I was a late comer to the comic book series The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman. As a long time “Marvel Zombie” (pun intended!), I haven’t always been very quick to experiment with comic books published by independent comic companies. Now don’t get me wrong, as someone who has been reading and collecting comic books for the better part of the past thirty-five years, I own my share of “indy” comic books. It’s just that I have always been smitten by colorful superheroes punching unbelievable villains through buildings! Keeping this in mind, it is easy to see why I didn’t take to the series quickly. The Walking Dead is about zombies (well, sort of…), and is printed in black and white! As someone who is immersed in the comic culture (much to the dismay of my wife), it didn’t take too long before I was pressured into giving the critically acclaimed series a shot. Needless to say, I fell in love with everything that had to do with the series. It was nothing like the books I read regularly, and that turned out to be a really good thing! Now I push the series on my friends with all the passion of a drug dealer trying to pay off a debt. When I heard that there were plans for a novel which was going to cover the back story of one of the series’ most notorious villains, I was stoked!
One of the pieces of this puzzle that took me a little while to uncover revolved around the roles of the two authors, Jay Bonansinga and Robert Kirkman, on this book. And to be honest, I’m not really sure I have ever gotten to the bottom of that question. Now, either I am looking in all of the wrong places or these two have purposely been ambiguous about where Kirkman’s role on the book ends and Bonansinga’s begins. I’ve read numerous interviews trying to decipher who created the script for Rise of the Governor. As far as I can tell, Kirkman collaborated on the framework, and Bonansinga put it into prose. This must have been a difficult process. In contrast to many other pop phenomenons, Kirkman isn’t simply riding the trendy zombie tsunami, he triggered it! This is not to say that Kirkman invented the zombie medium. Hell, some might even argue that The Walking Dead isn’t even really about zombies at all. What Kirkman did do, is help us (readers/society) investigate humanity’s roles during an extinction event. Think Lord of the Flies (Golding, William), only change the backdrop from a jungle island in the Pacific to urban American sprawl; infested with the flesh-eating undead! How does someone expand on a masterpiece? The answer is, very carefully!
I won’t pretend to know a lot about Jay Bonansinga. I know that he is a critically acclaimed novelist who primarily deals with the horror and thriller genre. I also read that he was a finalist for the Bram Stoker award for his debut novel, THE BLACK MARIAH. Without meaning any disrespect to this accomplished novelist, I have to say that none of this mattered to me. Like many other Walking Dead fans, I was merely worried that this “outsider” would sully the maggot infested, entrails dragging world of my favorite horror comic! Rest assured, Bonansinga writes Rise of the Governor as though it were a part of the original story arc itself. Whether it is the focus on characterization above horror, or the deep sense of dread that weights each page down, this book should make TWD fans and Kirkman proud.
If you are reading this review you most likely do not need any background from me on the Governor, considering he is one of the “pillars” of The Walking Dead lore. Just in case there are a few readers out there who might be more familiar with TWD in its television format (which is very different from the comic books), I’ll quickly fill you in. The Governor is a survivor of the zombie apocalypse who successfully creates a walled community to protect other survivors. Like most survivors, he has had to “adjust” his personality to make the most out of his situation. The self-proclaimed Governor develops a number of sadistic characteristic traits, which make him a very powerful and dangerous man to cross. The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor is Bonansinga’s attempt to fill in this character’s back story. In the comics, Rick Grimes comes face-to-face with the Governor at the height of his power. We never really get to know much about this character, until now.
Phillip Blake, his daughter, his brother, and a couple of friends start the story off trying the survive the early days of the zombie apocalypse. Bonansinga makes it clear from the beginning that Phillip is the man in charge of this small group of survivors. Also clear, is Phillip’s manic need to protect his young daughter, Penny. As a father of three young children myself, I can only imagine how difficult it would be to survive a global disaster like this one while having to keep my children safe as well. Not only does Phillip do a pretty decent job of this, he also manages to keep his sickly, inept brother Brian alive as well.
Just as Kirkman so masterfully does in his series, Bonansinga guides this group from one safe location to another, only to have each ripped away by some tragic flaw. With the failing of each “safe house,” Phillip Blake seems to fall deeper into a dark, sadistic place. This continues on for most of the book until the group eventually finds themselves in Atlanta, where there were rumors of a “Safe Zone.” The only safety the group finds is at the hands of a small family of strangers who take them in. Both in keeping with the tragic flaws and Phillip’s slip into darkness, the main character makes his biggest mistake to date, and the group suffers dearly for it. Forced to leave Atlanta, Phillip finds himself slipping away from the norms that dictate civilized societal behavior, and this doesn’t go without notice within his traveling group.
If you haven’t read the comic series, be warned, the following is something of a *spoiler*. Like always, the group finds what they believe to be a dream location only to have it ripped away from them by another group of disturbed survivors. This particular event proves disastrous in more ways than can be discussed in this review. Ultimately though, Phillip’s daughter Penny is killed, and he blames his brother for her death. It is from here that the broken group travels to the famed Woodbury, where the “Governor” begins to take form.
The book ends with a twist that I didn’t see coming from a mile away. And the coolest thing about this surprise is that it is Jay Bonansinga’s personal stamp on the series. While most everything the novelist described in the book was based on something Kirkman had already created, this unsuspecting turn of events is all Bonansinga, and it forever changed the way I view the character of the Governor.
It took me a little bit to get into the story itself. I found Bonansinga was a little heavy-handed with his details at first. For instance, he described a Cadillac Escalade in such detailed fashion, that I couldn’t help thinking that maybe he had a side deal with Cadillac, and they were giving him a free car for mentioning them in his book. Either I got used to his over-detailing or he toned it down a bit, because I didn’t seem to notice it as much as the book went on. His storytelling was smooth, though, and he really did a great job of capturing the emotion of the original series. As a reader, I felt this strange weight of dread on my shoulders, knowing that no matter how hopeful the characters were about their situation, they were screwed!
I highly recommend this novel to fans of The Walking Dead. In fact, I’m pretty sure those unfamiliar with the original series will enjoy it, as well. I also think that this is an interesting way of looking at storytelling in comic books. Origin stories are by no means new to the medium, but using a novel to connect directly to the comic’s continuity is new as far as I know, and if it is done well like this story, I’m all for it! Check out The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor. No TWD fan should go without it, and I guarantee you will never look at the Governor the same way again.