The wave has broken and is about to roll back.
The Walking Dead comic book has ended on a random number. There was no fanfare, no lead up to “Issue #200” and the final story. Just a flash forward to a different world and a phone-in with some of the major characters. I get it. No comic book can last forever and it is astonishing that Robert Kirkman could script as many books as he has while running his own company and helping to produce two Walking Dead series (three if you count Hardwick’s fanshow), games, events, and television movies. Something had to give.
I don’t know if the comic was losing readers or if changes to the show were just making it unrecognizable against the comic’s arc or if the show was closing in on covering the current story arc. I’ll admit I haven’t read it since the introduction of The Whisperers. I stopped when I saw an issue of the book with a cover depicting people fixing roofs. I forget what issue that was but I thought, “Negan’s in prison. Society is blooming again. Good stopping point.” I planned to come back for the trades, but the monthly issues were not holding my interest enough. Characters kept filling pages with cool speeches and familiar conflicts but they were too seldom interrupted by big events. With Negan relegated to Rick’s voice of self-doubt and poised for a face turn in future issues, I moved on to a causal reader.
The Telltale games are fantastic. They represent the core of makes a great zombie survival adventure. It’s all about different people struggling with hard choices, ordinary folks overcoming horrible circumstances and changing because of it. I didn’t need a first person or combat-driven game because that was never a strength of the comic. Where the comic was successful was in creating a company of characters from different backgrounds who are not simple or trope-ridden. Like the game, characters were made to make tough choices in the moment, sometimes that they would regret or that would backfire on them later in life. Taking “first world” people and putting them into a situation of survival that most of the world is better suited to handle is what makes the book and the show great.
Fear the Walking Dead began that way with a fresh look at the Clark family and their struggles to stay together as a family and survive. It was a new location so, no more kudzu-clogged ghost towns and overgrown farmland. We got to see the start of the crisis and see it through the eyes of the uninitiated.
But FTWD has almost completely recast and reimagined itself, with Alicia Clark on hand to remind us, incessantly, that her mom was a bad-ass leader. And given the shift in tone, those reminders are not helping us move on, even with Morgan leading the company now. FTWD has experimented with formats and I was SO on board (no pun intended) with the idea of doing Season 2 on a boat. I expected new locations where they’d scavenge and get involved in new, wacky adventures. But the show turned into an English-language telenovela. The one thing that kept me interested was the struggle of the Clark and Salazar families to reset their moral compass for the post-apocalypse, to see Madison and Travis keep their blended family from losing its collective shit in the face of constant threats and Victor Strand’s smooth version of Dr. Zackary Smith. Even before they wrote Madison off the show, it was struggling with being consistent. When The Vultures arrived in Season 4, the show had established that there are some situations where you have to strike, pre-emptively, to protect one’s self. Despite the ludicrous idea of a slacker version of The Saviors who just wait out the demise of other survivors, it was a clear situation where a proportionate show of force against a clear and present danger wasn’t just a moral imperative but common sense.
The arrival of Morgan and shift to “white hats in a gray world” was not well established and our faith in the newly forming team questioned as one solitary crazy person damn near managed to kill them all because they couldn’t taste antifreeze in their water supply or realize the safety caps on the bottles were broken. Where TWD had its most powerful episodes and the games had their most heart-wrenching moments in having to sacrifice the few to protect the many, that season went out of its way to prove that our heroes aren’t prepared to make such important choices. Morgan’s insistence on not killing Martha the “dirty woman” remained one of the dumbest decisions in the show until someone told the journalist to fly a friggin’ plane hundreds of miles to try and help some strangers they heard on the radio. Further proof of their stupidity was the fact that it was all a cunning ruse by a guy who just wanted his warehouse back without violence. DOH!
To me, the moral of the story from Season 4B was that, despite your best efforts, there are still monsters out there and they will pick off the weak and trusting without any remorse. But Morgan and his team end up like some idealistic and naïve missionaries in the land of the dead saying “Hey! Let’s give things away from this big warehouse that’s not at all hard to find!”
Daniel Salazar is the only character left with the original and, honestly, appropriate mentality of “verify before trust” and the skills to exist in this world. I imagine we haven’t seen much of him because his outlook puts him diametrically opposite Morgan’s ridiculous humanitarian outlook and it would take a LOT of strong writing and storytelling to get those two on a compatible mental wavelength. With Carol, it would only take a page of dialogue with her showing Daniel her collection of throwable cutlery.
FTWD wants to remove the existential dread from a world where those who lasted that long in it did so by coming to terms with that dread, adapting to the toxic world around them, and choosing to live by removing those who might deprive them of that option. These people, some of whom have seen Negan-scale cruelty and evil first hand, still expect reason and logic to govern the actions of people around them.
Meanwhile, The Walking Dead has maintained its foundation because it never got over Negan. For years the mere fact that Negan wasn’t dead drove the major settlements apart. The natural question of how to share resources among starving and under-defended communities becomes the new conflict. When communities open their doors, they unwittingly admit strangers who deal a terrible blow to the fragile sense of safety and prosperity and. The loss of Rick, their symbolic champion and elder statesman, further demoralizes them to the point that they must abandon what they’ve built and risk death crossing enemy territory during a blinding snow storm. While not the same, intimate drama that we enjoyed when Rick and the Atlanta survivors were a small group hiding in a quarry or a prison, it is the natural progression of a society trying to rebuild and an extension of the story arcs of the survivors. While the comics and series have diverged significantly over the seasons, the survivors in each eventually achieved positions of respect and authority. This is another great accomplishment of Kirkman. If you follow the stories of the main characters back to their introductions, all of them have changed and grown significantly and you can almost point to the moments where each character advanced. They earned their places by sacrifice, redemption, heroism, or all of the above. In the comics, it’s Carl Grimes who embodies the greatest growth and accomplishment. In the television show, it is probably Daryl, who goes from petty thug abused by his family to a great leader who reluctantly but earnestly honors Rick by owning that role.
With the cost of keeping the lead actors on board TWD and the terrible stories of FTWD and the end of the comic that started it all, it may be that the franchise may end for a while until another generation can reboot it for the a new audience with a new vision.