Comics need to be on TV and not in the movies. AMC’s latest TV series, The Walking Dead, is an adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s comic book by the same name. The pilot, which aired last Sunday and is on again this weekend, was an excellent debut and a wake-up call to the reality that comic book adaptations are lost on the silver screen. Yes, there have been a few bright spots (Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, Iron Man), but for every inspired comic film there have been a good deal more horrible ones. The element of comicdom that has never been treated properly is its serial format. This misunderstanding is perpetuated by comics’ recent (unfortunate) renaming as “graphic novels.” A novel suggests a carefully crafted narrative. It stands alone, beginning, middle and end. Novels translate well to film because of this neat cohesion, but comics do not because comics are serials, not novels. To make an effective comic book movie, one must truncate an entire series—oftentimes hundreds of issues—into one single story. Modern comic book movie formula: stay true to the characters, write a new story.
The problem is, the best comics to be written in recent years privilege plot over character and most of them don’t feature a single recognizable superhero. The great Alan Moore’s delightfully subversive comics have seen his genius mangled onscreen time and time again, though not for lack of effort. The context is just not right. The Wachowskis produced V For Vendetta and, in the process, asphyxiated a brooding, claustrophobic intrigue with 21st-century nihilist action-film blandness. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen was bloated with hyper-visceral sensationalism, obscuring the comic’s muted, literary tone. Making a feature film out of a modern comic series is like shoving a square peg into a round hole.
In truth very few comics are written as long standalone stories. One twentysomething-page issue will come out every month, continuing a long running story. It’s a format that has its origins in Dickensian pulp fiction and classic radio drama. Most of those "graphic novels" you see in paperback on the shelves at Barnes & Noble are actually collections of individual monthly issues. Buying a comic in trade paperback (as it’s known in the industry) is like buying a season of a TV show on DVD. The original format, however, is serial. Each issue concludes with the promise of the next, and the better the series, the harder it is to wait. That should sound familiar to fans of network hits like 24, Lost and Heroes.
The Walking Dead marks the first high-profile experiment in bringing comics to the small screen and it is a resounding success. AMC is the perfect habitat for a serial story whose tone ranges widely from horror to tragedy to rollicking adventure. Robert Kirkman’s original idea in writing The Walking Dead was exactly why a movie version would never have worked. Kirkman was always irked by how zombie films had a huge setup but tended to end arbitrarily after some pseudo-climax. Even Romero’s legendary films could only find proper catharsis in metaphor or Twilight Zone-esque social commentary. Kirkman would be the first to admit he owes much to Romero, but The Walking Dead takes a different route through the undead wasteland. It is meant to be an expansive chronicling of the lives of people caught in a zombie apocalypse that wouldn’t just end when it’s convenient. It’s the Lonesome Dove of zombie tales and it’s still continuing today. Frank Darabont, director of a couple of little adaptations you may have heard of—The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile—is aware of the breadth and serial structure of Kirkman’s epic, and according to an interview with the A.V. Club, is having as much fun making the series as we are watching it:
“As far as the deliberate pace of a show, can I just tell you what a pleasure it is to get back to the kind of filmmaking I used to be allowed to do. … You can hold a shot, thank God, and I’m finding that such a pleasure, because I do love moments that breathe.”
Comments like this are gumdrops to a comic book fan like myself. Just when it seems like nobody understands you, that comic adaptations will forever be locked away in shallow eye-candy reels and geek homages, Darabont and AMC come and sweep you off your feet. There have already been some changes from the comic series, but they are only detours (and welcome ones so far). Even with a TV show there can’t be a one-to-one correlation between the comic and the screen, but Kirkman’s story is already much more in focus on AMC than it could ever be in the movie theater. It’s all summed up in the network’s blessed catchphrase: “Story Matters Here.” Nerds rejoice! One of the best comics of the past decade is finally in capable hands and zombies have regained a foothold in the pantheon of high pulp art. Perhaps HBO will take notice and Brian K. Vaughan’s masterpiece, Y: The Last Man, can get the same loving treatment. One can only hope.
The Walking Dead airs Sunday nights on AMC at 10/9c.