Book Review: The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead
a continuing story of survival horror
Published by Image Comics
Release Date 2011
Audience: Mature Nerds and Fans of AMC's The Walking Dead
Buy it at Amazon
Late. When it comes to graphic novels, I am perpetually late. Never have I been on top of a trend. Not once have I been the guy to spot the latest genius. Never have I been the man touting the man, or woman, responsible for spreading multi-paneled, speech bubbling, pen and ink bliss. Nope. Not me. I was twenty years late to Neil Gaiman's Sandman, nearly a decade behind on Brian K. Vaughn's Y: The Last Man, and I don't even want to talk about how long it took me to get to Alan Moore's Watchmen. (Let's just say I got to that one mere moments before I sat down to watch a giant blue man swinging free on the big screen.)
The point of all of this is to say, I am not an expert on graphic novels. I enjoy them. I think they are well past the point of being considered relevant and important works of art--that they deserve to be considered as capital "L" Literature. And yet, I find it hard to jump in and explore that particular world without a strong recommendation from a trusted friend. Without an impending film. Without the backing of a kick-ass television series.
And that, dear reader, is where we begin. Had it not been for the show, I would never have picked up Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead. The show is great--in a make-you-feel- super-creepy-want-to-roll-yourself-up-into-the-fetal-position-and-rock-back-and-forth-until-the-evil-pictures-go-away kind of way. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the television version of The Walking Dead follows Rick Grimes, a small town police officer who is gunned down on the job. Grimes slips into a coma. Luckily, however, the coma is short-lived and Rick comes to. Unfortunately, when he awakens he finds himself in an abandoned hospital in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Bad luck, huh? The show follows Grimes as he reconnects with his family and attempts to lead them, along with an odd assortment of fellow survivors, to safety.
Now at first, I saw no need in going to the source material. I watched season one and was a couple of episodes into season two and I felt I knew what was going on. Zombies: Bad. Rick and other people who like to eat the occasional carrot: Good. Pretty simple. Right? But then I heard murmurs coming from the nerd-i-verse, "The television series is great," they said. "But it is not the same--the tale not told in quite the same way. Some who live here are dead there," they said. “Some who love here, love more there. Go forth and discover this world in a different way." And do you know what? As often is the case in this world of ours, the nerds were right. The book is not the same. It provides an all-together different experience. It is sleeker, trimmer, more immediate and unfiltered in a way that the television show is not. This is a bit odd considering that all the illustrations are rendered in black and white.
"Zombies in black and white? Preposterous!" you say. "How can Zombies be effective without color?"
"Ahh, but there's the trick," I say.
It is true that the reader is not treated to the (slightly muted) technicolor gore provided by the series. Instead, he is left to fill in the color of death for himself. This can prove to be even more horrific--depending on the vividness of your imagination. You are in charge. You decide how lifelike the erupting viscera and escaping entrails should be. You take part--filling in the missing details of your own nightmare.
You must also reckon with the image on the page in a different way than the pictures that flash before you on your screen at home. It is not so easy to look away. With television, you can, as I often do, watch through your fingers--try and filter out the horrifying icky bits. You don't miss too much this way because you can get the gist of the scene simply by listening. That is not so true where the book is concerned. To find out how the story goes, you must face the words on the page. And, because this is a graphic novel, the word is tied to the image. There are no quick cuts. The picture lingers. If a zombie is pulling the flesh from the living with its teeth, that flesh is perpetually stretched between its owner and the zombie's mouth. The next panel may provide a brief respite, but the image is not gone. It is still there. All it takes is a slight movement of the eye and it all comes back. See? Immediate. Horrifying. But, ultimately, satisfying.
The horror here, like the horror in the television series, is but a single aspect of the story. The living characters and the relationships that develop between them as they try and navigate, to come to terms with, the new realities of their world are what really matter. The most poignant moments of the book are the quiet ones. They come in panels without dialog: Rick, our ever-ready protagonist, wiping a single tear from his eye after putting a zombie, one displaying all too-human emotions, out of its misery; a rare, quiet moment of peace around a campfire; agony, loss, and comfort expressed in three simple frames--a woman huddled on a bed, a man reaching out to console her. These are the moments that serve to draw the reader in--the moments that make Kirkman's nightmare world whole--that make it eerily plausible.
My only real criticism of the book is that it is so streamlined and so direct, that it is over way too soon. And because, as Kirkman has stated, the idea of this particular zombie narrative is to go beyond the point where the typical zombie movie ends (everyone dead or a few bedraggled survivors whisked away by helicopter to uncertain fates), Book One of The Walking Dead offers no closure. We end with our heroes standing on the precipice, staring out over new possibilities. Here the reader must decide if he wishes to continue on this journey with Krikman. And while I want to move ahead with them, while I really want to know what becomes of Rick and his ragged band of survivors, there is an economic element that holds me back. Graphic novels are expensive. I understand why. It takes a talented team to put one together: authors, letterers, pencilers, inkers, shaders and the like. But at thirty plus dollars a pop, that becomes one cost prohibitive never ending story. Perhaps, though, the nerd-i-verse will call to me once more, will beckon me to my local bookstore, coax the bills from my wallet . . . "Come, Kevin, discover the trials that await. You know you want to know about The Governor."
And I do. Damn it, I do.
Summary of The Walking Dead: Book One
Hardcovers from Goodreads:
This hardcover features the first 12 issues of the hit series along with the covers for the issues in one oversized hardcover volume. Perfect for long time fans, new readers and anyone needing a slightly heavy object with which to fend off the walking dead.