Saturday, June 15, 2013

Breaking Down "The Walking Dead Volume 1: Days Gone By"

This continues a series of blog posts on how to make stories for comics and graphic novels.

Robert Kirkman's "The Walking Dead" series (art by Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard) has become one of the most successful non-superhero comics series, spawning an equally-successful television adaptation. In this blog post, we break down the first six issues of the comics series to see the different Challenges and Reveals it holds and how they build up anxiety and tension. If you haven't read the first six issues, please do, since the descriptions below are made in broad terms.

Issue #1:

  • Challenge: Rick's escape from the hospital--he had been in a coma after being shot
  • Reveal: Finding out about the zombie epidemic; learning how to kill a zombie


Issue #2

  • Reveal: Rick talks about himself and his family--his wife Lori and son Carl.
  • Challenge: Arriving at the city only to discover it has been overrun by zombies; escapes through the help of Glenn
  • Reveal: Glenn tells Rick that he lives in a camp; at the camp, Rick finds his family; he is also reunited with his police partner Shane


Issue #1 starts with main character Rick WANTING TO REUNITE WITH HIS FAMILY. By the end of Issue #2, Rick is REUNITED WITH FAMILY. This is Rick's arc across the two issues. In these two issues, there's still not a lot of tension and anxiety (save for that big Challenge in the second issue, where Rick ends up in the city filled with zombies), because we're only starting to get into the story.

Issue #3

  • Reveal: Rick is warned about his friend Shane being too close to Lori
  • Reveal: Lori tells Rick about how grateful she is to Shane for saving her and Carl
  • Challenge: Attack by a lone zombie
  • Reveal: Shane isn't comfortable with Rick being around Lori


Issue #4

  • Challenge: Because of the zombie attack, Rick debates with Shane about moving farther from the city. Shane refuses. Rick then suggests getting more guns.
  • Reveal: Rick suspects that zombies don't attack each other because of their smell. He confirms it.
  • Challenge: Needing more guns, Rick and Glenn go into the city. After getting guns and ammo from a shop, it rains. The smell washes off, but they manage to get out of the city before being overwhelmed by the zombie horde.
  • Reveal: Thinking that Rick had died during the initial zombie outbreak, Shane and Lori had become lovers. Lori now says it was a mistake.


In issues #3 and #4, two plotlines--or throughlines--emerge. The first one is KEEPING THE CAMP SAFE. It was sparked by the zombie attack in issue #3, leading Rick to debate with Shane about moving camp. Going into the city and getting guns in issue #4 is the next best solution Rick comes up with. So the arc here is from THE CAMP DOESN"T HAVE A LOT OF WEAPONS at the start of Issue #3 to THE CAMP HAS GUNS at the end of issue #4.

A new kind of tension is introduced in the third issue, because it's the first time we see a zombie close to the camp. The tension rises significantly in the fourth issue, as Rick and Glenn go through the Challenge of escaping the heart of the city in the rain with a bunch of undead surrounding them.

Another plotline involves the triangle of Rick, Shane, and Lori. Anxiety builds within the reader because the Reveals say that something went on between Shane and Lori, and Rick is oblivious. And even though Rick was warned about Shane at the start of issue #3, Rick doesn't believe it. Because the reader knows things that Rick doesn't, the reader wonders(with anticipation) how this complicated situation is going to unravel and conclude. Arc-wise, the most important one belongs to Shane: from SHANE IS THREATENED ABOUT RICK to SHANE IS HURT BECAUSE OF LORI. This is the trigger that leads to the disturbing end of the sixth issue.

Issue #5

  • Reveal: The group trains in using guns.
  • Challenge: Lori doesn't like the idea of Rick teaching Carl how to use a gun; Rick assures Lori that all will be fine
  • Reveal: While chopping firewood, Shane becomes irrationally irritated with Rick
  • Reveal: That night, over dinner by the fire, the group tell their personal stories
  • Challenge: The group is attacked by a group of zombies; one is killed, another injured. Lori drops her gun as she is attacked by a zombie, but Carl shoots the zombie down


Issue #6

  • Challenge: Because of the zombie attack, Rick tries to convince Shane that they have to move out, but Shane would hear nothing of it. Carl hears the argument.
  • Challenge/Reveal: The next day, Rick and Shane argue again. This time, Shane punches Rick. Lori screams at Shane, and Shane runs off.
  • Challenge/Reveal: In the woods, Shane reveals that Lori had been his reason for moving on, because his family had died. He points his rifle at Rick. Shane is suddenly shot by Carl.


Issues #5 and #6 are the culmination of everything that has happened in the first four issues. It is here where the two throughlines meet. The arc of the first throughline is from TRAINING WITH GUNS to USING GUNS AGAINST EACH OTHER. The arc of the second throughline is SHANE IS HURT BECAUSE OF LORI to SHANE DIES IN THE HANDS OF ANOTHER HUMAN BEING. The meeting of the two throughlines ends the first volume of the series, and establishes a strong theme for the rest of the series, wherein our survivors not only have to defend themselves against zombies, but also against fellow human beings.

By letting the two throughlines meet, the story becomes more satisfying. The two throughlines are not disjointed--they actually affect each other.

What's interesting here is that this theme involving man vs. man has been hinted at earlier on. In issue #3, Shane tells Rick that there's a working shower in the camper, a "luxury" that Rick's happy to take advantage of, that he can be clean again. We can look at being clean as symbolically akin to being "human." But ironically, in issue #4, Rick discovers he had to be "dirty" to get into the city without being attacked by the zombies. They needed to keep the zombie smell on their bodies to get out alive. Then it rained, and being under a "shower" was no longer a luxury but a threat to their lives. This "being dirty" to stay alive is aligned with the man vs. man conflict.

NEXT: In a previous blog post, we asked you to come up with a beginning and an ending for your story. In the next blog post, we go a little deeper into filling in the middle part of your story.


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