This Halloween, when there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk into your living room--courtesy of AMC. That's right, the same cable channel that introduced the impossibly debonair advertising execs of Mad Men now unleashes The Walking Dead, a televised horror series written and directed by Frank Darabont and based on of the comics by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard.
In 2003, the first issue of The Walking Dead released deep in the throes of the most recent zombie revival, and its subject matter set it apart from the usual books in the market. Readers eagerly championed the Image Comics series, creating a vocal fervor that helped keep the title afloat amidst the capes and cowls and turned it into a New York Times bestseller.
After a particularly bloody shootout, small town police officer Rick Grimes awakens in a hospital, and soon finds he's alone in a world gone dead. His law enforcement training serves him well as he gathers weapons, supplies, and fellow survivors--all the while looking over his shoulder for creeping death. Kirkman chooses to focus on the survivors and their cornered-animal mentality, rather than worrying about the hows and why of the outbreak or fashioning a cure out of, say, canned Spam and batteries. It's a smart method of storytelling, allowing for the series to extend into (so far) thirteen volumes. The characters come and shockingly go, aside from a few regulars who undergo drastic personality changes the further they travel into dread reality.
There are surprise betrayals and deaths (and then resurrections). Every bathroom stop or food supply run is fraught with tension and stark panels, a grim reminder of what threatens these characters at every moment. There is very little relief for the reader, especially in artist Charlie Adlard's portrayal of desolate landscapes--desolate, save for the hordes of undead, of course. Cliff Rathburn is credited with "gray tones" in the series, and readers may initially feel that the muted color scheme lacks a gore-iffic punch. But after a few chapters, these tones drive home the monotony inherent to day-to-day living on the run. It's a tonal choice rooted in hopelessness--the reprieve is in the series' take-no-prisoners twists and wrenching developments. Even when the less savory characters meet their demise, it isn't any easier for the reader. Kirkman makes it natural to invest in these survivors because their choices are the same ones anyone would make--they are the only choices left.
Newcomers to the Eisner Award-winning series can select from a variety of formats in which to read the The Walking Dead in time for this Sunday's televised premiere. The first is the most straight-forward: the twelve volume trade paperbacks (lucky Volume 13 releases later in 2010). Each volume contains about six chapters, organized by arcs and enabling readers to experience a beginning and an ending within the larger overall story.
But once I start The Walking Dead, it's difficult to stop, and my money is on The Walking Dead: Compendium One, which collects the first eight volumes into one mammoth, affordable paperback (that's over 1,000 pages of zombies!). It's the same trim size as the individual volumes but without any of the breaks between arcs. Once finished, readers can pick up with Volume Nine and continue from there.
There are also hardcover collections, housing twelve chapters in each oversized book. Book Six released this October, and all previous hardcovers are still in print. True Believers will want to look into the Omnibus Editions, which come in slipcases and collect 24 chapters and all of the corresponding covers in each oversized hardcover. The second Walking Dead omnibus is currently the only available volume in this format (Volume One is out of print and fetches high prices in the third party marketplace), while Volume Three has a release date in late 2010. With the impending television series, these omnibuses are likely to become more and more in demand.
And speaking of that series, what a Halloween treat. The trailers look great, full of long stretches of silence punctuated by moments of visceral terror--the same type of storytelling that made the comics such a hit. Come Sunday evening, resist the urge to extinguish those jack o' lanterns once the trick-or-treaters have crept home. You may need those lights to keep you company for a little while longer.