The Walking Dead #100
“Something to Fear, Part Four”
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Artist: Charlie Adlard
Gray tones: Cliff Rathburn
Letters: Rus Wooton
Cover artists: Charlie Adlard, Marc Silvestri, Frank Quitely, Todd McFarlane, Sean Phillips, Bryan Hitch & Ryan Ottley
Editor: Sina Grace
Publisher: Image Comics/Skybound Entertainment
Price: $3.99 US/CAN ($9.99 US/CAN chromium cover)
What may be the best-selling North American comic book of the year is a fairly run-of-the-mill chapter of the long-running, popular zombie-apocalypse series, but it’s nevertheless a satisfying one for fans and followers. Kirkman’s focus here is on shock value. He tries to shock his readers with the casual callousness and corruption of a new villain. He tries to shock us by writing against the expectations he’s built up over the past few months. And he tries to shock the audience with the death of a major character. While the storytelling is visceral and effective, it’s not really shocking — at least not for those who have been paying attention over the course of the series. What Kirkman really does here is just follow his pattern. We’ve seen this group of survivors achieve some measure of normalcy and/or security in the past, and every time, Kirkman tears it down and throws their lives into further chaos — all in the name of driving the story and characters in new directions. He does it well, but those who might tout this milestone 100th issue something different or unique in the larger context of the series would be mistaken.
Rick Grimes’s plan to take down the local warlord has backfired, as he’s lost some good people to retaliation, but his group has definitely made its mark on Negan’s group, killing several men from among the enemies’ ranks. It’s a time of crisis, though, and Rick leads a small contingent back to the seemingly idyllic Hilltop to consult and regroup, but he’s underestimated Negan’s cunning, ruthlessness and resources, and his group is about to pay a horrific price for its leader’s miscalculations.
I’m a bit torn about the nature of this landmark issue. On the one hand, I rather appreciated it was basically just an oversized regular episode of the story featuring a pivotal moment for the protagonists. On the other, given the immense popularity of the property both in and out of comics, it seemed like a missed opportunity to draw even more fans into the fold. This is the fourth part of the current story arc, and there’s not a whole lot of exposition included in the issue. It’s not wholly inaccessible, but I’m surprised Kirkman and company didn’t include some sort of self-contained bonus story. The 100th issue of the comic book that spawned AMC’s most popular cable TV show was bound to attract the attention of people who haven’t read the comics or collected editions, and it didn’t really feel like there was much here for them.
Adlard knows the emphasis in The Walking Dead is on characterization, and he employs a lot of closeup shots to keep our attention focused on the characters. Even a small group of Negan’s men get the tight treatment, and the visual approach — along with sharp, convincing dialogue from Kirkman — gives the impression these minor characters are people rather than throwaway henchmen who don’t matter. Still, when the plot calls for it, he’s able to convey moments of much larger scope and importance, such as the emergence of Negan’s army of sadists, assassins and thieves. It has an even greater effect due to the previous narrow focus on character, because suddenly, we see the protagonists in danger of drowning in an ocean of peril. Furthermore, Adlard pulls no punches when a key character is violently attacked. Again, he narrows the focus, forcing the reader to witness the evil, pain and ferocity being wrought upon the character. It’s a disgusting display, but the decision to depict it overtly is probably the right choice, given the effect for which the writer and artist are striving.
The timing of Negan’s introduction is peculiar, given that the third season of the TV series, set to begin later in the fall, will bring the Governor into the small-screen fold. The Governor was easily the biggest villain of the series up to this point, so Kirkman’s challenge was to set Negan up as more corrupt, more threatening and more dangerous. He’s succeeded, but the writer has crafted a character so evil, sadistic and cruelly effective, he’s almost ludicrous. He’s clearly driven by greed; he’s essentially set up a post-apocalyptic protection racket. But it doesn’t explain his sadism. Perhaps what makes him such an unsettling figure is the delight and casual nature with which he approaches the lesson he’s teaching Rick. He’s smiling. He’s not an unattractive figure. He even boasts an odd charm. He’s a game-show host with a penchant for carnage. His speech is thoroughly readable and engaging, even if it’s over the top and incredible. Kirkman definitely needs to tell us more about Negan; the lack of explanation for his unusual name alone is driving me nuts. The writer has succeeded in wanting me to see more of the villain in future issues, but if he’s going to be this extreme, I’m hoping he’ll have only a brief part to play in the larger, ongoing drama.
The reason for this particular issue’s major sales success is obvious: the multiple variant cover editions. It’s overkill, and it can’t have been easy for retailers to figure out at which quantities to order the various iterations of the same comic. While tempted by the Adlard covers, I ended up choosing a copy of the Quitely cover, as it was so striking. While there’s an impressive array of artists contributing covers to this issue (though not all of the images are impressive — I’m talking to you Todd McFarlane), it comes off as a rather obvious money grab. My hope is there’s a dearth of customers eager to collect all of the editions, but I fear and believe it’s an unrealistic and pointless wish.
While the emphasis is on shock value, even Kirkman does all he can to let his readership know what’s coming. His characters keep telling us outright things are going to go badly for Rick and company. He foreshadows it with dialogue on an unrelated topic. He offers the antagonists’ threats. The writer practically states it flat out time and time again. And nevertheless, the horrific, climactic scene boasts a gut-wrenching quality. It’s not Kirkman’s writing, per se, that makes for such an effective and powerful moment, but rather the larger qualities of pop culture — especially episodic, ongoing pop culture. We’re trained — especially when it comes to mainstream comics — to expect the status quo, in some regard, to be maintained. It’s not as prevalent with The Walking Dead when one compared it to Superman or Spider-Man comics, but in any case, despite the premise of this post-apocalyptic series, one at least expects the core cast of characters to be somewhat consistent. One of the things that’s appealing about Kirkman’s approach to the book is his willingness to go against that ingrained expectation. Kirkman’s refusal to allow for any sacred cows among his characters made me think he might eliminate the most identifiable, central character of them, or even the most popular. And despite my awareness of the possibilities, the climax was disheartening (albeit intentionally) and definitely made me eager to learn what comes next. 7/10
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