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Book Review: The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn

After I expressed a great deal of nerdy fan-girl enthusiasm for the TV series The Walking Dead, a friend of mine asked (a little scathingly) if I’d read the Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn graphic novels. After all, if you were serious about the show, he said, then you should have at least read the source material. I did not and had not. So, being that kind of guy, my friend promptly loaned me his copy of The Walking Dead Compendium –  the most amazing, awful and unforgettable graphic novel that spans over 1000 pages.

It’s taken me a while to read it and that’s partly because it’s a simply astonishing piece of work and partly because I have been torn between watching the TV series and learning
what happens next through that medium and been worried about getting too far ahead in and/or of the compendium.

As it turns out, I need not have worried. The Walking Dead Compendium is as different from the TV series as the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris are to the HBO series, True Blood.

The Compendium and series commence in the same world and use the same premise as the TV show: that is, after being shot, police officer Rick Grimes, a loyal, ethical man, wakes up in an Atlanta (?) hospital to find the world as he knew it irrevocably changed. The dead have risen and have not only taken over the cities and much of the country, but mindlessly seek out the living and destroy everything in their path. Life as Rick knew it is over.
The Walking Dead, Compendium 1 Escaping the hospital, Rick sets out to find his wife, Laurie and son, Karl and, in the process links up with desperate survivors who, together, face the unbelievable horrors of this post-apocalyptic zombie-dominated world where the real abomination is not necessarily the living dead, but the humans who have thus far avoided infection.

Civilisation is cast adrift from its moorings and the novel seeks to explore how and even if we can recover it. What does it take to restore, not humans, but humanity?

It turns out to be a huge, complex question…

The TV series is utterly violent, gripping and has wonderful performances from all the cast who make you believe in this gritty, terrifying world and how the most ordinary of activities such as eating, sleeping and travelling are contingent on factors never before considered: they can mean life or death. Blood is spilled regularly; bodies are ripped asunder, flayed, blown up, treated with contempt and disregard. Everything is at stake always, and no-one is spared. There’s no sentimentality in this series – root for the hero or underdog at your own peril. Loss and grief are the default position for everyone – no matter what age or sex.

OK. Imagine that (or recall the series) and then up the tension, awfulness and shocks a hundredfold and you have a sense of what’s in store for you if you read the Compendium. Soaked with nail-biting scenes, unexpected pathos and humour, and meaningful commentary about contemporary life, this harrowing take and the superb and graphic illustrations that accompany it deliver again and again.

Watching the series didn’t spoil the story for me, on the contrary, while the cast are pretty much the same and some of the settings are used in the TV show, reading the novel was a visceral and in many ways even more satisfying experience. There are different fates for some of the characters, new and old ones appear and disappear, and parts of the primary story lines differ. The characters are richly (and sometimes too briefly) depicted, the agony of death and loss, the humanity of the survivors (or lack thereof), the heart-warming moments of connectivity and celebration are all captured, as are the terrible consequences of witnessing and contributing to so much death.

At one stage, Rick Grimes asks his wife if he’s evil because he’s lost the capacity to feel, all the destruction and death he’s either witnessed or been complicit in, the fact he weighs everyone he meets on a scale of whether or not he’d be prepared to sacrifice them for the safety of his family, has him questioning his own humanity. It’s a powerful moment and question; one that underpins the entire book: what or who is evil and how do we know?

Trust is also a huge issue as is faith – not in God or some invisible being – religion has no real place in this world (but there are those who cling to it and persuasively). Trust is about each other.

Another important theme is safety. In this grave new world, it becomes the new currency and there are those who exploit and barter safety in exactly the same way but with even more ruthlessness than any modern day commodity.

The illustrations are black and white and for some reason, this adds to their terror and pathos: suffering and beauty has never been so elegantly or realistically (for a comic-style) captured.

If you enjoy dystopian narratives, zombies and what they signify, or if you love the frisson eschatological stories arouse, then I think you will more than enjoy this.

I cannot wait to get my hands on the next instalment or the next episode of season three either.

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