When I first spotted the graphic novels for The Walking Dead at my local library, I was just curious enough to pick up the first one, but as someone who has seen so damned many zombie movies, I didn't hold out much in the way of hope that this would surprise or shock me.
Oh, how wrong I was.
See, here's the thing about a Dawn of the Dead or Land of the Dead: they only go so far into the undead swarming the land, killing the living, collapsing society, etc. After maybe a month in movie time, the remaining protagonists ride off into the sunrise of a new day, and hopefully they live happily ever after. You just don't know because there's never a direct sequel (the closest I can think of is Survival of the Dead, which follows some peripheral characters from Diary of the Dead). For all we know, they were swarmed by a cemetery-load of dead/walkers/biters/geeks/lamebrains/etc. when the cameras stopped rolling.
The Walking Dead doesn't stop there, though. This isn't "safe" reading: people you have grown attached to over several issues turn into monsters, or die and turn into monsters; the safe haven becomes infested (or already was infested; HELP NEVER COMES.
At the heart of this long-running tale is Officer Rick Grimes, who emerges from a coma into a world that is dramatically changed from the one he remembers (much like Cillian Murphy's character in 28 Days Later... there's a running theme here, and I will get to it in a moment). In just these first 6 collected issues of the comic, we see him go from a confused man who's been dislocated from everything he knows to the de facto leader of a group of survivors perched precariously on the edge of a veritable necropolis in the over-overrun city of Atlanta (where he is almost eaten by a mega-horde on his first foray). As the series progresses, however, the changes and evolutions to his character become so dramatic that he deepens and becomes more than the typical cardboard cut-out of a hero we come to expect in a zombie film.
The supporting characters aren't as deeply drawn. Lori, his wife, is conflicted just enough to get interesting, but her turns at being the nagging bitch threatened to drive me away from her. Glenn, Dale, Donna... they don't stand out in this opening issue as much as they do later on, and their presence almost seem to be as placeholders for who they may (or may not) become later.
The biggest issue, as time goes on, is the familiarity with the subject matter. It's very difficult to do something original with zombies, because if Romero hasn't done it, Boyle has... or Wright... or Gunn... and I really do know way too many zombie movie directors, don't I?
When The Walking Dead does do something that isn't in the movies, though, it does so with intelligence. The part where Rick and Glenn use zombie stench to camouflage themselves so they can raid deep into Atlanta was a stroke of genius. It's not the last such device the people of this world will use, either.
The biggest draw, though, is the struggle of the characters to stay human when the temptation to become monsters is so seductive. Watching the shades of grey of the protagonists' (and antagonists') morality deepen to near-black, then lighten to near-white, without ever making such choices particularly easy, is a rare treat.
I am re-reading the series (and hopefully I'll find beyond issue #36 at the library this time) because I've been watching the amazing AMC series on Netflix. There are large differences in the comics and in the TV show, so it will not spoil much in the books if you choose to watch the show.
It's rare to see a zombie film go beyond a few weeks (in the case of Romero's Dawn of the Dead,it was several months). Reading The Walking Dead fills that niche very nicely....more