Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's "The Walking Dead" #97 finally takes readers somewhere that we have been headed a long time, whether characters or readers wanted to admit it. Rick and his people are killers.
It's a subtle story that could have been obvious to any reader, but since Kirkman has been executing it so slowly and naturally, it still manages to come as a nice surprise, readers realize in this issue, that Rick and his people are the bullies of "The Walking Dead." They are the killers, the enforcers, the people with the power and skill to take whatever they want. Kirkman has built these characters so organically over the past nearly one hundred issues that this reveal feels completely unforced. Instead it's like realizing a truth you've known all along.
The reveal of what Rick and his friends have become through their experiences reminded me (in the best of ways) of Richard Matheson's 1954 horror novel "I Am Legend" in which our main character, Robert Neville, the sole surviving human in a world of vampires, realizes that he in fact has become the monster in his own story, since the vampires are now the status quo and he is their killer. Similarly in "The Walking Dead" #97, Rick has bartered for food and his people's very survival by offering them up as brute enforcers -- as killers. Though not everyone in Rick's group necessarily agrees, they don't blink twice when they're physically confronted. They don't have the hesitancy or insecurity of victims anymore; they have the boldness and confidence of survivors and more and more, of bullies. They move like a well-oiled killing machine, which is exactly what they have become.
To further prove the point, when Rick returns to his community to tell them of the deal he has struck, though he does so under a guise of democracy, it's clear that nobody is willing to go against him whether they agree with his choices or not. Rick may not have deliberately set out to do this, but in his drive to get a better world, one he and his son can live in safely, he's willing to do anything to get it. Well-intentioned or not, Rick and his people have become the monster and I can't wait to see where this path leads them.
What can one say about Charlie Adlard's exceptional work on this book over the past eight years that hasn't been said before? His art has carried us through so much for these characters -- both beautiful and deadly. Adlard can do the emotional poignant important scenes with the same ease with which he tackles the most viscerally violent scenes and it is his strong consistent hand that has allowed Kirkman to build this epic journey as powerfully as he has. So rare is it to see a book with art this dominant and this consistent that I'm hard pressed to think of another example. It's a wonderful gift that Adlard has given Kirkman, allowing the writer to spread his wings and tell any story necessary, confident in the knowledge that Adlard can deliver exactly the visuals needed.
This latest development for "The Walking Dead" is very smart stuff with the kind of payoff one has come to expect from this book. For even when this comic is quiet, you always know it's building to the next thing. Even when the next thing is all of your heroes sort of becoming villains, seemingly overnight, except that it was happening all along.