The first issue of The Walking Dead is all about establishing what the audience is supposed to know about Rick Grimes, the primary protagonist of the series. We are introduced to Rick in the middle of a gunfight in which he, as a police officer, is shot down by an escapee from a nearby prison. We next see Rick awaken in a hospital, the zombie apocalypse having happened in the interim. The juxtaposition of Rick being wounded and regaining consciousness amid a world gone to hell underlines an important trait that will define who Rick is: he is a survivor.
Rick's ability to survive whatever human and inhuman obstacles the story places in his way marks him as a protagonist; metaphorically, the ability to survive might be his "superpower." As the series unfolds, the narrative development is in how he survives and especially in what he finds difficult to survive or cope with.
However, the association between Rick and survival isn't meant to be taken as a solitary orientation; The Walking Dead is not the story of a lone wolf's struggle in a zombie-infested world. Instead, The Walking Dead is a story about community in the face of crisis. As such, Rick's survival skills have a communal, outward-facing focus. When Rick encounters Morgan and Duane, for example, he uses his abilities and access as a (former) policeman to give them guns and a better vehicle to help enable their survival in this tough new world. At this point in the story, this is Rick's default position: he is a survivor who feels a duty to help others survive.
Rick's default position proves to be troubled or strained by another trait of his that we're introduced to early on: his sensitivity and sentimentality. Even though he's been told by Morgan that wasting a bullet on a zombie that can't get at you squanders an important and limited resource, he takes the time to finish off a crippled and "suffering" zombie he had encountered earlier. Interestingly, Rick knows that his sentimentality is a potential liability; when he attempts to cheer himself up by relating the story of his son's birth--a story he tells to a horse, of all things--he remarks that "thinking about the good times makes all this seem so much worse."
Of course, forming communal bonds is itself a survival instinct for the protection of the herd, but forging those ties is rendered problematic by moments of profound upheaval and instability. There are dangers here: there is already fear about cultural backsliding in this new apocalyptic age (Donna's fear that the equality of the sexes will fall by the wayside), there is the possibility of old resentments tearing apart a new community now that the old boundaries of social propriety are no longer in play (Shane's feelings for Lori), there are conflicts of ideology (the religious Donna doesn't approve of Andrea and Amy sleeping with Dale in his trailer), there is tension over who is going to be the leader and who has the best plan for the group's future (Rick and Shane butt heads to establish alpha male status).
None of this is easy, and the group is essentially living during wartime as they are besieged by enemies from without and from within. The fault lines already apparent threaten to erupt into irreparable rifts; disagreement over responsibility for the deaths of Amy and Jim lead Shane and Rick into a deadly confrontation in the woods--a confrontation that only ends when Carl shoots and kills Shane before Shane has a chance to pull the trigger on his father. This is how The Walking Dead registers the fallout of the group's strain: it asks, how does this effect the youngest and most vulnerable members of the group? How are they changed by the experience? And can the adults manage and handle that change in the children?
The problems of survival and community collude to make Carl learn the hard way that killing a living, breathing man is not at all like killing a dead, shambling thing. It's a lesson he wouldn't have had to learn otherwise, but the world he now lives doesn't leave him with that luxury.
From the hip:
- I love that Rick's survivor skills are exemplified by how easily he adapts to using different modes of transportation; all within the first few issues he walks, rides a bike, drives a car, and rides a horse. That Rick can do anything!
- Rick and Lori's disagreement over whether Carl should have a gun to protect himself parallels the ongoing debates about access to firearms in the US. Here zombies stand in for "terrorists" and "criminals"; clearly an armed populace can better protect itself, right? Right?
- Note that many of the characters were plagued by debt before the zombie apocalypse, perhaps hinting that the alternative was a slow moving and persistent economic Armageddon.
- The issue where Carl kills Shane is the first issue that doesn't feature zombies. The violence between the living is allowed the space to stand on its own.