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Saturday, April 9, 2016

Cover Story - Top 16 Walking Dead Covers

What can you say about The Walking Dead?  Well, I can say that another season of the hit AMC comic book show has come to a close, which is the entire reason this article is getting written.  More than that, though, I can say that it is pretty impressive how much AMC’s The Walking Dead has managed to elevate the place of independent comics in terms of their marketability.  Previously, indie comics hadn’t really been a major force outside the comic market since the speculator bubble burst in the ‘90s. 

Back then, names like Youngblood, Spawn, and Savage Dragon were all big names and even though we had Hellboy in the mid-2000s the idea of adapting creator owned indie books to the small screen was more or less written off till Walking Dead got big.  So even though I haven’t read the comic in forever and really don’t like it or the show very much I certainly acknowledge that good things came out of this multimedia phenomena.  So, with that said let’s dive into the shallow end and get the cover story on the top 16 Walking Dead covers.

We start with a great concept marred by less than stellar execution.  This was from a pretty cool storyline in Walking Dead were Rick and his fellow survivors stumbled upon a zombie safe zone.  It was a neat concept and a chance to play around with the mechanics of this world rather than falling back on the standard post-apocalyptic road trip plot engine.  

This cover really highlights that shift in dynamic and, in a very clever way, the darkness it brings out in the characters.  See, just as an image this a great piece of zombie art, countering the comforting normality of the scene with that great “safe zone” sign looming in the foreground.  It’s a subversion of expectation, giving the audience a return to mundanity that the world of zombies always seems to condemn. 

That’s all good stuff but then you’ve got Rick dominating the middle distance and looking very, very sinister.  It’s a little hard to tell but he’s drawn here like an absolute villain.  The framing of the shot makes him shockingly tall, to the point of near inhumanity, with his hands clasped behind his back like Dr. Doom or something.  

While this could just be the artist making a goof, I like to think it’s a commentary on The Walking Dead’s core cast and how they’ve been changed by the wasteland.  The entire point of The Walking Dead is that the humans are the real monsters and the idea of Rick being turned into a destructive villain because he was afforded the very safe zone he was always looking for is key to that subtext. 

This cover comes from the ‘Fear the Hunters’ arc that actually made me quit the comic.  It’s fine as zombie fair but given all the build up to what turned out to be a fairly straight forward “hunting people for survival” post-apocalypse story I felt let down and a big part of that was how incredible all the covers and ads were.  

Like this cover is just stellar, a great use of negative space and iconography.  The best aspect of the design has to be the diagonal split between light and dark negative space, creating this very unique dichotomy across the page that implies an environment without really showing one.  

The block colors are necessary to help the bloody footprints really pop and they’re a big part of what makes this cover so creepy.  It’s a dehumanizing image, which is what Walking Dead really excelled at: dehumanizing characters in the face of the zombacolypse.  The combination of the bloody tracks like an animal with that freaky hunting knife makes it seem a lot like hunting for sport, which is an infinitely creepier concept than being hunted for food.  You just get the sense there’s something deeply and profoundly wrong with the two guys in this cover, something that can’t be rationalized or explained. 

This is a rare cover for The Walking Dead as it’s one of the only visuals that actually projects strength as the dominating aesthetic.  There’s a darker element to that strength but for the most part this is a cover that says power: violent, brutal, gory power.  The riot shields are a great way to highlight the blood splatter across the heroes and are nicely complimented by the blood sprayed across block white background.  What really sells the cover, however, is the design of the riot gear.  

‘Dehumanization’ is going to be a unifying theme for a lot of these covers and it’s on full display here.  The complete obscurity of the heroes’ faces affords them an anonymity and inhumanity in their new found strength against the zombie horde.  It’s an image that highlights how this kind of incredible power for destruction robs us of both our personal and group humanity, reducing us to a faceless drone and reducing other living creatures to obstacles to be splattered against the front of our forces. 

This is another strange cover for The Walking Dead, this one emphasizing almost the exact opposite of #14.  Where the previous cover emphasized power, destruction, and loss of identity this image is much more about strength through acceptance.  Though the iconography of the preacher in the midst of the zombie apocalypse could have many meanings, here I’d tend to think it’s in reference to a more accepting approach to one’s situation.  

This ties into how much the heroes of The Walking Dead tie their own humanity to the world they’ve lost, viewing their human identity as intrinsically lost without the trappings of normalcy while also viewing any action taken to return to that status quo a step towards their humanity.  It’s clearly a delusion as the heroes slowly rob themselves of any semblance of human decency or morality desperately marching towards a world that will never exist again while this cover presents us with the exact opposite.  The preacher here isn’t about fighting the undead or trying to return the past but simply accepting the current situation and finding humanity in the now rather than becoming lost in future hopes or past dreams. 

Once again, we have a cover that emphasizes a kind of humanity in the face of the undead though this is less predicated on acceptance than the previous cover.  There are still elements of it as the clash between chasing an unattainable vision of the past and trying to create a better present is one of the fundamental concepts of The Walking Dead, but this cover is a lot more about the benefits of building a stronger now and where the humanity that would provide might be found.  

It’s even more of an opposite to the SWAT team cover as it stresses coming together just as people, with the goal of living together rather than surviving together.  There’s a kind of innocence to the image that’s heartwarming in its own way.  Even though the safety of this moment didn’t end up lasting there’s beauty in the moment and finding a truly human connection within the limited time that moment affords these characters.

After two kind and comforting covers we’re right back to the horror angle of this comic, with one of the most unequivocally destroyed visions of Washington D.C. in a zombie story.  Even without knowing the in-comic significance of this particular story arc and cover, this is still a very striking image.  

Part of every zombie story is the idea that the zombies will bring about a complete communications breakdown and that the group of survivors we’re following won’t know about the big and important stuff that’s going on.  Having the characters actually make their way to Washington D.C. and see the complete collapse of any semblance of previous authority is a great way to definitively end that disconnect and the looming idea that maybe there’s someone coming to save you. 

What’s more, the visual of Washington’s destruction comes tinged with an additional element.  As mentioned, a lot of The Walking Dead is about clinging to the past for a semblance of humanity in a new world that has thoroughly destroyed the old.  Showcasing the seat of law and order of the old world completely overgrown and destroyed is a strong symbol for how much the rules that defined humanity and the morality of our actions have been left in the dust of a previous era and aren’t ever coming back; that there’s no absolution coming. 

And now another jump back to the ‘Fear The Hunters’ story arc, this one from the final issue.  My love for this cover is a little bizarre to elaborate but it’s essentially the same thinking behind why I liked the previous Hunters cover: I assumed the characters in silhouette were modeled after country dear and game hunters.  As mentioned, my entire disillusionment with the hunters story arc was that the titular hunters were just people trying to survive, driven to extremes by their situation, rather than unhinged monsters of the wasteland.  

In this cover, again taking the story out of it, framed against the sunset they look like a pose of good old boys on the way in from a successful hunt with a new pair of antlers to mount on their truck.  Hunting people for sport is a creepy concept all around but within the context of The Walking Dead there’s a great added layer of eeriness about it in how much it twists Rick and his fellow survivors’ desire to return to the world they’ve lost.  Re-enacting hunting trips in the manner of things prior to the zombie apocalypse but with people instead of game is a great way to mirror the way Rick and his followers play at humanity amid their own cruelty. 

This is one of the more overtly literal covers to pop up out in The Walking Dead but I quite like it.  Like the previous cover featuring a fence, this one is all about connections and the way we’re tied to things only this one is much more morbid and on the nose.  The obvious symbolism of the cover is about the line between the living and the dead, and how thin that divide really is.  Having Rick facing down with what looks like a zombified version of his wife with nothing but a handful of wire between them is a very on the nose way of showcasing how they’re “not so different, you and I.” 
It’s a very ‘pie to the face’ approach to symbolism but I can’t deny its evocative power.  

One of the jokes I like to make about The Walking Dead is that every story has a moment where it’s hammered into the audience that Rick and the survivors are the real walking dead of the title.  Usually this ties into the inhumanity stuff I mentioned earlier in this article but in this case, there’s a kind of inevitability to it that makes it seem more sinister.  

Rather than torturing the characters into being monstrous facsimiles of humanity, this cover brings to mind the fact that everyone who lives is going to become a zombie.  It cuts back to the idea of zombies as a huamnization of the fear of the inevitability of death and the fact that no matter how many fences we put up it always finds a way.

This is such a great, chilling image, especially given the seemingly rampant nature of very public gun violence these last two years.  This is another great example, like the opening cover, of how The Walking Dead uses juxtaposition to create truly disturbing and horrific imagery.  What’s so creepy about this rendering, though, is how normal it seems in its rendering.  This is the byproduct of the social media age but at this point in our collective history the images of child soldiers throughout the world has been so thoroughly ingrained into the consciousness it’s something like a touchstone in its own right.  

Fitting a patently American child into that mold should be shocking and unthinkable but the realism of this image is such a perfect combination of real world iconography and believable visuals that it can’t help but feeling terribly plausible.  It’s a bizarre situation where what’s truly chilling about the image is how not chilling it is, how much one can look at it and just kind of nod in agreement.  It taps into something viscerally modern without being frightening, playing on our familiarity and the seeming inevitability of conflict and the destruction of innocence. 

This is such a beautiful visual, easily one of the best the comic ever produced.  Unlike all of the others on hand, this cover literally tells you what it’s all about.  There’s no real messing about with metaphor or deeper meaning, just big block letters telling you that this is about the larger world beyond the boundaries of our own experienced reality.  But still, there’s something about the wooded blend of rural small town and suburbia with the drifting smoke scarring the grey horizons that’s deeply evocative and memorable.  

A lot of this has to do less with the subtext of the content and more to do with skill at hand.  The artwork to create the vast landscape of deep woods dotted houses, the blended shapes disappearing into the green/grey gradient, it’s all so wonderfully impressionistic.  It’s not trying to be realistic like the previous entry so much as it’s try to capture the emotion of this scene, which is itself very tricky.  

I can’t even really put a name to the emotion here, the sense of dread, optimism, and realization as you look out over this vast miasma of landscape and realize how small you and your reality really are in the great scheme of it all.  As I said, I can’t name that emotion but this cover encapsulates it perfectly. 

At this point we’re digging into the iconography of the comics’ own universe for inspiration and meaning, with the signature weapons of Michonne and Negan.  What’s most interesting to me is the emotion exuded from each individual weapon and how contradictory they feel.  Michonne’s Katana feels more indicative of loss, defeat, or finality.  

A lot of that is position, the weapon is jammed into the ground, stuck there, exuding this sense of solidity and completion.  It’s been returned to the Earth that spawned the metal now that’s drunk enough blood.  Speaking of, the blood splatter running down the sword and forming that big puddle adds to this air, making it seem like whoever stuck the sword in the ground is bleeding out just off-panel.  I also like the unique way the negative space creates the aesthetic of tall grass, giving the scene a natural but isolated feel. 

Meanwhile, Negan’s bat is visibly thrown to the floor but also easily accessible.  It can just be picked back up at any minute and used for further clubbing, it’s accessible and the violence of the blood splatter around it is infinitely more aggressive and deadly.  It’s an image that exudes menace, destruction, and most of all murder.  

Another good indicator on that front is the pitch-blackness of the cover, which suggests and in-door setting.  As a whole, the two covers create a near perfect dichotomy of symbolism.  One representing purity, sacrifice, and an ending while the other speaks to murder, mayhem, and chaos.  Both are steeped in death and the iconography of the series but the framing changes things completely. 

I think it’s safe to say that as far as the comics are concerned Negan and Michonne are the two most iconic characters.  Rick is the main hero and Carl is moderately well known but if you showed most folks this cover they’d probably know exactly who was who and what was about to happen.  It’s hard to say exactly why that is actually, at least in Negan’s case.  Michonne is at least a bad ass but Negan is a pretty bog standard villain of the zombie wastes.  He’s some random local warlord who popped up, made some bad puns, and killed a character to raise the stakes for the 100th issue. After that he more or less trailed off in the wake of a bunch of other weird storylines.  

Maybe killing a character really is enough to cement a villain like Negan in people’s minds but I suspect it was the way he killed them that made him so ubiquitous.  It’s a glacially paced sequence in which he choses the one to die then violently and graphically beats them to death, which is why this image of preparing for the swing has become his most iconic visual.  Even though he never really lived up to his potential as a bad guy everyone remembered the laborious sequence of panels as he bashed some poor bastard’s brains in rendered in exquisite detail.  I guess sometimes, blatant ugliness for shock value works. 

Fun fact: this is the earliest cover I’ve included on the list.  In a way that actually fits with the set-up as this came at a time when the group were still very much bound by their own humanity.  There were a few elements of the coming cruelty and obsession with the past but for the most part this was a brief window where it seemed like the better angels of our nature would shepherd Rick and the survivors through the wasteland.  Hence the significance of the cross and the group morning their fallen comrade, it’s an image that speaks to societal customs still having sway in the zombie infested wasteland.  You can actually even still make out children among the assembled crowd.

All of those elements are nice sentiments of the cover but the big reason it got this high a spot is that it’s absolutely beautiful.  The use of negative space to paint the scene atop that wonderfully rendered sunset sky backdrop is ingenuous, wringing so much detail out of the shadows.  

I especially love the look of the trees, these leafless skeletal giants scratching against the horizon.  Speaking of which, the color blending on the sky here is just incredible.  The deep burgundy of the brick colored red meshes perfectly with that muted orange to give the entire look a sense of fall colors that matches the barren trees and looming sense of death and loss perfectly. 

You had to know this image would make the list, it’s iconic of the entire series really.  More than any other cover this is the one that everyone knows and it’s easy to see way: it’s awesome.  Seriously, there isn’t much more to why people remember this cover than that it’s just a kick-ass image, marked by how bizarrely unique it is in that kick-ass nature.  Firstly, it’s a unique Walking Dead cover as it actually exudes power and strength without the implication of inhumanity dehumanization, Michonne is allowed to still be a unique and powerful human even though she’s completely owning the zombie menace of the wasteland. 

Michonne herself is another big part of why this cover is so beloved as the number of kick-ass black women in comics remains tragically low.  As such, making the most powerful character in the entire comic a kick-ass woman of color wielding a katana along with her two pet zombies was a major point in Walking Dead’s favor and really set it apart from the pack.  

Characters of color have a long history of thriving in zombie fiction, back to George Romero’s habit of casting powerful black heroes in all of his original quadrilogy of zombie films.  It also helps that this cover features a greater level of detail than most.  The gore on Michonne’s two zombies is shockingly exquisite and the gnarled dead forest behid them is equally well rendered.  Add all that together and it gives you the new gold standard for zombie bad asses. 

I like to think of this cover as a deliberate response to the #4 spot cover, to the point it even came out one year later.  Just from the outset, without even digging into meaning, this image is absolutely chilling.  Much like the first hunters cover with the footprints, there’s something about focusing on a body part without seeing the whole person that’s just innately creepy.  

In this case, the limp and lifeless feet swaying above the assembled survivors is a deeply disturbing visual and the static nature of the scene only amplifies that.  There’s nothing else happening here, everything is focused on looking at those feet and this dead body, you can’t avoid any of it, it’s just there staring you right in the face.

On the subject of rebuttals to previous issues, this really is where the concept of lost humanity entered The Walking Dead, which does color my view of the cover.  See, the hanging body is actually an execution, which is a macabre mirror of the #4 cover’s cross, both of them symbols of death from a time before zombies.  That idea of dragging the pre-zombie world into the present is key to this cover and the way this image perverts the seeming purity of that idea.  

Previously the idea of reviving things pre-zombie was always kind of pure in essence, a simple attempt to get back to a life now lost.  With this, however, they’ve selected to recreate the inhumanity of that previous age.  It was the first sign of how much the apocalypse necessitated the survivors lose their humanity to survive and everything they’d do to justify that lost.

I honestly cannot think of a more apt image to describe The Walking Dead than this one, Rick Grimes standing over a massive field of bodies of every character that’s been killed off in the course of the series.  This whole list has been about the content of these covers and the way the images embody the deeper meaning and commentary of the series on human folly leading to inhumanity but not this one.  No, this cover is just a straight up look into the abject death and destruction the comic’s supposed hero has created, the fields and fields of dead people he’s left in his wake.  It’s a burning, searing image of self-criticism the likes of which are almost never seen in the realms of comics. 

Something that really drives the point of this cover home is the binary color divide that it creates.  The mound of dead bodies are all colored and detailed, this hideous collage of wasted life and dead flesh blending together in a gory kaleidoscope.  However, as you follow the bodies upwards towards Rick the color slowly drains away, leaving only a gray world.  It creates a perfect visual metaphor for how much Rick has propped himself up atop the many lives he’s destroyed and how they, in turn, destroyed his, robbing him of his identity, humanity, and his very soul. 
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