Nope, you’ve got me pegged. I feel—and especially by comparison with the first season of the AMC show—that I’m reading the Cliffs Notes version of the story. In particular, the love triangle is so little rendered that I wondered why he even had it in at all. Likewise with Shane, who seems mostly there as an explanation for Lori and Carl’s survival. The show tended to overdo Shane’s mopey attitude, perhaps to overcompensate for how colorless he seems here. I found his decision to kill Rick to be a stretch, from what little we learn about him.
I think the campfire scene exemplifies both Kirkman’s triumphs and failures in fully realizing Rick and company as characters: Rick saying, “I still don’t know what most of you were doing for a living before all this shit started happening,” and then everyone else giving a brief life story, is lazy exposition. It’s, as you say, getting across a lot of information in a compressed space, but it still comes across as clumsy here.
But Jim’s one-word response, “mechanic,” is perfect. We can immediately grasp Jim’s trauma, his lack of interest in exposing his past life—and, ultimately, what he’s lost—to a group of people he hardly knows. In this moment, Jim seems like the only really sane person there, even though his answer is blunt, because he’s the only one unwilling to ignore the tragedies of the present for the sake of pleasantries. Or am I going too far here?
Tasha: “Sane” seems like an awfully strange descriptor for someone so traumatized he barely talks, someone who goes berserk beating a single already-dead zombie and screaming at it “My family! You killed them!” when it didn’t, someone who says “This is nothing, it’s a scratch” when a fist-sized chunk of his forearm is missing, chewed off down to the rawly exposed bones. For me, the campfire scene is more about an attempt to move away from Jim’s brand of shutdown and re-establish sanity by making connections among people. Rick is encouraging them to see each other as people, instead of irritants, obstacles, and prizes. That, to me, seems much more sane than refusing to play the conversation-game because, dammit, zombies. Not that I blame Jim, whose characterization is mighty sad. But I see him as more of a warning of what they could all become—sleepwalking, uncommunicative zombies of a different kind—under the right circumstances.
The campfire scene is clumsy, sure, but it serves a necessary purpose both for the audience and for the characters, and I can’t see people sitting still for the same information being delivered over three or four issues of chatter between characters. Though The Walking Dead has always been a very talky comic, which is typical of Kirkman’s work in general: He specializes in people with complicated, conflicting agendas, like Shane and Rick here, but he also specializes in stories that move along quickly between action scenes, shocks, and cliffhangers, which explains a lot of his success in comics. The dynamic we’re seeing here, we’ll also see a lot more in the comic to come, and it crops up in his other comics as well: people laying out their agendas and their hearts in big, anguished, deeply felt monologues. There isn’t a lot of room for characters who hold back and hide their feelings in a Kirkman comic: They tend to lay it on the line quickly, and in a lot of detail. We see that here with Lori and Shane, and between the women when they go to wash the clothes, and over and over with Rick and Shane, as they clash about nearly everything. Do the long monologues and the “Here’s everything on my mind, in unsparing detail” speeches bother you as much as the campfire exposition?
Noah: They didn’t, actually, though I’m at a loss as to why. I think the Lori/Shane scene worked really well in terms of getting to the point without being clumsy about it. I’d still appreciate more of what’s going on in Shane’s mind throughout these issues, but the moment between them went “big” successfully. My problem with the campfire scene was that, unlike the moment where Lori rebuffs Shane, there wasn’t any real laying it on the line—aside from Jim’s answer, though he went “big” by being taciturn. I’m also not convinced that the info-dump we get from the other characters tells us anything meaningful about them. If this kind of characterization is Kirkman’s calling card, then it looks to me that we already have examples of it working well and failing miserably.
I’m glad you brought up Rick’s encouraging a community among the survivors; it’s something I wanted to delve into more. I still hold that the campfire exposition is clunky, but the idea of trying to capture the early stages of this ad-hoc community is a great one. The underlying point—that these people are going to have to get to know one another—is one of the things Kirkman gets right in these first issues, and is another reason why the campfire scene shows both his best and worst attempts at characterization.
In most zombie films, the characters have connections merely based on the fact that they’re going through a disaster together. Shared hardship is a pretty good way to connect people, but not if you have a story that’s going to last more than 100 issues. Kirkman is obviously aware of this, and is right to lay the groundwork for more personal relationships between his cast, because eventually—and Shane is apparently supposed to represent this—the shared threat isn’t enough to keep everyone together. That being said, the reason I suggested Jim is the sane one—perhaps a poor choice of words—is that he seems to be aware of Rick’s community-building, and disagrees with it. In that sense, Rick and Jim are the two archetypal responses to disaster: hope and despair. Would you agree?
Tasha: I just don’t see Jim as significant in the way you do. To me, he isn’t a significant archetype so much as an outlier, an extreme end of how people respond to trauma. For me, the opposed archetypes are Shane and Rick, who represent protective vs. proactive response. Shane wants to stay put and wait for rescue; Rick wants to go find something better. Shane wants to freeze and keep a low profile; Rick wants to find guns and teach people to use them. We’re going to see a lot of this in this series, too, with Rick becoming a leader mostly because he has the strongest will and the most ideas. What I find interesting in this first book is that those ideas generally aren’t good ones. His gun run into the city is disastrous, and nearly fatal. There’s a good chance all his gun practice is what leads the zombies to the camp and gets Amy and Jim killed. His approach with Lori about giving Carl a gun is bossy, uncompromising, and presumptuous, and his repeated tactless pushing at Shane leads directly to their final confrontation. At times, I feel like their archetypes are more “wait and see” vs. “dash into traffic and get run over.” Kirkman isn’t suggesting Rick is smarter or even necessarily braver than the other people around him, just more driven to realize his vision.
Rick is always the proactive one pushing for the next thing, sometimes foolishly, and sometimes disastrously. One of the things I appreciate most about The Walking Dead is that it isn’t a standard hero narrative, not just because it focuses so much on group dynamics, but because its would-be hero is heavily flawed, and he’s just plain wrong a lot of the time. I wouldn’t characterize him as representing hope, because he despairs a lot of the time; more often, he represents dogged endurance at all costs—especially the cost of his humanity. Oh, and occasionally, he’s just a dick. Check out what he says about Donna, when Dale and Shane gripe about her: “Donna’s just an old housewife who doesn’t have soap operas to keep her small mind occupied.” Not exactly the language of a classical hero, or the embodiment of hope, huh?
Noah: Certainly not. I was simply thinking of him in terms of the campfire scene, and in contrast to Jim. At least in the campfire, Rick seems like a leader, in that he’s trying to foster community among strangers. But you’re right that in the rest of these issues, he’s kind of an ass, and he doesn’t make particularly great decisions. The TV show explicitly links the gun practice with the zombie attack, but Kirkman does give us plenty of examples of Rick’s fallibility in the comics. His dickishness also pokes holes in his attempt to create a community among the cast—it’s as if Kirkman realized he didn’t need someone like Jim to always be there, contradicting Rick’s “kumbaya” attitude; he could just use Rick’s own flaws to undercut his goals. Instead of trying to bring everyone together after the attack, he starts picking fights with Shane, further ostracizing him from the group. Shane has issues, but causing friction with the only other able-bodied man who knows how to use a gun is not a smart move on Rick’s part.
I think our back-and-forth here is all swirling around a point you made to me before we started this conversation in print: The real dangers in this series aren’t the zombies. There are obvious ones, like Shane, but Rick’s not-too-great leadership is maybe a better example, considering you say we’re going to see more of it. Unlike in a zombie movie (where the audience asks, “Will the zombies destroy these people?”), our question for the next few weeks is going to be: “Will these characters destroy each other?”
Tasha: It’s so true. In that regard, what grabs me in these first six issues isn’t the big Shane/Rick confrontation—which, as you said, seems like a stretch, especially since we have no sense of who Shane was before the zombie apocalypse. Big drama like that is common enough in fiction. What really gets me is Donna’s character, and how she picks away at people. How she sneers self-righteously about how it isn’t Christian for Dale to be living in a camper with two girls, but pricks up her ears at the faintest hint of juicy gossip about Lori once dating Rick’s brother. How she prickles over one of the girls saying “damn” in front of the kids, then immediately says the women washing all the clothes is “bullshit.” Her sullen bitching about gender roles. None of this is large, or overplayed; it’s just a series of little niggling pokes and gripes, implying someone who’s generally unpleasant to be around, a mildly caustic presence who’s more focused on what her neighbors are doing wrong than on the big-picture survival stuff. A lot of big things happen later in this series, but in the opening storyline, what really sticks with me is the idea that you don’t get to choose who you survive a crisis with.
So many zombie stories are escapist fictions, in which a few protagonists get to leave behind all the detritus of civilization and enter a world that’s perversely both harder and easier. There’s a constant threat, but it makes things simple and black-and-white, especially since the bad guys aren’t people, and aren’t even really alive. The Walking Dead takes a different route. Rick and the others haven’t escaped civilization, they’ve just entered a desperate tiny version of it, a microcosm where they still have to deal with judgmental, nosy neighbors and weirdoes and loudmouths and jealousy and resentment and craziness—they just have an outside threat to contend with as well, so they have less room to escape everything bothersome and irritating about humanity. Instead of using zombies to pare away human discord, Kirkman uses them to spotlight it.
And yet it’s worth noting that Donna is human as well—she’s the one who takes care of Jim when everyone else is afraid to. She cares about her kids and husband. She responds with humble pleasure when Rick praises her shooting. She isn’t just a scold and a plot device, she’s a rounded person. That’s a lot of what I like about The Walking Dead: the way it lets people have nuance. So don’t sweat the campfire scene too much—think of it as not an attempt to tell us important, significant things about everyone, but as a first step toward differentiating people. There’s much more to come.
Next week: We cover issues #7-12, a new artist takes over the series, and we discuss how the changed art alters the content and context.