The Reading Canary: Shambling Towards Nowhere

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The Story So Far

Arthur read the first volume of The Walking Dead and was so excited by it that he bought the next couple of books. Will his foolhardy early endorsement of the series backfire on him? Read on and find out!

Volume 2: Miles Behind Us

Picking up the story in the aftermath of the shocking conclusion of the first volume, Miles Behind Us is the debut of Charles Adlard as the lead artist on The Walking Dead, following the departure of Tony Moore, and I have to say that Charles does not quite fill Moore’s shoes. His artistic style is extremely generic – it has less personality than Moore’s, and I’ve got to say it’s simply worse on a technical level: Adlard can’t quite seem to keep the facial proportions of the characters consistent, sometimes making one character look like two different people on the same page. There were points, in fact, where I had to go back to reread part of the comic because I realised that I’d mistaken one character for a completely different character.

The writing has also become less interesting, Kirkman occasionally throwing great walls of text at the reader, to the point where it makes me wonder whether he doesn’t entirely trust his new artist’s ability to get the point across; people talk about their feelings a lot – more even than in the first comic – which is probably fair enough since Adlard’s ham-fisted art can’t quite get the same range of emotional expression across as Moore’s.

It doesn’t help that this is the volume where The Walking Dead becomes a soap opera for dudes, precisely the moment where writing and art need to come together to get the emotional complexity of the characters across. Much of Miles Behind Us is devoted to developing and complicating the relationships between the character, and in classic soap opera style a decent proportion of these relationships involve secret (and not-so-secret) shagging, and all the pregnancy, jealousy, and general craziness that arises from that. The addition of zombies is a simple mechanism for writing out stale characters, providing other characters with instant trauma, and preventing men from being embarrassed to be caught reading the thing.

That said, there’s still an interesting zombie apocalypse story to be had here. Most of Miles Behind Us concerns itself with Rick, having established his leadership of the group, taking the gang on a road trip to seek out a safe place to make their home. They think they find one in the form of a peaceful farm, but bickering, secret sex, and the farmer’s stubborn refusal to consider killing the zombies get in the way, and as the book closes the survivors have gained a few recruits, lost a few people, and stumbles across an abandoned maximum security prison which might make the perfect home, if they can just evict the zombies…

And someone gets pregnant!

Miles Behind Us is an entertaining enough read, but nothing more than that; it feels like it’s just coasting, and the suddenly shoddy artwork only exacerbates this. Kirkman has a good knack for coming up with trashy soap plotlines, but it’s hard to get too deeply involved with many of them because we know that half the characters are going to get arbitrarily picked off by zombies anyway. At this stage of reading the series I was somewhat put off; I resolved to give the next volume a chance, since the prison plotline looked promising, but if it didn’t impress me I’d walk away.

Volume 3: Safety Behind Bars

The third volume didn’t impress me, so I walked away.

What, you want more? Alright…

In principle, the idea of the gang clearing out the prison and turning it into a sort of postapocalyptic castle is pretty interesting. Part of me hoped that the prison would become a permament base for the group, because I was finding the postapocalyptic road trip angle was wearing pretty thin by this point. And the discovery of four surviving prisoners still trapped in the cafeteria added a nice twist to the idea, with mutual distrust blooming between the prisoners and Rick’s posse. Adlard’s art was even improving slightly, although the shape of some characters’ skulls continued to change from panel to panel in some scenes.

Unfortuantely, in this book Kirkman seriously dropped the ball. He changed his mind about how the zombie plague worked. He made Rick do an idiotic thing for no good reason. And worst of all, he tried to cram too many elements into the story, leaving them with absolutely no room to breathe.

On the latter point, I suppose he isn’t entirely to blame. The demands of the monthly format and the uniform dimensions of the trade paperbacks mean that something important has to happen at least once every couple of dozen pages, and a major cliffhanger or conclusion should appear at the end of every sixth issue. Furthermore, with the open-ended soap opera format he’s chosen for himself, he’s having to write the story as he goes along (I refuse to believe he planned Rick’s entire life story before commencing issue one). But some of the crimes against pacing and storytelling commited in Safety Behind Bars were simply too much for me to take.

Let’s tackle the pacing first. In this brief volume we have a solo road trip, a murder, a lesbian crush, someone appearing to be dead and then not being dead, a change to the way the zombies work, the return of some characters who had been written out a while ago, a difficult decision to make about law and order and justice in a world where the usual infrastructure supporting all of those things has been shattered, a fun scene with the survivors working on cheap and resource-efficient ways of killing the zombies crowding around the prison fence, and an armed rebellion. And that’s just a quick list of the parts that stood out for me, written without consulting the book itself.

The problem with the pacing is, of all the items in the above list, none of them gets any more spotlight time than the others. Shocking, traumatic events that should shake the survivors to their core, like the suicide pact, end up being a big deal for a couple of issues until the father of one of the pact participants makes a deliberate attempt to get himself killed when going on a zombie-clearing misson into the prison gymnasium. Rick is away at this point, shooting a character killed in the first volume to prevent them clawing their way out of their grave, and when he comes back he takes a look in the gymnasium to find the bereaved father perfectly fine, sitting in a heap of dead zombies, none the worse for wear. And the father, and the community as a whole, gets over the whole nasty affair and gets on with things as though it never happened.

By the way, Rick’s road trip to kill someone who’s already dead is worth examining too. Previously, all throughout The Walking Dead, it’s been understood that you only become a zombie if you die of being bitten by a zombie. This turns out not to be the case after the suicide pact happens; the victims duly reanimate mere minutes after dying, despite not being even nibbled slightly by a zombie.

Now, I could have accepted this without question if none of the survivors had died from non-zombie-related causes previously; unfortunately, one had in the very first volume, and failed to reanimate despite it taking hours for them to get good and buried, even though this person had died of the exact same causes as one of the suicide victims. Even then, I could just about accept that the time for reanimation might just vary depending on various unknown factors.

The thing which makes me unable to accept this turn of events is that it is a little too convenient for Kirkman’s purposes as a writer.

You see, in response to this discovery Rick jumps on a motorcycle and rides off to the encampment the survivors were living in during the first volume. By himself. To dig up and shoot the person who had died in the head so they don’t have to come back as a zombie. Never mind that he had no reason to expect that the person in question hadn’t already exhumed themselves and shambled off. Never mind that he appears to accomplish this task in a couple of days, when the original journey from the camp to the prison appeared to take months (with, granted, a long stopover at the farm, but still). Never mind that so far Rick’s first priority has always been the safety and well-being of the living survivors. It is important that Rick is away for some time for one reason and one reason only: he needs to be away when the foray into the gymnasium happens, so that he isn’t there to save the guy who tries to get himself killed, and so that there can be a delay between this person’s apparent demise and Rick showing up to take a peek in the gymnasium and find him alive.

The zombies in The Walking Dead have always been subordinate to the needs of the soap opera, of course. But it appears that the very underpinnings of what the zombies are and how they operate can change at a moment’s notice if the soap opera requires some characters to be shifted offstage for a while. And when it gets to the point that the zombies are that secondary to the action, one wonders why they are necessary at all.

This wouldn’t be fatal if it weren’t for the decline in the quality of the non-zombie storylines, but Kirkman seems to be flailing around without much idea of what to do. At the end of the second volume one of the survivors, having fallen in love with a daughter of the farmer, decides to leave the group and join the farmer’s family. This seemed to be a nice way of writing a character out of the story and giving them some closure without high-handedly killing them off. A short while after the survivors move into the prison, they decide to invite the farmer’s family to move in with them and farm the prison yard. “Sure,” they say; as a result, a mere handful of issues after the farmer and the survivor who wanted to stay on the farm have been written out of the story, they come straight back. This probably would not have seemed as abrupt as it did to those following the comic issue by issue, since for them it would have been 2-4 months between the departure from the farm and the reintroduction of the farmers, but for those of us following the trade paperbacks it seems like chronic indecision on the part of the writer: come on, Kirkman, do you want these guys in the story or don’t you?

The Canary Says

I still stand completely behind my endorsement of the first volume of The Walking Dead, but only because you can quite happily read it as a self-contained graphic novel, put it down at the end, and go away. In fact, I rather suspect that the first segment of The Walking Dead was written that way, in case the series wasn’t enough of a commercial success to merit being continued in an open-ended manner; I wonder whether Tony Moore didn’t plan on jumping ship all along if the Dead turned out to be an ongoing project.

I can’t, however, endorse the rest of the series. I think I lost patience when I got to the point where the survivors go back to collect the farmer and his family, and the character who was left behind with them; at that point it became very clear that Kirkman simply didn’t have a long-term plan for The Walking Dead but was just making Rick’s life story up as he went along. Worse still, it showed a tendency to make bold decisions about writing characters out only to reverse them abruptly a few issues later, something that is repeated in the gymnasium incident.

Godspeed and good luck to you and your fellow survivors, Rick. I won’t follow you any further than this.

One thought on “The Reading Canary: Shambling Towards Nowhere

  1. Pingback: Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them? – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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