The Walking Dead's third trade paperback is an interesting change-up in the narrative and something I'm quite glad of. It's also the first of the volumes I have some serious reservations of, in part because I think the story goes some places which are unnecessary. This is the first volume I have started to see some of the fan's complaints that it might be "misery porn." I don't agree with them but I can certainly see why they would come to such a conclusion.
The premise of Safety Behind Bars is Rick Grimes and his gang have decided they need to create a fortified settlement in order to survive the zombie apocalypse. They need to find a place which has food, space, strong walls, and hopefully a defensible position. In the end, they decide the best place is a nearby prison they stumble onto.
The arc consists of dealing with the slow but inevitable realization the biggest problem facing them may not be zombies anymore, but their fellow humans. This is a common enough story arc in zombie tales but particularly poignant here because we've let our guard down. Like the characters, we think the prison will be safe.
The addition of a new group of survivors broadens the cast a bit and gives a new dynamic to the group. The prisoners who survived in the prison until this time seem to be a fairly harmless group. While Lori is suspicious of them, Rick Grimes is willing to accept the prisoners as fellow human beings. Whether this turns out to be a mistake or not is the focus of both this and the next volume.
I liked that Robert Kirkman decided to bring Herschel, Glenn, Maggie, and the rest of the farm characters to the prison. I was quite fond of them all and watching them adjust to life in the prison as well as cope with the fallout from Miles Behind Us was a great thing. Herschel's new-found pacifism is something that's simultaneously admirable as well as stupid in an environment where only the strongest survive.
My earlier mention of misery porn has to deal with a horrific event which occur midway through the books to characters I never expected would suffer such a nightmarish fate. Given what's already happened to a certain character related to them, this just seemed gratuitous. Of course, I read The Walking Dead because it doesn't pull any punches. This is a just a warning, the books only get darker from here.
Oddly, my favorite moment in the book is an equally bleak moment. A suicide-compact which has been alluded to in previous volumes and comes to its conclusion here. Why I liked this one and disliked the other can be chalked up to a number of reasons, mostly spoilerific but boil down to my feeling this was a better example of characterization as well as plotting. The affects it has a on surviving character are both enthralling as well as heartbreaking. I also applaud a "fake out" with a character's death that had me cheering when it was revealed he was alive.
In conclusion, The Walking Dead continues to be a gripping and violent story about people pushed to the brink of survival. If you like dark comics, and why would you be reading it otherwise, you'll continue to like this series. Still, I can't help if I think this one was a little exploitative.
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