A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Walking Dead of Dixie

I got the third Walking Dead trade the other day. It was a very good read, as were the previous trades. I started buying the series for two reasons: 1) I’d heard a lot of good buzz, and 2) the story was initially set in the Atlanta area. There aren’t a lot of comics set in my neck of the woods. The first few issues of Damage were set in metro Atlanta, and Owly is ostensibly set in a Georgia forest, but that’s about it.

But to my disappointment, Robert Kirkman’s knowledge of Atlanta specifics apparently ends with “It’s south of Kentucky.” It’s difficult to point to particular examples of what he got wrong, because the series mostly suffers from a severe lack of details. Imagine a story about NYC, but without mentioning any boroughs, or suburban areas, or roads, or anything else by name. Characters are either ‘near’ New York City or ‘in’ New York City, and that’s it. (Authors can also go too far in the opposite extreme; H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds drove me crazy with its constant reliance on the reader’s knowledge of London geography.) The few particulars given are:

- Rick says that Atlanta is a five-hour drive from his Kentucky hometown. Not knowing what part of Kentucky he’s from, that could be a fair estimate.
- Allen says that he and his family are from Gainesville, “about fifty miles from here.” I’ll get back to “here.”
- Glenn says he’s from Macon, Georgia. And Macon, um, exists (it’s about 80 miles south of Atlanta).
- When they’re not too much further than “20 miles from the city,” a local says that they’re on highway 64. State highway 64 is in south Georgia, and Interstate 64 runs through Tennessee without entering Georgia. I imagine Kirkman just picked a number, but this could've been an easy real detail.

There’s also one panel showing Rick riding into Atlanta, with the skyline looming before him, but I don’t know if Tony Moore was working from an actual image or just creating a cityscape out of scratch. But that’s it for quantifiable details in the first twelve issues. No references to Perimeter I-285 (the freeway circling Atlanta), or highway I-75 (which Rick must have taken down from Kentucky), or any of Atlanta’s multiple suburbs. “Atlanta” is the only point of reference.

It’s never even stated where in relation to Atlanta their camp is. Given that Rick finds them as he rides into the city, it must be the northern side of Atlanta. The skyline and buildings suggest he got a fair way into town. But their campsite is a very large and open greenspace within walking distance of the city. Kirkman and artist Tony Moore seem to think that Atlanta is a fairly small city that suddenly…ends, and then is surrounded by countryside. That sounds more like James Robinson’s description of Opal City than Atlanta.

This depiction continues in the second trade collection, as the survivors leave their camp. They travel on two-lane, rural roads, through wooded countryside. And this is only about 20 miles from their adjacent-to-the-city campsite. They are surprised to come across a plantation house and a gated subdivision, as if they’d encountered no other homes since leaving camp. Not far beyond there, they find a farm. In reality, Atlanta has a hugely built-up suburban area that extends a great ways in every direction. There is still undeveloped land around Atlanta, but I can't imagine how the survivors could avoid all populated areas like they seem to do.

In the third trade, the survivors settle at a prison which is said to be a four-hour drive from the gated subdivision (Kirkman's Georgia is apparently largely undeveloped). Again, there are no details given (even cardinal directions), so it’s not like there’s anything I can point to that’s wrong. It’s not even mentioned whether they’re still in Georgia or not. But for what it’s worth, four hours’ driving in any direction other than south should put a traveler outside the state.

The biggest geographical flaw would be a story element that is significant to the plot on more than one occasion, appearing in several issues and on the second trade cover. I’m talking about the snow.

We don’t get snow in Atlanta often. The yearly average is just 1-2 inches for the entire season, and even that doesn’t stick to the ground long, if at all. Many winters produce no snow at all; ice is more common. What little snow we do get comes between January and March. Snow is always a surprise in this city; it’s never expected.

In The Walking Dead, the survivors seem to anticipate the snow. Sure enough, it comes with a vengeance. The snowfall starts and stops at least three times, that we’re shown. And it sticks to the ground for a good long while. At the start of the second tpb, after the first big snowfall, the time is given as Christmas. In my lifetime, I believe we’ve had just one ‘white Christmas,’ and that was just a brief flurry that didn’t stick. Snow is a huge element in the story, and it doesn’t reflect the real Atlanta at all.

In other words, the weather in the series is seriously freaky compared to the real-world Atlanta, and yet all the characters act as if it’s the norm. And to make matters worse, they don’t seem to respond to the weather rationally. If their aim is to avoid the cold weather, then the thing to do is to travel south. Atlanta may get minimal snow, but south Georgia gets none and its winters are more mild. Then again, Kirkman never says where the survivors are travelling, other than that it’s “away from Atlanta.”

I suppose I should be thankful that Kirkman chose my home state as his setting for such an otherwise great book. I just wish that the Georgia of The Walking Dead better resembled the Georgia I know.