Warning: massive spoilers for "Walking Dead" #100 lie ahead!
Over the course of nearly 10 years of comics, readers of "The Walking Dead" have come to know that in this zombie-filled apocalypse, there is only one certainty: Robert Kirkman is going to break your heart.
Anyone doubting that fact needs to look no further than "Walking Dead" #100, the landmark issue that dropped at Comic-Con earlier this month. The comic centers on a long-gestating conflict between Rick Grimes' group of survivors and their newly introduced antagonist, Negan, the sadistic leader of a group called the Saviors. Rick's plan to find and kill Negan to put an end to his tyranny over other post-apocalyptic survivors comes to a horrifying halt when the madman finds Rick first. To demonstrate to Rick and his allies just how dangerous he really is, Negan randomly selects one of the cast's most beloved characters and bashes his brains in with Lucille, a baseball bat covered in barbed wire.
The message the killing sends is clear: do not mess with Negan. The second message? Do not underestimate Kirkman's capacity to ruin your day.
I won't mention the deceased party by name, both out of respect to the expertly crafted twist and also because, quite frankly, I'm still in shock. I couldn't eat or speak with anyone for roughly an hour after putting the issue down. The moment is so brutal, so cruel, that I would be tempted to abandon "Walking Dead" if the development wasn't such a necessary step forward for the story. It's that bad. It's that good.
Rather than dropping the book, I decided to brave my way through the "Walking Dead Escape" obstacle course at Comic-Con, surviving hordes of blood-soaked undead cosplayers, with only one goal in mind: interviewing Kirkman at the finish line, and getting some measure of closure.
In real life, Kirkman is far from the crazed killer you might think him to be based on what happens in his comics and on his show. Regardless of that, his explanation for why he did what he did in "The Walking Dead" #100 was as blunt as any weapon his characters have ever wielded in the pages of his comics: "It is what it is. It's the 100th issue. You know by now that these characters are going to grow on you. You're going to learn to love them and then I'm going to kill them."
"There are a lot of people who are upset [about the death]," he admitted, "but that's gratifying to me. That means they care about the characters like they should. And that's what we're after: having that emotional impact."
In the past, Kirkman has said that killing characters off in his comic books means that artist Charlie Adlard no longer has to draw a certain set of lines, whereas on the television series, it's a harder decision; there, killing a character means firing an actor. But in the case of "Walking Dead" #100, even Kirkman must have had a hard time letting go of this particular hero.
"I'll definitely miss the [character]," he said. "It's very upsetting. Charlie's often talked about how when he reads the script he gets very, very upset. And then when he draws the pages, it's putting lines on paper, it's mechanical, it doesn't upset him. But for me, I do go through the same emotional journey where I'm plotting and I kind of know what's coming, but then getting into the physical action of writing the script, laying down the beats and planning it all out it's a little like planning a murder, but you don't want the person to die. But it's what you have to do to make the story compelling."
"Also, I'm going to go back and strike that whole 'it's like planning a murder' thing," he continued with a laugh. "I just want to point out that I just ran an obstacle course and I don't know what I'm saying right now."
Leave it to Kirkman to crack wise in the midst of a zombie wasteland. But given the events of issue #100, I don't think "Walking Dead" readers will be laughing very much in the near future which is exactly as it should be in a story about finding hope in a hopeless world.
Have you read "Walking Dead" #100? Did it break your heart like it did mine? Let me know in the comments section below or on Twitter @roundhoward!