By Steve Morris
Spoilers below, of course: we’re talking about the last issue of the run!
Mirroring most boys of university age, I read about four trades of The Walking Dead before feeling I’d had enough and could probably stop. Robert Kirkman’s pitch for the series, which proved to be one of the biggest success stories in American comics history, was that the comic book medium could do what films could never: continue forever. And when you pair that with something like a zombie story, which thrives on having time to unpack itself, you get a powerful argument for why comics are such a lasting and powerful medium. They can take a genre which film and TV have sucked the life from and give it new life in the form of comics. The Walking Dead (which did eventually lead to TV and future films) became a runaway success over the course of its 193 issues… and then it suddenly stopped.
I was long-gone by the time the final issue came out with no warning, but I did pick up the issue to see what was going on by that point. What I found was, like How I Met Your Mother, Robert Kirkman had overplanned and underthought his ending, and I was left wondering what I’d ever seen in the series to begin with. Now, a few years later, I decided to pick the issue back up to take a look at it one more time. And… well, it’s actually worse than I remember it being.
Before I go into that, a little context to discuss everything that’s changed since issue #1, way back in 2003. Back in the day, Kirkman was the main proponent of creator-owned comics: he was the little guy standing up to the corporate machine, telling other creatives that they could and should work together to make a better system for themselves. There were videos, blog posts, and interviews where he stressed the importance of staying creatively credible and independent. In 2008 he released a famous “manifesto” around the same time he was announced as a Partner at Image Comics, where he argued passionately for the idea of creator ownership and the benefits of refusing work for hire (WFH). Balance WFH and creator-owned comics if you have to, but your focus should always be on making something you own yourself – that was his core message.
The Robert Kirkman of 2022 is a very different person to the Robert Kirkman of 2008.
After being sued by co-creator of The Walking Dead Tony Moore for allegedly duping Moore out of his co-ownership of the property (the argument being that having fewer co-creators would make it easier to shop the franchise on to television producers), Kirkman is now currently being sued by co-creator of Invincible Bill Crabtree for the exact same thing. Crabtree’s representatives said that when the colourist agreed to the new proposal, he was given a “Certificate of Authorship” which apparently reframed all his prior work on the series as being work-for-hire. Crabtree signed away his ownership on the understanding that Kirkman, the voice of the voiceless in the comics industry, would look after him. Hm.
Similarly, that idea of work-for-hire, which 2008’s Robert Kirkman passionately said shouldn’t form the majority of your creative output? Well it seems to be one of the central pillars of Skybound Entertainment, which he formed on the back of comics like Thief of Thieves. Kirkman owns the series – which has been in development hell at AMC for several years now – and the comic featured a different guest writer for each new arc, all of whom did so under a WFH agreement. It wouldn’t be hard to suggest that the past decade has seen Kirkman go from our underdog hero to instead become “the man”.
Which is why it’s very tempting to say that the final issue of The Walking Dead is a mess because Kirkman himself has so thoroughly and completely sold out over the course of the last 15-20 years. Released as a complete surprise (for retailers as much as anyone else; one of their few guaranteed sellers suddenly vanished overnight), issue #193 of the series abruptly cuts several years into the future, shifting to focus on Carl as the lead character. Carl’s father Rick, the protagonist of the entire series to this point, died in the previous issue, and so here we have a one-and-done epilogue which gives us a definitive look at how everything pans out. It is, with caveats, a tediously sickly “happy” ending.
In this future timeline, the “walking dead” themselves have been largely quarantined, with the remaining humans setting up small communities for themselves which resemble the John Wayne ideal of what the wild west looked like. The only zombies we see in this issue are ones which are brought into the issue by a showman called Herschel, who makes money parading them as a sideshow for the wide-eyed gawping of the general public. One of the dead escapes and wanders into Carl’s idyllic country farm, at which point he kills it. Herschel sues him for destruction of personal property, and Carl finds himself drawn into a lawsuit. A lawsuit, you say?
What’s surprising about the oversized finale is how politically conservative it all seems. After several pages where they smirk endlessly at each other, Carl ultimately gets off a prison sentence because he’s friends with the Judge overseeing the hearing. His defence speech, one of the key moments in the issue, sees him basically saying that he’s too old to know any better (despite probably being about thirty). He complains that the younger generation doesn’t understand the hardships he endured, that they all have it easy nowadays…
As I read it, he’s one step away from complaining about all these woke snowflakes who think “zombie rights” are so important, when all he wants to do is shoot first, and ask questions later. He thinks back to his father’s traumas as the old days when men were men, and wonders at the society he’s now having to bring his daughter into. To my mind, he’s a quintessential Republican here.
Which is, y’know, fair. A large part of America is Republican. But the underdog narrative of Kirkman’s formative years in the comics industry seems to have been pushed aside in favour of quietly celebrating conservative talking points. Much like the convolution of Marvel’s mutant metaphor, it feels like Kirkman has such a fractured and unaware grasp of real-world politics that any attempt to bring metaphor into his comic about zombies crashes down hopelessly. We’re asked to cheer cronyism in the courts, boo the children who don’t show enough respect for the older generations (who actually suffered for a living, the text asserts) and wish that we were still living in the glorious hard-work ethic of the past, rather than the easy-times liberal nonsense of the present day.
Kirkman’s not deft enough a writer to make any of it work. His dialogue has always felt stuffy and stilted, but here you can really feel the roughness of this first-draft pass which still got published – a benefit of creator-owned publishing, I suppose. Kirkman also remains unable to patch together convincing conversations between his characters. Carl acts like a family man, but he’s a family man who never considers the feelings of his wife or daughter as he wanders off to do whatever he wants to do, whenever he wants to do it. The lawsuit worsens because he chooses to go back to Herschel’s armoured coach and kill all the remaining zombies, an act which is outright petty and nonsensical, but is presented in-issue as the only sane thing to do. Again, the tone is just startlingly odd.
Carl finishes the issue by reading a hagiography of Rick’s life which says things like “wherever you are, whatever you’re doing… you’re there and you’re safe because of Rick Grimes.” Carl’s strange, stuttered growth as a character is exemplified by the gushing praise he gives his father through this book (which Carl’s daughter asks him to read again before a nauseatingly cutesy final few pages) and his prior reaction to seeing a statue of his father in the town square. The statue is glorifying Rick, showing him in a moment of firestone and brimstone passion – and Carl apparently hates how it depicts his father. But then he goes on to read a book which is arguably even more over-the-top in depiction? It’s cluttered, and messy, and it leaves this grown-up version of Carl feeling like a patchwork of Kirkman’s incoherent politics.
The lasting note of the issue is how consistently the characters glorify their past triumphs whilst shouting down the ungrateful and ignorant younger generations. Every character presented as heroic spends a moment talking about how the current generation actually matter, whilst the next generation are spoiled and useless. For a comic which seemed to be interested in discussing a seismic change in human behaviour, and trying something different (arguably leaning towards suggestions of socialist and/or communist concepts in its later years), everything basically ended up as the plot of a late-period Clint Eastwood movie. Was this really the ending Kirkman claims he had in mind for years? In his letter at the back of the comic, he suggests that he previously had a much bleaker ending in mind for the series, which would show that humanity was ultimately wiped out by the walking dead. He jettisoned that for being too downbeat, but thinking about it, that seems like a copout to me.
Reading The Walking Dead #193 now, away from the hype that came from it suddenly ending with no warning, what we’re left with is a comic which ends with a treacly whimper. The finale is pat and unsatisfying, celebrating the rose-tinted spirit of the past whilst repeatedly stamping on the youthful idealism of the next generation. It very much reads like the final comic of a writer who sold out his medium, whose manifesto of independence was thrown away the moment a TV producer knocked on their door.
The Walking Dead #193
Written by Robert Kirkman
Drawn by Charlie Adlard
Inked by Cliff Rathburn
Lettered by Rus Wooton
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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