Big thanks to Eric for loaning me his book of The Walking Dead. This collects the first 12 issues of the comic series that formed the basis for the current television series. The comic has a great reputation, and I can see why - it's a great story, with gorgeous art, and while it doesn't have the same level of social commentary and satire that's sometimes associated with the genre (see "Dawn of the Dead") it gets at some deeper and more profound emotions. Since it has a wider canvas to work with than a typical 90-minute zombie flick, it's less about the immediate horror of a zombie attack, and more about the long-running dread of life in a post-apocalyptic environment.
I kind of wish that Patton Oswalt had brought this book up in his excellent Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. In that book, he mentions that the Zombie world is the early stages of a Wasteland world; Wasteland is what's left after the Zombies have finished. It feels like The Walking Dead is about the middle stages of that process: the fight is still going on, but you feel like the fight is probably lost. The group is coming to terms with Wasteland ethics while pre-Zombie morals are still their center; they steal canned goods because they need them to survive, and rationally understand that this is acceptable, but can't help feeling bad about it.
MINI SPOILERS (both for the book and the show)
Like any zombie fiction, The Walking Dead isn't really about zombies; it's about the living. The zombies are a way to bring out the extremes of humanity. Those extremes tend to be disturbing, but can also show exceptional heroism.
The book's anchor is Rick, a policeman who was in a coma during the initial infection wave, who later joins his family and a group of strangers. The strangers are less antagonistic here than in the show (there's no equivalent to the white supremacist or the wife-abuser), but there's still a lot of variation among them, and nobody else can match Rick's centeredness. Shane, his best friend, is increasingly unhinged by all the changes, and shocks Rick with his violence. His son Carl learns how to shoot a pistol early, and has to start killing (or re-killing) things from a shockingly early age. (I'm not too surprised that this hasn't been a part of the show; well, the argument over whether to teach kids to shoot was, but I don't think we've ever actually seen Carl fire at an adult, alive or dead. I can definitely see there being consternation over that, even on cable.) Some people are actually kind of thriving after the change, even though they would give anything to go back to the way things were: Glen was a bit of a loser in real life (a pizza delivery guy under a mountain of debt), but is indispensable to the group now thanks to his resourcefulness. Many people have lost loved ones to the plague, and either shut down and drop out, or else replace some of the devotion they used to feel to their family with a determined devotion towards the group.
Quick commentary on the show - after reading this book, I now kind of wish that they had done it as a mini-series instead of a series. Almost all of my favorite things from the first season and a half of the show are adapted from the book, and most of the stuff that didn't work for me (the Hispanic Atlanta gang, the CDC episode) was invented for the show. I've felt for a while that the best parts of The Walking Dead are some of the best TV I've seen in a year, but the bulk of the show tends to drag. Going to a mini-series would let them just do the awesome stuff and skip the dumb stuff. That said, one of the most common criticisms of the show is how much of it is characters complaining to each other about how mad they are at each other, and there's a good chunk of it in the book as well. It definitely felt less annoying to me in the book, probably because a few pages are easier to take than twenty minutes on the screen.
Random note: I've noticed that the series is very careful to never call
them "Zombies" (they're always "Walkers" or something like that), and
while the book also usually avoids that term, it is used occasionally.
So, it isn't like this is a world that's unfamiliar with the concept of a
zombie; it's more like it's a world that's real to its characters, and
they have a hard time thinking that the real people around them could
possibly have become something that only exists in fiction.
I'm always surprised when I enjoy a piece of zombie fiction, but I think The Walking Dead may be the best I've encountered yet. It's a great story, very dramatic and moving, and I can hardly wait to see what happens next. I've only read the first twelve issues, and they're probably going to hit the 100th sometime this year. There's way more zombie mayhem yet to come!