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march to war

28 november 2013

It is … well, I don't know how many, because they're unnumbered … but it's quite a few pages, nearly halfway into March to War, the 19th trade-paper installment of Robert Kirkman's über-zombie saga The Walking Dead, before we see a zombie: or "roamer/walker/biter" as the living characters prefer to call them. We never see very many.

For quite a few volumes now, the greatest threat to Rick Grimes and his ever-shifting community of followers hasn't been the walking dead, anyway. It's been the bizarre post-apocalyptic groups that have coalesced around ganglords, in the absence of any societal authority. Rick himself, our much-injured hero, is one of those ganglords: he's simply more resourceful, meaner, and yet somehow more principled than the others. He continues to be the character we identify with: the Everyman who somehow has to lead an entire culture and its values back from the brink.

Rick's two key allies (in the current struggle against the absurdly evil Negan) are Jesus, a thief/spy/scrounger who is scary-good at tracking people and staying invisible – and Ezekiel, a prophet-king with his personal tame tiger. As we learn throughout March to War, these two guys are basically regular guys like Rick himself. But they have elaborately theatrical methods of asserting their leadership. Rick is just Rick.

But Rick has spent the 18th trade-paper volume lying to his followers, to lull Negan into a false sense of security. His closest allies understand why, but those who distrust him may understand him even better. "This guy can't not be the boss," an unsympathetic traitor tells Negan midway through March to War. While the comment is self-serving, it's also true. Rick is always the smartest and bravest guy in the room. Expecting him not to lead is like expecting Ezekiel's tiger not to roar.

And there too, Rick Grimes is Everyman: who doesn't imagine themselves the smartest/bravest hero, especially when they're reading a comic book?

Much of March to War is taken up with scenes of battle, long a staple of The Walking Dead. Or pseudo-battle, given the improvised and haphazard nature of these conflicts. The characters talk of war and battle plans, but "no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy," as von Moltke succinctly put it, and Kirkman knows better than to give his violent scenes too much logic. Instead of logic, they have suspense, rare in the formulaic world of genre fiction. We really aren't sure what's going to happen in this aimless world where the falcon has long since stopped hearing the falconer, and that's Kirkman's great advantage in keeping us on edge.

At one point, Jesus tells Rick Grimes "You're building something … I can see that, we all can. When you're done, the world will be changed … renewed … better." But he's a long, long way from being done.

Kirkman, Robert. March to War. Charlie Adlard (Penciler, Inker); Cliff Rathburn (Grey Tones). Berkeley: Image Comics, 2013. [The Walking Dead, No. 19]