The Walking Dead, Book One (issues #1-12)
by Robert Kirkman/Tony Moore/Charlie Adlard
Image Comics, 2006
Hillary Brown: So I'm not one of these people who's crazy about everything zombie. I mean, I end up watching most of the zombie movies anyway, for some reason (I like seeing brains eaten?), but they tend to be dour and repetitive. All of which may mean I'm not the ideal audience for The Walking Dead, which Robert Kirkman has admitted, nay boasted of, creating because he wanted a zombie movie that would never end. Still, I kind of liked it anyway, even though I was conscious of its flaws in the reading. Maybe zombie media just provokes a state of mild-mannered acceptance in me. I guess we're going to discuss issues 1 through 6, which are collected in Days Gone Bye, even though I've actually read through issue 12, collected in a fancy hardback. I didn't really think about there being a nice line dividing the two parts, but there is, and Kirkman does seem to have planned his story arcs well for pacing. Issues end at good points. The art is pretty good, although fairly conventional. A few very smart and surprising things happen, although they're concentrated in 7 through 12 rather than 1 through 6. There are some decent characters who don't behave like idiots or jerks all the time. And I suppose it's a relatively realistic picture of the way this kind of thing would go down. But dude. It does not snow in Atlanta. Not more than once a year. And when it does, it rarely sticks. If you're going to pick a distinctive place to set your story--and, believe me, I appreciate the choice, as a native Atlantan--you should perhaps do your research. And maybe you shouldn't have one of your first important characters wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap, right?
Garrett Martin: First off, yeah, zombies, fuck 'em. I'm sick of the zombie thing. Maybe because I've been playing a ton of Left 4 Dead lately (um, really good!), or maybe because I eventually grew horribly bored with Walking Dead, or maybe just because crazy nutty zombie obsessions are no more interesting, unique, or humorous today than they were ten or fifteen years ago. Either way, it's hard to get me interested in almost anything zombie-related.
Okay. Now let's talk specifics. We can easily discuss up to issue 12, if you like; I've read the first six trades, which takes me up to issue 36 or so. Walking Dead is another comic I expected to dislike, but wound up getting kind of addicted to for a while. Kirkman's zombie apocalypse isn't all that unique, but like you said he does a good job of making events follow a somewhat natural and realistic sequence. His characters often act like real people and not just horror movie cliches. I wouldn't say I cared for them, but I did become interested in their fate. I rooted for them, sure. And for a while Kirkman did a good job of gradually expanding the environment, introducing new characters and situations that felt like common-sensical extensions of the story. Still, the addiction had more to do with the comparatively cheap cost and the quickness with which each trade reads (I could polish one off in a single forty-minute trainride to work) than actual quality, I think. It's definitely a solid book, for the first couple of years at least, but it's mostly unexceptional, and so unlike what I normally look for that I really think I read it just because it was easy to do so. And, y'know, Kirkman's good with a cliffhanger and some cheap scares.
And I agree about the Atlanta weirdness. Kirkman and Tony Moore need to bone up on their climatology.
HB: I think this is a really good way of looking at it. It's very very readable, and if I had the first six trades or all of it or whatever, I'd definitely read it. In fact, I read it on the kitchen counter while waiting for pasta to finish cooking. I read it as much as I could read it. And yet I felt a little empty for doing so. I like how you point out that not hating the characters is not the same thing as caring for them. I mean, they could all die, and I wouldn't really care. I'd just be like, "Hmm. Interesting. What happens next?" It's the mechanics that keep you reading: Where will they get their next meal? What's with the barn full of zombies? Who's plotting what? And dang that military base does look like a good option for a more permanent home. Still, it's a little talky, isn't it? I mean, action gets boring after a while too, but a lot of these characters just unfurl their thoughts like a big-ass banner, for panel after panel, while the other person involved in the conversation nods and says thoughtful things, and eventually they all start to sound the same, which means I'd prefer that their brains get eaten. It's when Kirkman's ruthless (or more so) that the book improves. The two things I appreciated most in the first 12 issues were 1. Carl getting shot (it's unexpected and mean, which I like), and 2. The idea that maybe you shouldn't just start killing zombies without thinking about the fact that they might get better because it could just be a disease or something (even if it's eventually discounted). And both of these things are not aspects of every zombie movie ever made, which is what makes them better story elements.
GM: True about both points there, and Walking Dead is nothing if not consistently unpredictable. Characters generally don't last long, and it's usually not pretty when they go. And I agree that the dialogue and interaction doesn't always feel right, but maybe people become more thoughtful and better listeners in the midst of unrelenting zombie hell. If you don't become a zombie, you become Charlie Rose.
Those mechanics you point out never go away. It's a constant series of fighting off a zombie invasion, finding a new safehouse, settling in for a few issues, realizing the survivors can be as dangerous for each other as the zombies, fighting off a zombie invasion, repeat. It's also weird how Kirkman can make the characters memorable (I can still see and name all the main survivors, despite not having read an issue in over a year), without really making me care about any of them. Maybe he hedges against this lack of reader investment by making the deaths increasingly more graphic and disgusting? The last time I flipped through an issue on the stands there was a two-page blow-by-blow decapitation that was just unnecessarily gruesome. There's pretty much a lack of subtlety all around. But then can you have a subtle zombie story without being boring or misguided?
HB: Subtlety isn't really what zombie stuff is about, and examples of it are few. When you're pretty much obliged to show intestine ripping/eating, it's hard to shoot for the sophisticated and oblique. I do think Walking Dead could use a bit more comedy. It's not as serious as the most serious entries in the genre, but my favorites all tend to look at this horrible situation with a lighter heart. I guess it's hard to do both realism and comedy when the dead are walking the earth and eating the living.
GM: I don't know, Shaun of the Dead balanced that perfectly. Well, it skewed closer to comedy, but if it hadn't I wouldn't have liked it that much. Shaun of the Dead, Walking Dead, and Left 4 Dead are the only examples of recent zombie media I've experienced. Before them I hadn't cared for anything zombie-related since Night of the Comet. Like I said, I don't care about the undead.
Anyway. Is there any comedy in Walking Dead? Kirkman can be funny (go read the Irredeemable Ant-Man digests for proof), but I don't remember laughing at anything here.
HB: There's not really anything that could technically qualify as comedy, but it's not relentlessly depressing the way some Romero is, for example. So maybe I should have said it could use "some" rather than "more." And maybe some of our readers who are really into zombie media will pipe up and say "this is a great example" or "this is a terrible example." My guess is that people like it or it wouldn't have run to as many issues as it has. On the other hand, Two and a Half Men sure has been on the air a long time...
GM: Whether or not it's a good example of the genre, it's definitely a good example of how to make a compulsively readable serialized story. We both attest to that. That readability seems to be the only thing that really stands out about Walking Dead, going by this discussion. Is there something about it we're not realizing? Or is it simply that it's well-paced and inoffensive entertainment?