Seventy-nine issues in, Robert Kirkman still manages the mixture of soap operatics and zombie action to keep "The Walking Dead" one of the liveliest and most engaging comics in recent memory. While there is a bit of a trend in the series -- survivors band together, settle in one place for a while before a climactic showdown, then move onto the next -- Kirkman hasn't been repeating himself. Each set-up and tear down comes with a unique set of circumstances and additions to the lore of the series. We also get to watch Kirkman develop, as a writer, a new set of tools and a new direction from which to ratchet up the tension and tell his story.
In this issue, for example, there's a lot of intercutting in the second half. Two parallel events -- clearing the zombies outside the wall, and a tense discussion between Douglas and Aaron inside -- go back and forth, alternating quickly, no more than a page at a time. The scene outside the wall plays into Douglas' reasoning and gives more credence to what he's saying. He feels like a failure, but it's not just words and whining. You, the reader, see the failure between his dialogue balloons.
You also get an interesting change of pace. One scene is a planned hack-and-slash through a mob of zombies, while the other is a relatively simple conversation. That change of pace jars the reader in the right way, making the action bits wilder and the relatively staid discussion tenser. It would be an interesting experiment to pull those panels out and read the two scenes separately to see if they make the same impact on the reader. I doubt they would.
Before all that goes down, we get brief glimpses into the lives of the other characters in the series particularly, Eric points out, as "everyone starts hooking up." In full survival mode, people find comfort in each other, and the series is starting to make more of those connections. This being "The Walking Dead," you just know some of those connections are being made to make the next death more impactful. Never trust Kirkman not to be setting something up.
The art team of Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn continue to impress. Recent issues strike me as being a little bit tighter, with better defined faces and characters. It looks like some of the new characters are based on particular real life people. Adlard pulls that off, only rarely verging on the phototraced look. Rathburn remains the title's unsung hero, bringing a tonality and a dimensionality to the series that would be missing without his subtle gray tones.
On top of all of that, there's a nicely-timed cliffhanger on the last page that, while almost inevitable at this point, still provides an "Oh, no" moment to drag you back next month.