The Walking Dead: The Little Comic Book That Could

TV Features The Walking Dead
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I’m in San Diego, 2,100 miles from the zombies who trapped Rick Grimes in a military tank in downtown Atlanta and overran Hershel’s farm outside the city. But my path is blocked by Walkers, nonetheless. They’re crawling throughout Petco Park, and the signs of our doom are everywhere: the bloodstains on the door to the Padres’ pressbox, the desperate hand-drawn warning signs in the stairwell, the rotting arms reaching across barriers throughout the stadium’s maze of tunnels.

As I make it safely outside into plaza, I spot the man who’s responsible for this whole zombie apocalypse: Robert Kirkman. He wrote the comic book that became a TV show that became a videogame that became The Walking Dead Experience here in a Major League Baseball stadium during Comic-Con.

“It’s pretty strange,” he says the next day, after making his own exhausting run through the Walking Dead-themed obstacle course. “It doesn’t make any sense to me. I remember being in my house in Kentucky, and coming up with the idea for the comic. So going from that to this is absolutely bizarre, and every year is bigger than the last. Those last three years, I’ve just been like, ‘Wow, this is crazy. It’s never going to get crazier than this.’ Then it does, and I keep coming back.”

AMC announced that Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont would be turning the comic-book series into a television show back at the beginning of 2010. The network had just begun augmenting its old-movie fare with original series Mad Men and Breaking Bad a few years earlier. And though Darabont was fired as showrunner during filming of the second season, ratings for the show continued to grow, eclipsing the audiences of Mad Men and Breaking Bad combined and attracting a record 9 million viewers for its Season Two finale this past March.

The enthusiasm for the show comes from more than just the gore (though there’s plenty) and the zombie head-shots (though some have been epic), but also the exploration of humanity under extreme duress.

“To me, the best zombie movies aren’t the splatter fests of gore and violence with goofy characters and tongue in cheek antics,” he wrote in the introduction to the comics’ first anthology (16 have been published—and 102 individual issues). “Good zombie movies show us how messed up we are, they make us question our station in society…and our society’s station in the world.”

The TV show was able to explore the graphic novel’s characters even more fully, as six 24-page comic books became a six-episode first season that explored the grays of complex moral issues as survivors learn to work together within a group and between groups. Racism, spousal abuse, power struggles, a love triangle, child rearing and the needs of the many all get addressed in a short premiere season that still left plenty of room for unforgettable zombie encounters and a series of punch-to-the-gut final scenes.

Writer Glen Mazzara took over as showrunner during the second season, which spent even more time on character development as the group of survivors regrouped on an idyllic farm mostly free from zombies. In fact, most of the criticisms of Season Two were that not enough was happening. Unlike the comic-book format, where the plot moves forward with most turns of the page, the TV series has more time to develop characters and unpack the small stories in Kirkman’s work, as well as the epic narrative arcs.

Season Three, which premieres Sunday, will trade the open, pastoral farm setting for a dark, brutal prison, and will introduce a couple of new characters that fans of the comic are particular excited to see.

One of those new faces, Michonne, is played by Danai Gurira (Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor, HBO’s Treme), who was a little startled to learn just how beloved the character already is. She had a brief cameo in Season Two, putting her sharp katana to good use and trailing her zombie “pets.”

“It’s really a profound gift,” she says of her role. “She existed before I was her. I was given this amazing character to embody. Just the thrill of being here and seeing people so involved with the genre, it’s really exciting. I have to give all the credit to Robert. He created this woman, wrote her down and drew her out and there she was. It’s kind of thrilling to think how he did that.”

Michonne comes on the scene just in time to save Andrea, played by Laurie Holden, and the two quickly bond.

“We’re going to pick up after that and explore that journey,” says Holden, who clearly feels aggrieved for her character. “Obviously I’m separated from my friends, who did not look for me. We’re not even going to go into that in this conversation—but seriously, they didn’t even leave a note on the car? They could’ve scratched out Sophia’s name, don’t you think? On the hood of the car? There’s a little bit of hurt there, but I think her sad-sack, I’m-feeling-sorry-for-myself days are over. She puts on a brave front, but I think it would be fair to say that that hurt her heart a little bit that they didn’t try. There might be some ’splaining to do.”

The other new major character, played by British actor David Morrissey, knows that fans might have a different reaction to him than Michonne. The Governor can be as scary as the zombies. “I’m good with loathed,” Morrissey says. “I think you don’t ignore him. That’s the good thing. He’s a great character, taking the spirit of the book and putting him up there on screen. Sometimes the devil gets all the best tunes. I’m just enjoying being him, but there’s a complexity to him as well, though. For me, it was reading Robert’s book, which is The Rise of the Governor. The person I’m playing is very much the person that comes out of that book.”

The series has taken many liberties with the books—has had to, really, to translate them to an entirely new medium than panel drawings. Mazzara now sees his loyalty to story and to the characters, as they’ve been created on screen.

“We’re committed to telling the best story we possibly can,” he says. “All the writers are fans of the comic book, so we know what’s there. We know what we’re excited about. It’s a matter of figuring how you do that in the different medium of TV and what works in our alternate universe. The way we developed our stories is we say, ‘Alright. That episode just ended. Now, what would have happened next? Where is everybody emotionally? Where do we pick up?’ Then we listen to those characters, the producers and the cast have feedback, and we find our way through. I trust our team to get the story told, and hopefully our fans will respond to it.”

In the comic books, that story gets darker once the survivors leave Hershel’s land. “I think we told the story of the farm,” says Mazzara, “and now we are interested in the governor and telling a new story. I wouldn’t consider it as a reboot as much as the next chapter. You know our characters are on the road and what happens and who they run into. I think it’s important to open up things, but there won’t be a shift in tone, necessarily. I think we’re already a pretty dark show. There’s a lot of great stuff in the comic book we need to look at and make it our own. It’s more developing the material, than reinventing what’s already there.

“I think if you look at how we developed the material and the cast,” he continues, “Shane was killed off in the sixth issue, but we took a long time. We’ll find a way through the material. I’m incredibly excited about David Morrissey playing the Governor. There are a lot of places we can go to explore those characters for a long time. Whether or not it’s one season, two seasons or hopefully 10 seasons.”

One of the biggest challenges of the new season is the prison set itself. Hershel’s farm had its own difficulties, mostly stemming from hot Atlanta days. “If you see Rick and his group dispatching a bunch of walkers then they have to lay down the rest of the day baking in the sun,” says special effects makeup artist Greg Nicotero, whose job it is to create those memorable “hero” zombies you see close up. “There are guys whose faces are stuck to the ground. It just wants to melt off because of how hot it is.”

The prison may be a sound stage safely out of the elements, but capturing the abandoned gloom isn’t without its tradeoffs. “The prison is intended to be a bit of a house of horrors in terms of there’s dark corridors,” Nicotero says. “We wanted to contrast Hershel’s farm where there’s a sense of safety.”

“This is much more monochrome and it’s very graphic as well in the prison,” says Andrew Lincoln, who plays the show’s lead character Rick Grimes. “I think the lighting and the design is magnificent; it’s beautiful. It’s also unpleasant to film. All the crew have gas masks—but not the actors—because the dust is so terrible. It’s so bad that they actually had to send a memo saying you will not die from all this dust.”

“And if you do die,” interjects Nicotero, “you’ll come back as a walker, and we’ll use you in the show.”

One of the characters who’s helped define the show and offer an everyman entry point is Glenn, played by Steven Yeun. A pizza delivery guy before the zombie takeover, Glenn is the resourceful volunteer who lets others lead the way while he volunteers for all the dirty work. We see him rewarded for his valor with the love of sweet farm girl Maggie, played by Lauren Cohan, in Season Two.

“What’s cool is that the arc that Glenn takes also mimics the arc for me as an actor,” says Yeun. “This was my first big gig. I’m so grateful and honored for this to be my first big gig because I get to work with such amazing talent that is ready to mentor, and people who are willing to critique and raise up at the same time, and also lead by example. For me, Glenn’s arc starts a little meager, and he grows up. What’s great for me is that with the support of everyone, you follow that same line. In the third season I came in obviously a little more ready than before.”

“It really feels like a tribe, we’ve become so tight of a group,” Cohan adds. “You can only get stronger by trusting. I think that’s a theme in the show.”

With the fan response at places like Comic-Con, a happy cast and a network thrilled with ratings, Kirkman—the man who dreamed up this zombie nightmare—says he has no plans for ever stopping the comic series, and allows himself a little optimism for the TV show’s future, as well. “I’d like to get it to 25 seasons, something like that,” he says. “I know that’s extremely unrealistic and I’m probably joking, but it would be a lot of fun. We could see these people running around in their sixties. Realistically, I really don’t know. TV goes a few seasons. We’re really successful now, but we don’t know what the future holds. We try to keep telling the best stories that we can for a decade or two.”