Oct 11 2011 6:00pm

Life Worse Than Death: Rise of the Governor by Robert Kirkman

Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead franchise is a smash hit. The comics dropped in 2003 to great acclaim and still continue to rake in the dough. In 2010, it picked up an Eisner for Best Continuing Series, and 88 issues later it’s still one of the highest selling monthly comics. The TV series took off like gangbusters as well. With 5.3 million people tuning in for the premiere episode, and 6 million for the finale, it became the most watched basic cable series ever in the 18-49 demo, all but guaranteeing it a second season. They even plan on breaking into the video game market this winter.


Today, Kirkman upped the ante by teaming with horror writer Jay Bonansinga at St. Martin’s Press to release the novel The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor.

By painting the zombie crisis with broad strokes, Rise manages to stay in canon by avoiding mentioning the canon at all. Which makes it perfect for fans of the comics who hunger for a background on one of the greatest comic book villans of all time and fans of the TV show who are sick of hearing comic book geeks go on and on about that Governor dude and what’s so cool about him anyway? The Governor is cool. Very, terrifyingly, sickeningly, horrifyingly cool. The Governor makes Patrick Bateman look like Rainbow Dash, and no, I’m not exaggerating. At all. He’s not an emotionless killing machine or an amoral murderer. He’s a sadistic psychopathic pervert who knows exactly what he’s doing and why, and takes utter pleasure from all the pain he inflicts. Basically, it’s the worst thing you’ve ever read, and if you haven’t read it then pick up The Walking Dead issues #25–30 (volume 5/book 3). Today. Now. Do it. I’ll wait.

Done? Good. Now, let’s get down to brass tacks. On the craft side, this book is sometimes good, sometimes awful, and most of the time relatively harmless. Much of the story involves varying degrees of Philip and Brian Blake, Philly’s young daughter Penny, and their sidekicks failing to drive around Georgia, squatting in abandoned homes, and yelling at each other and everyone they come into contact with. The text is clipped and terse, matching the sparsity of Kirkman’s dialogue in the comics, but sprinkled with $5 words to make the book sound more important than it really is. I assume that’s Bonansinga’s influence — though since I’ve never read anything else by him I wouldn’t swear to it in court — but it makes the text come off disjointed and clunky. When I’m reading about a guy nailgunning zombies I don’t want to feel like I’m taking the SATs. I also don’t understand the decision to break the book into three sections. The divisions seem almost arbitrary, as if the guys did a google search for quotes about the violent nature of mankind and couldn’t figure out how else to get them in the book. But neither detracts from the story as a whole, so they’re rather minor quibbles.

The bigger problem I have with this book is its blatant misogyny. Let me preface this rant by cautioning you to take this with a grain of salt. I’m still fuming from DC’s disgraceful and offensive attitude towards Starfire and Catwoman, and that’s left me rather touchy about how women are portrayed in the literary/comic mediums. Actually, ‘touchy’ is probably not the right word. I think ‘stark raving mad’ and ‘want to stab people in the face with spoons’ are more apropos. Where once I might have been more forgiving of such behavior, right now I’m ready to start throwing things, so my sensitivity to this topic is pretty raw.

There are no women in Rise. True, there are female characters in the story, but they are little more than window dressing. They lack in personality or opinion except as defined by the men around them. They aren’t actors but plot points. Even poor little Penny isn’t anything but a prop to drive a wedge between the Blake brothers and their associates. (To be fair, all of the characters, even the leads, exist mostly as two-dimensional plot points. No one will ever accuse Kirkman and Bonansinga of creating characters that are too realistic.) Men make decisions, have adventures, and plan attacks, while the women are hidden in closets, abused, berated, and shoved around as much as the Biters are. Men are defenders and offenders; women are victims. The book is full of Loris without nary a Michonne to be seen.

The comics use violence as a means to an end. It’s rarely gratuitious and usually serves as social commentary on human nature and morality. Rise doesn’t even try to wax philosophical on the outbreak and the violence that ensues, and without that intelligence framing it, the violence ‘ especially against women ‘ becomes exploitative and degrading. It eventually got to the point that I skipped whole chapters because I simply couldn’t read about rape anymore. Something as vicious as that shouldn’t be a plot point, and defining the act in terms of how it affected the men while disregarding any impact it had on the women who suffered through it is a horrid way to tell a story.

*steps off soap box*

When I was able to put all that aside, I managed to enjoy the story. Kirkman and Bonansinga have crafted a chilling story detailing the collapse of an American family, and it’s not nearly as heartwarming as what happens to the Grimes’. The book is thrilling and frightening like any good horror story should be, though outside the context of The Walking Dead mythos it serves little purpose.

As nail-biting as the tale is, ultimately it’s just fan service. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I can’t honestly see anyone unfamiliar with either the comics or the show being interested enough to buy it in the first place. The typically Kirkman twist at the end is a full meal for those who’ve read the comics, a Happy Meal for those savoring the TV show, and some totally unfamiliar foreign snackfood made from unidentifyable ingredients for everyone else. If you’re looking for a gateway to the series, you’d be hard pressed to pick a worse entry point than Rise of the Governor, but if you’re in on the joke this makes a tidy bit of filler until the new season starts on Sunday.

Alex Brown is an archivist by passion, reference librarian by profession, writer by moonlight, and all around geek who watches entirely too much TV. She is prone to collecting out-of-print copies of books by Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen, and Douglas Adams, probably knows far too much about pop culture than is healthy, and thinks her rats Hywel and Odd are the cutest things ever to exist in the whole of eternity. You can follow her on Twitter if you dare.

1. theo16
Go back and finish the book. Why would I listen to a reviewer who skipped whole chapters and complains that the book is lacking something. Maybe you missed it.
Alex Brown
2. AlexBrown
@the016: I didn't claim the book was lacking anything, I said it wasn't all that great. Between uploading this review Monday evening and now
(Tuesday night) I did go back and read those skipped chapters and can
say in all honesty I didn't miss out on some great hidden revelation
that suddenly makes the whole thing work like magic. If you like reading endless sections about men abusing and torturing women then by all means, go ahead. Considering the twist at the end, none of it advances the story or has anything at all to do with the character development of the Governor. The scenes are superfluous and have absolutely no context except as a plot device to freak the reader out.

Look, at the end of the day, I'm just one reviewer with my own subjective interpretation. There are plenty of other reviews out there of people who loved the book and are buying it for their whole family for Christmas. That person won't be me, but I won't hold it against you if you love it. I'm glad I know the deal with the Governor, and I'm glad this book made me go back and re-read the comics, but I won't be lining up to get the next TWD novels.
3. G86
This is an incredibly misleading review. No, there aren't many females in this book. The only two that play a major role are April and Tara Chalmers, but they are far more than "window dressing" as you claim, and they are not weak women. The book is "full of Loris"?? There's barely ANY women in it; how can it be full of that character type if there are hardly any women in the book? April and Philip develop an interest in each other, bond on their excursion into the city to get more supplies, and both dote over Penny (so much so, that April winds up turning into a mother figure for her). They wind up fooling around with each other and kissing (consensually), and then it transforms into a rape. It doesn't justify what he did, but leading up to it, the reader is led to believe that they are fast becoming a couple. How you would find this scenario more abhorrent than the graphic (and intentional from the start) rape of Michonne in the comic, in which he relished each sadistic moment and drew out the pain for as long as possible? I have no friggin clue. So violence in the comics isn't as gratuitous as the book? OK. Because tying Michonne up, punching her repeatedly, while having sex with her, isn't the least bit gratuitous...right. And tearing out his dead daughter/niece's teeth so he can kiss her on the mouth (another scene from the comic). That's not gratuitous. Of course not.

As for Tara, she kicked all three men out of the apartment at gunpoint and big-bad Philip didn't even try to fire a shot at her or take her down in the process. So I definitely would not consider her a "Lori". She can handle herself. Don't try and mask this critique as anything other than a feminist-driven piece; it belongs on The F-Bomb or a related site.

And by the way, the #1 complaint that any Walking Dead fan should have of this book is that the twist is completely unnecessary. Brian Blake doesn't even fit the same description as Philip. His behavior leading up to the end of the book is not consistent with the character that we know from the comic. There is nothing in this character that indicates that he is capable of rape, torture, and killing innocent people. We're supposed to be led to believe that a switch is flipped in Brian at the end, where he can finally stand up for himself and stop being such a coward. Fine. I can buy that. He developed some sense of survival, but the complete turn-around that his character would have to take to become the Governor that we know from the comic is too fantastical (zombie comic book or not, that ending is a cop-out).
Irene Gallo
5. Irene
My apologies for your post being un-unpublished. I'm not sure what happened yet, but I'll look into it. I can assure you, however, Alex did not take it down. None of our individual bloggers have moderation access. That said, it is not up to you to decide what belongs on tor.com. We cover a wide range of topics and ideas and we will always welcome feminist points of view.
6. G86
Welcome any points-of-view that you see fit, but don't lie to the people reading the articles. Alex wants to make it seem like Robert Kirkman is some deranged lunatic who wrote a 300-page book about raping women. Yes, it happens in the book, but she's completely misconstruing it on purpose and then contradicted herself. The best art confronts people with reality; it doesn't allow them to escape it. The scenes that she references are far from gratuitous, especially compared to the comics. It's like equating Irreversible to I Spit On Your Grave. Totally illogical.
Irene Gallo
7. Irene
Alex had her opinon and I’m a glad we can give others a place to express their’s. Just tone down the heat and bit and keep it respectful -- defend the book, don’t attack the the reviewer.
8. AlBundy57
Rape of women in times of catastrophe and chaos is pretty widely documented regardless of how 'tough' modern women are portrayed in the media and movies. A 120lb female, regardless of workout regimine, is going to be easy to handle for most average men. It is a fact of life that modern liberals have chosen to ignore and downplay - reference three female journalists in Middle East and their reports on their own rapes. That kirkman writes about it so much, to me, appears to set this fiction in a form of reality that highlights the cruelty of some humanity. At least zombies don't rape you first!
Alex Brown
9. AlexBrown
Wow, so I totally missed out on a whole series of anon hate last year. I think Irene covered everything nicely, but I'd like to make it clear that I don't think Robert Kirkman is a rape-loving lunatic and never said anything of the sort. The book simply didn't work for me.
Alex Brown
10. AlexBrown
@Al: I'm not sure if you're trying to be "funny" or if you're actually being serious, but I'm going to direct this response back to the issue at hand rather than getting into a philosophical debate about rape.

The big difference between this specific prequel novel and the comics and TV show is that the latter two don't constantly threaten every single woman with constant rape and sexual assault. The book does. If a woman does show up, give her a few hours and chances are someone's going to rape her or threaten to rape her. It's simply exhausting. In fact, the misery porn is a major part of why I eventually stopped reading the comics. The death of two particular characters left me so unsettled that I never went back to the comics. I can only take so much.

As it stands, at least the book gave a solid background for how the Governor came to be, though the book/comics Governor is a very different man from the TV Governor. They may have the same names, but like everyone else on the show, their characters aren't identical to those in the comics.
11. Peg520ward
Wow, after reading the above posts and binge watching walking dead all weekend, everyone has my curiosity up about what all is going on different in the books. I had no idea this series started out in comic books, and I wish I could get the original set. Also I hope the governor is given a lot of attention for he made me sit up straight and pay attention, they were in bad enough situation for him to come out and be the culprit he was. cudos to all the actors. Please accept my entry. Thank you

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