The big cliffhanger reveal in Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s “The Walking Dead” #125 — the penultimate issue in their “All Out War” arc — works like gangbusters, but the lead up to that moment is flat at best and unbelievable at worst.
It’s hard to know Kirkman’s actual intentions in that last scene, and perhaps the final issue in the arc will make it all clear, but just prior to the kind of greatness many have come to expect in “The Walking Dead” is a moment so eye-rollingly wrong that I was left scratching my head, which can’t possibly be the reaction any of the creators intended.
To be frank, the entire issue is a bit rough around the edges, in part because “All Out War” has felt a little bloated and meandering in general and this installment is no exception. The arc and the issue have been short on the kind of cool moments, both character-based and action-based, that many readers expect from “The Walking Dead.” Instead it’s been a lot of characters (many of whom readers don’t know very well) spread out for strategic reasons. It’s obvious what Kirkman is attempting, and it makes sense for him to build a bigger and broader story with raised stakes, but the execution has felt thin and awkward as it jumps around from character to character, rarely spending enough time on any one group to really allow readers to get anything substantial from them.
Perhaps the best moment in this issue, other than the page with Rick and Negan, is Carl’s odd way of comforting a boy that has lost his father. It’s a nice little moment that speaks volumes about where Carl is as a character and even shines some rare light on what he really thinks and what he’s actually resentful about in his new world. It’s a good moment, but it’s really the only one that lands. Kirkman has written some spectacular speeches for Rick over the years but the one in this issue falls decidedly flat, and Negan’s reaction to it is utterly unbelievable. Fortunately, Kirkman has a final (and much appreciated) ace up his sleeve for the last page, but the lack of believability preceding it really undercuts the moment.
What else can be said about Charlie Adlard’s artwork at this point? The man is a rock. Drawing well over 100 issues of this series, he has given it a definitive look and feel that’s both personal and epic — which is the perfect balance for a book about the zombie apocalypse and all its “man vs. man”, “man vs. nature”, and “man vs. himself” themes. Stefano Gaudiano assists Adlard with clean sharp inks, and Cliff Rathburn gives impressive depth through gray tones. There aren’t many moments for the art team to really wow readers in this issue, but they attack the talking heads, minor zombie violence, speechifying and few emotional moments with a dedication and consistency readers have come to expect, and probably don’t have nearly enough appreciation for.
In summary, “All Out War” has been a bit too big for its britches. It has reached too far and tried to rope in too many characters and too large a conflict and thus becomes less personal and emotionally resonant than the series usually is. Still, it’s rather impressive that even when in the weeds, “The Walking Dead” remains solid reading.