I’ve read some crap this year, and I’ve also read a lot of very good comics as well. Yet there hasn’t been anything which has surprised me. With most of this year’s comics, they’ve been entertaining along expected and established lines. There haven’t been any out-of-the-box shocks which have come my way. Until now. I was expecting this latest volume of “The Walking Dead” to be good as all of the recent volumes have been. What I didn’t expect it to do was deliver was the most surprising read of the year (so far).
After the events of the last volume, Rick decided that it was time for Alexandrea to start developing its own military force. While this was ostensibly done to combat the threat of the Whisperers, it also gave the residents something to focus their anger and frustration on aside from their leader. It’s not a solution for everyone. One kid, Brandon, whose mother was killed by the Whisperers, and whose dad was killed by Rick in self-defense wants nothing more than to see both communities destroy each other. This isn’t just vindictive daydreaming on Brandon’s part as he actually has a plan to make this happen. Unfortunately (for everyone) that plan involves letting Negan out of his cell.
There is much about this volume that is ordinary. Things start off with Rick, Dwight, and the volunteers they’ve rounded up for their militia training in the woods against zombies. We also see Rick set up anti-Whisperer propaganda to further channel/distract the citizens’ anger. Maggie and the Hilltop residents who came back down for the faire decamp and Andrea makes her way back to Alexandrea to be duly shocked at what has transpired since she’s been gone. Michonne also has a sit-down with Rick about possibly taking over The Kingdom in the wake of Ezekiel’s death, before current events send her and Aaron out into Whisperer territory on a killing mission. Eugene’s efforts to contact someone else via HAM radio also bear fruit and a tenuous relationship between him and this other party is established. We even get to check on the outsiders who were welcomed into Alexandrea way back in vol. 22 and find out that while some of them are very onboard with Rick’s plans, others are not so much.
All of these events and interactions successfully advance the many ongoing plot threads in this series. If the volume was just about these things, I’d have been suitably entertained. That’s because everything here showcases these characters reacting in believable ways to the circumstances at hand while building on things that have come before. While there’s nothing particularly exciting about any of this, it’s still a sign of solid craftsmanship from Kirkman in the writing and Adlard on the art.
No, what makes this volume special is Negan. Stuck in a cell since the events of “All Out War,” he’s slowly been biding his time down there talking to Rick during his frequent visits and alternately serving as a verbal sparring partner and counsel. Though Negan has made it clear that he wants out, and also to be a part of Rick’s team, it’s been made clear to him that’s not going to happen.
So what’s a former leader with a violent and vulgar streak a mile wide to do in this situation? Rely on the anger of a kid who wants to use him to make the people responsible for the deaths of his parents suffer. When this happened, I was fearing for the worst. Negan was going to go straight for the Whisperers and we were going to get “The Walking Dead” equivalent of a supervillain team-up. Even the covers for the upcoming “Whisperer War” seemed to indicate that Negan would be facing off against his former captors in this storyline.
That… doesn’t quite happen. Oh, Negan does go straight to the Whisperers, but I certainly wasn’t expecting his first encounter to involve trolling their second-in-command, Beta, about being a rebel for only wearing a “skin cap” instead of the full zombie-skin mask. This is only the tip of the iceberg as Negan goes on to profess his love for Alpha at first sight, point out the some of the logic flaws involving a community where all of its members go around in zombie skins, and mentions out loud how his skin suit will need to be extra large around the crotch (to allow for his large penis -- GET IT).
Negan’s vulgar charm has sometimes been hard to take in his previous appearances. Usually because it was also mixed in with his efforts to bring Rick and his friends to heel in violent ways. Here, it’s honestly a ton of fun to see him be the square peg trying to fit into the round hole of Whisperer society. Negan gets in because they recognize his strength and what he has to offer, but he’s also the guy who will just not shut up in a society that isn’t big on talking. We haven’t seen the Whisperers struggle since they’ve been brought on as the new bad guys for this series. Seeing them put up with Negan more than makes up for that.
It also shows that Kirkman being able to mine some worthwhile material out of a direction for the story that I could see coming and was fairly certain that I wasn’t going to like. That’s great. What’s better is that we find out that Negan didn’t come to the Whisperers without an agenda. A few pages from the end of the volume, something happens that gives you a pretty good idea as to what it is. I mean, he did lead the Saviors for a good long while. It’s only natural that he’d want to step into that kind of role again.
Until you get to the very last page and you find out what his agenda really is. I tell you, the last part of this volume was great stuff and had me utterly hooked. Then that last came along and completely floored me. It’s a beautiful twist that I didn’t see coming at all, while also making perfect sense in light of Negan’s ongoing conversations with Rick. I can see why Negan did what he did. Now the only question is what Rick is going to think of this.
It’s probably worth mentioning that I know one person dies in “The Whisperer War” so far. I can only hope that the identity of the character who dies (as well as any others) remain a mystery to me by the time that volume arrives. For all I know, Rick could have decided to put a .45 into Negan’s head for his actions. That wouldn’t surprise me. Which makes me think that it’s not going to happen. For a good long while now, “The Walking Dead” has done a tremendous job of avoiding the obvious tropes and cliches of zombie stories, and genre material in general. I honestly have no idea what to expect from the next volume or the series in general, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.