This is the fifth and final entry in my limited edition miniseries covering some of my favorite landmark stories from modern classic comic books. For those of you who don’t want to wait for the trade paperback collection, the back issues are here, here, here, and here.
At first I was looking at the 80’s and 90’s, but then it occurred to me that if anything we’ve probably got more comics than ever with better art and writing, and more diversity in those titles. Great moments are still happening on a monthly basis so why wait a couple decades to acknowledge them?
I’m breaking form for this final entry in a few ways. Previous titles were the big dogs at Marvel and DC; this one is from the always up-and-coming and increasingly impressive Image Comics. Also, I defined “great moments” as stories that represented game changers in their respective worlds, set a benchmark for quality, or stood out as a defining moment for a classic character. But some things you just can’t categorize, so today I’m remembering The Walking Dead #75, in which Robert Kirkman trolled his entire readership, gave me one of the most memorable and unexpected issues I’ve ever received in the mail, and created possibly the only genuine “you had to be there” moment I’ve ever been privy to in the medium. I don’t think this counts as spoilers.
There’s a fan backstory leading up to this issue and what made it so special, but we’ll get to that later. The issue begins as a typical continuation of the ongoing arc in which Rick’s motley crew is settling in a new community named Alexandria. Rick himself has resumed the sheriff duties of his previous life and the story features The Walking Dead in classic form as Rick struggles with balancing justice against the common good. In this case, his feral nature from the hardships of his previous experiences gets the better of him and he becomes the threat he’s supposed to be protecting the Alexandria from. That’s when Michonne clobbers him from behind with a rock and the issue ends.
….or does it?
After the traditional Letter Hacks section in the original print of the comic, the story picks up on the other side with Rick waking up and finding himself in a strange new world in full color, which was an absolute first for the black and white comic. From there, it’s nine pages of complete WTF.
Rick is inside of an alien spaceship, where they have replaced the hand he lost at Woodbury with a cybernetic one. After suiting up in a superhero costume, he falls out of the ship into the middle of a warzone filled with zombies, aliens, and deceased comrades come back to life as superheroes. Michonne shows up wielding a lightsaber and explains that this was the plan all along. The zombies were just the beginning of an alien race’s nefarious plan to harvest the Earth’s water supply.
And then BAM! A robotic arm reaches out and crushes her skull. It’s the Governor’s head mounted on a robot body with Rick’s dead wife Lori clinging desperately to his leg demanding that Rick join the alien overlords or die! Now, at this point I genuinely feel sorry for people who thought this was all canon, but they were out there.
If nothing else the “not to be continued” on the last page should have clued everyone in, but humor is lost on the humorless. To be fair, this was a doozy of an in-joke, though. Since the beginning of The Walking Dead, the letters section had been inundated with demands to reveal the source of the zombie infection. Kirkman glibly claimed that aliens did it which was satire on several levels, not the least of which was the fact that Image threatened to pass on the comic when he pitched it unless there was more to it than a zombie apocalypse. He pulled the alien concept out of his ass to get the publisher to green light it. After the comic was an instant smash hit he didn’t really have much fear of cancelation and it was pretty obvious to readers from the tone of the book that no, there would be no goddamn aliens.
Still, Kirkman joked repeatedly that maybe aliens would arrive in issue 75. It was clearly a joke. Clearly. But that wasn’t all. Foreshadowing the gag even further was the variant cover for issue 50, which was a joke cover portraying the characters as superheroes like so:
That’s two years in advance, kids. Rest assured no readers thought this shit was really going to happen. So when issue 75 rolled around and it was just another issue, it was quite a shock to finish the letters and then find complete insanity on the other side. People who’d been reading the comic complete with fan mail from the start would probably be the only ones to fully appreciate the hilarity of the bonus story that closed the issue, but those of us who did laughed until we died and rose again, still laughing.
As a bonus on top of the bonus, The Walking Dead #75 closed with the first official look at the primary cast of the then-upcoming television show, but what made this one the most memorable issue for me was the complete audacity and years-long build-up that led to the creation of the bizarre alternate universe story that also marked the first time the biggest black and white comic in the industry appeared in color.
Sadly, this little slice of weirdness has been expunged from collected editions of the comic since trade paperback collectors probably wouldn’t really appreciate what went into it and would see is as a pointless affront to their super-serious “graphic novel” series. The only way to read it is online or in the original issue. Nonetheless, for those who were there and got the joke, this was a one of a kind experience for a comic that was only known before and since for dark and gritty tales of horror. And in my book, that makes it a great moment in comic history.