The previous volume was my pick for best comic of 2016 for these reasons: It took a storyline that I wasn’t quite sure about — Negan escaping and falling in with the Whisperers — and managed to get some quality material out of it. Then it served up a final-page twist that I did not see coming and still made perfect sense given what had come before. Following up something like that is a tall order by any standard. Then you toss in the fact that this is the first major “War” storyline to come after the epic two-volume “All-Out War” arc and the expectations become even higher. Oh, and there’s that nagging feeling that after Rick and company came out ahead in the last war they’re due for a loss here. That’s a lot of baggage to deal with. Fortunately for us, Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard are well aware of all this and try their damndest to mix things up as best they can here.
There’s one minor spoiler I have to give away regarding the plot here: Negan does survive to deliver his “payload” back to Rick in Alexandria. Even though you really couldn’t fault Dwight for ordering that he be shot on sight. The information the former leader of the Saviors brings back does prove to be useful and he strikes up a deal with Rick to get a measure of freedom after the war is over. Provided he survives being placed on the front lines during this conflict.
Even though their leader is gone, the Whisperers are still a force to be reckoned with. Beta steps up and immediately unleashes a horde of a thousand zombies against the settlements. While the size of said horde is certainly something to be reckoned with, it soon becomes clear to the settlement forces that the Whisperers are perfectly willing to get hands-on in this conflict as well.
As I said above, I was expecting things to go badly for our protagonists, and Negan, in this war after the last conflict ended in their favor. Having them win one war felt like a great triumph over the odds and in spirit as well. For them to do it again is asking for diminishing returns to set in. Still, I can’t say that I wanted to read a story where the main cast gets its ass handed to them by a group of human skin-wearing zombie-cohabitating psychos.
Kirkman, as is usually the case with this series, is aware of this too. Even if this volume can’t match the high drama of “All-Out War” the writer shows that he still knows how to manage the momentum between sides in this smaller conflict. While the Whisperers have surprise and cleverness on their side, the settlement forces have guns and some clever thinking of their own. That allows the battles that play out to be immensely compelling as you’re never quite sure who’s going to come out ahead. Or if the victory that results will be a pyrrhic one rather than an actual one.
Though this makes for a very engaging core conflict between the sides, the volume’s major disappointment is that the volume ends with the actual threat being revealed. It turns out that the Whisperers and their herd of zombies were only the prelude to the real threat which is revealed to be bearing down on Alexandria at the end of the volume. It has the result of diminishing the threat of what has come before rather than raise the stakes for the next battle. I still want to know what happens next, even if this story was basically one long prelude to that end.
I’m also curious to see where Negan’s character arc is going to take him. I can understand that some readers are going to be upset that he’s allowed to live after all he’s done so far, but I’m not one of them. While I would’ve been fine with seeing him dead after the end of “All-Out War,” Rick made the harder choice to let him live and show him the error of his ways. The crazy thing is that it looks like that approach has actually worked. Though Negan’s basic untrustworthiness is addressed in a conversation early on between Rick and Dwight, they acknowledge that he’s had every chance to screw them over before now and hasn’t.
Now he could be playing a very long game here that involves re-assuming control of the Saviors, but that feels like the obvious easy choice. Plus, that community is shown to be getting along just fine under their current management. So fine, in fact, that the residents of Alexandria will likely be finding out firsthand in the next volume. Yet I don’t think Kirkman is setting things up for Negan to become the big bad all over again. You don’t give a character in that role a big emotional moment where he acknowledges his feelings towards the real Lucille in relation to his infamous bat. He may be a monster but that scene shows that there’s still some humanity lurking underneath his charismatically profane and ruthless exterior. Making Negan into a sympathetic character who wants to work with Rick for the betterment of all is certainly a huge challenge. It’s also one that Kirkman looks like he’s ready for.
Even though this volume shows off a war that’s only six issues long, there’s still a satisfying density to the story being told. That’s mainly because Kirkman and Adlard break down the story into as many panels as needed to convey the maximum amount of information on a given page. Where a conversation between Rick, Andrea, and Negan about the latter’s actions might’ve gone on for a few pages in a regular issue, they do it in two here over the course of twenty-three panels. Adlard also breaks out the sixteen-panel grid multiple times in this volume when the story needs to check in with multiple characters and locations. Throwing all of this information at the reader has the risk of overwhelming them, but Adlard organizes things in a way that everything is easy to process — ninety-nine percent of the time.
I can say that “The Walking Dead” is headed in a good direction after the events of its latest war. Even if the events of it were merely prologue to everything that’s set to come next. In the face of the fact that I was prepared for this volume to buckle under the weight of my expectations, I can live with that. Now I have to live with the waiting game for the next couple of months to find out just what happens next. Only with fewer expectations now.