For now, let’s just look at those first six issues, which are collected in the Days Gone Bye trade paperback, and compare them to the first season of the AMC show, which also happened to number six episodes. SPOILERS ahead (but just for that first season/first TPB).
Though they are different beasts, the similarities don’t end there.
The comic was created by writer Robert Kirkman and artist Tony Moore. Kirkman has written every issue of series, though Moore left after issue #6, and Charlie Adlard has kept things going from then on. The television show was brought to life by Frank Darabont of Shawshank Redemption fame (though he’s no longer the showrunner), and Kirkman has written some of the episodes.
That short first season of television is a mixed bag. The pilot episode is masterful. The second episode has some great tension. And then it’s a steady slide into mediocrity from there. The comic is more consistent in its quality level, though reading the first issue after watching the pilot makes the source material feel like the abridged version. An hour-long television show simply has much more room to breathe than a 20-or-so-page comic.
But many of the excellent beats are there. Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes is our viewpoint character. The comic series opens with Rick getting shot in the line of duty, and that one page is all we get of the pre-zombie world. Next page, Rick emerges from his coma in a hospital that initially seems empty…until he meets some disturbing, nonresponsive individuals shuffling around. Running out, he soon encounters an emaciated helpless zombie lying beside a bicycle, just as he does in the TV pilot. And things continue to follow the pattern shown in the pilot, with him befriending father-and-son pair Morgan and Duane as Rick is eager to find his family, Lori and Carl, leading to that famous shot of Rick riding a horse into dead-infested Atlanta (yes, the comic drew it first).
From there, minor differences begin to emerge. Again, a television show simply has more time, which it sometimes uses well (such as giving the characters more obstacles in Atlanta and putting more characters in that setting) and sometimes not (venturing off to the CDC, which they don’t visit in the comic).
Three significant differences, though. The Dixon brothers don’t appear in the comics. The comic is in black and white, which suits the dreary world and, whether intentional or not, pays homage to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. And Carl kills Shane—a completely human, non-zombie Shane–by the end of issue #6.
Whereas the TV show kept Shane around for a while as a romantic obstacle for Rick and Lori, the comic deals with him in much more efficient and shocking fashion. Shane snaps in a fit of jealousy and points a gun at Rick while ranting about how his old friend was never meant to live. Carl sees this and, having recently learned how to fire a gun, shoots Shane in the neck, killing him.
“It’s not the same as killing the dead ones, Daddy,” Carl says.
“It never should be, son. It never should be,” Rick says, hugging him tight.
Definitely a scene that would’ve been much harder to stage on TV, because you’d have to make an actual child actor pretend to kill a man who had originally appeared to be a good guy.
But that’s the true magic of the comic series, which the TV show has done a pretty good job of replicating. The comic might be a little too fast-paced, and the TV show might drag on a little too much at time. Nevertheless, in both, anything can happen, and no one is safe. Take nothing for granted.
The comic and the show start from the same place and continue to hit similar notes along the way, but just because you know what happened in the TV show doesn’t mean you know what happened in the comics.