(NOTE: This is critical appraisal of the issue and thus will involve an enormous amount of spoilers.)
Zombies are, by their nature, a grim subject. Any story involving them is implicitly dealing with a world overrun by the dead, where every normal comfort has evaporated, and any chance at a normal life has disappeared. But there’s Grim, there’s Funeral-In-The-Summertime Grim, and then there’s Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s “The Walking Dead”.
See, having gone past sixty issues of the stuff, it’s way past just running from zombies. Kirkman has introduced rape, mutilation, infant shooting, (hugely grisly) decapitation; at any moment when things seem to have finally hit their plateau of horrible circumstance, the book turns a new corner of Horrible. And so, in the midst of an already treacherous journey to Washington D.C., two long time members of the cast, the twin brothers Ben and Billy are wrapped up in probably the most horrible thing to ever happen in this book, and that’s saying something.
Ben, a child whose sense of death has been completely warped by growing up in a world where zombies walk around, murders his own brother, thinking that there won’t be any ill effects, as he “didn’t hurt his brains”. Suddenly a frightening liability that no one is really mentally equipped to fully deal with, he is then murdered by the son of the book’s main protagonist Rick.
Like I said, grim stuff.
So what exactly would keep one from just burning the book on general principle? It’s not an easy question to answer. Just what is the purpose of a book that’s so unspeakably bleak and relentless in its discovery of new and ghastly tragedies? It is, I’ll admit, not without its small moments of hope. (Maybe not in the issue, sure, but nice stuff happens every now and then.) Certainly not for Rick and his son, who both saw their wife and mother and infant sister and daughter (respectively) ripped apart by gunfire. And now another couple, Dale and Andrea, have been irrevocably scarred by what’s happened to the children they were raising. Only Glenn and Maggie remain (relatively) unscathed. Although every single member of Maggie’s family has been eaten or murdered.
And yet, I find myself oddly compelled by the book. There is certainly nothing appealing in the Jenga contraption of heartbreak and terror that has beset pretty much every character in the comic, and nearly every issue is saddled with at least one extended bout of dialogue that is infuriatingly expository and clunky. So what is it about “The Walking Dead” that makes it worth reading?
Charlie Adlard certainly has a lot to do with it. Over the course of his career, his work has evolved into a beautiful melding of the work of Walter Simonson and Mike Mignola. He is, thankfully, in every issue, given frequent free reign to be the sole storyteller; free from dialogue, his staging and pacing is spectacular, and the world that these doomed characters inhabit is gorgeous in bleakness (helped tremendously by the grey tone work of Cliff Rathburn), and that alone is always enough to keep you interested in the next page.
But I would be remiss if I claimed that his art was the only reason worth reading “The Walking Dead”. Because as much Kirkman’s ear for dialogue is frequently left wanting, he is incredibly adept at guiding this desolate narrative forward. Each individual development of truly awful stuff is encased in a slow but steady moving locomotive of plot. Rick and his ever-shifting and -evolving and -dying band of travelers are always convincingly propelled from one safe haven to the next, and what drives them toward and away from each locale never feels arbitrary. The world that Adlard and Rathburn have created, visually, feels inhabited by that doom, but all happens so slowly and naturally, that you’re never slapped in the face by it. For instance, Rick’s decision to take up with a group headed to Washington D.C. in search of, impossibly, a possible cure for the zombie epidemic, doesn’t feel like some sort of Deus Ex Machina that could finally turn these lives around. It’s just another slow, deliberately hung carrot to guide these people on their slow, deliberate way.
“The Walking Dead” is a hard book to both read and recommend. It is uncompromising, and in some ways almost ludicrously uncompromising. (Like, I don’t think there was ever a Brother Disembowling His Brother Barrier in comics that needed to be broken.) And yet, issue after issue, it remains compulsively intriguing. These collaborators have built a relentlessly grey America that, in its own way, is beautiful enough to keep coming back to.