The Walking Dead: Compendium Four, by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Stefano Gaudiano & Cliff Rathburn — a review

At the conclusion of Season 8 of AMC’s The Walking Dead, I announced—in typical, over-dramatic fashion—that I was stepping away from the television series for a while. Actually, I may have said that I was done with the series, implying that this was a permanent type of situation.

It had become popular to threaten to stop watching the show. I didn’t threaten; I just stopped watching. This was nearly three years ago, as I write this.

It felt, to me, that the story I began watching more than ten years ago had reached what felt like a natural conclusion. Negan was defeated. Carl was dead. There were intimations that other things were about to happen: characters who grumbled about Negan being left alive; Georgie in her pantsuits; the helicopter. But, I was tired. The pace of the show seemed, in many ways, to slow to a crawl. Worse, I had grown numb to the deaths of favorite characters. I didn’t stop watching because Carl died on the television series. He was far from my favorite character. I stopped watching because it felt like the end of the story.

I knew I had the option of getting back to the series at a later date. It’s easier than ever to watch what we want to, when we want to.

TWD wasn’t the first series that I put on hiatus. I did the same, once upon a time, with Sons of Anarchy, after that season Jax had to go to Ireland to rescue his kidnapped son, because I no longer felt that I was watching the same show I started watching. I later went back and watched the rest of the series, and I loved it. The time away was necessary to gain some perspective.

I recently watched Season 5 of Supergirl, and Season 6 of The Flash, after taking a season off from both. My granddaughter Taylee lost interest in both series after becoming a teenager, and it was something we used to share. You can’t keep them from growing up. I guess there’s still hope for me. All of the DC shows on the CW were beginning to seem a bit aenemic, and far too formulaic. That opinion really wasn’t changed by watching the seasons I missed, but I discovered I was able to enjoy them again. Supergirl is about to begin its final season; The Flash just kicked off Season 7, and I’m still watching.

I stopped watching The Blacklist after Season 5, fairly certain that my relationship with the series was over. Mr. Kaplan’s death put the show on the bubble; Tom Keen’s death and a suitcase full of bones tipped it over. Recently, I returned to the show with an adjusted attitude, no longer caring about the overarching mystery of Raymond Reddington’s true identity—a storyline that is guaranteed to frustrate even the most jaded viewer—but choosing just to enjoy the ride. That has made all the difference. I’ve since watched all of Season 6 and at least a quarter of Season 7. The series, meanwhile, has been renewed through Season 9.

I’ve taken similar breaks from other series. Some of those “breaks” are still going on, as with The Walking Dead, and some may become permanent. My life hasn’t ended yet, so I’ve chosen to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. If you asked me today, I’d say it’s beginning to look unlikely that I will return to Black Lightning (which has now been cancelled) or DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. However, I do have that completist component of my pathology—the collector’s curse—to contend with, so anything’s possible. After an aborted attempt to watch Stargate SG-1 years and years ago, I recently began watching it again. And, I’m enjoying it.

This has been my typically wordy attempt to tell you that reading the compendiums collecting the entire run of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic book has made me want to return to the television series. I may have read part of the first compendium before I put the AMC series on personal hiatus. But, I know I didn’t read the next three compendiums until after I stopped watching the television show. This allowed me to experience the alternate universe version of what I had already seen on TV. The stories are similar, yet different. In the early years, back when I would watch Chris Hardwick on Talking Dead, also on AMC, I always felt like I wasn’t completely a member of the club when talk turned, inevitably, to the comic book. However, I didn’t want to ruin the series for myself by reading the source material.

In the compendiums, everything following the All Out War cycle was new story material for me. This included all of the Whisperers story and the introduction of the Commonwealth. So, part of Compendium Three and all of Compendium Four. By reading the compendiums, I may have ruined the rest of the television story for myself, which is now slated to end with Season 11 (Season 10 will have wrapped up in another month or so). But, I don’t think so. The television series has diverged enough from the Image comic that the similarities are mostly cosmetic. For instance, Carl didn’t die in the comic book. He’s around until the end, as is Sophia, who also died on the AMC show (television is brutal to child actors). He is, in fact, an important part of the end of the story, which can no longer happen the same way on the television series.

The Walking Dead: Compendium Four collects issues #145 – 193 of the comic book, which concluded its run—unannounced—back in 2019. Robert Kirkman felt like none of the story was left to tell. The compendium includes a letter to the fans from Kirkman, explaining why he chose to end the groundbreaking series when he did. He admitted that originally he had intended to end the story with the Alexandria cycle. Rick Grimes’ tribe finally had a place that was worth defending, a place where they could lead a more normal existence. Society was beginning to assert itself once again, and we had communities such as Hilltop and The Kingdom that were other dots on a map, in this larger world we now knew existed. Kirkman was telling us that everything following Negan’s defeat was all gravy.

Ironically, I had stopped watching the television series right around the spot where Kirkman said the story was going to end originally.

Following All Out War, the comic book jumps forward in time more than two years. Here’s where we get into the gravy. The Whisperer War was interesting, and different from the conflict with the Saviors. The Commonwealth storyline was highly reminiscent of both the Governor and the initial Alexandria stories. Negan’s story continued for a bit with the Whisperers, and then the revelation that Lucille had been his late wife’s name before it became the name of his barbwire-wrapped baseball bat, and then Negan, as a character, seemed more like a neutered housecat that the murderous villain he was introduced as.

While always interesting, the repeating story patterns and tropes made the comic book feel like a never-ending soap opera. I can understand what Kirkman was feeling. This was the series that established him as a writer and helped make him a partner at Image Comics. It was the reason for his success, not just in comics but as a producer/writer on the television show. Part of him wanted it to go on forever. But, his writer’s brain was telling him that the story had organically reached its conclusion. I respect him, even more than I already did, for ending the book on his own terms.

I can’t recommend this compendium—all four compendiums, in fact—enough. The writing is good. The visual storytelling is nothing short of amazing. If your idea of comic books is still grounded in Silver Age comics, which were effectively neutered by Dr. Frederick Wertham and the Comics Code Authority, this series will remind you that comic books can be adult fare. This is an adult drama that just happens to feature zombies as another antagonistic force of nature. As is true in real life, humans are the true enemy, but, by the same token, humans seem to have an instinctive drive to form societies. This is what happens in Kirkman’s comic book.

My grandmother always referred to comic books as “funny books.” Even as a child, I thought this seemed a bit dismissive, even if that wasn’t Nanny’s intent. There is little that is “comic” or “funny” about this long story. People you grow attached to are going to die, and you’ll have to exist, for a time, within that space of grief in order to get to the end of the tale. No matter how Season 11 of the television series ends, I already know how the real story ended. And, it felt right.

Firewater’s The-World-We-Knew-is-Gone Report Card: A

I’m not trying to trivialize what we’ve all experienced during this past year. It has been bad. Maybe not zombie-horde bad, but still an important reminder of how fragile these institutions and traditions that keep humans from reverting to savagery actually are. That’s what this comic book was about. It’s a cautionary tale, but one with a message of hope.

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