It’s always fascinating to revisit those first Walking Dead volumes, “Days Gone Bye” and “Miles Behind Us,” and compare it to what eventually made it to television on AMC when the show debuted in 2010. These early volumes, which formed the basis of The Walking Dead Season One aren’t just a tale of a world gone mad or an exercise in atrocity, but the simple tale of one man determined to get back to his family and ultimately survive a world where everything had collapsed. So, with all that in mind, let us examine some of the major changes that the show made to the comics in order to keep readers guessing and to tell a story more suited to the TV format. Beware…if you’re new to the world of The Walking Dead, there WILL be spoilers ahead!
The Early Death of Shane
In the book, Shane is a pretty flat foil, serving as a human enemy for Rick as he tries to save his family and lead the survivors. As soon as Shane turns, his end is forecast, whereas in the show, his turn is a slow burn that takes two seasons to complete. TV Shane is much more fleshed out and serves as the anti-Rick, while in the comic, Shane’s death is a reminder that killing a man is not like killing a zombie, and every life is now precious. The great tragedy in the book is that one human life is wasted, and as far as readers know, Rick’s group are the only survivors left. When Shane is killed in the show (by Rick not Carl), the group had already encountered Hershel’s people and there is a sense that there are many more survivors. Keep in mind; this is all done with hindsight turned way up.
Originally, Walking Dead was simply a small press black and white horror book meant to service hardcore horror fans. Audiences were familiar with the tropes and came into the book with certain expectations, and those preconceived notions are what sold the book. Because the comic was a genre meditation more than a zombie spectacle the volume had to be turned up for TV, so the Shane/Rick/Lori conflict that was resolved in a few dozen comic pages took two seasons of television.
Shane didn’t become fleshed out until the opening pages of “Miles Behind Us,” where it is clear to the reader that Lori fell into Shane’s arms for comfort after the loss of Rick, her parents, and civilization. Shane replies with a creepy “I’ve wanted this for so long,” which tells the readers all they need to know about his loyalty and morality. The moment Shane turns in the comics, his fate is sealed. In the show, seasons one and two are fueled by Shane’s burning anger, a character aspect that, at times, makes him the perfect survivor. Think about what is lost after the death of Shane, no confusion for Lori, and no foil for Rick as they venture away from their initial camp. Shane’s continued presence in the show also changes Andrea, hardens her and prepares her for her new world. Walking Dead creator, Robert Kirkman, has said on many occasions that he wished he kept Shane alive in the comics, but Shane’s death provides a fascinating study on the difference of book and show.
Allen, Donna, and the Twins
The most notably absent characters in the comics are, of course, Merle and Daryl, but there are others. The show made no mention of a couple who played a pretty important role in the opening issues of The Walking Dead, Allen and Donna, and their twin sons, Billy and Ben. Donna is an overweight, middle aged woman who, even before Shane, was the first of the group to cause friction as she took an instant dislike to Andrea and her sister.
Allen was a bearded, overweight shoe salesman, and the couple and their children were the picture of normalcy pre-apocalypse. Allen was a calming influence and a staunch supporter of the group, even though Donna seemed to wear the pants. Losing Donna, Allen, and the twins in the show lost the group a sense of the everyman, the average housewife and schlub husband who now must survive in a word they are not meant for.
This becomes obvious when Donna is killed while clearing out a house by a Walker early in “Miles Behind Us.” Allen falls into a deep depression and becomes a burden on the group. Allen’s fate is sealed later (in the prison) but his addition to the group was a constant reminder of what was lost and what strength it took to survive in the new world, strength that Donna and Allen, sadly, did not have. Donna, along with Allen would appear in the show as members of Tyreese’s group, but more on that in Season 3.
No Merle and Daryl
Replacing Donna and Allen in the television group are the beloved Merle and Daryl. Imagining The Walking Dead without Daryl is like imagining the X-Men without Wolverine, but that is the comic book reality. Until Tyreese shows up early in volume 2, the comic is short of actual fighters. Daryl and Merle provide an opportunity for an action centered narrative, and are two characters that will keep comic readers engaged in the show as they are new personalities to explore.
Also absent from the comic is T-Dog, another bit of muscle not with the group, really leaving the alpha male struggle between Rick and Shane. The show instantly brings race and class into the mix with the rest of the group looking at Merle and Daryl as white trash, and Merle looking down on T-Dog (who is African-American).
Of course without Daryl, there is no love interest for Carol, who, in the early comics, is something of a cypher, and not an abused housewife like on the show. Carol doesn’t do much of anything in these early comic volumes, but in the show, her attraction to Daryl is a key element after the death of her husband. Early on, many of the comic survivors are pretty similar, non-action oriented characters like Donna, Allen, and Carol, which is probably why the showrunners decided to bring in two hellraising asskickers like Daryl and Merle.
Enter Tyreese…much earlier
On the show, viewers don’t meet Tyreese until the group gets to the prison. In the comic, Tyreese, his daughter, and soon to be son-in-law enter the picture right after Shane’s death. In the comic, Tyreese fills the Daryl role, a take-charge, in-control warrior who serves the group with his heart and his will. Tyreese replaced Shane as the de facto co-leader and soon forms a romantic bond with Carol, another story parallel to Daryl. It’s interesting that the showrunners did not bring Tyreese in earlier as many events that happen to the group on Hershel’s farm and in the prison were shaped by Tyreese’s actions in the comics. His loyalty and strength was split between Daryl and T-Dog while he did most of the heavy lifting for Rick’s group. The arrival of the new characters did not bode well for Allen and Donna, but Tyreese and his group brought a great dynamic to the book long before anyone heard the name Woodbury.
The end of season one saw the group going to the CDC where they learned a little about what the zombie plague was and how a zombie’s physiology works. This was an effective bit of expository drama that showed the viewer a hint of what was happening beyond the group. The show needed this piece because in a television drama, a viewer is going to want to know the origins of the zombies, to pull the “camera” back to see the bigger picture of the world of Walking Dead. In the comic, Kirkman controls the camera and he chooses to focus on the Grimes family and company.
The Walking Dead, the comic, is a genre piece, a loving tribute to Romero and all the ghoulish creators that have destroyed the world so many times in many different ways over the genre’s history. In the comic, no one needs to know how the world ended, fans have seen it all before in countless films and books, what matters are the characters on the page. The show desires to go beyond the genre loyalists and give a bit of backstory to a world not so familiar to non-genre fans. When the CDC is destroyed though, it’s a harsh and shocking message to the viewers which reads: No more answers, no more help, no more science, you’re on your own.