It’s nice that, on the month that the eagerly-anticipated TV adaptation makes its American debut, the comic is still firing on all cylinders, with The Walking Dead #78 proving to be another great instalment. While I’ve found plenty to enjoy throughout this arc, those left wanting more action and zombies will be very happy with the direction taken in this particular issue, which offered quite a few exciting moments.
First, a few words about the cover. Throughout its run, it has been common for The Walking Dead to have misleading covers. But it’s a lot rarer for the cover to feature an outright lie, as was the case here. On the cover we see Andrea and Tobin locking lips, but no such event takes place within the comic itself, and though Andrea does play a significant role in the issue, it’s as a largely off-panel presence. I can’t help but think Andrea starting a relationship with Tobin was a plot thread that was nixed at the 11th hour, at a point where it was too late to change the cover.
But enough about what wasn’t in the issue – let’s take a look at what was. If Kirkman gave his issues titles, surely the title for this issue could have been “How Rick Grimes Got His Groove Back.” Rick was front-and-centre here pretty much throughout, and while merely a couple of issues ago I was talking about Rick losing his grip on everything around him – including his leadership status – here we see Rick taking control of situation after situation. It’s telling that, even as the herd of zombies close in on the community, the issue’s closing sequence instead focused on the equally climactic plot thread of Douglas handing over leadership of Alexandria to Rick. For months now we’ve been speculating on the direction the Douglas/Rick relationship could take, made guesses of the various ways Rick could become the new leader of the community, but I think few of us guessed that Douglas would simply give the role up. But while the way it happened may have surprised, I think most of us saw Rick’s ascension to this position of authority as inevitable. In every status quo the group enter into, Rick always ends up the leader eventually, one way or another. And despite his protestations and claims that he has no desire to be a leader, the look of grim satisfaction on his face in the issue’s closing panel shows that Rick too knows deep down that he is destined for leadership in this apocalyptic world.
As mentioned above, the issue is filled with moments of Rick taking control, setting the stage for this final taking of control at the issue’s close. The first test comes at the beginning of the comic, in the immediate aftermath of his execution of Pete last issue. Here, we see him reclaiming his official role as sheriff of the community, taking on the duties of sealing off a crime scene and calming the public that might be expected of a police officer in the regular world. In doing this, he is demonstrating to the community that he isn’t just some psycho who’s going to bring the law of the jungle into their home, but is in fact qualified to handle the job he’s been given. An important step to undoing the pariah status he had been granted by issue #76.
Appropriately, then, in his next scene on the very next page, the bandages covering his face – which in my review of #76 I highlighted as clear visual markers of him as a dangerous outsider, like the scarlet letter or the mark of the leper – are all gone. This test proves to be a more challenging one: comforting the widow of the man he executed. While his actions in the previous scene were likely for the benefit of the community, I got the sense Rick was doing this for himself. When he says, “I’m sorry, Jessie. I’m so sorry,” the double meaning is clear. Witnessing Jessie’s grief prompts Rick to go to bat for her against Douglas and arrange for Pete to be included in the funeral, and Douglas giving in to Rick’s argument foreshadows his later relinquishing of authority.
Next up was the funeral for the trio of characters who shuffled off their mortal coils in the previous issue, which served to show Rick transition from becoming part of the community once more to standing out as a leader of it, as he addresses the congregation at the church with one of his “state of humanity” monologues that he gets to roll out at various stages of the series. Here – ostensibly talking about Pete but alluding to his own experiences – he questions whether it is the good man of the normal world that is the real person, or the bad one that the adversity of this new world has brought out. In trying to excuse Pete’s breakdown, it seems Rick is attempting to justify his own actions. Also, I loved the little look of disgust on Gabriel’s face as he has to hand over his pulpit to Rick – who not too long ago he tried to get thrown out of the community.
But the centrepiece of the issue was undoubtedly the confrontation between the community and the outsiders. And while most of the actual combat took place off-panel, the showdown we did get to see was between their leader and Rick. And man – how awesome was this? Seeing Rick totally no-sell the leader’s crude attempts at being menacing demonstrates just how far the group has come and how much they’ve already experienced. It used to be said about this series that the zombies weren’t even really the threat anymore, that it was other humans our protagonists had to be worried about. But recently, Kirkman has been turning that theory on its head. He started playing with it in the Fear the Hunters arc, where the much-hyped hunters turned out to be hopelessly outmatched and (pardon the pun) bit off more than they could chew by going up against our survivors. But with this issue Kirkman hammers home the idea, with the group of outsiders introduced and summarily dispatched, seemingly without our heroes breaking a sweat. Adlard helps here too: the body disposal that was in Fear the Hunters presented as a series of dramatic, powerful full-page splashes is here presented in truncated form as a couple of throwaway panels, reiterating how routine this is becoming for Rick and co. The message is now clear: other humans are no longer the threat because there is no human group out there that can match our survivors in sheer savagery – they’re the group other people need to be afraid of now – and if you fuck with Team Grimes, you’re going to end up as human firewood.
But as the issue draws to a close, and we gear up to begin the next big arc – No Way Out – we see the shift taking place. As the two factions of the living shoot holes into each other over their petty squabbles, the dead are drawn by the sounds of the gunfire. The herd is coming, and after all these months of wondering when the other shoe was going to drop, it seems that now Kirkman is ready to show us that yes, the true threat in this world most certainly remains the zombies. The danger lies in forgetting about them, a lesson our survivors are about to learn, likely at some cost.