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READING THE WALKING DEAD – The TV Show VS. The Comics

October 22 2012

Think Lori couldn’t be any more annoying? You would be wrong.

by Kellie Sheridan

Fair Warning: This feature looks at plot and other devices of both the TV show and the comics. There will obviously be all kinds of spoilers, up to and including Season 3.

Over the past few months I have become something of a zombie addict, which I can completely blame on The Walking Dead – specifically, on AMC’s acclaimed television version, developed by Frank Darabont. I watched all of the first two seasons over the summer, and then finally decided to give the comics a fighting chance after passing them over a couple of years earlier. I could gush about how much I’m enjoying the show all day, but its hard to ignore that it is based off of a wildly successful series of graphic novels of the same name. After reading up to (more or less) the same point as where I was in the show my brain, though, was left a muddle of mixed up characters and story arcs. I had heard that a lot of things in the comics differed from the television show, but after thinking on it for some time, I was ultimately really impressed with the balance that the writers were able to find between adapting the graphic novels and coming up with mind-blowing scenes and characters that were made just for television.

I read the first installment of the comics long before I watched the show – the first issue of The Walking Dead as first released by Image Comics in 2003 – but for whatever reason didn’t get hooked the first time around, so when I finally watched the first episode of the series I had some major feelings of déjà vu. The pilot episode follows the original story almost to a T, and sends the initial message to long-time fans that the showrunners are prepared to honor the source material they’re working with.

The Walking Dead’s first episode starts off with the zombie apocalypse already in full swing, when small town-Georgia Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) awakens from a gunshot- induced coma and finds the world a very different place. We see him going through what everyone else experienced in the months while he was while he was fast asleep; mainly, he was just disoriented to find a world in chaos and his family gone. His first real move isn’t a great one as he heads into Atlanta (home of the CDC) in search of answers. Anyone who knows anything about zombies knows to get away from heavily populated areas, but Rick is new at this and acts accordingly. So far, so comic-y.

The family Grimes, reunited.

Things get a lot less easy to predict once Rick meets up with some of the survivors in Atlanta and needs to help them fight their way out of the city and back to where they’ve been camping out since the infection began to spread. Understandably, the show can get a lot more information into any given scene and so the writers were able to draw this out, making it the first real fight for survival of the show, as well as giving Rick a chance to assert himself as a leader right away. In Atlanta, we also meet Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker) who, along with his brother Daryl (Norman Reedus), doesn’t exist in the comic universe, which I’m sure threw long time comic fans for a loop. Merle and Daryl both end up shaping and changing how the story moves forward simply by being there.

My favorite scene of the first season was Rick being reunited with his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs); the television format allowed for everything to be so much more touching than a few panels of a comic could possibly allow for, without needing at add or change much of anything. Season 1 follows the original storyline fairly closely while also providing a few detours that add to the world and the characters, without taking away any crucial moments. This is the where having the comics really benefited the fans of the series as the creators were able to go back and add more information right from the get go, giving us a chance to get to know tragic sisters Amy (Emma Bell) and Andrea (Laurie Holden) together, or visiting the CDC to learn a bit more about how the infection spread on a global scale.

Arguably, the most shocking differences in the series came at the beginning of Season 2. While the Carl- gets-shot-by-Otis storyline played out almost frame by frame as it did in the comics, we were also holding our breath and following the Sophia-is-missing storyline. What happens to Sophia is brand new to fans and has an ending we never saw coming, both because it hadn’t been done in the comics and because it proves once and for all that this show will go all the way in order to shock its audience. My guess is that had creator of the graphic novels, Robert Kirkman, thought of it, the barn scene would have been Sophia’s fate in the comics as well, as it made for a genuinely great twist in the plot and had an effect on every major character. It also allowed for her downtrodden mother Carol (Melissa McBride) to evolve in new, more interesting ways that we are only beginning to see.

THE WALKING DEAD, Season 3 Cast

The other major differences stemmed from having Rick’s best-friend/Lori’s former lover Shane (Jon Bernthal) live on well into the second season. Not only does Shane get a chance to matter more to the characters and plot arcs, but we also get to see him slowly lose his handle on reality. His instability has a big effect on the character of Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn), the elder statesman of the group who for some time is the only one to see Shane for how he is. Dale ends up meeting an early demise, and never strikes up the same relationship as comic Dale had with Andrea, and well… thank God for that. Dale’s death shocked a lot of the fan base but once again confirmed that we shouldn’t get to comfortable. It ended up being the catalyst the surviving characters needed in order to get back to what’s important and become again people we could root for.

With Season 3 having the main group headed into the prison, we are likely to see the show head back into more familiar territory for fans of the comic. [Read Kellie's exuberant review of the first episode here. - Ed.] Both the prison and The Governor have been featured in Season 3 promos, and both represent major plot arcs from the comics. But while we’re working within settings that comic book readers know well, there is no question that there are still going to be a lot of unexpected moments and likely even massive deviations from what we might be expecting, and odds are it will be completely awesome!

But what about the characters? How do their TV incarnations fare, when held up to their comic predecessors? Well, let’s see…

RICK

I’ve gone back and forth on this one quite a bit. While the essence of Rick is the same in both mediums, his role is executed differently. TV Rick is less apt to royally screw everything up and is easier to root for, while Comic Rick is less predictable and more focused. Ultimately, TV Rick does the better job of being the lens through which viewers experience the zombie apocalypse. He’s the guy I would aspire to be if I were ever in the same situation.

Win: Television Show

LORI

Evvverryybody hates Lori, and for many this showdown is really just looking at the lesser of two evils. Personally, I think TV Lori is a decent character and incredibly realistic. Sure, she’s a little on the annoying side and could have done things differently, but the woman is human and has had a lot of tough decisions thrown at her. Other characters are easily forgiven for pulling a lot of the same stuff Lori does, but for some reason everyone likes hating Lori. I think Comic Lori is generally pretty bland and hard to relate to. I was tempted to call this one a tossup because I am clearly on the wrong side of public opinion on this, but I can’t help what I really feel.

Win: Television Show

CARL

At this point, Carl in the show is a mere shadow of the character he is based off of. TV Carl is an annoyance at best, and at worst he’s the cause of whatever crisis the characters are currently facing. In the comics, Carl’s role as Rick’s son makes him a focal point for a lot of storylines and he’s quickly forced to become a dynamic character. As the show progresses and TV Carl has to grow up, this might change, but for now…

Win: The Comics

SHANE

My initial reaction to TV Shane… yum! There was something about him, with his shaggy hair and puppy dog eyes, that made him an early favorite of mine. Obviously, that was destroyed when he started taking the crazy pills. This man had a wonderfully written downward spiral that played a big role in shaping Season 2 of the show. Comic Shane is nothing more than a minor plot device and is killed off early. No contest.

Win: Television Show

EVERYONE ELSE

Overall, the characters in the comics are significantly better realized and fleshed out. In part, this is because they’ve been around longer – Vol. 17 of the comic, encompassing issues #97-102, is due out in December – but in too many cases good characters are just utilized badly in the small screen adaptation. TV T-Dog (IronE Singleton; yes, “IronE”) is a poor substitute for Comic Tyrese, and I’m not even entirely sure why that change was made. Dale on the television show is also drastically different from the character he was created from. I like TV Dale but he’s not someone you admire so much as tolerate. In watching the show before reading the comics, I have to say I’m glad that there was never a romantic element to the Dale-Andrea relationship onscreen. They just aren’t the same people and it would have been all kinds of ick.

Win: The Comics

Daryl. Everyone's favorite character, a cumulative 20 minutes of screen time. Huh.

In fact, the television show is probably a more realistic take on the kinds of people that would be thrown together in a group of survivors, while the comic book represents more of the ideal. The one exception to this is Daryl, who as I mentioned doesn’t even exist in the comic universe. Daryl is awesome, and a welcome addition to the team.

Of course, the quality of both forms is excellent and I highly recommend both to anyone who will listen. If I had to choose, there’s no question that the TV show will continue to be my preferred medium for following Rick Grimes and (surviving) company, but that’s entirely based on my own preference for TV and not because I think the source material is in any way lacking. While some of the differences between the two stem from what works for each format, others feel simply like cool things Kirkman didn’t think of the first time around.

In the end, you just have to accept both for what they are and go from there. Whether you choose to indulge in the show and not the comics, or vice versa, or not at all, is going to be about what works for you. Personally, I think from now on I will try to watch the show first and then only go as far in the comics as Rick and co. have gone onscreen. I’d rather see it on television first, and not have the comics spoil too much for me, but I’ve certainly got room for both.

– Kellie Sheridan

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