Thousand Faced: The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead
Written by: Robert Kirkman
Illustrated by: Charlie Adlard
Published by: Image Comics

Here we are. It’s Halloween week and I’ve been saving up to do this one. It’s been quite some time since I’ve read a comic book series that has got me as involved in the story as this one has. There were many times I would sit there howling, “No! This is wrong! So wrong! Kirkman, you heartless bastard. You magnificent heartless bastard!” Then realizing it was 3 AM think it’s time for bed and then pick up the next issue and go just a bit further. This is how you read 77 issues in just three weeks. Obsessively and with anticipation that this ride might fuck you up in the going there. As always, writing is the key. The one thing that publishing corporations in this genre inevitably miss in their top heavy arrogance. There are no explosions, multiple realities that proliferate like dysentery, eight hundred and thirty super powers, or nipples that can pierce steel. It’s people, you jagoffs, just people and their stories that make the magic.

Image is a subgroup of Marvel and has wizened veterans of the business at the helm like Erik Larsen, Todd McFarlane and Marc Silvestri. These are guys that twenty years or so ago I was buying the titles they were working on faithfully. Today, they have the stones to let Kirkman and Adlard run with this series and run they do.
It didn’t take a minute for the story to rev up, punch you in the soft and tenders and get the reader’s blood racing. The main character throughout the books is Rick Grimes. He is a small town sheriff in Georgia not too terribly far from Atlanta. One day during a high speed getaway that winds up at the roadblock Rick is at some very bad guys have a gun battle with Rick and his best friend are wounded. He wakes up in the town hospital and nobody is there. It’s empty and he scrounges from the vending machines. Soon he encounters a shambling somewhat decayed zombie. Yup. Zombie plague has inexplicably hit and they are everywhere and people are nowhere to be found. Your standard undead pandemic has occurred right out of Night of the Living Dead. In fact the title is in black and white and while usually this does not work for me, this time I can clearly see this was the right choice. Just like Romero’s film, it creates a feeling of stark emptiness and gloom. The world has changed. Kirkman drives you hard into this story and Adlard’s artwork compliments it very well.

The zombies are slow and stupid but quiet right up until you stumble upon one or a swarm of them and if you get bitten you will become one of them. There is a little girl zombie on a bicycle with a missing leg who has been unable to move. Rick in a display of touching humanity returns to where she lays after he has raided the armory of the police station and puts her down. In that moment Adlard’s artwork gives me a chilling insight. The zombies are still aware of who and what they were before they were reduced to the disgusting creatures they have become. Adlard shows it in the eyes. They cannot speak. Their speech mechanisms have rotted away. The plague has replaced them with a need to consume the living and that is all, they are trapped within a decomposing machine of rage. They cannot do anything but rot and feel themselves going. It made me moan in revulsion and sympathy as though I was a character in some H.P. Lovecraft story. It is that classically creepy. Reading this title eventually even crawled its way into my dreams. This has got to be the best ongoing zombie story ever.

Here’s why this is so disturbing. The omnipresence of shambling zombies wears thin after awhile. They are a given of everyday existence once the shock of dealing with them is handled. What is downright awful is how the world changing has affected the people that remain in it. Each book ends with a dire cliffhanger leaving you at the edge of your seat and mostly it is about crimes against humanity done by the worst monsters of all, fellow humans. This is the driving wheel that makes your palms itch to get your hands on the next issue. This isn’t a capes and tights world folks. The only unbelievable element in the story is the outbreak of zombies. The rest is so damningly plausible it can make you weep. It did me.

There is a storyline about cannibals. They discovered animals were too fast and wary to kill for meat so they turned on humans because you can lie to people and that makes them easy to trap. Then they eat them a bit at a time to make the meat last longer. You see? That’s the kind of ugly ass shit Kirkman beats on your consciousness with. Oh and these bastards began on strangers when they ran out of their own children. This is how far humans will go to ensure their own continuation. Jesus wept!

So you can read this and I won’t guarantee you find it pleasurable. You have to be a sicker fuck than me to get your grins and jollies from this. What The Walking Dead will do is pull you in with excellent characterization and just not let you go. You will watch Team Grimes come together with all its attendant danger and heartbreak. You will watch people you have come to love and respect come and go. This is a very unsettling reading experience. Nothing that happens to anybody is something you can depend on. There is no character no matter how cool, well-liked, sympathetic or even innocent that is not a candidate for death or madness or both. There is no sanctuary available that doesn’t come at the price of a foundation built on blood and betrayal. Nobody but nobody remains sympathetic at all times not even our “hero” Rick Grimes. For a tale dealing with the undead I guess I have to quote Bob Dylan as I like to do at appropriate times, “It’s life and life only.”

by Bill Hilburn

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