THE WALKING DEAD – Zombies Are Not the Problem


Warning: I am going to discuss plot points, characters and themes in The Walking Dead comics.  


At end of the Battlestar Galactica miniseries, Commander Adama addressed the crew of ship, who had just helped save just under 40,000 humans after a devastating Cylon attack on their homeworld.  Looking at his crew and other dignitaries of their lost world, Adama glares and the crowd and wonder….does human race actually deserve to be saved?  


Robert Kirkman's ongoing series, The Walking Dead, wrestles with this same question, though in a somewhat different way.  I just reread the five hardcover trades (the sixth did not arrive in time for this article–I will update this article with some thoughts later this week) and it really struck me: this is a tale of "survival horror," just like the back cover says, not only of the characters in the book, but of the very notion of "living" in general.


When I think back to the first time I read these trades I remember feeling rather frantic – scrambling through the story to get to the end of it as quickly as possible.  I would keep rushing through the pages, not because I wasn't enjoying them, but because the story was so intense I just wanted to get it over with so I could see if my worst fears were going to come true. This is probably more of a personal trait than anything else–if you give me the option between "good news or bad news," I always go for "bad news," adding, "and tell me how bad it can possibly get so I can figure out the best reponse." My wife Whitney will come home and start telling me a story that sounds like it's going to be bad, and I will just interrupt, saying, "does all of this work out in the end or is there something that needs to be addressed at the end of the story?"–which is totally annoying, I know, but if I know that the issue has already been resolved, I can actually relax and listen to the story, knowing that there is nothing I need to fix. 


The stories in The Walking Dead are less stories for me than they are problems that I need to figure out with Rick Grimes and the rest of his group.  Just given my personality type, I can't sit back and relax with these guys–I find myself wondering if I would make the same decisions that Rick makes. Would I go out and scout?  Would I leave Michonne with the rest? Do I really trust Tyreese? Why doesn't Rick get along with Abraham, he looks okay to me? And, perhaps the most troubling of all, can I trust Rick to make the right decision?


(Of course, I played a lot of RPGs in my day, and the story really does remind me of a really good campaign: you are dropped into a very challenging situation with a group of other characters…now what do you do? I am actually quite surprised, after a brief search, that there does not seem to be a Walking Dead RPG.  Seems like a total no-brainer.)


The story itself is broken down into various chapters, and each hardcover trade, each year, contains two of those chapters, give or take.  Book One (the first 12 issues), is the setup and introduces the majority of the characters as well as giving some idea of just how screwed the situation is. We are very much watching the characters in the beginning, we are listening in on their conversations. And as the story progresses, we get a chance to get an idea of who they are as they open up with each other, which tends to happen a lot later on in the series.  What I really appreciated about the first two hardcover collections was Kirkman's ability to keep the timeline consistent–everyone Rick and his group meet have been dealing with the zombie problem as long as they have; no one's really used to the situation, they are just making it up as they go along, which means that people make lots of mistakes…and people pay for those mistakes, often with their lives.  And that's one thing that is pretty consistent throughout the story–Kirkman is not afraid to kill off his characters, which…well, which works within the context of the story, but as a reader, it gets pretty tough. It's tough to get to know these characters, to invest in their stories and their struggles, only to have them get killed.  Which is, obviously, the point.  Kirkman's story is about survival, and survival kind of implies that you are surrounded by the possibility of death.

The first two hardcovers of The Walking Dead are pretty straight forward.  Rick's group of people (I wouldn't say friends) encounters other groups of people, they hang out for awhile, realize how screwed up people are, then something happens and the zombies bust on through, upending any sense of security, and forcing Rick and his people to move on. Chronologically, this makes sense, too–people are still figuring out what they need to do to survive, still learning about the zombies and still harboring some amount of hope that things might get better.  In any case–we know one thing: zombies are bad.


Things kind of turn inside out and upside down in Book Three.  By the end of that one it's kind of a tossup as to who is worse: zombies or humans.  The world of survivors is split into two kinds of people: those who lead and those who need to be lead, and if you are one of those followers with a really, really screwed up leader?  Well…life is pretty messed up.  I am, of course, referring to the Governor character, who, for my money, is one of those most screwed up, evil, and fascinating villains in modern history.  For me, Book Three was the big transition where the state of the world has stabilized—the dead walk, and that's that.  Everything that used to define modern day living is but a memory, and the rule of man is basically the rule of the "strongest man." 

From Book Three on, the zombies, once a mystery and something to be feared, are still feared, sure, but at least one can understand them. You know they react to loud noises. You know that once a few notice you, more will notice you.  Be careful, be on guard, yes, but the mechanics of the relationship between you and the shambling figure in the distance are pretty clear.  The walking dead we have a handle on–the walking living? Not so much.


And this is where Adama's quote from the Battlestar Galactica miniseries really resonates. The profound distrust Rick and his friends (and, by association, the readers) are forced to have about everyone they meet is not only exhausting, but utterly depressing. With few exceptions, people are out to get you, if only to protect themselves from you getting them first. With no hope, there is no trust, and The Walking Dead ceases to become a story about living in a world of dead people and more about the dissolution of society, of family, and of self.


After the pivot in Book Three, whatever semblance of order that Rick and his friends are able to cultivate completely falls apart, utterly and violently in Book Four. Characters that we have come to rely on like Tyreese are taken from us in often gruesome, excruciating fashions, and the deaths of Lori and her baby is shocking… and infuriating. And, of course, these much loved characters die not at the hands of zombie hordes–they are murdered by other people. I can only imagine how profoundly upsetting it would be to watch these characters die after reading the books month to month; after spending years with these characters, to have them killed…well, you can see why Rick is pushed to madness. Yes, it is managed madness, but it is madness, pure and simple. In addition to watching Rick lose grip, Book Five shows us inklings of his son Carl's burgeoning independence as well, as he has begs his father to wake up in what is one of the most affecting series of pages in a book that features many, many haunting pages.  In the span of a few years, we have seen this man go through so much…we have gone from the catastrophe of the world to the catastrophe of the psyche. How does a man go on when he's lost so much? That's the world of Book Five, which is as extreme as Book Three, just in a different way. Book Three shocks us with profound violence, but at least there is a some element of justice to balance it out. In the fourth collection of the series there is no justice – the violence to spirit and mind is complete, we stumble away from the prison with Rick wounded and wondering, if only for a second, if it would just be easier to die rather than live with whatever comes next.


By the time Abraham and his group show up in Book Five, the reader can only look at these new characters with the same exhaustion and distrust as Rick–who are these guys and when do they die?  We are worn out, tired, and can't help but assume that these newcomers are either out to take advantage of Rick and his friends or, at the very least, will be dead in a few days.  Kirkman chooses this time, when we are all just torn up, to give us some hope in the form of a mulleted nerd who says he knows why the dead walk and how to make things normal again.  I guess I will see soon in Book Six whether or not that works out, but even as I write this, I have to marvel at the fact that Kirkman can even hint that there might be a way out of this whole zombie and realize that this "good news" might just be too late.  The world is over, you know?  Even if the dead stayed dead…can we trust humanity to rebuild? After all the betrayals, after all the needless killing, after all the inhumanity…does humanity deserve a second chance? Is it worth the effort?


With most stories, it seems that whenever we see a character experience pain and suffering at the hands of others, there is a glimmer of hope that despite how terrible these villains may be, there is a chance to access their humanity to stop the madness. I think one of the achievements of Kirkman's story is that he creates a world where this optimism looks pretty much non existent.  You push humanity too far in a hopeless direction, humanity dies.  Kirkman might have a plan for this story where the overarching problem might be solved, but society itself is forever damaged.  I don't know what happens next, but I can assume that it's not going to be pleasant, that whatever victory is achieved, it will be bitter.


Over the years, I have been surprised at how popular The Walking Dead series is with comic book fans.  I mean, it's a terrific story that is impossible to put down, I get that, but from a technical standpoint I am often surprised at how often I find myself frustrated.  There are times when Kirkman's dialog is frustratingly pedantic and overbearing, with people spouting gobs and gobs of text with little or no interruption. There are some beats that strike me just silly, like when Abraham and Rick are talking about the people they have killed only to have Carl chime in with his story about killing a guy in the neck…I don't know, it just seemed silly to me, that whole section.  Sometimes the dialogue just got in my way, I guess. And I am sure that fans love Charlie Adlard, but I often got the feeling that pages were rushed, that it is sometimes really hard to figure out who is talking because everyone looks so similar.  Perhaps it is the impact of the trade–the transition from Tony Moore to Adlard is swift and sudden, and, well, I prefer Tony Moore, you know?  Still, art is utterly subjective, and whatever criticisms I have for Adlard must be tempered with the fact that he has defined an incredible experience for us, and he's presented us with some truly thrilling (and chilling) sequences.  Lastly, strictly from a story/plot point of view, I found myself frustrated (and amazed) just how often things completely fall apart for Rick, that time after time, just when things look like they might be okay for awhile…they just get worse.  It just…well, it just got to me a bit. But that is, of course, the whole point.  I think, too, that reading this story in collected form compresses storylines and experiences that might better be lived through month to month, that, in the end, readers need a breather, especially after a few particularly agonizing sequences.


My misgivings aside, I just wonder…like, what is it about this story that so many people are drawn to?  This is not a book that you read to feel inspired by what humanity can do. The heroes here have serious issues and are not exactly role models.  There is no goal or some kind of McGuffin device that will make everything all right again–you can't "Brand New Day" the Walking Dead, you know? I certainly wouldn't recommend these books to just anyone. This story grinds, month after month, year after year, deep into your psyche. During the first reading of these books I had the most hectic zombie dreams I've ever had–and I never had zombie dreams before!  Not unlike the zombies, this story eats away at you, images come to you when you least expect it. This book claws away your sense of hope, humanity, and calm. Even my old standby reasoning, you come back for the characters, gets a little wobbly when you realize that by the end of the fourth year many of the characters you cared for are dead. 


Perhaps it is because the series has gone on so long that we can't stop reading. I mean, we are at 78 issues so far, which is astounding, and, well, maybe the thinking is that if the characters can survive over six years, we owe it to them to hang in there right with them. I started the series because I wanted to see what the hubbub was all about and I keep reading because…well, I can't look away (as much as I want to sometimes).  I must bear witness to this story, I guess, not only to the characters but to the amazing storytelling that Adlard and Kirkman are doing. I want to be there when it ends, which is why I am so excited to be here at the beginning, when AMC kicks off the six episode Walking Dead TV series. From what I hear, it's going to be pretty faithful to the book…I just hope viewers will want to hang in there, you know?  You have to want to experience this story, you can't just watch it because nothing else is on.



Update – Book Six – Again, Spoiler Warning Is 


So, a few hours after this article was posted Book Six arrived at my desk and I made the mistake of eating my lunch as I got into the first arc, which, of course, just drove home the point that Rick and his friends…you just don't want to mess with them, and you certainly don't want to threaten that you might be feeling a bit like eating them.  This arc, with the mean people trailing them and ambushing them and the whole justice being served thing…it seemed done out of some kind of obligation to remind us that this is, after all, a horror comic, but as grossed out as I was, I found myself wanting something else to happen.  


Of course, the second part of Book Six is this "something else," and it's that whole "be careful what you wish for, reader, because Kirkman will give it to you, and then mess it all up."  Even though we find that the original reason they were heading to DC was made up, they still head up there, and, wouldn't you know it, we finally find a community that the group can be a part of.  And, wouldn't you know it, Rick, forever distrustful, is already promising to take over the place if anything untowards happens.  


Book Six ended really, really abruptly–so abrupt that I am actually considering picking up the last six issues and reading it monthly. I don't know why, but I really need to know whether or not Rick totally blows it and freaks out, or if his suspicions were right and they need to defend themselves. I don't know…I just…well…now I sound like one of Kirkman's characters, you know?  Lots of trailing off sentences and self doubt. I thought Book Six was pretty good (though I admit I put the book down when the leader of the community says, "Let me tell you a story," — when Kirkman utters those words, you know you are in for an awful lot of reading!)–the art was, honestly, much better than ever, like…it just felt more polished. Adlard has this funny thing about smiling faces–most of the time, when a character is smiling, I don't really believe that the character is telling the truth…maybe they are, but…well, it's clear that Kirkman has created a world where everything is suspect, where you are constantly on the defensive, which is pretty awesome, when you get right down to it.


So, yes, I agree with the comments below: any zombie story is basically a story about humans, and Kirkman is really following through with it, where we are now at the point where we find ourselves not trusting our main protagonist, which is rather troubling.  


I don't know where The Walking Dead is going.  I know I want to keep reading the book, but…surely…something's gotta give, right?  Or are we just stuck with these damaged characters who, even when presented with what they hoped for, can't bear to accept it? Once hope has been ground up and turned into desperate suspicion and paranoia, where can you go? 



How about you? Why do you keep reading The Walking Dead?  Are you reading it in issues or in trades?  Are you excited about the TV series?  


Mike Romo is an actor in LA who was probably one of the only actors in the city not turning up as a zombie in the upcoming series. Send him email or follow him on twitter!


  1. I started buying the monthlies at issue #48 (I think that was it- the one with THAT SCENE where two people get shot), which, in my opinion, is the biggest turning point in the entire series so far. Before that, I read a friend’s trades, and I read them exactly the way Mike did- fastfastfast, because I needed to know what happened next. I know I missed a lot of subtle points and details, which often happens when reading trades (at least for me). I am actually looking forward to the reissue of all of the individual issues, b/c I will buy them and digest them more slowly.

  2. Excellent piece.  I never liked zombie movies or zombie comics or any other zombie related things.  I picked up Walking Dead on the recommendation of someone who told me it was different.  I kind of wanted to prove him wrong.  Although, thinking back, since I didn’t read zombie comics before, how would I have known if it was different or not.  Anyway, I was immediately hooked.  I have always loved apocalyptic fiction.  I even read the entire Left Behind series of novels and I’m an athiest!  With Walking Dead I was rewarded because it was also well written.  The characters are very well developed and so far (I read it in issues now, each month) I have not seen any character do anything that seemed wrong for that character.  I think that may be what keeps me coming back.  The characters are very real to me, as is the exploration of how far humanity will go to survive.  Maybe the concept of "humanity" can’t survive, even if humans can.

  3. I was lucky (or unlucky – depending on what format you enjoy reading this series) enough to get on board with this series right in the beginning – issue 7 and the first trade on the same day – and it is now my favorite ongoing. Some day, some how, I’m going to get all the issues together in one place (they’re scattered among a load of different, semi-organized long boxes) and just spend a week re-reading it. I’d be willing to do the double-dip on this series, too, if I could ever decide on a format.

    Very excited for the series – normally, I’d cast a skeptical eye toward this kind of thing, but with Frank Darabont on board and Kirkman guiding the way, and all the amazing positive buzz that’s been building for the last 3-4 months, I can’t wait to see it Sunday.

  4. I’ve been reading this in trades.  I don’t know that I could handle the stress of the monthly.  These stories are so good to consume just like you said, Mike.  I find myself liking the art, but the story is so compelling that I can’t really appreciate it as much as rush through so I find out what happens and what kind of messed up resolution comes out of things.  It’s a great story and I’m so ready for it to be personified this weekend!

  5. at work, grabbing lunch and checking out book 6.  they find some mattresses, Yay! then the kid with the knife…oh man. it just gets more and more terrible, doesn’t it?

  6. For me this story epitomizes true human emotion. one can only imagine what it would be like to have to make the decisions that rick and crew are forced to make everyday. I often finish each trade with a sigh of relief that i am not among them and how easy it would be to loose your mind in a world that is so corrupt. I find myself saying "did that really just f’n happen?". Kirkman is a master at making you invest so much emotion into each character that it is profoundly disturbing to have to lose some of them. I also find it amazing that as you progress through the story you almost have a feeling of pity for the zombies and an utter distain for humanity. The fact that Kirkman is able to spin his tale in this manner speaks volumes to the mans ability to write. I have no idea where this series is headed, but where ever its going i will be there.

  7. Well written, good analysis of the why. I agree, this thing put you in the thick of it and makes you think about what it means to be human and survive. This gave me nightmares as well, on several occasions.

    As far as an RPG, back in college, my friends and I morphed the old TSR Top Secret/SI RPG into a post-zombie-apocalypse game and had a blast playing it. Of course, now you all have some idea how old I am!

  8. This was the first TPB I ever bought outside of a movie tie-in, quickly replaced with the HCs.  Wish I had found the omnibuses as I’d love to have the covers of each issue as well instead of having to buy another HC of just those…

  9. Yes, I’m reading it in issues after I read all the trades and caught up. I think Walking Dead is really a zombie-themed soap opera, I can’t wait to see what happens next. Kirkman is a master at making the reader want to keep turning the page.

     As for the TV show, I can’t wait to see it. My wife is also hooked on the book and can’t wait for the TV show. 

  10. Of course. The whole point of any good zombie story is to show what humans are made of. It’s usually not the answer we want, but it’s great drama.

  11. I picked up the first hardcover shortly after discovering the ifanboy podcast in late 2009.  I started reading before bed, with the intention of reading an issue or two, then picking it up the next day.  My problem was that I could not tell where the issues stopped and started, so I ended up reading the whole thing the first night.   After picking up the next 3 hardcovers, I got impatient and picked up the trades and then started on issues with #67.  Even though I agree that the story is ultimately depressing, it is a great counterbalance to the other comics I read where 99% of the time things work out for the main characters.  After #78, I’m switching back to trades since I feel like it reads better in chunks of 6 rather than singularly.  I can’t wait to see the translation to tv.  Can you set an hdtv to just play in black and white?

  12. It’s one of those rare comics where you can see the flow in evolution from ‘another zombie comic’ to now a full fledge, emotional rollercoaster. Kirkman is just the master of toying with our emotions and making the unexpected continue to be unexpected. He’s the only writer, that I know of today, that can seriously shock you when an issue is over.

    I just love the Walking Dead because it does feed my zombie thirst (which we all have a little inside); but also that it has incredible character development and situations. Plus the fact that Kirkman is allowed to make the series such a slow burn makes the tension that much better.

    I remember saying this in my first ever review on this site for ‘Walking Dead vol.8’ and I think it still applies to this series: "When he [Kirkman] wants to say ‘this series will change forever’….you know he fucking means it!"

  13. Just got Volume 6 in the mail today and devoured it.  Awesome as usual.  I cannot wait for the show.  I know it will have a slower pace than the comics, but I really hope the show sticks around long enough for some of the great moments from the comics to be brought to life.

  14. Really great article. The thing I was most pleased to see was the mention of some of the problems with the series. I really enjoy the series and have read the first 10 trades but whilst reading the first couple I found although I liked the story some of the dialogue was pretty awful to the point where it pulled me out a bit, but that faded as I worked my way through them, I read trades 1-8 in about a month, and my absolute favourite stuff was the period that they were at the prison.

    But when I recently read trades 9-10 after about a year of not having read anything from the series it was back plain as day, these characters just have a tendency to speak in long monologues about how they’re feeling with no prompting and in a stilted unrealistic way often to people they barely know. I’m a scriptwriter with a few shorts to my name etc. and the on the Uni course I took we would have been absolutely battered for writing dialogue like this.

    Sorry this sounds like a really negative post about the series but I’m just interested to know if anyone else thinks the dialogue isn’t always the best and more importantly how good must the story be for me to enjoy it so much when the dialogue so regularly grates on me?

    Can’t wait to see the first series of the TV show and really hope it takes off as the story just goes from strength to strength, just be nice if Kirkman cut down on the monologues.

  15. I’ve been reading this in TPB since Vol. 9 but haven’t gotten Vol. 12 yet. I’m contemplating switching to the hardcovers because I find it difficult to figure out where one issue and the next begins with the TPBs. Also, the lack of covers is kinda annoying…not much bang for your buck. Yep, I think I’m switching to the hardcovers.

  16. Crap, after reading some of the other posts it appears that the hardcovers don’t have any "separation" between issues, either. Is this true? Dammit, maybe I should go back to single issues then. Welcome to my internal thought process about how best to read Walking Dead. :-

  17. @Paradidde: It’s how all the collections work. I find it wonderful in that way.

  18. Mike has updated the article with his thoughts on Book Six.