With AMC’s The Walking Dead on mid-season hiatus over the holidays, I thought it might be a good time to finally read the graphic novel that started the whole thing. I picked up The Walking Dead Compendium One some time ago, and I’ve just finished reading it. It comprises the first forty-eight issues of the series, accounting for the 2003-2007 starting run, which story-wise takes us to about the same point the television series has reached after three-and-a-half seasons. I’ve always loved comics and graphic novels, but I don’t for a second pretend to be an expert. Rather than reviewing this compendium on its merits solely as a piece of art, I will be looking at the similarities and differences between it and the AMC series, as well as talking about my experience of reading through the entire forty-eight issues.
Spoiler Alert: This review will be discussing plot points from both the AMC television series The Walking Dead, as well as The Walking Dead: Compendium One graphic novel. Read more after the break…if you dare.
That said, the artwork is impressive. Choosing to produce the comic in black and white allows Kirkman et al to focus on the stark contrasts of a world gone to hell. Color would only serve to detract from the harshness. I know that there have been colored versions, and that they have been quite popular, but for my money black and white was the right choice. The level of detail is quite high, with a lot more gore than in the television series. The nature of drawn art allows for a lot more variety in the forms of the various walkers as well, although the effects team on the show has been getting more and more creative as experience (and budgets) allow. In addition, the written medium allows more flexibility in content, especially with regard to sexuality, nudity, and language. The language on TV can get a bit blue, but nothing compared to what the characters can say in the comic. There are, after all, limits to what they can put on cable television – unless we’re talking about violence, of course.
Now onto the story itself. The main arc follows the same major events more or less seen in the television show over the last three and a half years. In fact, the final few frames of issue forty-eight are of Rick and Carl climbing the hill as they leave the devastated prison behind, alone and with no knowledge of the fates of anyone else from the group. There are, however, some major differences along the way. Season One saw the group trying to survive, making their way to the CDC (Center for Disease Control) in Atlanta, culminating in their close call at the hands of homicidal/suicidal scientist Dr. Edwin Jenner. Outside of the Pilot episode, and some of the scenes at the initial camp, none of the storyline from Season One is in the comics; they do their best to survive, lose Amy and Jim, end up almost losing everyone else at a gated community called Wiltshire Estates, and end up at Hershel’s. Season Two, which saw the group hole up at Hershel’s farm for twelve of the thirteen episodes, is barely a footnote in the comic – they’re at the farm for parts of about three issues out of forty-eight. Season Three, set both at the prison and at Woodbury, is pretty close to what’s in the comic, although there is less time developing the Governor’s character – we see exactly how evil he is almost right away, with some pretty serious consequences for Rick and Michonne that we don’t see in the television show. The Governor wants what Rick’s group has, and tries to get him to reveal the location of their camp. To ensure that Rick understands how serious he is, the Governor personally cuts Rick’s right hand off. Granted, this hand is already pretty mangled due to a fight he’s had with Tyreese (which is mirrored early in Season Four of the television show, although it occurs earlier in the comic book timeline), but still, not an injury that’s easy to come back from. The Governor’s assault is much more direct and planned from the start, combining the two assaults from the television series that occurred at the end of Season Three and in Episode 0408 last month into one nasty battle. He shows up with the tank all ready to go, and takes out the prison defenses, rendering it useless for everyone. He loses his life here just as in the show, but in a different manner and at only one set of hands (Lily pulls the trigger both here and in the show, but there is no brawl with Rick, nor is there a sword through the chest per Michonne).
One of the best things about reading the comics is that you get more of the characters you’ve come to know and love on the show, but you get them in different stories. Much of what happens in the AMC production either never happens in the books, happens to different characters if it does, or occasionally comes pretty close with some minor changes. Looking back at the first couple of seasons, for example, the entire Shane story-line is different. He’s gone a lot sooner in the graphic novels, and it’s a clear-cut case of Carl protecting his father. There aren’t any angsty moments of Lori yelling at Rick about the death, or the constant “You’ll need to deal with him” reminders she was fond of saying to Rick through the first two seasons or so. Sophia never goes missing, which was a major plot device in Season Two, and Dale doesn’t die – he survives right through the prison assault to fight on another day, with his lover – Andrea – alive and well at his side. Some characters who die in the show die in the books as well, but often in different ways. For example, Hershel dies, but it’s not via Michonne’s sword wielded by the Governor – it’s during the gunfight to take the prison (someone does, however, die when the Governor wields Michonne’s sword, although this character – Tyreese – is still alive in the show).
Character motivation is something that is developed much more completely in the comic, as well. For example, Michonne’s hatred for the Governor is much easier to understand in the context that the comics give us. His actions toward her are much more brutal, and take place over an extended period, involving sexual, psychological, and physical torture. She makes sure that he gets his later, and her mutilation of the Governor is more complete than simply poking out his eye, as we see in the show. She doesn’t even use her sword for that part – it brings to mind Alan Rickman in the otherwise forgettable Kevin Costner vehicle, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves when he says to his cousin, “I’ll cut his heart out with a spoon!” Replace “heart” with “eye,” and you’ll get the idea. She does, however, use the sword to cut off another piece of the Governor, insuring that he’ll never again do to another woman what he’s done to her.
Two of the television show’s best characters – the Dixon brothers, Daryl and Merle – are complete fabrications of the producers, and do not appear at all in the comics. I knew this going in, and thought it would disappoint me (Daryl is, as he is for most fans of the show, my favorite character), but the story has plenty of chops without needing to fall back on the noble redneck and his homicidal brother. Of the characters that do appear in both, the ones that are the most similar are Rick, Carl, Lori, Tyreese, Michonne, Glenn and Dale (despite his surviving well past where he dies in the show), while the most different are Carol (here, a dependent and depressive single mom who has no filters and is suicidal, despite having a daughter to care for), Hershel (a scripture spouting abusive bigot), Maggie (hesitant and lacking confidence), and the Governor (completely different story arc, and no redemptive scenes whatsoever in the comic). It means that there is just enough familiarity for the television show’s fans to enjoy the comic, with enough differences to make it entirely its own experience.
I really enjoyed this read. The Compendium is weighty – it comes in at about five pounds (over two kilograms) – so don’t plan on reading it on the road. With its lush and detailed artwork, and the darkness of many of the frames, it is best read sitting on a table with a good light, so that you can enjoy the story without fatiguing your arms or your eyes. It doesn’t take a long time to read. I got through the entire 1088 pages in a couple of days, and wished it was longer. There is, however, Compendium Two sitting here on the shelf beside me, begging to be read.
Steve’s Grade: A
An excellent way to spend a couple of evenings visiting with beloved characters living through a post-apocalyptic zombie hell. Zombies may seem overdone, but this graphic novel examines the human costs in ways that will make astute readers examine their own humanity.
Robert Kirkman’s Official The Walking Dead website