Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor review

My relationship with The Walking Dead has been challenged since the show first started to air. The show left me feeling cold and uninterested in a comic book series I loved for many years. I discovered the series shortly after starting university in late 2007 and I remember binge reading all of the series up to that point. Since then I've been buying the 12 issues hardcover volumes as they're released and rereading chunks of the series when I feel like it. So far, my enjoyment of the franchise ended with the comics. I never got into the show. I was excited to hear they were making it but it never really worked for me. Besides, I think comics are better suited for this kind of storytelling. Robert Kirkman’s goal in creating the series was to essentially make a never-ending zombies story and the slow, periodical publication of comic books is ideal for that kind of idea. It provides the reader with regular doses of the story at a constant, unrelenting (zombie like?) pace and for a story without end, I think a slower schedule is better than anything else.

I love the comic. I really do. I’m rather attached to some of the characters and overall I like most of them (well, like to hate them in some cases). There isn’t much plot beyond survival and survival related drama but that’s what the genre is about for the most part. Kirkman doesn’t include interesting social commentary like the best zombie stories do but even without that dynamic the series works for me because of its simplicity. Kirkman does give the series a nice humanistic approach. They’re simple themes and often times they get lost and pushed aside in favour of more guts and violence. I think the comic medium also helps to keep a balance between zombie violence and survival drama because pages of action and violence really eats up a single comic book issue’s “real-estate”. Have you ever notice just how big the speech bubbles get in some of the issues? It’s all there to advance the story because the language of comics is very different than the language of movies, TV and novels.

Still, the violence and zombie-gore is an essential part of the series and even when there isn’t an all-out attack, Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard continue to make zombies integral and integral part of the series. Equally important though is how the characters continuously try to rebuild a semblance of life and community. Thrown into the mix is the message that humanity is made up of more or less equal parts shitty assholes and caring, hardworking individuals. Sometimes a given character can embody both aspects of humanity. In The Walking Dead: The rise of the Governor, we get such a character.

I always though The Walking Dead would be a good series to have spin-offs. I would have expected a comic book spin-off by a creative team other than Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard, but a series of novels re-introducing us to characters before their appearances in the comic series is also a good idea. The Rise of the Governor is co-written by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga and it focuses on the Governor, leader of the Woodbury survivors. I learned a lot of interesting things about the character and in the end, I rather enjoyed the book but it was also kind of terrible in some parts. Some parts were just shit, actually.

Let’s start with the obvious: the Governor. He’s an evil shit head. Why would I want to read more about him? Well, obviously I wanted to know more about the character because I ended up reading the book but I was hoping the novel would be about a transformative event that resulted in him becoming emotionally unstable (zombies will do that to ya). I definitively got that out of the novel but for such a large portion of the book, it was really about another character. More on this in the spoiler section below.

The other thing that rather upset me is why didn’t the story start at the beginning? I don’t mean the day Blake (the Governor) was born or even pre-zombies. I mean why not start at the beginning of the zombie epidemic? Instead, the novel starts 72 hours after. I feel like the writers missed out on some potentially great character moments. I feel like the writers missed out on some potentially great character moments by not writing about the characters first encounter with the zombies. Instead, we find the group of five (four adults males and one girl) already in full undead extermination mode. They’ve already begun adapting to the new world order. This isn’t just a missed opportunity, it’s crucial to the development of who the Governor was before and how he was changed by the events in his life after the arrival of the undead.

The undead themselves are a bit of a problem, too. If it’s only 72 hours after the plague, why are the zombies already pretty grotesque looking? I don’T know about you but I’m pretty sure it would take more than 3 days for my teeth to rot in my mouth. Zombies are often mistakenly characterized by rapid and advanced bodily decay. I’ve always seen it as an extended preservation of the body’s motor function in addition to significant loss in brain function. The body rots and breaks down over time, absolutely, but I would take much longer to decompose than a non-zombie body would. The decay is slowed for zombies otherwise they wouldn’t be able to walk around for months. The descriptions of the zombies being killed are unnecessarily detailed. It’s not just that it’s graphic, it’s that it’s so detailed it feels like I’m reading an anatomy textbook. It’s not as descriptive later on in the novel, but the first few chapters are filled with awkwardly detailed descriptions of an undead’s head exploding and spattering gray matter onto walls.

Remember in the comic how everybody wanted to go to Atlanta because there were rumours that shelters were located throughout the city? Somehow the small group in this book manage to travel to and in Atlanta without encountering any other people. Do you really expect me to believe that the main characters do not encounter any other survivors when travelling on to a large urban center? That’s pretty ridiculous. Of course they find a family of three living in Atlanta but those are the only survivors they find in the entire city. It rings false. You could argue that it’s just a few hours after the plague. A lot of people have undoubtedly barricaded themselves in their houses and haven’t come out yet. Who couldn’t survive in their house or apartment without leaving for a least a week? It’s possible that people haven’t left their homes yet. That’s makes it all the more difficult to believe just how few people they encountered in Atlanta. If one quarter of the population stayed boarded up, the little group would have encountered way more people when entering and leaving the city.

It’s not all bad though. A lot of my criticism has to do with relatively minor details it’s undeniable that it will stick out to attentive readers and it could contribute to whether or not you like the book. For me though, what almost ruined the book were the elements of rape, the lack of diversity in the characters and the overbearing sense of machismo. The machismo I can mostly deal with. It makes sense that in a post-apocalyptic world the traditional ideas of manliness and masculinity would resurface. It’s a violent world and you need to be physically and emotionally tough to survive. Kirkman has done a good job to balance the various characters that show just how tough they are. He’s also shown many ways in which people can be helpful to a group in such a world. There are many skills from their past lives than can be used to improve their lives now. It’s nice to see that incorporated in the story. The rape was completely unnecessary in my opinion. It’s a difficult subject to write about and it was poorly used in the novel to give the characters a reason to leave Atlanta. It was a plot point that could easily have been swapped out for dozens of other character driven story elements but instead, it’s as if the writers just wanted to bring in a rape scene into the mix. I get it. It’s post-apocalyptic fiction and rape along with dozens of other unpleasant thing are going to pop up but write those things in service of the story, not the other way around.

Jay Bonansinga – I’m not familiar with his body of work but he clearly contributed heavily to the novel itself. Kirkman is a comic writer, not a novelist. If he was, I doubt there would be a credit for another author on the cover of this book. I’m not sure where Kirkman stops and Bonansinga begins but I wouldn’t be surprised if the former played the roles of plotter and story consultant and the other did most of the writing.

Overall The Rise of the Governor is a decent first entry into The Walking Dead novel series. It’s got flaws, some minor and a couple major, but by the end of the book the story and the writers appear to have found their footing. It was a rocky start and I’m not sure the Governor was the best character with which to start off this spin-off series but the rest of the books might change my opinion of that. As a spin-off series, it still maintains some consistency with the comic series. There are a few allusions to people running through doorways while they’re in Atlanta which I took to be references to Glenn and Rick running around for supplies. I’m also pretty certain that the “ALL DEAD. DO NOT ENTER.” sign that Brian Blake puts up is the same gated community that Rick and the gate encounter in the series but I haven’t double checked. After reading up on the second volume, it looks like the series will focus on other characters from Woodbury for a while and that’s ok with me because I’d be interested in knowing what was going on there before Rick and the other showed. There’s a lot of good potential with this first novel and it was a rocky reading experience but I enjoyed it and I’m hopeful for the quality and story of the second volume.

Bonus review:
There is a short story ebook that takes placed between the first and second volumes of The Walking Dead novel series. It’s called The Walking Dead: Just Another Day at the Office and it’s not really worth your time. Not because it’s bad, it’s enjoyable though nothing spectacular. My problem with it has to do with the extreme shortest of the story. It’s shorter than the average chapter length in The Rise of the Governor and most of the ebook is made up of a preview chapter for the second volume in the series, The Road to Woodbury which I already had in my edition of The Rise of the Governor. To summarize the story, after Blake’s transformation into what will soon become the Governor, he kills off dozens of zombies in spectacular fashion which helps to solidify his position as new leader of Woodbury.

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