I know it’s hard to have a conversation about The Walking Dead that doesn’t hover around this Sunday’s monumental midseason finale, but this past week’s issue of the book that inspired the show is well worth a conversation all its own. For devotees who have followed the ongoing saga of Rick Grimes since the beginning, the past few years have asked a seemingly insurmountable task of us.
They’ve asked us to forgive Negan. Now, regardless of how you feel about the smirking slouchy jackass that is Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s portrayal of the character on the hit AMC show, Negan in the comics has somehow always managed to be charming. He’s a sadistic monster when we first meet him. In his introduction to readers he threatens to remove Carl Grimes’ good eye, has his men run a train on the teenager to keep his father in line, force Rick to…uh…fellate him, and then proceeds to brutally murder the most lovable character in the first 100 issues of the series (and yes, that includes the baby). Yet despite being an absolutely horrid human being, he also somehow managed to be funny. As time went on and we saw more of the Saviors’ leader, we got to learn more about him. From his bizarre code of ethics to his bizarre philosophy on survival to (in the recent B-story turned graphic novel Here’s Negan) the tragic backstory that made him into a cold psycho with a romantic interest in a baseball bat, the character has grown into something that his pedigree would suggest he could never be – relatable.
That’s what makes issue #174 such a landmark outing for Kirkman and Adlard, as it plays our desire to like Negan as a funny character trying to redeem himself against our desire to see villains get punished for their deeds. The basic premise of the issue is that the scout Maggie has had spying on Negan in the odd exile he finds himself in has led the widow to his hovel, and the former Mrs. Rhee is looking for revenge. Newer readers who don’t recall the impact of Negan’s action, now that he’s been on the side of good for nearly 2 real world years, may not appreciate what follows nearly as much as those of us who have spent a few years following the saga, but man do Kirkman and Adlard do their best to let you feel every emotional beat. Whether it’s Maggie’s righteous fury or Negan’s resigned state of contrition, Adlard is excellent at showing every inch of these character’s souls as the emotional melodrama plays out.
This is as an emotionally tense exchange as has ever been shown in The Walking Dead, with a forlorn Negan ready to embrace the fate that even he views as justified, and Maggie angry both at the man before her and his willingness to submit to her revenge. It’s a really incredible exchange from two characters that have grown leaps and bounds from their original incarnations. These are two people we’ve seen emerge from their previous forms into more fully realized characters but forever linked by a past tragedy that one committed against the other. You truly don’t know who to root for in this book, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. Maggie does allow Negan to live, and while neither character seems like they got what they truly wanted out of this exchange, both seem at peace with this course of action. Some may complain that this was a beef that should have taken more than one issue to address, but that honestly feels like an idea that is better on paper than…also on paper…man, that analogy doesn’t really work when you’re talking about comics.
This was a tightly told story that gave credence to the shared trauma of two individuals. It’s kind of ironic that this story comes out at a time when scores of powerful men are being asked to own up to their past misdeeds, though here’s hoping that pieces of shit like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey actually do face justice. Negan may have survived his brush with one of the people he has wronged, but he is not redeemed. It’s unlikely that he will ever be considered a good person, much less be fully trusted, but his claims to be past the man he used to be seem genuine – with the symbolic burning of the baseball bat cementing his change of heart. Issue 174 may not be the flashiest or most exciting outing for this creative team, but it packs a hell of a wallop. Kirkman and Adlard keep their strong streak of emotionally resonant stories going strong making this one of the strongest years since like 2010.