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Tragedy and loss are the backbones of The Walking Dead, an ongoing comic book set in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. What creator and writer Robert Kirkman does wisely throughout the series is examine the social implications of life in the aftermath. What kinds of trials and tribulations would the survivors face, how would they grow and adapt to these challenges, and how would they cope with this new world order? When civilization is gone, what happens to the civilized man in a world without rules?
In examining these questions, Kirkman has often posited that the enemy isn't always the zombie. While they are an omnipresent threat, the real monsters lurking in the shadows, the horrors that should be feared, are often human.
Book 6 is divided into two chapters, "Fear the Hunters" and "Life Among Them," both of which were previously collected in paperback volumes. "Fear the Hunters" opens with the band of survivors, led by police officer Rick Grimes, reeling from a tragedy that has claimed the life of two more members of their group. When a priest stumbles into their camp, tensions rise and their paranoia grows deeper when another friend goes missing and it becomes clear they are being tracked and hunted.
Throughout the series, Kirkman has run his characters ragged, putting them through one torturous scenario after another. They've survived violent zombie raids and insane armies of men. Characters are established, crafted with equal care and complexity, and then heartlessly murdered. No one is safe. Grimes and the survivors he has helped to protect have come to know and expect cruelty, and they know the living human monsters are far more dangerous than the undead.
The reactions to strangers are tempered with caution, fear, and distrust. The choices made by Kirkman's lead characters, particularly Grimes, have been polished with a reason borne from the experiences they have lived through, the too-close encounters they have survived. The decisions Grimes makes when he encounters the hunters at the close of the opening chapter are so heavily influenced by the agony he's suffered in the past that it stands as a stark reminder of how far this man has come. The Rick Grimes presented in this collection is a far cry from the man readers were introduced to in the first book, and it is a believable, natural bit of character development. For all of the horrors these characters have survived, none of them have been left unscathed or unaltered.
"Life Among Them" further reinforces their suspicions when another stranger, Aaron, walks into their camp. Grimes and the survivors are heading toward Washington, D.C., hoping to find civilization, a city untouched by, or at least reestablished from, the zombie nightmare. They are low on food and exhausted when Aaron makes them an offer none can refuse--a home, a community, a stable life like the ones they used to know.
It's a credit to Kirkman's skill as a writer that he can thrust his characters into what is, by all accounts, a peaceful safe zone and make it feel unsettling and claustrophobic. There are kids playing in parks unsupervised, families walk the streets at night unafraid and towed behind their dogs. Yet, for all its apparent normalcy, it's like something out of The Twilight Zone. There is an awful tension lurking beneath it all, forcing one to wonder when the other shoe will drop. When it does, it's a doozey, showing a depth that is perfectly within character and offering a promise to turn the series on its head once again.
The Walking Dead is a brilliant horror story and expertly told. With over 70 issues under his belt, Kirkman has yet to make a serious misstep in his storytelling, keeping each story arc tight and deftly plotted. Each arc feeds into the next, informing and sculpting it, building upon the history that's been created in scarily natural ways. It is one of the most consistent and well-crafted series on the market today and should not be ignored.
-- Michael Hicks