The second installment of Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga's "Walking Dead" novel series, titled "The Road to Woodbury," hits stores today (October 16). The book chronicles the continued evolution of the zombie drama's most notorious villain — "Philip" Blake, alias The Governor — just as it brings new depth to some of the lesser-seen Woodbury denizens from the comics, like Lilly Caul and Bob the drunk.
Not to say that bringing this depth was easy.
"It's been the most painful and horrific thing," Kirkman joked about the collaboration during a signing moderated by MTV Splash Page at Barnes & Noble in New York City last week. "I don't have the words to tell you."
Easy or not, Kirkman and Bonansinga always had a three-part vision for the "Walking Dead" prose novels. "It was always planned to do this big Governor epic," said Kirkman, "this really cool prequel series that sets up a lot of what you've already read in the comic. When it's all done, we hope you'll read the comics again with a better understanding of what really happened."
Just as the comics are a collaborative process between Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard, so too are the novels, with Kirkman crafting the story arc and Bonansinga going on to "prose it up," in Kirkman's own words. "Robert has an uncanny, freaky knack of seeing the whole story all at once, and knowing where everything should start, how the confrontation should roll out — the middle, and the end," said Bonansinga. "It's amazing how close these books are to his outlines. It's a joy and a pleasure to work on these."
Kirkman is among the first to recognize that prequels aren't always the most interesting stories to read or write about; by definition, the endings are predetermined, and the events can often feel like filler material. "That's why I wanted there to be an added element or extra twist — some oomph — that makes sure we can do things here that are compelling and interesting," said the writer, referring to a game-changing twist at the end of the first "Walking Dead" prose novel.
The "Walking Dead" novels also offer an opportunity to revisit the lesser-known members of the Woodbury community, briefly glimpsed in the comic books but greatly expanded upon in the Kirkman-Bonansinga stories. Bob, the village drunkard, is one such character who benefits from a rich, complicated story in "The Road to Woodbury."
"You see Bob hanging out around town in the comics. And there are a few panels where it looks like the Governor and Bob have this relationship. You don't know what it is," said Bonansinga. "I constantly went back and looked at the comics and got a lot out of that one picture of Bob, kind of slumped, and having the Governor walk by and go, 'Bob, eat something.' Just that image, I had it up on my bulletin board. I kept going back to that. He's got that alcoholic, ulcerated nose. I love that guy, Bob."
Bob isn't the only Woodbury local in the spotlight in the latest "Walking Dead" novel. Lilly, Doctor Stevens, Alice and Martinez, among others, all have their time to shine. But few characters steal the show the way the Governor does, especially in light of the bait-and-switch reveal at the end of the first "Walking Dead" book. Kirkman said that the Governor's origins as something of a weakling reflect the humble beginnings of his chief rival, lawman Rick Grimes.
"They start from similar places. Rick, I'm not saying he's inept, but he was a small town cop. He wasn't an action hero. He evolved into a strong character," he said. "And I imagined the Governor as a normal guy who was much weaker than Rick. He was tested and changed by this world. In the novel, you can take him and delve into the character more than in the comic or a television show. You can show his transformation. That switch at the end of the first novel, that was a big part of that."
In "Road to Woodbury," readers will see a very different version of Mr. Blake, but one that Bonansinga thinks is still very much the same guy readers met in "Rise of the Governor."
"He has the same heart and fears and weaknesses and shortcomings and strengths that he had in 'Rise of the Governor,' but now, he's been elected, by himself, to be this badass dude who is going to take charge," said the novelist. "That's what's so fascinating to me about this guy. He's like a metaphor for having to bring it, otherwise, the walls will come down and the people will be eaten. There's just nobody else who can handle it. But there are moments where the noise comes through, where the other part of him comes through — and you can see in those moments, Jesus, this is the same guy as before."
The Governor now exists in both comic book and prose form. In short order, he'll exist as a television character as well, as David Morrissey is set to make his debut as Woodbury's leader in the "Walking Dead" TV series. "It was a very hard role to cast," Kirkman admitted. "The Governor, especially on the television show, is more like the man in the novel series. He has to be able to play both sides, as you'll see in season three. He lives up to his name and plays the part of the politician a lot more. Those two sides are in play quite a bit — the smile and 'I'll get you to agree with me,' and the 'I'll cut you into pieces and eat parts of you' thing. David can do both of those. It's remarkable."
Given the depth Morrissey brings to the character, it shouldn't come as much of a shock to learn that the actor studied Kirkman and Bonansinga's Governor-centric prequel series very closely when approaching the iconic "Walking Dead" villain.
"He read the first novel and he said it helped out his understanding of the character quite a bit," said Kirkman. Turning to Bonansinga, Kirkman grinned and joked, "There you go. Sold another book!"
Kirkman and Bonansinga's "The Walking Dead: The Road to Woodbury" is available for purchase now.
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