The Books Are Better: The Walking Dead (1)

I was at military school when the first season of The Walking Dead (TWD) premiered. No one had access to cable, but on Thanksgiving break I used my sister’s Hulu account to watch the first episode. Later I bought the season on DVD. Before then I was a fan of the comics the show is based on. It was 2010 and in the comics, Rick and company were about to enter Alexandria, which did not happen until Season 5. I knew what to expect, but Season 1 was a fantastic adaptation of Volume 1. A year later came the trailer for Season 2 and I hoped for another exceptional bit of television… until I sat down and watched it.

I touched on the subject of show versus comics on a friend’s blog some time ago. I got into the broader differences, but here I want to get into the minutia of each season and the volume it follows. I would like to try and analyze the whole series, maybe two or three per new post. It will give me something comic-related outside of Punisher to write about and give you new stuff to read.

Here we go

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Themes

If you look at the front covers of TWD book collections there is the subtitle “A continuing story of survival horror.” That one sentence epitomizes what the comics are all about. It takes ideas from the original Dawn of the Dead from George A. Romero and takes them to their logical extreme. What if a zombie apocalypse actually happened and how would it affect real people, who have never known starvation or been in a survival situation? That is and has been TWD since its publishing 15 years ago.

Being real people means the characters have emotional baggage. They find love, lose it, move on, and go crazy. All the while the characters are in a constant fight against the elements, starvation, and hordes of undead. How they cope with this new reality informs who they become and how they act towards fellow survivors. To quote the comic’s tagline, “In a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally start living.”

Being character oriented and set in a hostile world, TWD does not shy away from putting survivors in danger. While zombies are slow and easy to kill, they are never taken lightly. The same can be said for other survivors. More often than not characters are killed or horribly maimed, no matter how long they have been around or how much you like them. Everyone is expendable in TWD. This is not the Mad Max apocalypse; it is The Road with zombies.

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TWD Season 1/Volume 1

This is the only case where the show is better than the comics. Unlike most new shows TV-TWD started out very well with film-quality production values. Thanks to director Frank Darabont and his crew, there is an atmosphere of widespread catastrophe that a lot of zombie movies fail to nail down. The world is quiet and empty where the dead have replaced the living. The sense of isolation even following live characters is so prevalent. Episode 1 alone has this feeling of hopelessness bearing down on you as Rick wanders the desolation in a daze.

On top of that, the first season is actually scary. Like a good monster movie there is an escalation to the threat. We do get a zombie in the cold open, but we do not understand the extent of their presence until later. After Rick wakes up, there is a great scene where he comes to a pair of chained doors and hands start reaching out from the opening, the sound of moaning growing louder behind them. This does take away from a great moment in the comics, but is very well utilized in the show.

The rest of the season’s frightening moments center on claustrophobia and how even open spaces contain veiled threats. Taking place in and around Atlanta, Rick and company contend with tight streets and alleys packed with zombies. Add on the scarcity of resources and vulnerability of most of the characters, even small encounters are dangerous. The zombies are a very real threat and you feel it from start to finish.

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The atmosphere and horror is where TV-TWD surpasses the comics. Unless you are Junji Ito, it can be difficult to scare readers with static images or convey a feeling a constant dread. What author Robert Kirkman does is show horrific and disgusting things and puts the characters in dangerous situations. Granted, the art is beautifully disgusting, but it is hard to feel real horror and tension in drawn pictures.

The writing of the comics is also very technical aside from dramatic moments. Take the dialog from the original Dawn of the Dead about the characters trying to secure the mall and that is 60% of the comics. After all, it is a survival horror. This is where the show decides to balance the drama and the technical equally with neither overshadowing the other. This is the first and last time TV-TWD gets it right.

Where the comics were superior is in the characters Shane and Lori. In the show Shane is the archetypical bad-boy that was a perfect fit for actor Jon Bernthal. Lori, played by Sarah Wayne Callies, is a headstrong matriarch looking out for not only her son Carl, but also everyone in camp. Both fall flat compared to the comics in ways indicative of the series core themes.

Comics-Shane is basically Rick with darker hair and a larger build. There is nothing much in the way of personality that differentiates the two until after the zombie apocalypse. As mentioned before these are real people forced into a survival situation where everyone is on constant alert. Under these conditions, people will show you who they really are, and Shane shows himself to be jealous and envious of Rick. He’s a husband and a father who has all the right answers when it comes to leadership, something Shane knows he does not have, and he wants it all.

In the show, Shane does not seem concerned about leading and differs to Rick more often than not. The jealously is still there, but the actual shift from normal Shane to envious psychopath is fast in the comics, like it would be for real people. He wants what Rick has and Shane had it until Rick miraculously showed up at camp. Shane’s change in personality was so immediate that when he tried to kill Rick in Issue 6, a very young Carl blew his neck out without hesitation. In the show, Shane does not get what is coming until Season 2 after the remains of his character was butchered.

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With Lori’s character in the comics, she is still a devoted mother and wife, but what is missing is the vulnerability. Call me sexist all you like, but when you’ve spent a chuck of your life growing up in a stable world and become a mother mere years before a zombie apocalypse, you are going to need help. Comics-Lori is focused on taking care of Carl and nothing else. She cares so much about him that because Carl is just 9 years old, she does not want him anywhere near guns, despite being the most useful tool at the moment. And when zombies eventually attack the camp, Carl has to save her.

Now, I am not saying it is a bad thing that TV-Lori is not dependent on men, but it makes more sense that she needs help while taking care of her son. And this may sound offensive to some people, but men usually do not expect anything of women because men tend to do the heavy lifting on their own. We do our part and women do theirs. That is just logic and TWD comics are very logical. In the show, it doesn’t feel right at all. TV-Lori strikes me as just another character that “don’t need no man” and does her own thing, including ignoring her son.

More on that when I cover Season 2.

The last issue with TV-TWD is the ending. On the season finale, Shane is still alive before Rick and company go to the CDC to find answers. They do not get their answers beyond things they already knew before the building self-destructs and the group moves on to find shelter. In the comics the CDC is never mentioned and once Carl kills Shane, the group moves on.

Honestly, I do not find anything wrong with the group going to the CDC. In fact, it makes a lot of sense if you are trying to figure out how to stop the zombies by scientific means. The group does not know if they are dealing with a virus or something biblical. They have no idea and the best place to find answers would be one that specializes in civilization-killing diseases. It is not a bad idea, but the way it happens in TV-TWD is rather corny given the tone of the show. Other than that, the first season is still great.

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And that was the best start to a new show probably ever. Performances were great, especially Andrew Lincoln, and the effects are to die for. All of the zombies are wonderfully gross with make-up on par with Tom Savini’s work on Day of the Dead. They look like actual dead people undergoing necrosis like the comics. As days go by on the page, zombies appear more and more rotten. The earliest issues have zombies with color still in their eyes before it goes cloudy with time. Season 1 of The Walking Dead was truly the best the show was ever going to get…