Good Lord, the Zombie Renaissance, also known as the Zombie Apocalypse, is as relentless as the endless legions of the hungry undead mutely hoping to dine on we mere mortals. This morning, I looked through Verizon’s “On Demand” movie choices and spotted Zombie Strippers, Zombie Alligators, and Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies. Yep, our 16th President battling the Confederate undead. And this but scratches the surface of the current appetite for the metaphorical symbols of everything we can’t escape—bill collectors, telephone surveys, drivers using cell phones, family reunions, and political ads.
For a few more examples, a few weeks ago I was watching VH1′s For What It’s Worth, where pop culture experts appraise the value of rare collectibles. One gent showed off one page of original art from issue 7 of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead graphic novel series. One page of comic art could be worth, say $2,000, maybe $3,000? How about $20,000. A few days later, I watched BBC-America’s The Nerdist. During that hour, participants from TV’s incarnation of The Walking Dead were interviewed in between parody ads starring Karen Gillan (Doctor Who) telling zombies how to improve hair and skin care. (You can still see the ads at The Nerdist website).
With all this interest in characters unlikely to perform in zombie barbershop quartets or Zombie Tabernacle Choirs, it’s no surprise the phenomena has already got the scholarly treatment. For example, there’s 2011′s Triumph of The Walking Dead: Robert Kirkman’s Zombie Epic on Page and Screen. Among the various essays on zombies past and present in that anthology, Jay Bonansinga’s “A Novelist and a Zombie Walk Into a Bar” was of special interest. Bonansinga had an insider’s perspective as he was the writer tapped by Kirkman to write three novels tied into the Walking Dead multi-media franchise.
On paper, as it were, Kirkman chose the right man for the job. Among other works, Bonansinga had built a reputation for crafting superb serial killer books with a healthy dose of the supernatural. In particular, his Ulysses Grove books, notably Twisted (2006), Shattered (2007), and Perfect Victim (2008), earned critical acclaim, commercial success, and seem destined for inevitable film adaptation. In addition, as Bonansinga told me in a recent interview, he was a zombie buff long before he got the call from Kirkman. A fan of George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, Bonansinga was delighted to be contracted to, again, as it were, flesh out Kirkman’s literary designs.
To date, Bonansinga and Kirkman have given us the first two parts of their trilogy–The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor (2011) and The Walking Dead: The Road to Woodbury (2012). While I haven’t experienced the first volume, it’s clear Woodbury is a sequel with the story focused on two characters, Lilly Caul and former chef, Josh Lee Hamilton. In the beginning, both are part of a tent city in Georgia besieged by the “Walkers” before they escape and go on the run. For half the book, Lilly and Josh have small skirmishes with “Walker” bands where they defeat zombies with shovels and bullets. Ultimately, they find the town of Woodbury run by Philip Blake, “The Governor,” who enforces law and order and offers protection on his own ruthless terms. Along the way, Josh and Lilly make friends, or so they think, escape Woodbury only to quickly return, and are ultimately dealt with by Blake in different ways. One clue: Caul is a character important in other Walking Dead incarnations; Hamilton isn’t. Remember, Kirkman is never reluctant to knock off any of his characters, no matter how indispensable they might seem.
Judging from past reviews of these two books, most knowledgeable readers prefer Rise to Woodbury. The main reason is that the second book is rather meandering, episodic, and disjointed. We do get to know Lilly and Josh, but only on a rather two-dimensional level as they escape “Walkers” again, again, and again. We don’t get any of the Ulysses Grove soul searching and, of course, there’s no real duel between highly skilled opponents. Once the couple get to Woodburry, the story gets more unified, except for an aborted trip to a deserted house outside the settlement limits. What was that all about? Like many other scenes, it seemed only a set-piece that allows two desperate people to have another opportunity to kill off another horde of the mindless Walkers out for a picnic. It’s only inside the dystopia of Woodbury that we have a cast of odd characters, like Blake’s zombie daughter chained in a basement, where we have a real tableau of human responses to a dark world, both inside and out of the settlement walls.
In short, The Walking Dead: The Road to Woodbury is a book strictly for followers of The Walking Dead in all its multi-verses. It’s for those who’d like some clues and insights into characters they know from TV and the graphic novels. But it doesn’t work as a stand-alone story. Those not into the Kirkman mythos are likely to be very puzzled. For example, dispatching the slow Walkers isn’t really that much of a feat. You can decapitate them with farm implements, mow them down with guns, or set them on fire. You don’t have to put a stake in their hearts, shoot them with silver bullets, or trick them with any special strategy or magical spell. An NRA membership card should be all you need. As Bonansinga told me, the real stories are the human relationships as zombies are really only McGuffans. But if your main characters just wearily amble around Georgia from one blood-bath to another, how is this a novel?
For now, zombie watchers can gorge on the comics, the games, watch the rip-offs, and wait for the next TV season of Walking Dead and anticipate what will be in Bonansinga’s The Walking Dead: Fall of the Governor. He tells me it’s a work in progress that the publisher can’t get fast enough. Bonansinga fans have even better news: he has a new Ulysses Grove book percolating. Now, that’s a rise from the grave I can sink my teeth into.
Note: This May, my interview with Jay Bonansinga will air on online radio’s “Dave White Presents” over KSAV.org. Details to come at: