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 #3, Safety Behind Bars, covering issues #13-18.
Safety Behind Bars plot summary: Former cop Rick Grimes and his band of zombie-apocalypse survivors move into a prison for safety, then return to the farm from book #2 to fetch Hershel and his remaining family. The prison already has occupants—four prisoners left behind when it was abandoned—and tensions between the residents and the new arrivals flare when someone murders and decapitates Hershel’s two youngest girls. Rick’s wife Lori goes so far as to lock up one of the former prisoners, Dexter, assuming that since he was in jail for murder, he must have done the killing. Meanwhile, Tyreese’s daughter Julie and her boyfriend Chris attempt mutual suicide; she dies, he doesn’t, and Tyreese kills Chris in a fury. The murderer—one of the newly met prison-dwellers, Thomas—reveals himself by trying to kill Andrea. Rick plans to hang him, but Patricia frees him, and Maggie shoots him to death instead. The book ends with Dexter and his ex-addict lover Andrew holding Rick at gunpoint and demanding he take his group and leave the prison.
Tasha: Man, Noah, that’s a lot of plot summary, and it doesn’t begin to cover all the twists in this volume. But here’s the big one: This book has a high body count, but not a single person dies because of zombies. In fact, the zombies are a sad, impotent threat throughout this entire collection, whether Rick is digging up and shooting the helpless Shane, or zombies are passively standing by while people experiment with knifing them through the prison fence, or Tyreese is surviving a seemingly fatal mobbing and killing a room full of them on his own. Nonetheless, people die in this book in a variety of strange, sad ways, always at human hands, their own included. As we said in the first installment of this column, one of Kirkman’s running themes in The Walking Dead is that zombies aren’t the real threat in a zombie apocalypse: They just create conditions where everyone’s stuck in the same space, competing for the same resources, and people can’t escape each other. Which of the hell-is-other-people storylines stuck out for you in this collection?
Noah: I think the storyline that stood out for me the most was how no one in the group had managed to learn anything from staying at the farm. Like before, they get welcomed into a small community that has safety and the chance to settle down, and within a day, they’re being complete assholes. Lori’s crusade against Dexter is misplaced, and ultimately ruins their precarious peace. I honestly can’t tell whether this repetition is a masterstroke by Kirkman, or laziness in storytelling—though I know you’ve mentioned before that the series gets repetitive. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt here, though, which means he’s done an excellent job of showing how even in the face of a radically different world, people still cling to the past. Notice how Lori keeps calling them “hardened criminals” and assumes Dexter, who admitted to murder, must have slaughtered Hershel’s two little girls. (Never mind that the whole party has been mercilessly bludgeoning zombies to death for a couple of months now.) Nice way to treat someone who’s made you food and showed you around your new home. But pretty much everyone else backs up Lori’s scapegoating Dexter. Hell is other people, but it’s also repeating the same mistake over and over again. What stood out for you?
Tasha: I mentioned previously that Chris and Julie interested me as characters because they came into the book with an agenda rather than just a history. Add to that, they kept that agenda to themselves instead of monologuing it out at length, Kirkman-style. Their attempted mutual secret deflowering-and-suicide pact caught me emotionally, more so than the “Who’s the killer?” subplot, which frankly seemed a little silly. As we’ve said over and over, people in Kirkman books tend to lay their thoughts and feelings on the line early and often, but Thomas takes that to a new level with his “Take your medicine, whore!” frothing. All that time in the prison with him, and his fellow inmates couldn’t tell he was that badly cracked? Granted, there were no women around to activate his cartoonish ire, but he didn’t once do anything to reveal he was worth keeping a serious side-eye on?
I also had a hard time taking the Thomas plot seriously because his victims, Susie and Rachel, were never really people for me. You call them “little girls,” maybe because they’re the last introduced on the farm, we only saw them from the neck up, and one of them has pigtails. But we only see them a couple of times between their introduction and their death, and Charlie Adlard’s art is pretty confusing to me here. When they run off to get haircuts, they’re pretty clearly as tall as Maggie. When we see them dead, they look like teenagers, or grown women. I have no idea what we’re supposed to make of them.
But I think what we’re really supposed to focus on in this plotline is the new arrivals’ rush to convict and confine Dexter, despite the lack of any evidence against him, or any clear authority to judge someone. This is initially Lori’s call while Rick is away—and oh boy, do I have a lot of feelings about how Lori is being handled at this point—but Rick backs her up on it when he gets back, chalking up another one on his fail-points board. What did you make of the whole “Dexter is clearly guilty” business?
Noah: I thought it was obviously moronic, but again, that’s probably purposeful. What’s starting to irk me is that Rick and company have yet to make a decision that hasn’t led to death and destruction. I understand that Kirkman wants them on a downward slope, but it’s getting kind of unbelievable that everything they do blows up in their faces. I want to bracket that for now, though, since I think next week will be a good time to see if I’m still right about it.
You mentioned you have issues with how Lori is being handled, and I couldn’t agree more. Kirkman’s rendering of her seems schizophrenic. She hates Rick, then she loves him. She’s strong-willed, then she’s a blubbering mess. She’s a hard-ass toward Dexter, but then tries to stop Rick from beating Thomas. I don’t know what Kirkman would say to this, but if he tried to use the pregnancy as the reason for her weird behavior, we’d be right to call bullshit on him. Right now, Lori doesn’t really have clear motivations for any of her actions, which in turn keep contradicting one another.
Tasha: The big ongoing excuse for her behavior is “She’s pregnant! Pregnant women are crazy!” and I do call bullshit on that. There’s a conversation early here where she tells Rick, shortly after they arrive at the prison, that they have to leave again because “this just isn’t working out,” because she doesn’t want to be around criminals. He gives her three sentences of “Nah, it’ll be fine,” and she breaks down weeping: “Rick, you’re right! Oh God, I’m a h-h-horrible person!” (Has anyone in the history of the English language ever spoken like that?) He turns to Tyreese and says “Hormones,” and she whaps him one. This is meant as humor, I guess? It might be funny if it were a one-time thing, but there’s a pattern of Rick offhandedly dismissing Lori, and/or Lori being histrionic or hugely wrong-headed. As I’ve said previously, I think Kirkman sees to it that Rick makes a lot of bad judgment calls so he isn’t some spangly fantasy Chosen One hero, but Lori is just perpetually wrong about everything, usually in an obnoxious, shrill way. I hear she’s much worse in the TV show, but that doesn’t make it any more manageable here. Rick belittling her or dismissing her could be character development, telling us about their relationship and marriage, but here, the script is belittling and dismissing her, and it just feels cheap.
One thing I do think this series sometimes addresses in an interesting way is that in a crisis, the loudest, most certain voice tends to win—and if that voice belongs to someone with a problematic agenda, the next thing you know, you have a mob following a problematic agenda. Whether it’s Rick pushing Glenn into going gun-hunting or Lori rabble-rousing against Dexter (note that Dale is right there backing her up with a gun) or Hershel with his barn full of zombies or some plot developments past our discussion mandate, with various other significant Walking Dead leaders, anyone who knows exactly what they want is automatically the strongest person in the room. In this book in particular, the zombies have nothing to do with it, except that they’re waiting in the background to punish any slip-ups. Again, here, we’re seeing society in a microcosm, but with the stakes raised by an outside force.
Here’s my big question about the Dexter plotline, though: No one ever mentions the fact that he’s a big black tattooed dude as they’re assuming he’s the murderer and locking him up. Given that Rick’s group is entirely white at this point—except for Glenn, who’s Asian, and Tyreese, who’s shut away and presumed dead when the Dexter events go down—and given the disproportional percentage of African-Americans in American prisons, the racial fears and assumptions of Lori’s witch hunt feel to me like the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Do you think any of this is actually a factor? If so, would the book have been better off addressing it? Could it have been done in a non-exploitative way?
Noah: And to top it off, Lori and Rick are small-town, Southern whites—not people who have been historically great about race relations. (Which I know is a stereotype in itself.)
I don’t think Kirkman was thinking that much about race in this plotline, mostly because everything involving race here is subtext, and we’ve established that subtext isn’t really one of his strengths. If Kirkman wanted racial tension, Dexter would probably have been calling Rick a cracker, not a faggot. I’m at a loss for how Kirkman could have broached the subject in a way that didn’t come across as heavy-handed, though—perhaps having Tyreese there as a voice of reason could have dealt with some of Lori’s bias? Even with his kamikaze tussle with the zombies in the gym, Tyreese seems more cogent than Rick and Lori. I’m hoping that contrast gets played up in our last few issues, especially in light of your earlier point about the most certain voice leading the group.
Rick’s certainty is on display in that full-page panel when he says, “We’re going to hang him.”
I think this picture is pretty great by contrast with the “We’re home” splash that we saw last week, no? Rick is certain as can be when he condemns Thomas to death, but he’s never looked so villainous.
Tasha: I agree he looks villainous, but this is just too much for me, with the gory hand with bone-bits and one of Thomas’ broken teeth sticking out of the fingers, and the huge shadow of that hand like a paw across his chest, and his face three-quarters in blackness. This, to me, is really ridiculous art, and it’s trying way too hard. It’s a flashback to the stuff I objected to in book #2, where Lori perpetually has hair flying across her face and the shadows are practically shouting drama at you.
Far more effective, I thought, were the pages of identically composed horizontal panels with Rick in the center, hysterically beating the crap out of Thomas. He’s static for six straight panels (plus a seventh, after a cutaway to Thomas’ battered face) while readers get to see over his shoulders as Lori gets agitated and tries to interfere, Andrea holds her back, and Tyreese moves in to pull Rick off. This may be my favorite art in this book, for the way it takes just two pages to go from triumph at Thomas being caught and taken down to queasiness at how out-of-control Rick is. There’s a clear story progression there, illustrated by what happens around Rick as he sticks to his purpose. Did any of the art in this volume particularly stand out for you besides the “hang him” splash?
Noah: Kirkman and Adlard do love full/double-page splashes, and the one between the “hang him” and the series of panels you mentioned, with all the characters just standing around grimly, gives a nice tableau of horror. What strikes me going through the book to answer your question is how much Adlard makes the beaten Thomas look like a zombie. Considering much of his grunting afterward is indistinguishable from the noises the dead make, this is obviously something both he and Kirkman were aiming for. It’s almost as if Rick has ripped off Thomas’ mask of normalcy, only to reveal that underneath he is—and they all are—a zombie waiting to happen. Since we now know that even people who haven’t been bitten by zombies return as zombies, this gives us a visual metaphor for how the dead eventually come out of the living.
I may have waxed a bit poetic there, but if you follow this metaphor a little further, to the end where zombies tear apart Thomas’ corpse while Hershel watches, you get another nice parallel between the living and the dead. These survivors are eating away at each other—much slower than the devouring we witness here, but with the same end. As I said in our first column, the question of this series is really, “Will these characters destroy each other?” and the zombies already know the answer—yes.
But about that story progression you pointed out in that series of panels—do you buy it? Rick was already obviously on a power trip, but did you get the sense he was planning on beating a man within an inch of his life? And why did he only use one hand to do it?
Tasha: Because he’s right-handed? And he was using his left hand to brace himself and hold Thomas down? You obviously haven’t beaten enough psychopathic misogynist serial-killer decapitators half to death, or you’d realize his technique here pretty much makes sense. And so, I think, does his hysteria. As you pointed out earlier, pretty much nothing has gone right for Rick and company since the story began. All their decisions have led to disaster or death. Taking it out on the zombies isn’t satisfying—they’re an implacable force, they don’t feel pain, they don’t register their defeat, there are always more of them, they’re all but unpreventable. It’s like getting pissed at the weather. With Thomas, Rick not only has a focus for his frustrations, he’s looking at his own failures face-to-face: If he hadn’t backed Lori in pinning the murders on Dexter, if he’d detected Thomas’ crazy earlier, Hershel’s girls might still be alive, and the jail might still feel like the safe haven he wanted, instead of one more killing field. By going batshit on Thomas, he’s expressing his helplessness and frustration and rage on something that can actually feel it. I think he tries to achieve something similar earlier by digging up Shane and re-killing him, but given Shane’s floppy helplessness, that process likely wasn’t particularly satisfying.
I have a harder time explaining Rick’s insistence that suffocating to death in an unventilated room full of human waste is “too good for him,” and that he needs hanging instead. Did that make any sense to you? For that matter, did his shock at finding Thomas dead later?
Noah: If Rick’s taking out his frustrations like that, it doesn’t particularly bode well for people around him. I think you’re right to point out his obvious motivation for beating Thomas, but I didn’t feel like Rick was already a loose cannon by then. Maybe Thomas’ attack on Andrea was the last straw, but still, I didn’t get the sense he was going to be so violent in the pages leading up to this. Nor did I expect him to decide that a public hanging would be a great idea. I see both the need for the hanging and the going apeshit on Thomas as a little premature on Kirkman’s part—I just didn’t get the sense that Rick was so far gone yet. So I guess my answer to your question is no, the hanging didn’t make much sense to me.
The shock about Thomas seems to fit, though. Rick’s got this plan to hang him, and he assumes that since he is the designated leader, and the loudest voice, everyone is going to go along with it. I think it doesn’t even occur to him that someone else might disagree so much that they’d help Thomas escape, or, in Maggie’s case, kill Thomas herself. It’s already become pretty clear that Rick is an awful judge of character, which explains why he doesn’t think for a moment that Hershel and Maggie might take vengeance into their own hands. I feel like his shock is less from watching a man die, and more from not expecting Maggie to kill him.
That being said, I didn’t expect Maggie to kill him, mostly because I still don’t have any idea what Maggie’s like. I still don’t think Kirkman has dealt with the flimsiness of his characters yet—hence my issue with Rick’s change being “too fast.” I see this as the ongoing failing of The Walking Dead. Or am I going too far?
Tasha: Nope, I’m right there with you—the characters in this thing tend to swing like pendulums, because it makes with the drama: Hershel’s moral stance on zombies, which instantly disappears when they get out; Maggie’s “I don’t think I’m going to love you anymore because you’ll die”; Carl is a killer badass one moment and a weeping child the next. Everything that comes out of Lori’s mouth is inconsistent, but the thing that bothers me most in this book is her flip-flop from, “Let’s lock up Dexter and treat him like shit because he maybe might have killed people,” to, “Stop hitting Thomas, even though we caught him red-handed in the act of carving up Andrea.” And yeah, Rick. I think what keeps me involved in this series, though, isn’t consistency, but propulsion—the way things change every five minutes, and you never know what’s coming next. And character inconsistency certainly makes that surprise easier to accomplish. But if you think Rick is over the edge now, just wait ’til later in the series!
Next week: We wrap up our readthrough of Walking Dead’s first 24 issues, Michonne finally shows up, zombies start killing people again, and Rick tells us what the series title is really about.