One of the main reasons The Walking Dead has struck such a major a chord with fans (in both comic book and TV form) is that it tells an ongoing story of survival during the zombie apocalypse. This isn’t a finite tale of intrepid heroes making their stand against the undead, but one that keeps unfolding and veering off in unexpected directions. However, if the past few years of the comic are any indication, that strength can just as easily become a weakness.
The comic has, if anything, become even more unpredictable over the past few years. Where once the series was dominated by a cycle involving Rick and his allies finding a new home, battling a major new foe like The Governor or Negan and eventually triumphing, the series has become a very different beast in the wake of 2013’s “All Out War.” The focus has shifted from immediate, day-to-day survival to the larger fate of humanity. Is it possible to rise from the ashes and restore civilization? Is there such a thing as a post-post-apocalypse? That’s been the dominant question driving the comic ever since, and it’s one that only works when you’ve been telling a serialized story for this long.
It’s frustrating, then, that the series often seems so aimless despite having established this blank, wide-open canvas for itself. The sky is the limit as far as charting the future course of the franchise. But in terms of pacing, The Walking Dead never seems in a hurry to get anywhere. The most recent storyline has been a painful reminder of this fact. For the past year or so, the series has been busy introducing a new faction called the Commonwealth, a settlement more vast and with more resources than any Rick and his allies have encountered before. But is the Commonwealth a valuable new partner in the making or a threat to the fragile civilization our heroes have built? Even after the conclusion of the six-part “New World Order” storyline, the series seems no closer to answering that question.
The Walking Dead is missing something critical – some element that can help anchor the plot and restore the sense of urgency that’s been missing lately. What the series needs is a good antagonist. In general, this series has been at its best when Rick and the gang have a compelling enemy to rally against. That’s a role that was served well in the past by characters like The Governor and Negan, both of whom claimed their fair share of blood before finally being brought down. The Governor’s final attack in issue #48 and Negan’s debut in issue #100 both rank among the most memorable, chilling moments of the series.
More recently, Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard introduced Alpha and the Whisperers, brutal killers who wear skin suits to hide among the zombies. The Whisperers filled that void for a time, but that conflict ultimately came to an abrupt, unsatisfying end. And as of yet, Kirkman and Adlard have yet to establish a worthy replacement.
It’s possible that the Commonwealth will eventually grow into the antagonistic force this series needs. There are certainly hints that this settlement is far darker than it seems on its squeaky clean surface. But that’s the problem. After all these months we still have nothing but hints as to the danger brewing. It’s been far too long since The Walking Dead has carried the sense of danger and unease that a book about the zombie apocalypse should have. The series is more unpredictable than it’s ever been. That’s a great quality to have, but not if that unpredictability isn’t paired with a clear, focused approach to storytelling.