A fiftieth issue is a big achievement in the current comics market, and many series celebrate it with extra pages or a monumental change to the status quo. Robert Kirkman does well in dodging both of those for his zombie series. Instead, he gives us one of the smallest and most personal stories of the series to date. For a horror comic, it's very touching.
The story picks up right where issue #49 left off: everything went to hell at the prison, most everyone is dead, and Rick and Carl have stumbled off on their own. Finding an abandoned house as shelter, Rick promptly falls unconscious, and Carl is on his own to defend against any zombies that might wander by, while hoping his father recovers.
There are situations in which children can grow up very fast. They're well-documented. Whether it's through the sudden death of a parent or a great personal tragedy or a war-torn environment, a fairly young child can learn to do amazing things well beyond their years. Carl, having lived through a Zombie invasion, the death of his mother and sibling and friends, and everything else that happened at the prison, feels he's grown up. He can take care of his Dad and himself.
But he's only fooling himself, the way any kid does who think they're "old enough" to do something crazy -- like, for example, taking on a gang of zombies outside the house on his own. Carl goes from cursing at his father to wake up and take care of him, to taking charge and luring zombies away, to fearing for both his father's life and his own.
Kirkman stages moments in which Carl questions both his father and himself. Is his father's twitch or groan the sign that the zombies have gotten to him? Should he kill his father now to save himself? Is he capable of shooting zombies while foraging for his own food and shelter? Has it all been too much, and should he just give up?
It's an issue of great emotional anguish for Carl, with plenty of solid reasons for it. Charlie Adlard does amazing work in telling the story, avoiding flashy panels and showy storytelling techniques. It's straight-up panel-to-panel storytelling, with a small boy who wears his every emotion on his face and with his body language. When a splash page is used, it's to maximum effect and, indeed, on the left side of a spread. Cliff Rathburn is too easily forgotten, but his gray tones add a warmth, a depth, and a clarity to the storytelling that's very welcomed.
"The Walking Dead" is at a great crossroads now. There's a new cast to be lined up as well as a new location. And we can't even be sure that the star of the book for the last 50 issues will be around for any of it. At a time of great unease, Kirkman does a great job in creating a smaller and very personal story that gives a reader plenty of reasons to keep turning the page and waiting for the next issue.