The time jump (easily the most significant employed in either the comic or the TV series) speaks to the fundamental appeal of The Walking Dead. Where most zombie stories are about the immediate fight for survival, it’s rare for storytellers to stick around long enough to explore what happens when human civilization tries to rebuild itself. It would be a shame to end the series without giving readers that final, definitive glimpse of a brighter tomorrow. Seeing the legacy of Rick Grimes play itself out in these pages is a crystal clear reminder that The Walking Dead is ultimately a story of hope, not despair.
It’s a testament to the way Kirkman and Adlard present this future setting that it leaves the reader wanting more. This new world could easily support its own spinoff series. If not as fraught with peril as the classic Walking Dead setting, it’s still a world full of its own challenges and conflicts and moral quagmires. Not to mention the appeal of seeing an adult Carl Grimes take center stage. In some ways it’s a shame we didn’t get to see him become the book’s main protagonist for an extended period of time. But he certainly fits the bill as a man trapped between the horrors of the past and the idyllic new reality in which he finds himself. The significant time jump winds up playing right into that divide, as the reader can immediately sympathize with Carl’s unease.
Kirkman’s script cleverly keeps several plates spinning at once. Carl’s long journey allows the book to touch base with a number of other series mainstays, showing us the final fates of Eugene, Michonne, Maggie and many others without derailing the narrative. The plot highlights the fundamental conflict that defines post-zombie society – is it better to protect younger generations from the horrors of the past or force them to see and remember? There’s also a very self-aware quality to the story. At times Kirkman seems to directly acknowledge the need to end stories when the time is right, before they become drained of all artistic merit and become soulless, money-driven machines.
This issue also functions as a surprisingly effective Western. That’s true in a superficial sense, with images of frontier towns, Industrial Age tech and cowboy hat-wearing riders all contributing to a very different look and feel for the series. Adlard and gray tone artist Cliff Rathburn deserve ample credit for making this new world feel so vibrant and fully realized. But on a deeper level, there’s also the sad, wistful sense of seeing a dangerous yet exciting frontier slowly fade away in the face of progress and technology. You can’t really mourn the passing of “The Trials,” as various characters refer to that time, but there’s a longing for the days of Rick Grimes all the same.
Visually, this issue does experience some rough patches. Adlard inks his own pencils rather than relying on his usual collaborator Stefano Gaudiano, and that tends to result in heavier, clunkier lines and shadows. The constantly shifting cast of characters also tends to draw attention to the many cases where Adlard reuses the same facial expressions.
Still, the sheer fact that Adlard maintained his rigid monthly schedule even as the series wraps with a significantly oversized final issue is impressive. And in addition to his rendition of this Wild West-style landscape, Adlard’s depiction of Carl and his family hits all the right notes. Carl himself manages to both evoke the younger character we’ve known for so many years while also showing a strong resemblance to his father. Carl is the most poignant reminder that Rick Grimes’ many sacrifices truly paid off in the end.