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2019 is officially the year of the Endgame. Game of Thrones. the first three phases of the MCU and numerous others have all either entered their home stretch or crossed over it and kept going back to the North as Old Town Road plays. It’s always an interesting time in pop culture when this happens and this week, we got another one to add to the list: The Walking Dead.
Not the show(s), those are gearing up for a triumphant second decade. The comic they’re based on though finished this week. The comics retailer in my recoils at the fact no one actually told retailers until a few days ago. The comics journalist in me wonders if anyone will pick up on that. The comics reader in me? Well, he’s pretty happy with this because it’s a great ending to an epochal book. And The Walking Dead really was epochal. It started back when I was in retail and caught the wave of ‘…wait we can repackage these as books and SELL THEM AGAIN?!’ perfectly. Reprint followed reprint and lo, a shambling, groaning merchandising behemoth was born.
The thing is though, even under all of that, it was always a comic that was never less than well done and often great. This last issue cements that too, as we jump forward a decade and follow an adult, married Carl Grimes on a very strange trip across the new America. A journey that begins here.
The death of a single Roamer here is a window the new status quo for both Carl and the world. It turns out that, a decade on, the world is now so safe that Roamers are kept in travelling freak shows. One of them, run by Hershel, the son of Carl’s old friend Maggie, lets one escape. It makes it’s way to Carl’s land, he kills it and is charged with destruction of property. His response to that sets off his journey and shows us one last look at this brave, and now largely safe, new world.
The genius of Kirkman’s script here is in how untidy it is. Carl is still the human embodiment of PTSD, a man who lives outside the village in every sense and is gently amused by the anachronism he’s slowly becoming. He’s Rick Grimes’ kid. He’s a rock star wrapped in a legend’s clothes and it clearly makes him very uncomfortable. That lack of comfort, and the kid gloves he’s treated with, drive the story and set up the conflict with Hershel with real elegance. Hershel is the son of the President of the largest human colony left in America. His childhood was safe because Carl’s wasn’t and Maggie’s neglect of her son is an open wound throughout the issue. It’s a difficult one too; on the one hand slamming one of the book’s best characters as a bad mom in the finale feels like a cheap shot. On the other, Maggie, Hershel and the rest are used to communicate the book’s message:
The future is untidy. Just like the present. And the past.
Carl will always be worried and traumatized. Hershel will always be the last frat boy on Earth. Trouble is always on the horizon but it doesn’t always leave the horizon. As the issue continues we see that, with Carl touching base with the other characters. Some are happy and settled. Some, like Negan in arguably the best use of him the book has ever had, are haunted by their past. Others like Eugene are aging, possibly dying and too damn busy to care. There may be trouble ahead. But right now there are things to do and the time to do them in.
That’s why the issue works so well. Because the careful, mournful grays of Cliff Rathburn’s work, Charlie Adlard’s tense, terse lines and Rus Wooton’s letters all show us a world that’s vibrant and scrappy and desperate to live in whatever way it can. It’s there that Carl makes his peace too; finishing the issue reading the story of his father’s life to his daughter. Horror rendered into fable. Monsters as tourist attractions. A quiet Earth but a live one, today. And in this book, where survival has sometimes been minute to minute, that’s victory enough.
The Walking Dead is available in multiple formats and collected editions. If you can, I’d recommend these. Here’s my local comic shop. Here’s yours. Here’s Comixology.