Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Walking Dead, Compendium One

The Walking Dead, Compendium One,  
Read: 11 November to 14 November 2012
3 / 5 stars

(Some spoilers for both the show and the graphic novel herein. I tried not to include too many. You have been warned.)

Okay. Forget everything you know and hear me out: Zombies are the great equalizing scourge.

One of the first books my younger self fell hopelessly in love with (which probably explains an awful lot about my older self) was Stephen King's The Stand. The book's been out for, like, more than three decades now, so it's your own fault if this is a spoiler but all you need to know for this review of an entirely different creature is that a government-wrought superplague has wiped out 99.4% of the population, leaving the American survivors to be led by moral compasses/epically fucked-up dreams to their fated good-or-evil faction. Having watched society repeatedly crumble away so many times through this particular King-colored lens has left me decidedly immune to dispatches from the end of the civilization as we know it -- y'know, in the fictional sense.

Being one of the most affecting reads of my formative years, The Stand is also, for better or worse, what I can't help but measure other end-of-days works by. I've mentally revisited it quite a bit in the past few years (the stuff of that tale is lodged in my brainmeats for always because, whatever your opinion of Sai King is, the guy paints some uncomfortably visceral, lingering images) as my own longstanding zombie fascination has invariably led me to books like World War Z and (somewhat regrettably) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and I suppose Night of the Assholes counts, too, since bizarro zombies are still zombies and then also dozens of undead-themed flicks and marathons of The Walking Dead, which always always always end in a few nights of zombie-related nightmares (just once, there were kitties to make the whole nocturnal shebang less horrifying).

The thing about the apocalyptic scenario in The Stand (and other media that take the disease route to decimating humanity) is that there's no cure, no battle plan, no hope of survival beyond sheer, dumb luck. And that's too fucking terrifying for our control-freak culture. Just like a natural disaster, a weapon of mass destruction, a meteor strike or whatever other cataclysmic event that could be the end of life as we know it, widespread, airborne pestilence fucks up everyone's game with no hope of fighting back. But we still like to pretend that we have some control over both our environment and the course of our lives. Enter: the ravenous dead, or the strangest occurrence of entertainment zeitgeist I've ever watched gain momentum.

Zombies are the enemy you actually have a fighting chance against AND come with the bonus of an annihilated societal infrastructure. Hate your job? Hate your neighbors? Hate your family? Hate your first-world problems in general? Want to kill some folks without any real repercussion (you know, other than waving goodbye to the simple hassles of modern, privileged life before the dead claimed the apex-predator role)? ZOMBIES ARE THE ANSWER. Man gets to fall back to his more primitive nature (as our current society becomes increasingly bizarre and stifling, the sweet release of all-out chaos is a welcome fantasy, is it not?). And I think, with our actual times being as strange and stressful as they are, it's cathartic to imagine oneself in a world where all those mundane problems are obliterated by tending to the daily survival we've come to take for granted in our coddled state. It's a weird return to less civilized ways without losing the safety that our civilized facades allow.

So. The Walking Dead. I am so happy that a friend hoisted this 1,000-some-page monster on me during the show's third season because reading this and then coming to the show would have me so terribly disappointed in the necessary changes made while translating this gorefest into less blatantly offensive fare for a television-watching audience. I mean, sure, I can live without seeing how Herschel's very young daughters' murdered, headless corpses coming back to life would be adapted for my needlessly giant TV screen. And, in the general book-to-show scheme, I didn't really mind that Daryl and his stink-palmed brother weren't in the book, so long as I wasn't watching the show and being all "OMFG DARYL IS THE TITS." Because he is and I will cry my face off if anything happens to him post-mid-season hiatus. But, unsurprisingly, I digress. I don't necessarily condone excessive violence but, c'mon. When shit gets cray-cray, it's ridiculous to expect that people will behave as anything other than the humanimals they are once all of society's safety nets are effectively obliterated or that taking the nonviolent high road will result in anything other than becoming a victim with no law or legal counsel to help get us back to that once-idle existence.

Overall, the characters in the graphic novel seem less like caricatures than they do in the show. I know it's easier to get into a character's head to understand their thought processes and motivations in a book but they actually seems less interchangeable and predictably dramatic in these pages. The stuff with Shane coming undone happened so much earlier and faster, which was like ripping off the Band-Aid to make the whole ordeal less painful (it actually sucked more in the book because I wanted more time with Shane's cracked self but that's what I get for predictably claiming the most damaged characters as my favorites). Rick's frustration with the way his fellow survivors cling to their naive humanity in the face of some shitty odds is more overtly driven/explained by how deeply responsible he feels for everyone's safety. He's grappling with a black-and-white perspective while realizing that even a world of Living vs. Dead has plenty of room for grey areas. Micchone is a fucking animal in both worlds and I love both versions of her, though I wish her AMC counterpart got as much backstory as she did in the book because she is a complex little warrior. Graphic Novel Lori was infinitely less irksome than TV Lori, so watching her (and Baby Judith) eat it once the Woodbury folk opened fire on 'em was really, really fucked up. Oh, hey, while we're on the topic of fucked up: Carol. She's the one character whose television incarnation is so much more stable than her graphic-novel counterpart. She freely admits to being damaged well before the era of the undead, and then introduces herself to a chained-up zombie before committing suicide via zombie noshes: "You DO like me" are her dying words to the undead beast that snacked on her neck like it was a pack of eagerly proffered movie-theater Twizzlers.

I originally said that the Woodbury residents are so much more glaringly psychotic here but it's really just Philip who's got his wires in knots. The Governor (who looks like a more stereotypically intimidating Danny Trejo, which I didn't think was possible even in an artist's rendering) is... okay, look, we all know that he stares at a wall of fish tanks filled with severed heads like it's reality television and he's keeping his Zombie!Daughter in secrecy like one keeps mum about an illegal mail-order bride but if you're only watching the show, you're missing a scene wherein he pulls out his daughter's teeth -- presumably to make her more docile for the secret-keeping BUT REALLY SO SHE CAN GIVE DADDY A FULL-PAGE, OPEN-MOUTH KISS AND IT IS THE MOST DISGUSTING THING IN 1,000+ PAGES OF DISGUSTING THINGS. Ew. Just.... ew. It reinforced the notion that when the dead roam the earth, the living are the real enemy. And then it made me want to start digging a moat around my house. Just in case.

The art wasn't really earth-shattering in originally or anything but it was still pretty damn good. I did like the black and white inking, which was totally a metaphor for something. The starkness of such an approach certainly meshed well with the tone of the story. What struck me hardest was how the kids, especially Sophia and Carl, frequently look like miniature adults. Whether it was intentional or something I imagined entirely on my own or whatever, it was definitely a nice, subtly rendered touch.

All told, I'm not really sure how I feel about this eight-book collection, honesty. I think, like a lot of things that straddle multiple representations across different media, it's hard not to compare one to the other, which, in this case, took away something from both the show and the book for me. I mean, this graphic novel was fun and disturbing and I couldn't tear through it quickly enough but it was missing something. It's certainly the first thing I've read that really dealt with the survival aspect of the zombiepocalypse as it's happening and how people's reactions would obviously run the gamut of emotions in the aftermath of such an event but I would have loved more post-zombie psychology and less hanging around waiting for the shit to happen. I guess, obviously, in a real-world situation, there WOULD be more inaction once a haven (like a reclaimed prison) was secured, and I can't really fault it for attempting to make such an unbelievable scenario more credible and less outrageous but... meh, better pacing would've been nice. Not like that'll stop me from reading more, though. I actually do like the characters and the way this one ended was just fucking brutally awful. I have a very real need to know what happens to these fictional people because I am more emotionally invested in them than a mentally healthy person ought to be.

Good, viscera-strewn fun, this. But I really wouldn't recommend reading it in tandem with the show -- not because of the potential for spoilers (they're certainly different enough animals for that to not be a real problem) but because it is bloody confusing when things are just similar enough to create confusion in keeping the specifics of each Walking Dead incarnation straight.