Season six of The Walking Dead kicked off on AMC this past Sunday, and fans were greeted to (slight) SPOILER ALERT: unquestionably the biggest horde of zombies to date, as well as buzz worthy black and white sequences juxtaposing up against the series typical color format. This unique shift in the show’s typical form was used to indicate past and present occurrences on screen effectively to audiences, but also serves as a callback to the series graphic novel roots. Oddly enough it’s this artistic choice that’s the talk of the series opener, even more so than the outstanding gruesome makeup, or current plot being navigated by series protagonist Rick Grimes and company.
The graphic novel, created by writer Robert Kirkman and collaborator Tony Moore, and illustrated largely by Charlie Adlard (with Moore illustrating #1-6), has consistently been presented in black and white. In a modern context where fully saturated color comics is the near norm, it’s unique to find The Walking Dead reining strong in its black and white format, and achieving great success both prior to and following the subsequent AMC series accomplishments.
In an interview with Horror Hacker, Kirkman discussed the choice to print The Walking Dead in simple black and white, stating, “That actually came from our original idea because [Tony Moore and I] believed Night of the Living Dead was in public domain. We thought it would be neat to just go out and do a comic book series that takes place in that world, and do it in black and white. In the end, we decided to do something completely different, but to keep the black-white thing because you could get away with more gore. It’s not all bloody and violent with red all over the page, so it seems a little less offensive. It’s also a little cheaper to print.”
Looking at the print of The Walking Dead it’s easy to see Kirkman’s inspiration and key element of homage in his printing choice. Any zombie fan will tell you, George A. Romero’s 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead” is the quintessential classic zombie movie, so it’s only fitting for a modern rendition of zombie horror to tip its hat to a film that led the way in zombie creature feature fear.
Romero filmed “Night of the Living Dead” on 35 mm black and white-film, and this stylistic choice was ultimately praised. Film critics and historians have pointed to this choice as what has made this zombie flick so memorable, as it greatly resembles a wartime newsreel, or documentary– particularly with association to the Vietnam War. The experiences of each character in the film feel real, and often quite intimate as they barricade themselves in a farmhouse.
The tone that Kirkman is able to present in his graphic novel clearly capitalizes on Romero’s stylistic choice, and in turn puts a modern spin on black and white through a new, but equally grotesque, storyline. Issue after issue the black and white inking sets the stage perfectly for the characters in The Walking Dead, who now exist in a bleak and unyielding world. Kirkman’s stated that the black and white form allows him to showcase a greater amount of vivid gore, but I’d argue that too correlates with the bleakness faced by his characters. The gore expressed on a consistent basis quickly become commonplace in the series, transitioning from shock and horror to background noise. A saturated world of zombies is what the characters of the series face, and yet they’ve become numb to the conflict over time, and see it as a current state of affairs.
The black and white coloration not only greatly influences the tone of the graphic novel, but also the characterization of the core and extended cast of the series. No character is left unscathed by the zombie invasion of Kirkman’s world. Each character harbors scars from this new world, be it physical or metaphorical. With regard to the series main protagonist Rick Grimes for example, there’s a greater tendency for him to view conflict within this new world in black and white. His moral codes become eroded over time, being reduced to the absolutely basic viewing of right and wrong- which can limit his decision making in times of great strife. Over time Rick’s nature becomes hardened, darker than he was prior to the zombie outbreak, and it’s clear from Kirkman’s characterization of Rick that this change is not one that can be easily reversed.
The TV series has previously dabbled in black and white as well, going so far as to fully adjust the pilot episode among others from season one and two to black and white coloration. The effect of this adjustment greatly mirror Kirkman’s comic styling, pushing on the tone established strongly at the comic’s start, as well as muting the gore similarly to how Kirkman has throughout his graphic novel.
With regards to the latest episode of The Walking Dead and the choice feature flashbacks in black and white, Kirkman was incredibly pleased with the effective storytelling, and commented, “anytime I can see the show look like the comic, which is in black and white, that’s pretty fun” and based off of the great amount of audience and critical buzz it seems the viewers agree with him.
The motion comic presented by The Walking Dead TV series station, AMC was presented in the comic’s original black and white style. The choice to stay true to Kirkman’s original styling continues to showcase how strongly The Walking Dead in graphic novel form benefits from the grit and darker tone that black and white coloration is able to craft.
The homage to classic horror films lends itself perfects to The Walking Dead’s tone, characterization, and overall appeal, but it’s not just this series that’s looking to the past in presenting a modern horror tale. Black and white styling is equally visible in a wide range of other popular comic horror series, such as Charles Burns’ “Black Hole” and Ben Catmull’s “Ghosts and Ruins”, both worth checking out for the month of October and beyond!