I've always been a casual fan of the zombie genre, but truth be told my favourite uses of it are usually comedies rather than the more serious incarnations. A zombie movie or story inevitably ends up being a repetitive variation on a theme anyway, so only real originality that can shine through comes from the human characters, the madcap dialogue they spout and the zany weapons they find themselves using. The best examples of this are in "Return of the Living Dead", "Zombieland" and of course "Shaun of the Dead".
Typically, I usually don't find the same appeal in the more serious George A. Romero-type of zombie film. As I mentioned before, they tend to be quite repetitive, with the army stepping in and saving the day at the end.
This is not the case with "The Walking Dead", at least with the first 48 issues in the mammoth Compendium I finally got around to reading. In Robert Kirkman's "The Walking Dead", there's no 3rd-Act Deus Ex Machina plot device that saves everyone and restores society to what it was before the rise of the living dead. In "Walking Dead", there's no miracle, no grand-standing saviour for the characters. It really is the end of civilisation, with the remaining humans battling against the armies of the undead and scrapping amongst each other for survival, for dominance, for superiority and sometimes just for pleasure.
In a nutshell, that was my favourite thing about these issues. It's the first zombie story I've encountered where humanity is well and truly doomed, and all that keeps them going is their ambition to stay alive and stay safe by whatever means necessary. The story follows middle-American cop Rick Grimes, who in typical zombie-story fashion, has just awoken from a coma to discover that the dead are rising from the grave and eating the living. He desperately searches for his wife and son, finding them holed up with a small group of survivors. Rick provides the group with weapons from his abandoned police station and they take their chances on the road. Eventually what's left of the group (as well as some others they find along the way) find an abandoned prison, with non-perishable supplies, protective equipment and renewable resources to potentially keep them alive indefinitely. They quickly settle down in the prison, only to find that laying claim to such a sprawling fortress isn't as easy as they thought it was going to be. The body count rises and morale takes a nosedive as a horrified Rick begins to realise that the remaining humans can be just as savage and monstrous as the hideous creatures helplessly clawing at the prison gates.
I've been reading Robert Kirkman's other book "Invincible" continuously for over five years now and while many people told me that it was a very different book to "The Walking Dead", I wasn't very surprised when I discovered that actually they're not that different. Both books are gratuitously violent to the extreme, both books use ongoing plot threads, sensational shock-twists and red herrings to keep you coming back for more and unfortunately, both books have a tendency for their plots to seem a bit idealised, as well as the characters seeming forced and two-dimensional.
The problem of forced characters, dialogue and idealised revelations was more apparent to me reading "The Walking Dead" than it ever was reading "Invincible". Characters validate each other to the extreme ("Hey, great shot!" "I have a great teacher! Consider it your victory!"), in ways that don't sound like how real people would speak. Romantic relationships sprout up out of almost nowhere, and while I can forgive that given the apocalyptic insanity of the surroundings it seems a bit much when characters are already engaged in love triangles after only a week of being with their original partner. The characters finding a mostly empty prison is one thing, but then to find non-perishable food that will last 'decades' as well as a room chock-full of loaded weapons and armour is a bit much. Kirkman's storytelling can sometimes come across as the kind of idealised scenarios you envision while playing with action figures as a ten-year old. Structurally, they're always compelling and they seem to explore human nature very well...but there's just a tendency for the whole thing to seem a bit...off.
In saying that, though, "The Walking Dead" is a really, really good comic book. It's probably my favourite serious use of the undead zombie concept, for one particular reason. Over the course of the mammoth Compendium I burned through in a couple of days, Kirkman slowly develops the idea that deep down, we're all just as monstrous and chaotic as the hellish creatures that are terrorising Rick and Co. In one issue, after Rick has just killed one of the inmates of the prison who was trying to eject Rick and Co. from the prison, Rick breaks down in front of the entire group, stating how life and death has lost all meaning; that all of humanity is now waiting for the moment they die, and that all that they can do is kill anything that stands in their way. "We are the Walking Dead!" he shouts at the other, horrified survivors, who know that he must be right.
The Compendium ends in one of Kirkman's shock-twists, but unlike the others that take place throughout the massive volume, this one is a complete game-changer. The whole premise of the story has changed from this moment and I can't wait to get the next set of stories. Unfortunately, there's no second Compendium yet; but there are plenty of other types of collected editions that I'll probably jump into, to bring me up to speed.
As for the TV show "The Walking Dead", I've never seen an episode. I purposely avoided it until I'd read a chunk of the comics first. I'm keen to check it out, but at the same time, I'm a little apprehensive, given the extensive mythology of the books. There's also the problem of it being toned down for television. The comic book version of "The Walking Dead" features people getting raped, mutilated, castrated, sodomised and of course, eaten on a regular basis. Even on the more liberal AMC network, I don't know if that kind of stuff is fair game; and I'm not really sure the story works without (most of) it. I'm sure even a toned-down version would make for great television though and if it's anything at all like the comic, sign me up.