I was never a regular reader of Robert Kirkman’s long-running (173 issues, so far) comic-book series The Walking Dead. Nor did I start watching the TV series until about halfway through season 5. But when I did I quickly became hooked. Still I never read any of the comics, until the end of Season 7, where I was curious about the upcoming war with Negan, who, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan on the show, is easily one of my favorite TV villains ever, and so I bought the two trades which collect issues #115-126, in which the war takes place in the comics. They were very good, and it doesn’t end the way that I would have expected. Although I do know that the TV show doesn’t always follow the events of the comics exactly, so it remains to be seen how Season 8 of the TV series will play out, and how similar it will be to the comics or not.
Now this 70-page issue that I’m reviewing today is a collection of stories, which were serialized in the monthly magazine Image Plus, which give us the much-anticipated “secret origin” of Negan. Again, the TV series does not always follow the events of the comics , so I don’t know how much of what is in this book will also be revealed in the TV show. For all we know, the show could have a completely different backstory for Negan. Nevertheless, I will try to avoid major spoilers.
BUT CONSIDER THIS A MINOR SPOILER ALERT.
So, before the zombie apocalypse, Negan (no last name is ever given) was a high-school gym teacher. He was known for being tough and a bit crass with his students, which has lead to some complaints from parents, although he insists that he’s just like that because he’s trying to be the “cool teacher” and relate to the boys. He was married to a woman named Lucille, they had no children, and one day she collapses is taken to the hospital where it is revealed that she is dying of cancer. We see that Negan had been having an affair with another woman but he breaks it off with her and confesses to Lucille, who doesn’t exactly take it well. The comic advances over an unspecified amount of time where we see Negan and Lucille spending time together as she progressively gets worse. One emotional scene shows the two of them sitting on a park bench and Negan is crying, while Lucille tells him to stop making a scene.
Finally it’s the end, Lucille is back in the hospital, as Negan begs her to pull through this, admitted that he was never good enough for her, but that she was the only thing that made his life worth living. It’s at this point that the zombie virus breaks out. A man tells Negan that the hospital is being evacuated, and tries to convince Negan to leave, but Negan refuses to leave Lucille’s side. He barricades the door to their room, and looks out the window seeing the chaos as riots erupt. Lucille dies, and Negan breaks down, but then Lucille revives as a zombie and tries to attack Negan. That’s when Negan leaves the hospital and sets off on his own.
The book continues to advance over an unspecific amount of time where we see Negan in his travels as he encounters various people who join him on his journey. But what we see is that every time Negan is joined by some fellow survivors, at some point they get attacked by zombies and each time Negan survives but the others get killed. One result of this is that the more time passes and worse things get Negan starts getting more and more crass, to the point where it’s like everything he says is some dirty joke, sexual innuendo, or curse word. Finally, at one point he’s left with one woman, who reveals to Negan that she’s been bit, and Negan just snaps at her. He shouts about how she represents most of humanity, they’re all soft and weak, and not worth caring about because they just all end up dead. He tells her to just fuck off and die and he leaves her alone.
Negan then continues on, keeping to himself for awhile, until he comes across another group of survivors, this one lead by Dwight and Dwight’s wife Sherry. Negan decides to stick with them, initially going out of his way to remain aloof, as he doesn’t want to care about any of them. The group find and camp out in an abandoned motel, but when that gets overrun by zombies Negan begins shouting orders to the group, making sure everyone gets to safety. At this point Negan has become the de facto leader of the group, much to Dwight’s chagrin, having allowed himself to start to care what happens to people again. They encounter a larger group of survivors, and Negan convinces them to join forces, realizing that there’s strength in numbers, but when he discovers that rape of women has been occurring within that new group, an act of which we all know that Negan does not approve of, Negan gets into a fight with their leader for control of the entire group.
You can likely guess how that turns out, but I won’t spoil anymore.
This is a very satisfying story, it tells you most of what you need to know about Negan and how he got started, while still leaving some mystery for future stories. I think the scenes with his wife show his humanity, and then the scenes on the road with his encounters with the other survivors show how he slowly loses his humanity. We see how he becomes so fearless, he just stops caring whether he or anyone else lives or dies. This is important, as it explains his “leadership” style, even after he appears to regain some feelings for people and takes over the new group. He has this seeming dichotomy of personalities, where he wants to protect the weak, but also kind of resent the weak. Thus he has no qualms of using violence and intimidation to establish his dominance, but in his mind he thinks he’s doing it for the greater.
The story shows us the moments where Negan first acquires his trademark leather jacket, as well when he gets his bat. And the moment where he first wraps his bat in barbwire and names it Lucille is portrayed as an almost religious event. That’s where the former Negan “dies” and then is “reborn” as the NEGAN we all know (and love?).
Robert Kirkman has created a very special character, and this story enhances his appeal. I also enjoyed the artwork of Charlie Adlard. Like the main series, this issue is published in black and white, which gives it a suitable “horror” feel. And even though Adlard draws Negan as he appears in the comics, where he appears to be a little bit younger and a bit more muscular than on TV, it’s hard not to “see” Jeffrey Dean Morgan in my mind as I’m reading this. And that’s a good thing.
I highly recommend this issue, both for regular readers of The Walking Dead comic and even those who are primarily just fans of the TV series. A+