The Walking Dead is one of the most successful franchises in the world at the moment, stretching from comics, to television, to games, to novels. Beginning in the early 2000s at the rebirth of the zombie phenomenon, it has lasted until the present day even as the world is growing sick of the undead.
In this regular feature, we will go through each arc of the original comic by Robert Kirkman every week and see what it is that makes The Walking Dead so unique amongst Zombie media. Firstly we will go through each comic in a piss-taking synopsis, before delving into analysing the deeper themes behind each arc.
Without further delay, let’s go to where it all began with volume 1 of The Walking Dead, titled Days Gone Bye.
Issue #1 opens with our protagonist Officer Rick Grimes and his beefy partner Shane trapped in a gunfight with an unwashed, bearded lunatic. Pinned down by gunfire and with backup on its way, Rick courageously decides to try to flank the nutjob with Shane providing covering fire. This all goes horribly wrong, as half of Rick’s internal organs get blown away.
The comic then cuts to Rick awakening in hospital, alone and completely confused. For those of you thinking that sounds very familiar, 28 Days Later had nearly the exact same opening, with both being coincidentally released around the same time. Kirkman insists that this is only a coincidence and he started writing The Walking Dead before the film was released. Anyway, Rick quickly discovers that the hospital’s only occupants are now the living dead, and, after a few bumps and bruises, escapes to the outside world.
Rick begins to make his way to his house, but is stopped dead in his tracks by a zombie lying on the side of the road. This walker is in a hideous state, apparently having been badly burned or torn apart. It is here that our hero breaks down, sobbing uncontrollably before continuing on his journey.
He finds his hometown just as abandoned as the hospital and he reaches his house to find it empty, with his wife Lori and son Carl missing. He steps out side, only to be greeted with a shovel to the back of his head. Behold, my favourite “derp-face” in all fiction!
Awakening from a coma for the second time that day, Rick meets Morgan, a man who is staying with his son in one of Rick’s neighbours empty houses. It is here that Rick learns more about what is happening to the world: the dead have been rising for the past few weeks and the government has not been heard from for some time. The whole world has gone to a chunky, gory messy shitshow. Rick doesn’t let this dampen his spirits, however, as he realises that his wife and child have probably fled to Atlanta to stay with some family Lori has there.
Rick decides to leave for Atlanta, but not before he and Morgan raid Rick’s old precinct for supplies and weaponry. Rick dons a cowboy hat, loads a car full of guns and bids farewell to Morgan, and so sets out on his quest for Atlanta!
Well, first he hangs about to off that zombie that made him cry, but then off for Atlanta!
Issue #2 opens with Rick failing to find fuel for his car at a gas station, meaning that he will have to head the rest of the way on foot. The signs of the collapse of civilisation are everywhere, as he encounters abandoned cars, empty houses and even a family’s joint suicide. Luckily for our slightly stupid hero, he finds a horse, saddles up and rides to Atlanta.
Atlanta is not the government safe zone he had hoped for, though, as he finds it swarming with the dead. He foolishly rides deeper into the city before being attacked by a huge horde of zombies, losing his horse in the process. Luckily for Rick, the RSPCA have also been destroyed by society’s collapse, so wilful neglect of animals is now a-okay!
Rick himself is only saved by the appearance of fan favourite Glenn. Glenn is quite the sneaky rascal, and regularly heads into the city to scavenge. He tells Rick about a group of people he has been staying with in a camp outside of town, and that they should head there as fast as possible.
Fearing for his family, a despondent Rick agrees to go with him. The issue ends with the reveal that, coincidentally, Lori and Carl are among Glenn’s group. Why Glenn failed to put two and two together and realise that the family with the comatose husband are probably same family that the guy who just said he was in a coma is looking for is not mentioned. I guess Glenn may be a bit stupid as well…
Issue #3 is introduces us our initial cast of characters: besides Lori and Carl, we have Rick’s old (platonic) partner Shane, the gossiping Donna, her easygoing (read: lazy sack of shit) husband Allen and their twin boys, Carol and her daughter Sophia, the cantankerous aging Dale, the young sisters Andrea and Amy, and finally the quiet Jim. Rick spends much of the issue reuniting with his family and learning about his new companions.
Despite their ideal location, the group is rife with issues. They are mainly dependent on Glenn’s scavenging trips for survival, Donna is unhappy with how the group is falling back to traditional gender roles, and they are unprepared for the coming of Winter. Since Game of Thrones had not aired when this comic was released and reading the books is for nerds, nobody makes the obvious Ned Stark reference either. Even more troubling, Dale warns Rick not to trust Shane as he has eyes for Lori. Rick, oblivious as always, ignores this advice immediately. One almost wonders if alongside zombie films, soap operas also do not exist in this universe.
The issue concludes with a brief action scene; a zombie has stumbled into camp and nearly kills Donna. A last minute intervention from the arthritic hero Dale armed with a shovel prevents this, but the group is still shaken.
Issue #4 stars with Rick confronting Shane about the group’s situation. Rick believes that the incident with the walker proves that they need to move camp, but Shane, ever hopeful, believes that the best chance to be rescued by the government is to stay close to Atlanta. Either way, they both agree that the group needs more weapons to protect themselves.
Next morning, Rick decides to travel with Glenn into the city to raid a gun store. In order to sneak into some of the more dangerous parts of the city, Rick concocts a cunning plan. He and Glenn cover themselves with the rotten remains of a dead walker, hoping that this will prevent zombies from attacking them.
The plan works… mostly. While it helps shield them as they reach the gun store, their return journey is not so easy. A sudden squall of rain washes some of the gore off them, and they have to rush back to safety. They barely survive the ordeal, losing many of the precious guns in the process.
The issue ends with the reveal that Lori and Shane had slept together while travelling to Atlanta. Despite Shane clearly being the far hunkier of the two, Lori decides to stay true to her wedding vows, and tells him it was a mistake. See below for the exact moment Shane realises he has been friend-zoned.
Issue #5 opens with the group engaging in weapons practice. Some are taking to it like Texan ducks on water, while others are failing to improve. Rick also insists that the children practice with guns, but the spoilsport Lori thinks guns and kids don’t go together for some reason.The two argue briefly, with Rick believing that everyone needs to be able to protect themselves in the event of a zombie attack.
Additionally, a few months have passed since the previous issue, and the threat of Winter is looming ever closer. Tensions between Shane and Rick have grown further, as Shane still believes that their best chance of being rescued is to remain where they are, whereas Rick wishes to move on.
That night, the crew are sitting round the campfire and decide to talk about their lives before the dead began to rise. We learn that Dale is a retired salesman who lost his wife recently, Glenn was trapped in debt and isolated from his parents, and that Allen and Donna were just as useless before civilisation’s collapse as after. Just as things are settling down for the night, the frankly quite rude undead crash the party. Our heroes immediately spring into action… Well not quite immediately, Amy has her throat torn out first, but our heroes fairly quickly spring into action!. Carl kills his first zombie, and the dead are repelled soon after. Andrea lives out every siblings secret fantasy by having a totally legitimate reason to shoot her sister in the head, and so Amy is prevented from reanimating.
Oh yeah, and the totally memorable character of Jim got bitten… oh no, the horror…
The final issue opens with the group holding a makeshift funeral for Amy. They all share what they will miss most about her, such as her easygoing demeanour and good sense of humour. Thankfully, the reader doesn’t miss her in the slightest as the artist rendered Amy as nearly identical to Andrea. Just squint a bit, and you will never need to feel the loss of Amy ever again!
Rick and Shane go hunting with Carl, but the tensions between the two finally explode. Rick holds Shane responsible for Amy’s death, while Shane still holds onto the belief that the government will rescue them any day now. Rather than ask to have a bit of whatever Shane must be smoking, Carl decides to run away. Coincidentally, this is what the whole audience of The Walking Dead season two wished they could have done for 10 bloody episodes.
Meanwhile, Jim’s bite is only getting worse. Accepting his death, he asks the group to leave him tied to a tree in the middle of the woods, hoping that, as a zombie, he will be able to reunite with his dead family. Our survivors agree, and we must bid our farewell to Jim…wait John? No wait, it was Jim, certain of it now.
The next morning, Rick and Shane prepare to go out hunting despite hating each other’s guts. Rick demands that they need to talk about the future of the group, and Shane eloquently responds by smacking him around the face.
Lori does what she does best, and begins moaning, specifically how nothing will ever be the same for the group again.
Rick heads out to confront Shane, only to find him batshit insane. Shane is unable to deal with the feelings of guilt over the deaths and his envy of Rick for his family. He holds Rick at gunpoint, blaming him for the failure of his optimistic vision for the group’s survival, and threatens to murder him up. Shane is then abruptly and embarrassingly shot by Carl, who had been watching nearby. This is also the moment where we decide that Comic Carl is way less irritating that Show Carl.
Carl runs to his father as Shane chokes to death nearby. Rick holds his son, a boy of 6 who has just killed a man for the first time.
Well…. that sure was a relentless ride for the opening arc to a comic, eh?
Many of the later themes seen throughout The Walking Dead are first introduced to us in this opening arc. Kirkman challenges traditional gender roles throughout these early issues a lot, as each of the main characters subverts them to some degree.
Rick is initially presented to us as the typically masculine cowboy cop archetype, as seen in films such as Dirty Harry, Die Hard and pretty much every other police film released by Hollywood. He is a brave, strong guy, who rushes headfirst into danger if it means protecting those he loves. However, Kirkman subverts this trope just after the story begins. When Rick makes the decision to try and take out the gunman without waiting for backup to arrive, we naturally expect to see him take the lunatic out in some badass fashion and no doubt be given a big shiny medal by the mayor. Instead, he gets himself shot. In the world of The Walking Dead, the badass hero just gets himself killed.
Rick is constantly presented in the first couple of issues as kind of an idiot: he believes that the world will fix itself, that his family are safe and sound, and he keeps throwing himself into dangerous situations and having to be rescued by a less masculine, smarter character. Even the clever schemes he thinks up, such as covering himself and Glenn in zombie gore to make their way through the hordes unnoticed, screw up and nearly get them killed. It is only after several close shaves, that Rick begins to develop and adapt his strategies, becoming a better survivor in the process.
He is also shown to be very vulnerable early on in our story. Having escaped the hospital and encountered the dead for the first time, he sits down near a wretched zombie and weeps. This expression of emotion is unexpected for the reader who is no doubt used to the grizzled hero gunning down hordes of the undead with the same stony glare stuck to his face.
In many ways, Shane is an exaggerated version of all the flaws of Rick’s masculine hero archetype. Shane is drawn as a huge guy, towering above all the other survivors. He has single handedly kept the group safe while Rick was in his coma, and he stubbornly believes that the world will just fix itself. He is stronger than Rick, and is seemingly less vulnerable. He never expresses his emotions to others, and much of his internal issues are presented to us as quick close ups of his face, rather than through his words. He seems to embody the masculine ideal of stoicism; that a man who emotes is not a real man. However, this only serves to drive him further into madness. His envy for Rick and Lori’s relationship and guilt for his bad decision making fester within him until he snaps, and gets himself killed. Shane is a lesson to us, that it does not matter how tough you are physically, the mental strain of The Walking Dead is just as likely to kill our main characters.
The other males in the group all serve as their own subversions of masculinity. Dale is a tough guy, but is physically infirm due to his age and he struggles to take down even one walker without collapsing. Glenn is small and physically weak, but his cunning and dexterity make him one of the most valuable members of the group. Allen is lazy and incompetent, and only chooses to stay on watch for the camp because it is one of the easier jobs available.
Femininity is also explored in this first arc, as the various women try to find their place in this new, brutal world. Lori is presented as a traditional female character, with her role as a housewife predating the rise of the dead. She is happy to wash clothes, watch her son and discuss personal matters in the camp rather than try to prepare herself against undead threats. When Rick decides that Carl needs to carry a gun for his own safety, Lori is dead opposed to this. She still holds on to the civilised opinion that a child with a gun is of more danger to themselves than any potential threats. This notion is shattered when she finds herself unable to kill a walker, and so it is left to Carl to save her life.
Andrea serves as a stark contrast to the traditional Lori. Whereas Lori fails to protect herself with a gun, Andrea is a natural with firearms. Her marksmanship is said to be greater than even the more experienced Rick and Shane’s. Andrea is also in an unconventional living situation, with Donna passing judgement on her for living with the much older Dale.
Kirkman also raises the question of gender roles explicitly at one point, as Donna questions why the women are washing clothes and performing domestic chores while the men hunt and scavenge for supplies. Lori and the others shoot her down, saying that they have little to no experience with weaponry, just as the men have no experience washing clothes. It seems that in a world of brutal survival, gender tensions matter little. Instead, your value in society is now dependent solely on your skills and how they can help the group. In this way, Rick’s insistence on weapon’s training can be seen as a liberating endeavour, as it allows characters like Andrea to fill the more traditionally masculine role as protector.
This first arc also explores the breakdown of old social bonds in the face of civilisation’s collapse. Rick and Shane share the classic bond of being partners in the police, one seen countless times in all forms of modern media. However, rather than giving any meaning to this important social relationship, Kirkman brutally destroys it. Shane attempts to murder his partner, his rage fuelled by guilt, envy and depression. In The Walking Dead, even those you trust the most may turn to kill you.
Even the relationship between man and wife is tested in Kirkman’s world. The stresses of survival, horror and Rick’s likely death lead to Lori sleeping with Shane only a few days after they leave for Atlanta. While she comes to regret this decision upon Rick’s return, she still chooses not to tell Rick about what happened. This will no doubt come back to haunt us later in our story.
That’s it for now folks, tune in next work for more bloodshed, analysis and terrible puns!