Book Title: The Walking Dead: Compendium One
Author: Robert Kirkman (writer), Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn, Tony Moore (illustrators)
Style: Graphic Novel
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Fiction, Dystopian, Horror
Page Count: 1088
Format: Paperback (library)
Reading time: 6 hours
Date Finished: 1/14/17
My impressions: Ah, The Walking Dead – that inexplicably popular zombie series that’s in its seventh season on TV and which has spawned a spin-off show, several video games and a lot of other ancillary merchandise. I’ve never been a fan of the other media, nor am I a fan of the zombie genre in general. And while I’d read the first six issues of The Walking Dead years ago in graphic novel form, I figured it was time to get further into the story and see if I could determine what all the fuss is about.
Honestly, I don’t get it. The Walking Dead is a better-than-average comic (the dialogue is good, some of the characters are distinctive and the black and white art is fantastic), but a fairly unsatisfying story overall. And this is where I’ll admit – I may just be the wrong audience for this story, because the zombie genre has never appealed to me and has always felt like the shallow end of the pool in terms of horror fiction. Zombies just aren’t spooky enough to be scary, and the notion that, “the real horror comes from the survivors” is often due to contrivances of the genre that force small numbers of fairly stupid people together in situations where they have limited resources for indefinite periods of time. While the genre often wants to offer some form of social commentary, there’s only so much that can be said with that setup, and what I think we can truly credit The Walking Dead with is getting a new generation interested in the same ideas that captivated a previous generation during the 1960s and 70s when George Romero made Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, the films that established most of the tropes of zombie storytelling.
But enough about its broader cultural impact – let’s talk about the book. This edition contained 48 issues of the comic (the equivalent of eight graphic novel collections’ worth of material), which required three television seasons to adapt. The story begins with Rick Grimes, a cop who wakes up from a coma to find himself well into a zombie apocalypse, and then concludes with the “Grimes Gang” fleeing an assault from a group of people residing in Woodbury under the leadership of the strange psychopath known as “The Governor.” This is a pretty good chunk of story to get through, and I was surprised to be finished as quickly as I was. This is largely because The Walking Dead is an action-based story where many pages don’t have much text to read. It’s extremely cinematic in its approach, almost like a sequence of storyboards (which is likely why it transitioned so well to TV). But as a comic book / graphic novel series, it’s big and bold, breaking a lot of the rules – the story’s in black and white, there’s lots of mature content, there are no clearly-defined heroes or villains, and there are far too many characters to easily keep track of without backing up and re-reading their introductions to remind yourself who they are.
The problem with The Walking Dead is that it’s a serialized story which reads like a serialized story. There’s no big idea here for where the characters are going; there’s no plan for the future or destination in mind. All they’re trying to do is survive, and every haven they find is temporary at best. Characters are killed off with little buildup, and there’s a lot of brutality that occurs even between the characters the reader gets to know and like. All of these elements are used to keep you reading, but it’s towards a pointless end. The characters are portrayed as survivors, but they make horrible decisions and gravitate towards violent solutions. When Rick emotionally declares, “We are the walking dead!” midway through the story contained in this compendium, I laughed out loud because the idea was so ridiculous that I no longer could take the story seriously.
Rick Grimes is a big part of the problem. Early on in his adventure, Rick runs out of gas and luckily stumbles upon a healthy horse tied up in a barn. He saddles the horse up and rides it into Atlanta, assuring the horse that it’s OK and that he’s going to take good care of it. Once they reach Atlanta, they discover that the place is crawling with zombies and it’s far too dangerous for either of them. And yet instead of retreating quickly and planning a different approach, Rick pushes on, allowing himself to get knocked off the horse and then watching helplessly as the zombies tear it to shreds and begin eating it while it’s still alive. This sequence pretty much describes what Rick will do over and over throughout the story – he uses the living and pushes them into extremely stupid and dangerous situations, and then he stands by and watches as they get killed. Early in the story, this makes sense because Rick is a police officer and people seem to trust him. But it happens over and over and over, long past the point where it makes sense for anyone to listen to him. He’s a terrible leader who constantly endangers everyone around him with his dumb decisions. And that is not because the story is being socially conscious; it’s because the serialized nature of the story demands constant action to remain interesting.
And all of this leads to lots of plot holes. Early on in the story, Rick does something smart and realizes that the zombies identify each other by smell, and so he coats himself and his companion Glenn in zombie stench and the two infiltrate downtown Atlanta. They’re nearly successful, but then it rains, and their disguise is lost. The story has them discard this idea as if it never happened, but I, as the reader, couldn’t help but wonder, “why don’t they try that again? Why don’t they make coating themselves in zombie stench a permanent requirement whenever they leave the safety of their camp?” With a little bit of ingenuity, they could essentially eliminate the threat of the zombies to those still alive. The story never satisfactorily explains why this solution isn’t possible (and I suspect it’s largely because the broader story demands the constant threat of zombies).
Another plot hole is the insistence on using melee weapons and handguns to kill zombies, putting the characters in close contact with the zombies they encounter. The story seems to indicate that the zombies are only really dangerous on the ground (they can’t climb, jump or swim) and they’re also so slow than they can be outrun fairly quickly. The character Michonne indicates that they’ll pursue over long distances, but wouldn’t it be smartest to make a practice out of running away and then killing them from a distance? What about laying traps, or crossing over water? Or, since they’re made of combustible material, why not set them on fire and let them consume themselves? (This tactic would be particularly useful outside the fences of the prison where the characters reside, since it would not only rid them of the zombies at the gates, but also create a living wall of fire to take out others that happened along).
The characters also have an odd idea of what a safe place is. Were I in their shoes roaming around Georgia, I’d immediately make a beeline for a less-populated area with lots of fresh water and islands, (perhaps up in the mountains) and I’d set up my new life there. I wouldn’t move into a prison full of zombies with the intention of making it my home, nor would I go chasing after crashing helicopters or venture into nearby towns without doing some good reconnaissance to ensure I’d be safe. If I were under attack by a small army from another town, I’d help my companions to hide in safe places and conceal myself, only firing upon the enemy as I had need – not rush out into open areas where I could be mowed down by machine gun fire and attacked by wayward zombies. I’d also certainly set traps and ensure my supplies were well-hidden – I would not allow an enemy to wander in and take them.
But I digress. The Walking Dead isn’t about smart people who are talking careful measures to survive. It’s about scared idiots behaving like teenagers in the face of a hopeless future and allowing themselves to become more and more brutal and savage in the name of survival. There are some interesting characters in the story – for example, Michonne, the Governor, Glenn, Andrea, Carol, Dale and Herschel all have their fascinating moments – but most of the people who inhabit the story are thinly-developed and are little more than zombie fodder, able to be murdered whenever the story demands a sacrifice. The only reason this isn’t as noticeable in the comic as it is in the TV show is because the reader doesn’t have to linger on the characters in the comic; they can be thin and still advance the story. On TV, they have to justify their presence on screen.
I may read The Walking Dead: Compendium Two later on in the year, but I can wait awhile. While I can’t point to any zombie fiction I necessarily I think is better, I also don’t find the genre particularly satisfying to begin with, so the entire experience feels overrated to me. And if I’m going to experience this sort of story, a graphic novel format’s the best way for me to do it (especially when so many issues are crammed into a single volume!), because it’s far less tedious than watching a show try to build tension and build up to surprises when you know everyone’s already as good as dead anyway.