The Walking Dead comic won the Eisner award for Best Continuing Series last year. In a risky move, AMC released The Walking Dead on Oct. 31, 2010, to critical acclaim. It went on to win several awards, including an Emmy. Given this success, a novelization was inevitable. On Oct. 11, Rise of the Governor by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga made its debut featuring one of the most reviled comic book characters in recent memory. IGN ranked the Governor as the 86th top comic book villain of all time. Wizard magazine (now Wizard World) dubbed the Governor “Villain of the Year” in 2006 following his first appearance in issue #27.
Although fictional, delving into the psyche of the Governor has the same popular appeal as diving into the mind of a serial killer, but without the messiness of reality. It’s all within the framework of fictional, zombie-ridden Atlanta. In this imagined realm, the villain can commit unspeakable acts while the reader rides along with a degree of separation, free from voyeuristic guilt of taking interest in a real-life tragedy. Rest assured, unspeakable acts are committed. It’s not for the faint of heart. Then again, neither is the comic.
If you’ve read the comic, you have a handle on what to expect, both in terms of violence and direction. The fates of the characters have already been determined. That enhances the story rather than diminishes it. The book does stand alone as a whole for those unfamiliar with the Walking Dead, but there’s more to be gotten from the story for readers of the comic since there are some familiar locations and minor characters.
As a fan of the anti-hero and villain, I’m drawn to these archetypes – Grendel by John Garner and Finn by Jon Clinch being too noteworthy examples. Good anti-hero stories evoke sympathy for the bad guy and bring his point of view into focus, almost to the point of cheering for him. On these items, the authors deliver. The elements of what ultimately makes the Governor what he becomes are laid bare and there is an inescapable familiar pathos that makes one feel that, if placed in the same circumstances, one would arrive at the same ugly destination.
The book isn’t without its flaws. There are a few overused phrases, like “now, the characters are doing such and such,” “now, this happens.” And there are too many occasions when a heart is breaking at the sight of a little girl holding a doll or doing some other little girl behavior. These are minor bumps in an otherwise fast-paced, action-packed story that reads like it could be a movie script. It does beg the question: Why write it as a novel in the first place? Why not a set of graphic novels? I can’t speak for the authors, but the novel allows for more moments of introspection and opportunity to delve into the characters’ thoughts. Through these periodic insights, a character study of the Governor unfolds and that’s where it delivers on the title’s promise.