STANDARD SPOILER WARNING: I’ll be discussing some very specific plot points that the average man on the street – at least the one reading comics – might consider spoilers. You’ve been severely warned!
Now that the disclaimer’s been taken care of, let’s take out our Walking Dead #88 and open it at page 9.
Following a miraculous recovery, Carl has woken up from his brief coma induced by a gunshot wound to the head (#86). Partial amnesia seemed to have settled in (#87), robbing him of the memory of his mother’s death. At the start of the scene, his father Rick has been backed into a corner and forced into finally telling him the tragic news. This is supposed to be the big emotional moment that was building up since last issue’s cliffhanger.
CARL: IS MOM THERE?
Kirkman judiciously leaves a silent panel before Rick’s reply and Charlie Adlard puctuates the moment further by depicting this scene in half silhouette. We go on with a close-up of Rick’s face as he finally speaks:
RICK: YOUR MOTHER DIED…
This is the end of page 9 so we have to turn the page to see how the scene unfurls. For all we know, Kirkman is about to pull the rug from under us and switch to a new scene, but no: we go on with the exchange, except that it’s not quite the storm that was announced by the massing clouds.
The conversation that takes place in the following two pages is quite a blow for Rick: Carl is dealing a little too well with the death of his mother and sister. In fact, he seems so unaffected, that it’s scaring both us and Rick. Astute readers will understand that what’s going on under all of that dialogue is that Rick’s very fresh dread of losing his son is resurfacing with a vengeance. He barely got past the idea of him not surviving the bullet to the brain, and now he has to face this alien Carl, a person he’s recognizing less and less as he sits there at the edge of the bed.
Let’s not forget that the central idea of THE WALKING DEAD is how fragile our humanity is when we’re faced with the ultimate horror of a zombie apocalypse. The most shocking developments in the series haven’t been tied so much to the many deaths, but rather to how low the survivors could sink as the world burned around them. You have the Governor’s cruelty, the hunters’ cannibalism and that very chilling idea of a budding serial killer in the midst of Rick’s group. Rick himself has slipped down the slope more than a couple of times, but he’s always had Carl to help him climb back up again.
With Carl’s humanity now called into question, where’s the anchor for Rick’s morality?
Of course, Robert Kirkman wisely leaves all of this in the white spaces between the lines of text. It’s easy in comics to put it all in the open because comics are an essentially visual medium. Thus, we tend to forget as writers the old adage “Show, don’t tell”. We want to get it all out there, hoping that the readers will marvel at our deep meaningful character psychology and appreciate the cleverness of our not so subtle subtext.
We want to dazzle, we want to impress and by doing so, we achieve the opposite effect.
So here’s the lesson I learned from Kirman’s latest work: let the characters say what they can, not what they mean. Resist the temptation to lay bare what you want the comic to say, and let the characters themselves speak according to the circumstances in which you put them. If you can master the art of saying everything you want to say without actually spelling it out in whole, you’ll have made a great step forward in your writing.
Witness this tidbit of wisdom in practice as Kirman brings the curtain down on the scene. Before a dumbfounded Rick can question him further, Carl brings the discussing to a close.
CARL: I’M TIRED NOW, CAN I GO TO SLEEP?
The answer is in its own panel, a superb close-up of Rick’s face showing just how shaken he is over the whole exchange – wide perplexed eyes and a single word:
And in that word, there are volumes being spoken.