For a long time, the story of the Walking Dead has been the story of Rick Grimes, the beleaguered former small town cop transformed into moral centre of a post-apocalyptic universe. There are significant others, no doubt – Andrea, Michonne, Dale back in the day, the Governor once upon a time – but it’s always been Rick’s show. When we hit issue 100, however, the dynamic changed somewhat. Issue 100 was the first issue that included a character called Negan, a genuine scene stealer if ever there was one, a monstrous villain in more ways than you’d care to list (you’d be too busy putting distance between yourself and Negan to start thinking about lists) and also somewhat complex (in that he isn’t an out and out villain – or rather, he is, he’s a horror – but there’s more to him than just horror, he’s someone with a clear worldview whose own – albeit monumentally fucked up – moral compass determines his actions. Negan (and Lucille – we can’t forget Lucille, his barbed wire encrusted baseball bat whom he talks to as if she is his best friend) is not afraid to bash a person’s head in to make a point (we’ve lost some long running characters to Lucille already). He works on a sort of feudal basis – offering protection in return for half of whatever you’ve got. Of course Rick, with his (equally outmoded?) ideas of right and wrong was on a course to butt heads – but who knew that the butting of heads would shake the foundations of the Walking Dead world virtually to pieces?
Volume 20 is the first volume of what Kirkland and his team are calling All Out War (and it is also – fact fans – the volume of Walking Dead that features the most killings to date, whupping previous title holder, volume 8). Collecting issues 115-120, what we see here are the first sallies, between Rick’s group and Negan’s HQ and then between Negan’s group and Rick’s HQ. As with Breaking Bad (whether Kirkland has been watching Breaking Bad or whether the experience of turning the Walking Dead into a TV show has helped), what the comic has become very good at is setting up situations that seem like they can’t be ramped up further – only for those situations to be ramped up further. The best example of this can be seen in the climax of this collection – which seems to offer victory to one of the combatants; from the perspective of issue 123 which has just been issued, the climax of 120 is positively quaint. Volume 20 is strong on muddying the waters, however. We see Negan rescue one of Rick’s compatriots when one of his own men gets a little rape-y; only to then condemn said rescuee to a fate arguably worse than death mere moments later (the two acts quite distinct in Negan’s mind – a prisoner is a prisoner, demanding certain inalienable rights; the pawn in a war something quite different). We’ve seen this side of Negan before, in his dealings with Rick’s damaged son, Carl (Carl, you’ll remember, hid away alongside Negan’s men and then took out a bunch of them with an assault rifle – rather than freak out, as you’d expect a maniac like Negan to, he seemed to see something of himself in the boy and, as a result – and albeit momentarily – a newfound respect for Rick glimmered briefly).
The Walking Dead themselves also have a part to play, as a tool in this new kind of warfare – we see in Volume 20, the vast hordes of the undead appropriated as a device to try and overwhelm Negan (and it certainly ruffles him). What is interesting – or one of the things that is interesting – is the way that Kirkland draws out Negan’s skill as a master strategist: his enemy uses the zombies as a weapon; how can he use the zombies better? (You’ll see how in Volume 21 if you choose to follow the story in the trade paperbacks). There are some great frames of the advancing hordes and – as ever – there are exploding heads and bitten necks and mortal screams a-plenty (one of the great joys of the Walking Dead is seeing (a) how the zombies are dispatched and (b) how people can still be surprised at this late date by something creeping up from behind).
Some of the weaknesses of previous Walking Dead outings (such as the need characters sometimes have to explicate plot details) are less in evidence here although the character churn has reached such a pace now that you don’t always feel invested with some of the newer characters before they have their legs blown off and expire. In the past, there have been characters who are almost too normal for this future world; that’s where clearly delineated characters like Ezekiel, would-be king, owner of a tiger, really come into their own (his relationship with Michonne and his own feelings about having his ass handed to him on a plate by Negan feed one of the best lines in Volume 20 when Michonne tells him to either stop behaving like a pussy or to learn to hide it better). The way in which Rick’s relationship with both his son and Andrea are developing issue to issue and book to book also continues to be a source of intense pleasure.
It’s a funny old thing. I’ve never liked the TV adaptation. I thought they got it wrong and couldn’t abide it beyond the first season. The comics however remain among the half dozen strips I follow religiously. The ‘All Out War’ series remains a high point – and readers of Volume 20 can rest easy in the knowledge that the best is yet to come.
Any Cop?: The Walking Dead is still going strong over 100 issues in, and Volume 20 is up there with the very best Kirkman and his crew have produced.