Yesterday, I talked about a comic that did an awful job of managing the transition between story arcs. When you’ve been working on one story for as long as “Girl Genius” has, there needs to be some time to step back, decompress, and take stock of things or else you wind up burning the audience out after keeping things running at full steam for so long. Now, Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard are facing a similar situation with this latest volume of “The Walking Dead.” After a few volumes of buildup, things escalated into twelve issues of “All Out War” between Rick and Negan’s camps and resulted in another high point for the series. So how do you follow up something like that? Kirkman and Adlard show us exactly how such a transition should be handled, and give us a really clever take on an old genre staple in the process.
It’s been a year since Rick defeated Negan and things have been going extraordinarily well in Alexandria and the neighboring Hilltop settlement. People are growing more than enough food to go around, new houses are being built, and everyone actually feels safe even with all of the zombies around. They’ve even developed a system for “herding” the walkers, and that’s how we’re introduced to a new group of survivors, led by a woman named Magna, that are subsequently brought into the fold. You can tell things are going really well for Rick when his biggest problem is deciding whether or not to let Carl move to Hilltop in order to learn how to become a blacksmith. Yes, things are going great for everyone involved. That is, until the talking, knife-wielding zombies show up…
We’ll come back to that in a bit, but first I want to talk about how Kirkman takes the time to establish the new status quo for the series. Though the scenes involving the management of the zombie herd open things on a suitably tense note, things de-escalate from here as we go on to see Rick waking up next to andrea, putting on his hook-hand prosthetic, and then going about his daily routine managing things in Alexandria. It’s clear from what’s on display here that life has settled into an appealingly mundane routine for everyone and that life for everyone has only gotten better since Negan was taken out of the picture.
Really, these scenes stand in stark contrast to just about everything we’ve seen before in this series. Even when things were going well in the prison, there was never a feeling that the kind of existence the characters had carved out for themselves would last. Now it looks like Rick and Maggie’s communities have forged sustainable existences for themselves and real steps are being taken for mankind to get back what they’ve lost in this new world. While “The Walking Dead” will always have zombies lurking around the fringes, the series hasn’t really been about them in a long time. These days, it’s all about how civilization will rebuild itself and it makes for some fascinating reading.
This is still “The Walking Dead,” however, and while things have been “good” for a long while, that usually only means that they’re about to get a whole lot worse later on. Crafty sadist that he is, Kirkman starts laying out the ways that this could happen in this volume. Some of them are more successful than others; but, by the end of the volume the level of tension has risen significantly even though both of the settlements are still standing.
So, about those talking, knife-wielding zombies: You and I both know that’s a pretty obvious fake-out right there. Evolving zombies? Riiiiiiiiight. There’s only one kind of zombie in “The Walking Dead” -- the kind that wanders around mindlessly and tries to bite whoever comes near it. The question then becomes, if the zombies aren’t evolving then what’s actually happening here? We get a pretty clear indication as to what that is at the end of the volume, and it’s actually creepy. Whether or not these are going to be the new villains for the series going forward remains to be seen, but they make an effective first impression.
Then there’s Magna’s group, which leads to my favorite part of the entire volume. You see, she’s led a hardened group of survivors through some pretty hairy situations while they’ve been out in the wild. Not unlike Rick’s crew before they arrived in Alexandria. While they’re welcomed into the community -- minus their weapons -- there’s some mistrust and suspicion regarding the situation they’ve found themselves in. Part of it comes from how riders from Alexandria accidentally drove a herd of zombies towards them and caused the death of one of their members. More of it comes from the group’s suspicion that any community which has it this good has some deep, dark secret at its core.
I felt a genuine thrill when I realized that’s where Kirkman was going with this, because it’s not only a reasonable assumption to make but also an inversion of one of the genre’s long-standing conventions. Instead of the protagonists of a zombie story finding their way into an idyllic community and uncovering the secret at the heart of it, the protagonists are running the show here and everything is as advertised. Yet the assumptions and suspicions that Magna’s group feels are well-grounded and quite understandable given what we can assume they’ve been through on the road. It’s not hard to see why they’re suspicious of this community and why they’d want to do some digging to see what truths lie at its core. Of course, we know the score and the dramatic irony at work here is likely to make the inevitable tragedy from their actions hit that much harder. It’s not all drama, though. Magna’s encounter with Negan in his cell was beautifully handled and a sign that Kirkman is confident enough in his current direction that he doesn’t feel the need to embrace hoary tropes like the one courted here.
Speaking of Negan, a good deal of the existing cast get their own moments in the spotlight as well to varying degrees of interest. Rick has adjusted to peacetime pretty well and is now enjoying “local hero” status for all that he’s done over the past year. Yet the most interesting moment in the volume is when he lashes out, physically and verbally, at one of the guards on the road for being negligent in keeping it clear of zombies. The intensity of Rick’s assault is striking and leaves you thinking that the Rick Grimes who was barely keeping it together while on the road may not be so far away after all.
Then you’ve got Carl, who’s dealing with the usual teenage issues of wanting more independence from his dad. The kid certainly deserves a break after all that he’s been through over the course of this series, but his angst here and the situations it fosters feel pretty routine. Same goes for the relationship woes that Eugene and Rosita are currently experiencing as well. Andrea doesn’t get a whole lot to do here, though the situation she ends up in at the end of the volume indicates that’s not going to be the case next time. Michonne, on the other hand, is absent from the proceedings here. She’s too important of a character to be killed off-panel, so I can only assume that Rick’s cryptic words about missing her suggest some kind of falling-out in the past year.
Some further development of the characters who are either lost, or looking for the lost outside of the settlements would have been nice too. These are ultimately minor quibbles in light of what this volume has accomplished overall. Showing that things have genuinely gotten better for everyone in the series while also keeping the tension level high is a tricky thing to achieve. Kirkman and Adlard pull it off in a way that makes it look easy. Even though I’m glad to see that life for the people inside the settlements has improved under Rick and Maggie’s leadership, I’m still anxious to find out how they’ll deal with the actions of Magna’s group and these new “zombies.” It’s a brand new world for everyone in the wake of the events of the last few volumes, and the creators of “The Walking Dead” transition into it without missing a step at all.