War is hell. Especially when that war includes a literal army of zombies.
Long time fans of The Walking Dead series (or the works of George R.R. Martin, for that matter) have long been reassured by Robert Kirkman that anyone can die at any time – and over the years, he’s done a good job of living up to that credo. Yet part of the reason the book has maintained such a large and revolving cast is to facilitate those deaths without readers needing to feel bummed out about losing someone they actually care about. Yeah, when Dale got bitten we feel the impact that it has on the group, but did anyone shed a tear when Curtis died? Glen’s death left readers feeling gutted but did they even remember who Eric was when he was killed? My point being that, while characters die all the time in The Walking Dead, Kirkman is still able to drop a bomb on us by taking out a fan favorite whenever the mood strikes him. With Book 14, which collects the trades for both The Whisperer War and A Certain Doom storylines, The Walking Dead takes us on an emotional journey of loss and redemption that isn’t afraid to pump up the action or dwell on the somber moments when it needs to. It does narrowly skirt the edge of fridging, but we’ll touch on that in a bit.
Our story picks up where the Call to Arms left off, with the leader of the Whisperers (a terrifying group of survivors who lived among the zombie hordes by wearing the skins of the deceased) dead and decapitated at the hands of Negan. Naturally, this doesn’t sit too well with her second-in-command, Beta (sort of a self-fulfilling name, that), who does what any rational but bereft psychopath with an army of zombies at his disposal would do and launches an attack on any and all living people between him and his revenge. Tale as old as time, really. Beta’s first attempt on the survivor network is to launch an assault on several settlements, burning the Hilltop to the ground in the process. Unfortunately for the B-team, however, he happens to run afoul of Dwight and the Alexandria militia (as well as Negan himself) and finds himself and his squad decimated by the better trained and more resourceful survivors. Now Beta barely manages to walk away from the ordeal, and manages to claim the lives of several named characters (most notably Negan’s prized baseball bat, Lucille), but the Whisperers are on their last legs. With their breathing membership reduced to a mere handful of the worst kind of cosplayers (the Ed Gein kind), Beta isn’t going to let even one settlement survive. As such, he decides to drop the post-apocalyptic zombie equivalent of an atomic bomb on the Alexandria safe zone – the super herd.
This virtually endless sea of the undead (which is only convincingly represented in splash page form) is way larger than anything our heroes have ever come up against. Fortunately, Rick and company have a history of creative solutions to the zombie problem, and they immediately launch a multi-pronged attack on this figurative sea of the undead. Andrea, Michonne and Eugene lead a crew of horse-bound riders out to try and divert large sections of the herd into the literal sea, while Rick, Negan crew attempt to shore up the walls of Alexandria and pick off the walkers that reach the gates in waves. Of course, this being The Walking Dead, things don’t go right for either of our squads, so people get hurt. More interestingly, however, we also get some great moments of character development for some otherwise one-note characters. Though he’s become a more nuanced character since the time skip, it’s great to see Eugene coming into his own as a strong and layered person. His monologue about how disaster helps him feel useful is really enlightening, and his acts of bravery in the actual diversionary tactics are a huge departure from his past as a guy pretending to be a scientist with a cure for the zombie epidemic. Similarly a virtual redshirt like Heath getting an opportunity to develop himself beyond being “the guy with the hair” is a great choice for the character.
Still, if there’s a person (in this part of the book) that gets a chance to develop it’s the erstwhile villainous Negan. As the herd bears down on Alexandria, Negan is the first to rush in and lead the attack on the walkers on the wall. When the zombies begin pushing up against the gate so hard that the corpses start to get pushed through the bars like Play Doh he and the remaining survivors start pushing toward their homes to barricade themselves from the zombie threat but Rick (who admittedly was originally hobbled by Negan) trips and seems doomed. Negan then selflessly grabs his would-be nemesis and drags him to safety in a nearby building. Inside, the two have an increasingly personal heart to heart conversation about their unfortunate pasts. It is here where Negan opens up about the loss of his wife and his inability to deal with her reanimated corpse. He explains how he became so heartless and cruel without excusing his behavior, owns his own actions and accepts that he’ll literally always be at arm’s length from every other person he interacts with in the future. Later, when the herd threat has passed and the Alexandria survivors are held at gunpoint by the Saviors, it is Negan who talks them down from all out war (ironically) and helps cooler heads prevail. He’ll always be the man who killed Glen in maybe the most brutally violent sequence ever depicted on panel, but that there’s more to him than the smirking villain that he has most often been portrayed as (especially on TV) is really cool, and speaks to Kirkman’s ability to create nuance within his characters.
Of course, the big news in the book is the passing of Andrea, and it’s another situation that Kirkman handles expertly. So in an effort to rescue Eugene from the herd, Andrea rushes in and manages to pull his bacon out of the fire. In the process of doing so, however, she is bitten by a walker. Being one of the main characters, who was literally been a part of the cast since the second issue of the book, Andrea’s fate is handled with remarkable grace, with most of the extended cast – friend and foe alike – paying their respects to the deposed sharp shooter. The telling moment, however, is Rick’s reaction, as it is some of the most raw emotion ever depicted in the series. Rick is destroyed by this loss, even considering dying alongside the woman he grew to love before putting down her reanimated corpse. This scene may be divisive among some readers because most of the dialogue is Andrea giving pep talks to her husband about moving on and surviving. Like Jean suggesting that Scott should embrace his relationship with Emma in New X-Men, this sequence could easily be described by some readers as fridging, but I feel like Andrea’s character has developed in such a way that she would spend her final hours trying to inspire her loved ones rather than dwelling on her own fate.
On the technical side, the art in this collection is great. You know what you’re getting into with Charlie Adlard at this point, but this is also a great outing for the artist. Adlard is at his best when he’s depicting heavily emotional or violent moments, and this book as both in spades. From the fear of herd, to the anguish of loss, the emotional beats are pitch perfect – especially in the more tender moments like Andrea’s death scene. Violence wise, there’s plenty of cringe inducing gore to go around too, with Father Gabriel’s death by devouring standing out as a fittingly gruesome moment for a book based in a zombie apocalypse. If there’s a complaint about his artwork, it’s likely in his depiction of fire. Given that he works in an entirely black and white medium, there are limits to what he can do to produce the effect of flames. As such, what we do get is just a shapeless collection of negative space meant to represent the element, which does somewhat weaken the burning of the Hilltop sequence. It’s not enough to ruin anything, mind you, but it is a weak point in a book where I’m really struggling to find counterpoints to the praise I’m heaping upon it.
Overall, this is a great collection for longtime fans. The emotional punch that is the loss of Andrea is very real, and the action is good enough to keep the casuals rapt for this book’s 300-plus page runtime – provided they can accept the considerable context for this book’s central conflict. The book is proof that there’s still legs in this series after all these years, and maybe the team of Kirkman and Adlard may still have a passion for the subject matter. More of this please.