Beware: Spoilers follow for The Walking Dead television show, comic books, and Telltale Games series. Read on at your own risk.
Building a legacy in the 21st century is no simple task. In a world full of millennials and Gen-Zers with attention spans so short their social media revolves around 60-second clips and 280 characters at a time, creating a franchise with staying power can only be described as “an undertaking.” Not every show can be It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, nor can every movie be Star Wars, or every rapper be Eminem. To stay culturally relevant in an ever-evolving world, one must be willing to take risks, divide and conquer, and never shy at the chance to break down more walls. Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead franchise has made its way through 17 years (and counting) of pop culture evolution, seeing major changes along the way from the dawn of digital comic distribution, to the birth of spin-off television series, to the introduction of choice-based video game narratives. The Walking Dead has successfully cemented itself in the minds of nearly three generations, using its various platforms as stepping stones for artists, actors, and storytellers alike. The impact this franchise has had on society will echo through the history of modern media, and its empire continues to grow in the coming years. Join me now as we look back on what The Walking Dead means to the world, as well as myself, and how the series itself has changed in so many ways over the past two decades.
Beginning in 2003, The Walking Dead comic series rose to fame fairly quickly and soon became Image Comics’ flagship franchise. Through the years, Robert Kirkman would become a household name, helping to produce the television series in 2010 and becoming a consultant on Telltale’s video game adaptation in 2012. While the TV show arguably brought the brand into the mainstream, Kirkman’s baby was always the Walking Dead comic. Working tirelessly to get an issue out every month, the author produced 193 issues over the course of 16 years, and that’s not even including the standalone special issues (e.g. Here’s Negan, The Alien, etc.) Through the years, The Walking Dead has produced countless characters, story arcs, and twists that have left readers baffled. The risks that Kirkman has taken within this narrative have truly shaken up the world of comics, and astounded fans with unexpected deaths, discoveries, and gut-wrenching betrayals – the largest of which being the series’ abrupt conclusion, given to the world as a random-numbered issue including a time jump and a hopeful vision of the future. I can still remember that fateful day I read the final words of the final issue. I sat there in bed, mouth agape, staring at the last image and feeling absolutely destroyed – yet simultaneously pleased – overwhelmingly so. Kirkman’s closing statement tore at my heartstrings, admitting, “I’m going to miss it as much as you will, if not more so.” I could feel that disappointment, and that hurt, and that longing for more from deep inside a man whose love of the art knows no bounds. Robert Kirkman is a champion among creators; an adoring fan of veterans who came before him that have filled the world with their beauty. This pride bleeds through every inch of The Walking Dead comic, and it’s what makes the series such a poetic ode to post-apocalyptic media of yesteryear.
Arguably, what put The Walking Dead on the map was the television series, which premiered on AMC in 2010. Ushering in a new era of water cooler conversation, and being one of the last weekly cable shows before the streaming revolution, The Walking Dead was able to keep things fresh from week to week with a captivating blend of action and drama that kept fans yearning for more. Initially looking like a “show about zombies,” Kirkman and the cast were quick to remind viewers that The Walking Dead is less focused on the undead and is centered mainly on the living, doing so in a world they no longer belong to. The plight of these survivors made for riveting storylines and brutal deaths as the show has progressed, and its true fanbase has come to accept the balance between zombies and those hanging on to survival. Unfortunately, many people feel the show got watered-down once the protagonists moved into the prison, and a lot of people I know stopped watching around this time. Strangely, though, this distaste did not reflect on viewership, as the ratings seemed to climb for the first six seasons and only began to drop drastically during the recent two (seasons 9 and 10).
As a fan of the comics, I’ve only really grown tired of the show when it strays too far from the source material. While I don’t expect the entire plot to be word-for-word – just look at Game of Thrones – I do feel the show has a tendency to dip in excitement when new characters are introduced or focused on for no apparent reason (e.g. Beth, Terminus, that weird woman who showed up to teach the group about windmills). These plot points just ruin the flow of things, and while I don’t mind a focus on drama over action – this season’s Carol plot full of hallucinations and drug abuse was awesome – I feel sometimes the showrunners choose a more out there approach to “satisfying” viewers that just falls flat. On the bright side, I feel The Walking Dead‘s casting has always been spot-on, from Rick Grimes himself to more recent characters like Dante and Beta. There are certainly fans of the comics working on the Walking Dead TV show, and that’s what makes it so special. The dedication to big events like Glenn’s death or the prison raid leaves fans of the series watching with bated breath, and it’s so extremely gratifying.
AMC’s most fulfilling attention to detail came in the form of The Walking Dead‘s two most iconic protagonists: Rick and Carl Grimes. This father/son duo carries the entire plot of The Walking Dead on their shoulders, with the series literally beginning with a shot of Rick and ending with a shot of Carl. Their individual stories and choices, along with their familial relationship, impact nearly every major event in The Walking Dead history. Rick takes on a leadership role early in the series, and his high-ranking status brings about love interests, best friends, and arch nemeses along the way. Carl, on the other hand, is more of a hindrance throughout the comics, causing tension between characters, getting shot in the face, and falling in love with the daughter of an enemy faction head. What makes these characters even more special in the hearts of fans, however, is their beloved portrayals on the television series. Chandler Riggs plays Carl with the emotion of a deeply scarred child growing up in a world unlike anyone before him. He has no school, barely any friends his own age, no technology or cars to learn to drive. Watching Carl grow up, especially as a kid around his age, has been one of the most fascinating aspects of The Walking Dead, for me. Growing alongside him and trying to relate to the decisions he makes (especially in the love department) has kept this post-apocalyptic series grounded in reality. Riggs brings an extra layer of life to a character who, for the first few years at least, Kirkman struggled to really give much attention to.
On the flip side of this, however, Andrew Lincoln’s portrayal of Rick Grimes has been one of the most surprisingly enjoyable script-flips I’ve ever seen on television. I say this because currently, looking at where the show is headed, Ross Marquand’s character Aaron (who is a character in the books) is being taken in a completely different direction than the source material, and he has fallen in line perfectly with the comic version of Rick Grimes. With the thick beard, amputated arm, and a focus on stern leadership, it seems as though Rick’s on screen character has blossomed into the latter half of the comic books, albeit as a brand-new person entirely. This is not to say that Andrew Lincoln did a bad job, though. On the contrary – and as I previously stated – Lincoln’s Rick Grimes was a different man altogether, displaying the struggle of a broken-police-officer-turned-apocalypse-survivor, fighting to keep not only his family and the people he leads together, but also his own shattered mind. Rick Grimes is a hero and a pop culture icon because of the internal battle every reader can relate to. For the first half of The Walking Dead comic series, Rick is learning how to survive, but as the story progresses, he learns how to thrive.
Andrew Lincoln’s “survivor Rick” is one of the most fantastic characters on television, and it’s a real shame he was never nominated for a single Emmy. While I’ve had my problems with the show’s plot over time, not once have I complained about Rick’s acting, nor have I questioned his character choices (save for the Michonne romance, but I’m getting to that). Andrew Lincoln is truly outstanding as a leader, a father, and a survivor, and his farewell from the show was just as heartbreaking as his death in the comics. When I first saw the panels of Rick’s death, I dropped the comic and began to sob. I felt like a father figure and a friend had been taken from me. Kirkman’s writing – whether he’s killing off our favorite characters, or jumping through time to produce happy endings with Carl’s family or spin-off films with Andrew Lincoln returning – the man writes from his heart, aiming to attack the hearts of readers, and to leave everyone involved feeling deeply affected. With any conclusion that The Walking Dead has produced in its 16-year, 11 season run, I have always been thankful for the way it was treated. It takes a special kind of writer to produce such a reaction over and over again.
The Walking Dead’s popularity must also be attributed to its strong supporting cast. Whether in the comics or the television series, Rick’s band of survivors utilizes their individual skills to hold their own against a dying world. One of the strongest women in Alexandria is Michonne, a mysterious lawyer-turned-samurai whose backstory is as lengthy as her lifespan. No kidding, over time Michonne’s origins have come to light, and there is so much jumbled information across mediums that it’s hard to determine what’s true and false. In the books, Michonne’s “pet” walkers are identified as her boyfriend and his best friend; in the show, Michonne had a son before the outbreak which was never canon before; everything we know about Michonne is a little hazy. What we do know is that she is an undeniable badass, and what she’s done for women in pop culture has certainly helped break a glass ceiling or two… with a katana. Michonne doesn’t take crap from anybody, and she certainly doesn’t take “no” for an answer. She works so well with Rick because their leadership methods rarely collide, meaning they’re almost always on the same page. Rick and Michonne consider each other best friends, which I’ve always found to be one of the most adorable things in The Walking Dead. Their relationship is perfect in the comics, and no sexual tension ever brings about any conflict. She even helps Rick cope with his trauma by revealing her own losses, as a best friend should. I will cement this thought: Michonne may be the most perfectly-written Walking Dead character in the comics.
The show, on the other hand, ruins almost all of this. Making Michonne flirtatious, then give into Rick’s advances without any form of apprehension, then boom we’ve got a son now and I’m Judith’s new mom! Okay, back it up. Michonne as a comic book character would never just let herself live like this. We can even address the Telltale version of Michonne, which explained through three episodes how distraught she was to lose her own daughters. Furthermore, her one-off comic explained how the loss of her family affected her. Case in point, there is a ton of content out there basically stating: Michonne will always be a lone wolf. She went out on a boat for 13 issues to find herself. She even disappeared on the show for a while, but then she came back to start having sex with Rick? The handling of Michonne, one of the franchise’s strongest characters, is a travesty at AMC, and truly one of the worst things about The Walking Dead’s TV counterpart. I love the character, I love the feminism, I love her backstory! But Michonne deserves better onscreen writing. Yet with her reported departure in the upcoming season, it may just be too late.
The Walking Dead’s writing can occasionally be, well, unorthodox. Looking at a character like Carol – who didn’t even last 50 issues before she sacrificed herself to a walker – we can see some clever writing has helped flesh out her character over the course of 10 seasons. Originally a full-time whiner on the show due to her thankless family and friends, Carol went through losing everyone she loved in order to find people she truly belonged with. Her relationship with Daryl is everything Rick and Michonne should have been. Though the sexual tension is there, you can sense a strong boundary between them as they know it would ruin their ride-or-die partnership. In the love department, her will-they/won’t-they with King Ezekiel is beautiful to watch, especially now as he struggles with still loving her, helping her move through the loss of their adopted son, and telling her he’s slowly dying. Not to mention Carol’s own demons: battling a pill addiction that has kept her so on the run from her past that she forgets all about the present. Daryl’s struggle to save her from the brink has made season 10 an absolute whirlwind of emotion, yet I have loved every minute of it.
All this information at once may seem redundant, but it’s there to make a point. The Walking Dead’s writing has evolved into something much greater than it once was. Kirkman had an original vision, yes, but AMC took the necessary risks to deliver a television show that could last a generation. The comic series never really focused on addiction or adoption or cancer. So, while these changes in character design and lifestyle choices may just be products of a larger environment to play with, I feel the primary reason for them is to take the series in a whole different direction. AMC doesn’t care if comic fans are upset with Rick and Michonne’s makeshift family, or Aaron’s sudden leadership role, or whether Daryl – a made-up character for the show – lives or dies. They especially do not care where Maggie went. At all. She’s just up and gone; one of the most important characters in the books has completely vanished for like two seasons, and nobody even remembers her. There are established characters on the show now who haven’t even met her yet, it’s been so long. But AMC couldn’t care less, because their television show has an audience. The television show has dedicated fans, me included, who will watch it no matter what. These fans may also love the comics and games, and they may not care as much about what’s happened to Dwight and Morgan on Fear the Walking Dead, either. Fans will always love what they have, even if it upsets them sometimes, and that’s the point I’m trying to make here. The TV show’s writing is downright bonkers sometimes with these choices, and there have been complete seasons that just fell flat, in my opinion, due to these absurd choices (really, why did we focus on Beth for so long? That was painful!). But we watch because we trust that the writers know their product, they know their fanbase, and they can always bring it back out of the mud (looking at you, season 10).
The biggest ace in The Walking Dead’s pocket is its assortment of villains. Across the comics, television shows, and video games – even books – The Walking Dead has featured many varied personalities and egos amongst its antagonists. Everyone knows about Negan and his bat Lucille, or the Governor and his fish tanks full of heads, or the latest threat, Alpha, who wears the skin of the dead to coax herds into doing her bidding. All of them are terrifying in their own ways, yes, but it’s their personal motivation that makes them enjoyable to watch, and dare I say, it makes them scarily relatable. The Governor, for example, fights to keep his daughter Penny safe. Feeling there is still some life left in her zombified corpse, he goes to whatever means necessary to keep Woodbury a fortified place to live, for her sake. Alpha, too, fights for her daughter, and Rick’s gang uses this to their advantage throughout the Whisperer arc, utilizing Lydia as a bargaining chip whenever possible. Even Negan has a soul, naming his bat after his beloved dead wife, and frequently reminding Rick of how strong his group is. The Saviors are considered a family, and his “eye for an eye” philosophy runs deeper than just senseless murders.
Negan is perhaps the most complex character in all The Walking Dead. Even while he’s infiltrating the Whisperer camp and up until the final issue, Negan treads on thin ice to plan every move exactly as he sees fit. Not once does he seem surprised, or as if something didn’t go according to plan – save for whenever Carl interferes. Negan is as intuitive, bold, and confident as he is brash, arrogant, and perverse. It’s what makes reading and watching this series play out so exciting. You never know what these villains will do next to further accomplish their goals, and Kirkman’s writing is so smart that it shifts the focus from the bad guys just as you’re thirsting for more. Whether they’re intricate and lifelike – like those mentioned above – or completely pointless like The Hunters, or unreasonably ridiculous like Gareth and the Terminus crew, it’s undeniable these villains are unforgettable. With video games giving us enemies like Lilly, Joan, and Carver, the upcoming spin-off shining a spotlight on the ominous “CRM organization,” and novels expanding on The Governor’s origin story, The Walking Dead has its fair share of villains to spare, and it loves to show off that brilliant writing through these wonderfully horrible people.
Perhaps the most surprisingly memorable Walking Dead product on offer came in the form of an adventure game from Telltale. Premiering in 2012, this game franchise spanned four complete seasons, including a spin-off Michonne miniseries and some extras to fill in the gaps. Over the course of seven years, Telltale’s The Walking Dead experienced a bumpy road of development, from basically introducing the episodic release format to filing for bankruptcy and halting production on everything in the works. In the beginning, these games would come out every couple of months, turning a 10-hour game into a half-year commitment. Thankfully, this commitment never felt tiresome, as Telltale’s story and character development were more thrilling and complex than most Walking Dead material that had come before it – and that’s saying a lot. The story of Lee and Clementine has impacted nearly every gamer in one way or another, and no matter when you experienced their epic tale – month-to-month or binging all at once – their struggle for survival and growth in a lost world holds up in the hearts of us all. As the years went on and popularity grew, Telltale took the series in different directions, making Clementine the central focus and allowing the player to take control of her, and a new protagonist named Javi. The inclusion of comic characters like Glenn and Jesus made for an enjoyable touch of fan service that connected the games to the bigger Walking Dead world. Unfortunately, good things can’t last forever, and in 2018, Telltale shut its doors entirely, providing no warning or severance pay for its employees and tossing the final two planned episodes of The Walking Dead in the trash. All was not lost, however, and the comics’ publisher Skybound assembled a team to see Telltale’s original vision through to the end. What players received in January and March of the following year were two of the most enthusiastic love letters to the fans, the franchise, and The Walking Dead as a whole. Clementine’s story was wrapped up with the prettiest of bows, and Skybound successfully concluded a decade-long work of art that was once deemed lost in time.
Whether you’ve enjoyed the video games, novels, comic books, television show, or you just thought that Rick Grimes action figure looked really lifelike, it’s safe to say every geek has been touched by The Walking Dead in some way. In 17 short years, this franchise has established itself as the most prominent zombie-based piece of media in modern culture (alongside Resident Evil, of course). It’s done for zombies what Game of Thrones did for dragons, what Transformers did for robots, and what Aliens did for… aliens. Introducing new terms like “walkers,” and new concepts in the realm of zombie lore (the virus is inside all of us), The Walking Dead is an untouchable giant that will live forever through the history it has left in its wake. In the coming years, the behemoth continues. A new spin-off titled The Walking Dead: World Beyond begins on April 12 of this year, and the first of three movies starring Rick Grimes himself is currently in the works. Even tonight, the tenth season of The Walking Dead returns, and things are just starting to heat up. With a large amount of our protagonists trapped in a cave full of walkers – not to mention the death of Dante and the introduction of Virgil – a lot of open ends are begging to be wrapped up. On top of this, Negan is chilling with the Whisperers (which could lead to one of the best moments in the comic’s history), and Michonne actress Danai Gurira is set to leave the show at the end of the season. Wherever the action may go next, I have extreme trust in The Walking Dead to make it the most enjoyable experience possible. Though I have been wronged a few times over the years, this franchise always apologizes for letting me down and comes back stronger repeatedly. There’s simply never been another entity that has filled every fiber of my being with joy, hope, and intense emotion like The Walking Dead has. So for that, I say thank you, Robert Kirkman. Thank you, Scott Gimple. Thank you, Greg Nicotero, Andrew Lincoln, Charlie Adlard, Melissa Hutchison, all of Skybound, Telltale, and AMC.
Together, we’re a family. Together, we are The Walking Dead.