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Review: “The Walking Dead” by Robert Kirkman

October 28th, 2010

Books one through six have been released, with seven soon to come.

This Sunday, AMC will debut their brand new series The Walking Dead, based on the Robert Kirkman comic book series of the same name.  I don’t actually know if you’re supposed to call them graphic novels or comics.  It is more sophisticated that the cartoon books of my youth and it is easily closer to literature than one would associate with an Archie or X-Men book, so I’ll go with graphic novels.

I don’t quite recall what drove me to pick up TWD for the first time.  It may have been on a recommendation from G4TV’s Blair Butler or some interweb publicity, but I’m darn glad I did.  I’ve had a long-time fascination with the zombie genre of film-making that has extended beyond the George Romero staple to be highlighted by recent movies (be they comedies such as Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland, or action thrillers such as 28 Days Later) and even the under-exposed Max Brooks tome World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

The Walking Dead is a tale that starts off a bit like your typical zombie fare, but it evolving rather quickly into something more akin to literature.  That is not a knock on any of the movies in the genre (particularly 28 Days Later, which film’s beginning is quite aped by Kirkman in Book 1), nor is it a hack at World War Z, which very much so is a piece of unique literature, trading the oral history motif from the documentary to the sci fi.  The key, distinguishing element of TWD is that it doesn’t focus on the zombies.  The story is, instead, about the humans in their endeavor to survive.

Click through for more.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a fair share of gore and violence and the kicking of zombie arse.  There’s plenty of that, but the story makes its bones in the idea that the sociological and psychological implications of an apocalypse are far more interesting that the factors precipitating such an Armageddon.  Put differently, Kirkman realized that zombie tales are energizing in 90 minute snippets, but granted a long-form, serialized format, the tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a zombie setting could be far more interesting on a human level.

Although certain images are colored by Tony Moore, the pages are black and white inkings.

Kirkman is not the first to try to grasp the dystopian psychology, but I’ve not personally been exposed to it in a serialized format.  World War Z takes a bit of a 40,000 foot altitude look at societies’ attempts to stave off collapse.  The Road (my review here) looks at the psychological implications of surviving a scorched earth.  TWD is a little bit of both, but expanded to a greater extent.  In that respect, it almost matches closer to Justin Cronin’s trilogy, the first book of which, The Passage (my review here), was released this year.  The Passage hints at the monstrous length of the trilogy, and TWD shares that same promise of extended examination.  In fact, Kirkman has noted that he can’t even fathom the idea of ending the series in less than 100 issues (each month has one). One can only hope that the series (which has already been granted a second season) makes it to multiple seasons, as well.

In order to not spoil the series, which I fully intend to watch and which I understand remains true to the graphic novel (at least at first), I won’t go into great detail regarding the experiences of Rick Grimes and his ragtag band of survivors.  What I will say is that the books are incredibly quick reads, but they wear on you in an entirely different kind of way.  Make no mistake, Kirkman creates a fantasy world that is clearly rooted in sci fi’s definition of realism (there are, after all, zombies), but the emotions that are generated have a ringing of truth to them.  No, the dialogue is not high art, but the sentiments are well thought out, the dilemmas feel real and the events begin to weigh on you.

At some point, likely in the sixth and final episode of the inaugural season on AMC or early in the second, Rick will likely speak his fateful line declaring his realization that the survivors — and not the zombies — are the walking dead.  Kirkman’s use of that line is perhaps not quality dialogue, but the statement is superfluous because his story sets forth the concept far before the line.  In many ways, the sentiments carry over from the pages and the grim reality of the characters sets in.  I had been sharing my books, when they came in via Amazon, with a colleague at work.  She gobbled up the first four, but stumbled on book five.  When she couldn’t push through, she just laid out that the books were getting too her.  They were a bit too dark.

The Walking Dead probably won’t be for everyone — both the books and the show.  It’s very dark and takes people to places in human nature we’d rather not visit.  This is less about the zombies and more about the desperation when one feels alone and threatened.  While my friend couldn’t take it after a while, I have reveled in the tales.

The show promises to follow the books closely, and it debuts this Sunday, Halloween.

Kirkman runs very clean story arcs that both advance the overarching tale and manage to introduce intriguing characters, both for the short and long term.  Those characters are diverse in personality and provide a greater glimpse into the group mentality.  There is little waste in his story lines, though not all characters are on the forefront.

The books themselves (six annual sets have been published to date) are well put together and the art is really striking.  Not being a huge comic fan, I can’t really speak to the penmanship, but it reads easily and simply.  I recommend you both watch the show and pick up the books, though I’m honestly not sure that I’d recommend reading the books before watching the show.  I usually say always read before watching, but this might be an exception, especially if the show stays true to the books.

For those who can’t wait until Sunday, AMC has posted the first five minutes of the Pilot.

In the meantime, while we wait for the launch of the TV show, here’s the official music video from nerd rock band Kirby Krackle for “Zombie Apocalypse.”  You can download Kirby Krackle’s debut album here.

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