REVIEW: The Walking Dead #76

I’ve seen a few people unhappy with The Walking Dead #76, saying it’s a cop-out. Their stance seems to be that, after months of tension bubbling up, it was all coming to a head at the end of #75, with Rick in apparent dire straits. But here, with this issue, everything resolved itself too neatly. Rick was not punished in any way by Douglas, and was allowed to keep his job as sheriff. And beyond Rick’s dilemma, you had Glenn and Heath both arriving back in town safely. The complaint I’ve read is that everything has been resolved nice and neatly, with no one having to suffer from the consequences of their actions.

I think this is an understandable stance to take, and I can see where the people that say this are coming from. But I don’t agree. I think by taking a closer read, you’ll see it only appears on the surface as if everyone has got off scot-free. But look deeper, and there are consequences alright.

Yes, Glenn and Heath made it back safely. But the potentially dangerous gang are aware of them, and could have followed them right to the gates of the community. And we don’t know if Heath will be too late in getting the medication to his friend. So I’d say this particular story strand is far from tied up in a neat bow.

And then there are the consequences that Rick must face. Yes, he has retained his place within the community – he hasn’t been cast out, or locked up as a prisoner, or executed for his crimes. And if anything this incident has improved his relationship with Douglas – more on that later. It might appear like Rick got away with his grave misconduct at the conclusion of the last issue. But page 19 sums up for me exactly why this is not the case.

Every panel of this page says something about Rick’s character, and the impact his rash actions have had on him and his standing within the ensemble. So let’s look through the page panel by panel, shall we?

At first, it might not seem like the first panel is doing anything other than establishing setting. But Charlie Adlard makes sure to throw in the small detail of Rick clutching his shoulder. Why is this significant? It shows Rick is still in pain. He is not a superhero, he is not Jack Bauer. He is an ordinary small town cop and, let’s face it, a cripple. When he gets into a fistfight with somebody and ends up flying through a glass window, it’s going to take a toll on his body. Briefly acknowledging the physical repercussions of Rick’s actions sets the stage to then explore the deeper repercussions in the panels that follow.

With panel 2, we are introduced to the ladies that are watching him. Here we see them in the background, but the focus of the image is Rick himself in the foreground. Look at him, cast into shadow, his face covered in banadages. He looks quite menacing, doesn’t he? This gives us a glimpse of Rick as much of the community must see him. Think of it from their perspective: they don’t know Rick, or the various heroic deeds he’s done to protect the other survivors in his group. All they know is that a new arrival has come into the town, and before long was assaulting the local doctor and pointing a gun at their leader, Douglas. And now he’s walking around town looking like Marv from Sin City. It’s understandable that they must think he’s a thug, or a psycho. The way he’s drawn here presents him as a stranger, someone who does not belong.

Panel 3 confirms these judgements by showing us clearly what these two women think of Rick when looking at him, their views serving as an embodiment of the community as a whole. The woman in front looks afraid, while the woman behind looks angry and suspicious. And this is where I don’t buy the conclusion that Rick got away clean with his breakdown last issue and that he doesn’t have to face any consequences. It doesn’t matter if Douglas gives him the full pardon. It wouldn’t matter if Douglas himself made a public announcement to the whole community that Rick is a great guy and is to be trusted implicitly. You can’t undo a thought once it’s been planted there. And so even if Rick were to go by for months and months without setting a single foot wrong, it’s his one moment of public madness that will now be how he is defined, how these people will view him. And as the plot develops, the loss of the community’s trust could prove to be a pretty hefty consequence.

Panel 4 appears to just be a transitional panel, but in fact subtly sets out a number of important dynamics. First, you have the small but crucial detail that Rick is looking over his shoulder, presumably at the women. Why is this crucial? Because it shows that not only are people afraid and suspicious of Rick, but he’s aware that they are afraid and suspicious of him. The ladies being off-panel here, and Michonne being a distant outline, also serves to emphasize that Rick has found himself in a place where he now belongs to neither group, not to the community he’s joined or the survivors he came here with. Also, more obviously, the placement of Michonne in his path foreshadows the brewing adversarial relationship between them.

Panel 5 is the big moment of the page, and represents something of a turning point. It is the final score underlining the demise of the relationship between Rick and Michonne as it has stood up until this point. Michonne was, perhaps more than anyone else amongst the remaining survivors, Rick’s confidant. He could share with her details that he couldn’t share with anyone else, such as the fact that he talks to Lori through his phone. Michonne talks to her dead boyfriend too, they had that in common. More than just that, though, Michonne was Rick’s level head, the person he could turn to in moments of weakness for guidance or just a second opinion. And in a conflict, she was someone who could always be counted on to back Rick up. She really was his deputy. But here, Rick allows himself to relax in front of Michonne, talks about how he can’t sleep, but Michonne isn’t interested in sharing anymore. She just cuts him off and tells him to fix whatever’s wrong with himself. Some people gave Michonne a hard time for her “betrayal” at the end of the last issue, but I think the subsequent explanation in this issue showed she was acting in Rick’s interests, to save him from himself. But now, it seems, she’s done. She’s not going to help him anymore. She’s ditched her sword, she’s made an effort to change. And Rick’s inability to do so is obviously making her furious.

Rick’s reaction to this on panel 6 is just as important. It isn’t anger, disappointment or guilt, it’s pure shock and horror. Why does Michonne cutting him off have such an impact on him? Think about how they confided in each other. They both shared stories of talking to dead loved ones. With that bond with Michonne, Rick could tell himself that no, he’s not going crazy. Michonne is in the same boat! If they’re both experiencing it, surely it’s just a natural human expression of grief, right? But if Michonne is now keeping her distance, if she is going to the others and telling them that she thinks “Rick might have lost it”, then that has serious implications for Rick and his sense of self. Could he be slipping past that territory of understandable grief into dangerous regions of mental instability?

The final consequence of Rick’s actions at the end of #75 are laid out in panel 7, the last panel of the page. Michonne’s placement in the panel features her far more prominently than Rick. And she’s giving him an order. Combined, I think this is reflective of Rick’s subjugation in the group pecking order, his leadership status now at risk. Rick has repeatedly said throughout the series (and says it again in this issue) that he never wanted to be leader, but I don’t think that’s true. Whether it’s conscious or not, I think being leader is very important to Rick. Not out of being hungry for power or anything, but because having people defer to him, depend on him, is part of what keeps Rick sane, part of what keeps him moving forward. It gives him a place in this grim new world he’s woken up into. Even at times when he had stood back out of that authority role and let others make the decisions, people were still looking to him for answers, they still trusted him. But now, by pulling a gun on Douglas he has done something absolutely wrong, something that put him and potentially the whole group at risk for no really good reason. All of a sudden he’s in a position where his judgement can’t be trusted, where people can’t depend on him. Perhaps Michonne will now be required to step up and fill that void (note how she promptly goes and does what Rick spectacularly failed to do – resolves the situation with Pete and Jessie, a firm hand on Pete’s shoulder being all she needs to convince him to keep his distance). Perhaps Rick is not leadership material anymore.

Sorry, that was going into a whole lot of detail for a single page. But I just wanted to demonstrate that, far from being meandering like some might suggest, The Walking Dead in fact remains one of the most densely-plotted comics out there. Very rarely is there a wasted panel, just about every panel has something to say about someone.

But the worse consequence of all for Rick comes outside of page 19, with the conclusion of the issue. Carl walks in on Rick, and sees him talking on the phone to Lori. Even if Carl isn’t aware of exactly who Rick is imagining he’s talking to, it’s still pretty bad seeing your dad talking to an imaginary person through an unplugged telephone. I have commented in recent reviews that we haven’t really seen much of Carl in a while, and now I think that was deliberate. As Rick got caught up in his various other agendas, he was beginning to lose sight of what has defined him more than anything else over the course of the series: his status as a father, his relationship with his son Carl. He may have claimed he was acting in Carl’s interests, but his actions often seemed to go against that. The confrontation between Rick and Carl earlier in the issue alluded to the pair possibly growing apart, but this ending brings this dynamic right to the forefront going forward. Rick losing the trust of the community, or of the other survivors, would both be big losses for him. But no loss of trust would be more devastating to him than losing the trust of Carl. I think next issue is going to be a big issue for laying out their relationship going forward.

I think the key line that sums up Rick’s development in this issue comes in that last page – “I think I’m losing control.” He means it in terms of his grip on sanity, which is certainly valid. But it can also relate to him losing control of his relationship with the community, with the survivors, with Carl, the foundations that have come to define him crumbling beneath his feet and sending him into a spiralling freefall. What becomes of a man who loses everything that defines his sense of self? One answer could be that they grow to define themselves in another way, and that could be where the evolving relationship between Rick and Douglas comes into play.

The real meat of the issue was the conversations between Rick and Douglas. Douglas is fast becoming one of my favourite characters in the book. We all naturally distrusted him at first, and I’m sure plenty still do distrust him, but I’m growing to think he’s a solid guy – from the way he shut down Gabriel to his levelling with Rick here in this issue. Rick clearly underestimated him – the man is no pushover, and much like Rick, he is willing to fight and even kill to protect this community. But still, it might seem strange, giving more power to someone who has just openly challenged and threatened you. What could Douglas’ reasoning for this be? Now, this is total speculation, but in spite of his command for Rick to never question his leadership again (and his threat to murder him if he does) I think Douglas is grooming Rick as a possible replacement. We’ve seen glimpses of Douglas making advances at the young women in the camp, at him giving potential threats risky jobs. The very things he accuses Davidson of doing. It could be that Douglas is gradually transforming into Davidson, and is aware of this fact. And in Rick, I think Douglas sees someone who is a lot like the old him, a kindred spirit – look at how his face lights up with hope when he asks Rick if he killed his best friend too. He desperately wants someone he can relate to. And more than this, he wants someone who can keep him in line, someone who can stop him from turning into Davidson and… maybe… someone who can do what needs to be done for the good of the community if he does indeed turn into another Davidson. This is why I think Douglas was in fact aware of Rick going after the guns, and that he in fact expected a big blow-up like in the last issue to take place. I think he’s been testing Rick all along.

At first, we expected Douglas to become the next Governor for Rick to contend with, and that could still happen. But even if Douglas ends up an antagonist, he’ll still be a refreshingly different one from The Governor, which we really should have known, as Kirkman hasn’t repeated himself yet over the course of the series. As it stands, though, Douglas is growing into a nuanced, fascinating character who I look forward to learning more about in future issues.

So to round up this essay-length ramble, The Walking Dead #76 might not have been as explosive as the previous issue, but there was lots of interesting stuff going on here. And rather than everything being wrapped up like some have said, I think there has been groundwork laid for plenty of intriguing plot threads moving forward. Far from the fireworks being abruptly cut off last issue, I’d say the real fireworks have yet to come…

And as a final note, it’s great seeing “Eisner 2010 Award Winner for Best Continuing Series” along the top of the cover. Well deserved! Congrats to Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and the rest of the creative team!

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