The comic did so with The Walking Dead #193, from writer/creator/series mastermind Robert Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard. The ending came as a surprise not because of its plot, but because Image Comics solicited future issues with preview summaries and cover art for comic books that will never exist.
In a letter to fans in the back of the issue, Kirkman explained the move:
I hate knowing what’s coming. As a fan, I hate it when I realize I’m in the third act of a movie and the story is winding down. I hate that I can count commercial breaks and know I’m nearing the end of a TV show. I hate that you can FEEL when you’re getting to the end of a book, or a graphic novel.
Some of the best episodes of Game of Thrones are when they’re structured in such a way and paced to perfection so your brain can’t tell if it’s been watching for 15 minutes or 50 minutes…and when the end comes…you’re STUNNED.
I love LONG movies for that very reason. You lose track of time because you went in convinced that you’re going to be there for a long time, but the story moves at such an entertaining and engaging pace that by the time that movie’s wrapping up…your can’t believe it’s already over. SURPRISE, it’s over!
All I’ve ever done, all a creator can really do…is tailor-make stories to entertain themselves, and hope the audience feels the same way. That’s all I’ve ever been doing…and it seems to work most of the time.
THE WALKING DEAD has always been built on surprise. Not knowing what’s going to happen when you turn the page, who’s going to die, how they’re going to die…it’s been ESSENTIAL to the success of the series. It’s been the lifeblood that’s been keeping it going all these years, keeping people engaged.
Kirkman went on to share his thought process about the ending throughout the life of the series, talking about the bleak note he wanted to go out on when he was young–the zombies win–as well as more recent moments when the story started essentially tugging at his sleeve, telling him the ending was nigh.
The surprise end in The Walking Dead #193, rather than the landmark The Walking Dead #200, owes to the way the book is complied into 48-issue compendiums (its most popular format for readers).
The Walking Dead’s continuing legacy within pop culture will be vast. There are currently four scripted television shows based on the IP, all of which are ongoing. The Walking Dead merchandise is up there with any franchise on the planet, including action figures, board games, video games, and novels. The comic book itself has sold more than 50 million copies, a massive achievement for a creator-owned story that doesn’t star decades-old corporate characters like Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man.
There were, however, certainly signs in the story that this ending was coming, namely the death of its protagonist Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead #192. In Kirkman’s goodbye note to readers (which can be found in full below) he seems to waffle just a tiny bit in his decision, to the point its not tough to imagine a spin-off series soon. He even ends with PS Negan lives, making reference to what is perhaps the series single biggest dangling plot thread.
If The Walking Dead does return to comics in some capacity, the safe money is probably on it doing so with little to no advanced warning, not unlike the ending. Indeed, last year Kirkman launched a new comic series, Die! Die! Die!, without soliciting it, sending it as a surprise to retailers to match whatever numbers they’d ordered on another new Kirkman series, Oblivion Song. That book came out for eight months without solicitations, ending its first arc abruptly without warning. It has not yet been solicited to return, and one gets the sense that it won’t be.
Anyway, so yeah, Kirkman has ended The Walking Dead comic but continues to love surprises. Add the comic (but not the shows, obviously) to the growing pile of 2019 endings for mega pop culture phenomenons, right alongside Game of Thrones and the first major story cycle of the MCU.
When oh when will a new massive media sensation rise up to fill the growing void in our lives?