Season 4 of The Walking Dead starts on Sunday, so I thought this would be a good time to review seasons 1 to 3, specifically comparing the AMC series to the original comic now that I’ve finally had a chance to read the issues that roughly correspond to those first three seasons. Needless to say, this post is FULL OF SPOILERS FOR BOTH THE COMIC AND THE SERIES.
Every year when the show finishes I have to wade through endless griping from fans of the comic about how the TV series has ruined their cherished franchise. The show’s myriad sins — at least according to comic fans — include eliminating characters, introducing new characters not in the comic, and deviating from the comic’s story arc. The kvetching reached a thunderous crescendo at the end of season 3 with the death of Andrea — comic fans seemed united in their disgust for the way the TV series “dumbed down” this character. Given that Andrea was one of my favorite characters from the series, this argument intrigued me, so this year during the off-season I figured I would see for myself what all the fuss was about with regard to this particular comic, which seems to have burgeoned into an entire industry unto itself. I plunked down an ungodly amount of money for The Walking Dead Compendium One, which collects issues 1-48 of the comic, and plowed through the whole thing.
And boy was I shocked, because this comic is . . . not good. It’s clunky, poorly plotted, and entirely lacking tension and suspense. The dialogue is often boring and pointless, while the characters are wooden and almost entirely interchangeable. Writer Robert Kirkman seems to have two and only two ways in which characters conflict: by standing face to face and shouting obscenities at each other, or by killing each other. And then there are the hook ups. Oh lord the hook ups. Every character who can conceivably hook up with another does so. There’s even the suggestion of sexual tension between Carl and Sophia, who are both children. It’s creepy. Having read the comic, I cannot think of one aspect of this story that Frank Darabont and his successors did not improve upon in adapting it to the screen.
Below are ten major points of contrast between the comic and the TV series:
1. Rick/Laurie/Shane: This love triangle is the driving force of the first two seasons of the TV series. It’s a real conflict, because while Rick is the group’s superego and feels increasing, self-imposed pressure as their moral and spiritual leader, Shane is pure id. He wants Laurie, plain and simple, and all of his decisions, all of his actions, all of his waking effort is dedicated to this end. This creates genuine conflict in Laurie, because while Rick is always off doing the right thing, Shane is right there reminding her that he would die for her. The show certainly got a big boost in finding Joe Bernthal to play Shane, because he perfectly embodies Shane’s hulking, monomaniacal menace. The dude is scary. By contrast, in the comic, this triangle is dealt with quickly, with Carl shooting Shane when he threatened his father. It’s perfunctory and anticlimactic, and does nothing to further our understanding of these characters.
2. Dale/Andrea: Speaking of hookups, here’s another creepy one. In the comic, Dale and Andrea are a couple, whereas in the TV series Dale takes on a fatherly role toward Andrea and her sister Amy prior to her death. The Dale/Andrea relationship in the TV series is much more complicated and nuanced, with the hints of sexual tension that are never acted upon. The relationship takes a heart-breaking turn in Season 2, when Andrea, furious at Dale because he prevented her suicide at the CDC, turns on him and aligns herself instead with Shane, who represents everything that Dale despises. She develops into a hardened fighter but finally falls to the charms of the governor, on which more below.
3. Daryl and Merle: Here we have two major characters from the TV series who were not in the comic, and they’re two of the best characters in the show. Daryl in particular is one of the strongest TV characters I’ve ever seen, a believable, flawed individual who undergoes a profound transformation over the course of the first three seasons. Season 2 is particularly good in this regard, as Daryl comes into his own in the search for Sophia and then enters the throes of depression and isolation upon the discovery that she’s been in the barn the entire time. Daryl’s struggle is between his family of origin, represented by Merle, and his newly adopted community, the ragtag group of survivors. It’s testimony to how far he’s come when, in season 3, Merle lets drop that they’d been planning to rob the camp way back at the beginning of season one. It both fits perfectly with who he was then and yet seems unthinkable now. Daryl’s relationship with Carol is another strongpoint of the show, and another example of a situation where simmering, unstated sexual tension between two characters is much more interesting than the easy hookup. As for Merle, he’s a force of nature, and his absence throughout seasons 1 and 2 creates an almost constant source of external menace. His final end in season 3 was quite touching, a fitting end for this seemingly irredeemable miscreant.
4. Carol: The version of Carol in the comic would be unrecognizable to fans of the TV series. In the comic she’s neurotic, crazy, unstable — at one point she suggests a three way between Laurie, Rick and herself. She falls in love with Tyrese, is jilted, and eventually kills herself, leaving Sophia an orphan. Contrast that with the TV series, where she’s a strong survivor who loses both her husband, who may be an abusive creep but is the only support she’s ever known, and then her daughter, leaving her utterly alone in the world. Rather than curl up and die (as she almost does in the prison attack), she perseveres and becomes a powerful, capable woman. Kudos to Melissa McBride for playing one of the ass-kickingest female characters on television.
5. Glenn/Maggie: Glenn is another character greatly improved by the TV series. He comes to a grisly end in the comic but prior to that he’s not particularly interesting or dynamic. In the show, he’s one of the most compelling characters, from his first interaction with Rick inside the tank to his budding romance with Maggie. In the comic, Glenn and Maggie hook up with no fanfare, while in the show their relationship is slower to start and more problematic from the get-go, as Glenn’s loyalties are divided between his group and Maggie’s farm family. There’s also a great subplot where Glenn needs to keep two huge secrets from the group (that Laurie is pregnant and that there are walkers in the barn) and fails miserably. It’s a funny, touching bit of character development, showing that Glenn is utterly without deceit or guile.
6. The Barn: Speaking of the barn, another shortcoming of the comic is that it never finds a way to sustain tension. For instance, in the comic, Hershel announces to Rick almost immediately that there are walkers in the barn, whereas in the show this secret is one of the driving forces of season 2. When it is finally revealed, it’s an explosive scene as Shane and the others mow down dozens of Hershel’s friends and neighbors, culminating in a heart-rending coda: Sophia’s emergence from the barn. Keep in mind that the search for Sophia was the single most unifying thread of the entire season, and her death devastates the entire group. Another difference is related to Laurie’s pregnancy: in the comic she tells Rick right away whereas in the TV series she keeps it secret and even attempts to induce a miscarriage.
7. The Governor: What can be said of the Governor? In the comic, he cartoonishly evil, a fact we know right away because he spends several pages ranting about how evil he is. Then in case we didn’t get the message he cuts off Rick’s hand. In the show, on the other hand, he’s smooth, he’s calculating, he’s got some finesse. Above all, he’s convincing. You have no trouble believing that Andrea would fall for him given what she’s been through. In the show, there’s the suggestion of a lesbian relationship between Andrea and Michonne, and Michonne’s deep distrust of the Governor drives a wedge between her and Andrea. And speaking of Michonne, she’s handled infinitely better in the TV series, where she’s a mythical figure: a katana-wielding specter wandering a post-apocalyptic wasteland accompanied by two zombie castrato. In the comic, she steals Tyrese from Carol, driving Carol to suicide.
8. The CDC plotline: In season 1 of the TV series, after the group’s camp is overrun (resulting in the deaths of Amy, Carol’s husband, and eventually Jim, who is left behind to die), they head to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, where they meet a lone scientist who had been working on a cure before his resources ran out. This story is not in the comic, but it represents an important turning point in the TV series because it is the point at which the group stops looking for outside rescue and begins to put all their efforts into survival on their own.
9. The serial killer: Seriously? Zombies aren’t enough for you? You need to introduce a serial killer? This was the point at which I lost all respect for the comic.
And, finally, one thing that the TV series got wrong.
10. The gang-member nursing home: Another plot specific to the TV series was in season 1 when the group encounters the nursing home being run by a latino gang. This one, unlike the CDC plotline, did not work and brought nothing to the show. Completely unbelievable; an unusual misstep for this show.