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I avoided Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” for the longest time.

Why? No good reason, really. I didn’t jump on board at the beginning, and I just never got around to picking up any trades until last summer, but even after I did that, I didn’t start reading right away.

I liked the first “Marvel Zombies” well enough, and I get Kirkman’s “Invincible” in the hardcovers. I championed “The Irredeemable Ant-Man” back when it was still around, for all the good that did. (Not much good at all. Conservative estimates put my efforts to save that title from cancellation at 1%, +/- 1%.)

Still, “The Walking Dead” sat on my shelves for months. Just…well, dead.

Then, two weeks ago, I read all eight trade paperback volumes, and picked up the newest, “Here We Remain” as soon as it hit the shelves last Wednesday. Oh, now I get it. “The Walking Dead” is the single best example of a serialized story in comics being published today. I wrote a whole column about the importance of serialization, and did I mention “The Walking Dead” once? No. Pure ignorance on my part. Shameful ignorance.

But I understand, now. And I can’t believe how long it took me to get around to reading what has instantly (well, instantly plus how ever many hours it took me to read nine trade paperbacks) become one of my favorite series. It may not be the greatest comic ever, but it takes advantage of the long-form serialized format as well as any comic book ever has. It outpaces Brubaker’s “Captain America,” and it has more cliffhanging chills and thrills than a Johns “Green Lantern” saga, and while it may not be as odd and surprisingly layered as Morrison’s “Batman,” it’s still pretty damn weird at times.

Perhaps it’s silly to even throw it in the same category as those superhero melodramas, because it’s not a corporate property. It’s “The Walking Dead,” and it’s a pure Kirkman creation. It’s closer to something like “Cerebus,” which is the ultimate example of the black and white independent, serialized comic. But “Cerebus” took a while to develop into the sophisticated, and then crazed, masterwork it became. “The Walking Dead” has been incredibly consistent since the beginning, and though it’s essentially a straightforward zombie action comic, it speaks of central human struggles, and it speaks volumes.

Initially, Kirkman was joined by his erstwhile partner Tony Moore, whose expressive characters and gritty details emphasized a kind of overwrought hysteria that later artist Charlie Adlard (who has illustrated every volume since the first) subdues tremendously. The difference between Moore and Adlard is instructive, and one wonders if the darkness of some of the later episodes would have been tempered by Moore’s tendency toward Chuck Jones theatrics. Moore is a fine artist, and his work on Volume 1 testifies to his ability to evoke suspense and illustrate violent tragedy, but Adlard approaches Kirkman’s text from a different angle. Adlard is more in line with, say, a Sean Phillips, and his stark blacks and whites delineate a harsh, more emotionless world. It’s fitting, then, that the more hyperbolic Moore launched the series, when astonishment and surprise were the proper character reactions, and Adlard continued the series as despair started to bleed deeper and deeper into Rick Grimes’s reality.

The Terrible Wake-Up Call of Rick Grimes
“The Walking Dead” opens with a common zombie trope as the slumbering one awakens. It’s the old “Rip Van Winkle” tale, but with 100% more zombie action. Rick Grimes, a police officer injured in the line of duty, wakes up in a completely abandoned hospital. Nobody is walking through the halls. No patients. No nurses.

The only thing walking, he soon discovers, is…the DEAD. Big surprise there.

So anyone dipping into “The Walking Dead” and skimming past the first few pages would find nothing surprising or even particularly interesting.

But it’s the accumulation of details that makes “The Walking Dead” work so well. It’s the developed issue-to-issue continuity as the story unfolds. It’s the unfolding of Rick Grimes’s life, almost step-by-step, that gives this series its power. And, in retrospect, the opening scene is unusual, at least compared to the bulk of the series, because Kirkman avoids ellipsis in “The Walking Dead,” and by refusing to cut out plot details, even to speed the story along, he traps us in the zombie apocalypse with the characters. There is barely any respite, with only the occasional significant ellipsis, and only a couple of slight flashbacks. For the most part we are stuck. And that entrapment amplifies the conflict, which makes for an intense serialized reading experience.

And, boy, is it as bleak as it is compelling.

Kirkman gives us a scene early in “Days Gone Bye” in which Grimes first encounters non-zombiefied humans, and the father of a young boy tells Grimes not to waste a bullet on a monstrosity behind a chain-link fence. “You might need that bullet later,” says Morgan Jones.

At the time, it seems like sound advice for a man about to make his way through a zombie-infested landscape. In retrospect, after reading all nine volumes, Jones’s words take on a more ominous meaning. That bullet might be Grimes’s only way to escape from the world, and not if he directs it toward the zombies.

Hope was Not Always a Four-Letter Word
Such thoughts of suicide don’t occur in the first volume of “The Walking Dead” because almost as soon as Grimes’s panic and despair might set in, he’s reunited with his wife and child. The faithful (well, not quite) Lori, and sweetly innocent young Carl were saved from the zombiepocalypse by Grimes’s former partner, Shane.

And as Grimes’s family, Shane, and other local survivors circle up their wagons (i.e. an RV) against the savages (i.e. the zombies), they embody a frontier ethos dependent on hope. They will find a way out of this mess. They will get to safety. And, because the threat is real, they all learn how to shoot a gun. Even young Carl takes target practice, and he’s barely old enough to read.

By the end of Volume 1, Carl has shot Shane through the neck.

That’s the kind of shocking twists Kirkman throws at the reader, and even though Shane may have deserved such a death according to the laws of Kirkman’s world (Shane betrayed his friend by sleeping with his friend’s wife, and he was holding a shotgun at that very friend, ready to kill him until the dutiful son intervened), it’s a tragic bit of violence that doesn’t have anything to do with zombies.

And that’s the real trick of “The Walking Dead”: the zombies are part of the mise-en-scene, but they are hardly the real threat. They are mere dangerous scenery, while the real threat lies in the human heart, as it usually does in life.

Kirkman doesn’t leave Carl’s frontier justice unremarked upon, and he uses the occasion to have his characters comment upon a theme he will explore throughout the series: “It’s not the same as killing the dead ones, Daddy,” says Carl “It never should be, son,” replies Grimes. “It never should be.”

That notion of murder and morality will recur again and again over the course of the nine volumes as the line between self-defense and pre-emptive protection becomes more and more blurred. With law and order obliterated by the zombie plague, the survivors must make their own rules, and Kirkman shows how simultaneously fragile and elastic those new rules must be.

What does it mean to kill a man? That depends, says Kirkman, and he does so without resorting to simplistic moralizing.

But the way Kirkman keeps this storytelling machine alive, the way he compels the reader along, is to inject hope whenever possible.

They meet Tyreese on the road, and thereby gain another strong, protective body. Hope.

Lori announces that she’s pregnant. Hope

Wilshire Estates, a gated community that could become a utopian living arrangement if they could clear out a few pesky zombies. Hope.

Kirkman undermines all of these eventually, but some hopeful elements last longer than others. And some, like Lori’s pregnancy, take on a strange and awkwardly sinister nature. Grimes’s-would-be-murderer, Shane, seems the likely father of Lori’s child, and yet Grimes has no choice but to protect his wife and ensure the delivery of the baby. The baby is the very essence of hope, the beginning of a new generation, proof that life can go on even in their present circumstances.

It’s the hope that keeps them going, but as each volume unfolds, Kirkman strips more and more hope away, even as he offers more opportunity for the characters.

After reading “The Walking Dead,” I completely understand why Kirkman would be so frustrated with the Marvel style of serialized storytelling. He could never tell this kind of long-form, uninterrupted story at Marvel. And that’s too bad, because it would have made most Marvel comics a hell of a lot more compelling.

Locked-Up and Loaded
One technique Kirkman uses to move things along, metaphorically, is to move things along, literally. “The Walking Dead” has elements of a road narrative, with episodes along the way as the characters progress through an unfamiliar landscape. Two of the most compelling Vertigo comics of the past decade and a half have been “Preacher” and “Y the Last Man,” and both of those series used their on-the-road structure to tell long-form serialized stories better than almost anything else. “The Walking Dead” might not have moments that reach the peak of some of the best bits of “Preacher” or “Y,” but it is more consistently compelling. It hums along with sinister zest.

Yet, even though it’s a road narrative, the bulk of the story so far has taken place at the prison. The place that Grimes describes, when he first sees it, as “home.”

Faced with a hostile landscape and impossible odds, the survivors willingly lock themselves inside a prison for safety. The prison, once its cleared of zombies (which is no small chore), becomes a near-utopian safe haven, filled with supplies, beds, food, clothing, even a generator that might provide electricity.

If only it weren’t for the humans inside, it might be the perfect place to live.

Tyreese commits murder, albeit justified (according to the new frontier justice they’ve informally adopted), and one of the prison inmates turns out to be far from the tax evader he claimed to be. As Grimes and company cut themselves off from the flesh-eating monsters outside, a knife-wielding serial killer starts cutting off young girls heads on the inside.

Bleak, I tell you. Bleak.

And it forces Grimes to decree a new law of the land: “You kill? You die. It’s as simple as that.”

But it’s not as simple as that. Never again.

By the end of Volume 4, even the slight hope of a newly-planted garden in the prison yard offers little optimism to Grimes, who resorts to shouting, “This is all we have! This is all we’ll ever have. If you want to make things better, make this place better. We have to come to grips with that.” Then, he makes the defining statement for the series: “We ARE the walking dead.”

Stale Bread and Zombie Circuses

Grimes’s statement could have been the end of the series, but Kirkman followed it up with amplified moments of hope, as a downed helicopter leads the protagonists toward another group of survivors. (And I say “protagonists” because one of the things Kirkman does well is turn “The Walking Dead” into an ensemble book as the series progresses, even if he contracts the ensemble as the major players die off. Yet it’s much more powerful when a protagonist dies, and Kirkman doesn’t hesitate to give us those moments.)

To make it even better, the survivors control an entire town.

And, oh yeah, they use chained zombies for sport. And the maniac who runs the town, the “Governor,” keeps his zombie daughter on a leash.

Even for a comic book series about a post-zombie apocalypse, things take a turn for the weird once the Governor shows up. But no matter how ridiculous it all seems, Kirkman keeps the human reactions believable and bases everything on the ever-shifting moral compass of Rick Grimes who suffers, big time, at the hands of the Governor and his minions.

By Volume 9, Rick has lost almost everything, and pre-adolescent Carl has to become the responsible adult in the family, fending off zombie attacks and holding a gun at his delusional father.

But as bad as things get, and they do get very, very bad for Rick Grimes and company, Kirkman continues to interject hope into the series. The new twist involves a scientist who may know how to stop the zombie plague. It’s typical for a zombie story to feature such a character, but no doubt Kirkman will spin it in an unexpected direction.

All the while exploring the degraded moral center of Rick Grimes. All the while spinning a compelling yarn. All the while telling a serialized story they way it should be told, tying us to his characters emotionally and spatially. We can’t escape any more than they can, but there’s more than a little comfort in their company.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of the in-this-month’s-Diamond-Previews’ “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Want to talk about this week’s column with other readers? Post your thoughts over on the CBR message boards.

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