Series: The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman

I’ve read sixteen of these things now, so I think I’m ready to comment on the series as a whole.

This graphic novel series is about Rick Grimes – a police officer in a past life, but now simply trying to survive in a world overrun by the walking dead. Early on in the series, he is reunited with his wife and son, as well as a small group of survivors, and they travel around the Atlanta/Washington area trying to find a safe home.

There’s some good character development in the series. It’s not an easy thing to take a reader who feels reasonably safe and secure, and make them believe that someone is, if not justified, at least understandably turning into a monster. Rick’s progression is slow, and – at first – his increasingly unhinged decisions seem justified. And maybe they are in book 16 as well, but it’s sure clear enough that he’s lost that wide-eyed innocence that made him so compelling in the first few books of the series.

The plot is quite interesting. There are many twists and turns, and there’s no holding back on killing off main characters so there’s a real legitimate fear of main characters dying when things get hairy. Taking the survivors through a number of different locales keeps in interesting and allows us to see all the different ways that the people in Kirkman’s world have found to survive. There are some overly convenient bits – such as when the group is separated and then just happen to stumble on each other later on – but it’s easy enough to ignore.

The big issue with the series is the dialogue. It lacks flow, people say painfully artificial things (particularly the monologues, but this happens in conversation too), and the phrasing is very stilted. Some of the errors could be solved easily with an editor, but this seems to have been bypassed. The central theme of “humans are the real monsters” is spelled out over and over again, which is terribly unnecessary given that a) it’s an easy enough theme to convey through subtle means, and b) anyone familiar with the zombie genre is already going to be expecting it since wowzers, can anyone say “overdone”? I’m not really into graphic novels, but given that Kirkman’s only job is to write plot and dialogue, I’d expect him to do the latter much better.

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The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor by Robert Kirkman and Ray Bonansinga

Read: 11 June, 2012

Rise of the Governor is an add-on to the Walking Dead graphic novel series, chronicling the journey of the eponymous character. If you’ve read the graphic novels (or, shortly I am sure, seen the TV show), you’ll know who the Governor is. If not, he’s the ruthless leader of a small town of survivors, and the antagonist of books #6-8. In the comics, he appears as a fully formed Bad Guy™, so this novel gives some of his backstory and an explanation (such as it is) for how he came to be that way.

Though a different medium from the graphic novels, Rise of the Governor is clearly part of the same series, and shared all the same weaknesses. In my reviews of the series, I’ve often complained about the editing issues, and these are present in the novel as well. Words and phrases are repeated close together in a way that sounds awkward, or a not-quite-right word will be used (a car is rolling down a hill: “The weight of the vehicle is building inertia.”). All problems that could have easily been solved by the use of a good editor.

There were also problems in the way that the narrator related to the characters. Or, rather, in the way the narrator doesn’t relate to the characters. The characters are blue collar guys, and it’s frequently pointed out (derisively) that one had attended college. And yet when a character starts turning into a zombie and begins to move, this is described as being: “like the typical residual nerve twitches that morticians might see now and again.” The killing of zombies is described in very clinical terms (“He hears the THWACK of another axe blade outside the closet, smashing through the membrane of a scalp, into the hard shell of a skull, through the layers of dura, and into the pulpy gray gelatin of an occipital lobe”). Why on earth would a a story about a couple blue collar guys from Georgia be narrated in this kind of way?

My last gripe is with the character exposition, which suffers terribly from what I like to call Dollar Bin Syndrome. The books in the dollar bin of a store have more differences than similarities – some are romances, some are murder mysteries, some are historical fictions, some have female leads, some of male leads… but all share one trait in common: They are universally terrible at introducing new characters. We see this in Rise of the Governor, where every new character is introduced with an emotionally dissociated laundry list of traits (usually physical, although sometimes the “twinkle of the eyes and salt-and-pepper hair” betrays some profound temperamental facet, or whatevs). It reads more like an eHarmony profile than an engaging novel.

But for all that, it did keep me interested and the character development was reasonably well handled. The Governor is a very difficult character to live up to, but I found his backstory to be executed satisfactorily. The twist at the ending was fairly gimmicky, but it fit in with the narrative and it did work.

If you’re into zombie stories / apocalyptic fiction / survivalism, or if you’re a fan of the Walking Dead series, Rise of the Governor definitely wouldn’t be a waste of your time. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s worth reading.

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The Walking Dead #5-6: The Best Defense & This Sorrowful Life by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

Read: 29 March, 2012

In The Best Defense and This Sorrowful Life, we continue with the survivors’ stay in the prison. When Rick sees a helicopter going out just a few miles away, he takes Glenn and Michonne to see if anyone survived the crash. But what they find instead is a whole town of the living, reminding us once again that the greatest danger in a zombie apocalypse isn’t the zombies.

These two issues suffer from most of the same problems as the others, namely the shoddy dialogue. The pacing does seem to have slowed down considerably, and we actually get something resembling an arch. We start off nice and slow with the short term goal of getting the prison’s generator running, which requires leaving the safety of the fence to syphon gas from nearby cars, and then we move into the hope/trepidation over the helicopter. The actual encounter with the living doesn’t begin until quite a ways through The Best Defense.

There are other classic storytelling elements that we haven’t really seen prior to these volumes. Rick is now given a foil, known by his followers as the Governor. He is the Rick that might have been. If you’ve recently finished watching Season 2 of the AMC show, one might say that the Governor is the Rick that Shane wanted him to be.

But these two volumes are incredibly brutal. The series has always been fairly graphic (it is a zombie series, after all), but these volumes have crossed the line between violence as a necessity for survival to violence as sadistic pleasure. It’s necessary to the story and character development, so I’m not saying that it shouldn’t have been included, but D and I both agreed that it didn’t need as much panel time as it got. And oh boy, major trigger warning!

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The Walking Dead #3: Safety Behind Bars by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

Read: 17 February, 2012

We love zombie stories  because it feeds into our destructive impulses. The zombies destroy the daily stresses and struggles of our modern life. No more bills to pay, no more 9-to-5, no more damn kids on mah damn lawn… And then there’s the possibility of building anew from the ashes of society, a clean slate on which the survivors may impose their will in a way that many of us feel too helpless to do in our real lives.

We had a few false starts in this direction in Miles Behind Us (such as the discovery of the Wiltshire Estates), but the immediacy of survival kept the characters’ attention. But in Safety Behind Bars, the survivors find a respite in a prison. Zombies are no longer a threat, there’s no lack of food, and there’s even working showers. This is where the lesson comes in.

Zombie stories generally teach the same lesson. They wipe away the society that gives us so much stress and ennui, and they give us the opportunity to rebuild, to make it different, to make it good. But we’re doomed, says the zombie story. Given every chance to make a society, we will still be our petty selves, we will still play power games, we will still destroy ourselves. We are flawed, so flawed that the dreary world of rules we live in now is preferable to the freedom zombies give us. The zombie is never the monster in the zombie story – people are.

Kirkman didn’t do a terrible job at exploring this theme, but it’s just been done so many times that it was somewhat tiresome to read through. From the opening of the volume, I knew that the survivors had reached a safe haven, and I knew that would mean trotting out the tired old “we’re our own worst enemy” trope. Unfortunately, he did not disappoint.

That’s been my impression of the series so far, really. The dialogue is so-so, and the plot is basically just running through the standard zombie story plots. It’s enjoyable insomuch as I enjoy zombie stories, but it’s nothing special. Even as far as zombie stories go, the fast pace of the comics means that I don’t feel like I’m getting to know the characters, or to care about them. I’m hoping that it will get better as the series trods on, but so far I’m not impressed.

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The Walking Dead #2: Miles Behind Us by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

Read: 14 February, 2012

In Miles Behind Us, we follow Rick and the other survivors as they hunt for food and meet some other people. There’s the standard story of the survivors who keep the zombies captive rather than kill them (which has never, in the history of zombie stories, ended well), and a few other adventures.

This volume has a different artist from the first, although it’s not necessarily obvious to someone like me who isn’t really familiar enough with the graphic novel medium to know what to look for. I did start to notice a difference in feel about halfway through, though. I commented in my review of Days Gone Bye on the way that the use of detail helped to highlight elements of the story. That’s still the case in Miles Behind Us, but the details are used to express emotions rather than to create the ambience of fear. In particular, the new artists use shadows very deftly to convey brooding, sadness, anger, menace, etc.

The plot is interesting, but I feel like the dialogue itself could have used more polishing. There were a few instances of fairly awkward phrasing that a good editor could have fixed. And as I complained in my review of Days Gone Bye, the fast pace makes it difficult for me to feel for the characters. The artwork helps somewhat, but I still feel like the story is kept at a very superficial level.

I found the use of bold in the dialogue to be fairly distracting. Maybe this is just a graphic novel convention that I’m unaccustomed to, but it made it difficult to read because I was putting emphasis on the bold words, even though this disrupted the natural cadence of what was being said. I was unable to find any pattern or sense to the selection of bolded words. If anyone here is more familiar with the conventions of this genre, I’d appreciate an explanation!

Overall, I enjoyed the book. I enjoy the zombie/apocalyptic setting, and the graphic format makes this series a very quick read. so far, it’s nothing special, but it’s certainly good enough.

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The Walking Dead #1: Days Gone Bye by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore

Read: 1 February, 2012

I’m enjoying AMC’s The Walking Dead TV show, so I thought I’d give the graphic novel a try. The beginning of Days Gone Bye is very similar to the beginning, although differences do start to creep in.

The artwork is gorgeous. Tony Moore’s work is at once realistic and expressive. The zombies are rendered in far more detail than the living, making their grotesqueness stand out from the page. Injuries, rot, flies burrowing under skin, all is meticulously drawn for maximum effect. Walking Dead isn’t a “jump out and get you” horror, but the artwork adds a creepiness to the zombies that drew me in to the story and to the fear felt by the main characters.

I was a little disappointed by the lack of depth. The TV series gives far more time to each episode and allows for more character exposition, while the graphic novel seems to glide through at a much faster pace. As a result, I’m not feeling like I know the characters the way I did while watching the show.

It’s a good series and I’ll definitely be reading more.

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