I thought I’d take a break from all of those depressing real life books and consume something a little bit trashier, a little bit plottier and a little bit easier going, so I went and treated myself to The Walking Dead Compendium Three, which, yes, means I have already read Compendiums One and Two, but, however, this turned out to be a rollercoaster of emotions too, because Robert Kirkman has developed into a writer of such skill that his graphic exploration of the world following a zombie apocalypse is no longer a head-bashing gore fest, but a nuanced, engaged and intellectually stimulating discussion of what it is to be human.
I have now consumed The Walking Dead comics that cover twelve years of publication, as each compendium contains material originally published as 48 individual comics. Robert Kirkman (writer) and Charlie Adlard (artist) are still producing, every month, an ongoing narrative that continues to grow and expand, avoids repetition, avoids dullness and, most surprisingly of all, has managed to avoid going stale.
The first quarter (or less) of this book (I’ve been told, I’m not up to date) equates roughly to the sixth series of The Walking Dead TV show. The comic book, as I’m sure anyone reading this is aware, is not exactly the same as the television version. Characters who died AGES ago in the TV show are still alive in the comic book and vice versa, whilst other characters – most noticeably Daryl, the guy with the crossbow – don’t even EXIST in the comic book version. This is the only frustrating difference, to be honest, as Daryl is great, and his character’s addition to Rick Grimes’ group of survivors lifted the narrative sag that followed the Governor story arc in the later interpretation of the story.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, the world we enter at the start of The Walking Dead Compendium Three is thus: Rick Grimes is trying to keep his son, Carl, alive in a world overrun by zombies and by the kind of people best suited to surviving in a zombie apocalypse. They find some other non-villainous people to band together with, find a safe space to start creating a society, but then fall foul of another group of survivors led by The Governor, who is a violent, corrupt psychopath. This ends with the Governor, Rick’s wife, her newborn baby (the product of an affair) and Rick’s dreams of a safe society all dead and destroyed. Rick and his friends are separated and wander for a bit, deal with a group of cannibals, then arrive at a place that seems kinda safe. They find another group of survivors also in a sorta town and start a trade relationship with them. Then, at the end of Compendium 2, we are introduced to the rumours of another group of villains, survivors who extort protection money from all who have survived within a wide radius. Rick commits to destroy them.
My main fear, entering into this world again, was that Kirkman would struggle to create a second rival group of villains led by a second warlordy badman that wouldn’t be exactly the same as The Governor. But, somehow, he pulled it off with aplomb. Negan is violent, Negan is scary, Negan carries around a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire that he calls Lucille and implies he uses as a masturbatory aid, but Negan genuinely seems to think that what he is doing is right. He is not a rapist, he does not want the destruction of others and he understands the importance of trying to create a network of safe communities. He values trust and his word and encourages respect and care amongst his people, though he is prone to aggression. His violence, though, can be almost justified by the scarcity of food, as his group is hidden away in a once industrial area that is unfarmable. Rick meets the leaders of other clans who are opposed to the Saviours (the name of Negan’s group) and then form a grand union. Kirkman then writes a war.
The struggle is felt, the emotional turmoil is believable and the relationship between Negan and Rick is far more compelling than the one between Rick and the Governor. Negan isn’t necessarily doing what is best, but he thinks he is – his motive is the same as Rick’s, and both of them seem to know this. Their exchanges – which continue onwards once the war is over – offer a psychological insight into Rick Grimes that Kirkman had struggled to create previously. There is a flash forward of two, three, maybe even five, years in the middle of this collection, and it is in the latter third that Kirkman makes steps towards writing something that may turn out to be truly genre defining. If his nuanced portrayal of war isn’t enough to elevate The Walking Dead to literature, then what he is setting out to do over the next few years may well be.
Kirkman has stepped into the idea of world building and is ratcheting up the way he is doing it. By the end of its twelfth year, The Walking Dead has become a text about morality, about mortality, about attitudes towards the essence of existence and about what is truly important in society, even debating the importance of “society” itself.
Because there exists a society, a society that is relatively safe (at least for now), a society consisting of multiple towns with differing natural resources. There are buildings and roads and farms and blacksmiths and fisheries and schools and apprentice programmes. There is justice and there are factories and bakeries and agricultural fairs. Kirkman allows the survivors of the apocalypse to teeter on the brink of being free of the zombie burden, which stopped being an actual threat a long, long time ago. The threat that is coming is the threat of religion, is the belief held by the people who live outside of Rick Grimes’ somewhat safe world: what Rick has made is dust. There are other survivors who have lasted by doing the opposite of Rick, by abandoning all vestige of civilisation and learning to live amongst the zombies, not in opposition to them. These people, like our guys, our friends, our people, are thriving. Kirkman is exploring ideologies, belief systems and (one imagines) he will begin gradually drawing his work to some kind of conclusion, because I doubt The Walking Dead can continue forever, and this ideological battle may be the lynchpin of a satisfying and vigorous conclusion.
Are we animals, denying our reality with the trappings of technology and thought? Or are we more than just upright monkeys, long pigs gifted the ability of speech? Robert Kirkman has gone a long way into exploring the mindset of desperate people in a desperate scenario and with Adlard’s often beautiful, regularly brutal, artwork, The Walking Dead is very much a serious piece of Art, a work to be savoured, enjoyed and engaged with. This isn’t throwaway trash, this is a rising medium being treated right.
If you haven’t read the books, I recommend them. Twelve years of the same story and still as fresh and compelling as it once was, but deeper now, weightier. And I feel like it’s going to continue getting better. Kirkman is writing himself the space to explore, and I (for one) am excited. Though am terrified by the fact that I’ll be 31 by the time another one of these bumper books is plopped out. Woo, ageing!