Robert Kirkman has found himself in a little bit of a creative loop where Walking Dead is concerned, and while his talent is of such a magnitude that he's producing entertaining stories even when he's repeating himself, I certainly hope he finds some way to break out of it soon. Witness volume 16 of the Walking Dead.
The basic problem with the stories collected here is that, since essentially the end of the prison saga, Kirkman has been writing the same plot over and over. Though thinly disguised with variations, the basic story of the series has been that, Rick and his group meet another group, or find what they believe is a safe haven, go through a period of apparent safety and some security, until eventually forces both within and outside cause the entrire collapse of the community the main characters are trying to build. This usually also results in some personal tragedy or loss for Rick himself. It was fundamentally what the prison plot was all about, the farm plot before that, and it's most definitely the plot of this volume and the two or three immediately preceding it. So Kirkman's in a rinse and repeat mode.
In this volume in particular, Rick's group encounters yet another stranger who promises a community that could potentially provide safe haven, or at the very least, establish some reasonable trade opportunities for obtaining food. Rick's usual suspicious nature leads to some tense moments until a small group venture out to find this large community. Needless to say, things aren't all what they seem, but for the first time in a while, Rick sees a cause for some optimism, and that's where the volume ends. The problem is that there are loads of moments throughout this volume where the reader experiences a sense of deja vu. Conversations seem repeated almost word for word and the situations recall previous encounters Rick's group has gone through. Even the inevitable revelations remind the reader of previous challenges from earlier chapters, and there's a strong sense of having seen or been through all this before.
Initially, Kirkman's real strengths as a writer were his exceptional characterization and his fearlessness. In previous volumes, Kirkman distinguished himself from his generation of writers with his almost unflinching ability to be cruel to the things and creatures he created. This quality made his comics unpredictable and gave his stories an urgency and vitality that many mainstream comics simply can not match. And to a considerable extent, that unpredictability is still very much alive in Kirkman's other genre defining book, Invincible. But it may be that Kirkman has gotten a bit too precious with Rick and his crew, or perhaps has fallen into a bit of a rut, because in addition to repeating basic plot lines, the series has also been striking for its lack of any real sense of peril for Kirkman's four "favorites," namely Rick himself, Michonne, Glenn and Andrea. And while I'm not insisting or even suggesting that Kikrman should kill one of these characters simply for shock value or in a vain attempt to restore a sense of unpredictability to the series, my main point is that some chances could be taken and some opportunities are available that Kirkman may be missing.
For example, I wish the Walking Dead could explore Rick getting separated from the main group for an extended period, or the series could simply follow Rick alone, even without his son for a while. Kirkman has also limited himself dramatically for no good reason by restraining Rick and his group to the continental US. At some point in the future, it might be interesting to have Rick or perhaps even Rick and other characters, make an attempt to reach another countrty in the hope of discovering a place where the plague has not hit. Some issues with Rick and some new characters at sea for example, or confronted with survival challenges that were beyond merely the walkers, could open up some new possibilities for Kirkman which thus far have been foreclosed because of his narrow approach to his theme.
Fundamentally, the Walking Dead has always been a story of survival - what happens to human beings when society literally collapses due to some apocolyptic event. Thus far, Kirkman has done an admirable job of exploring that theme. His problem seems to be at the moment that he's exploring that theme in the same way over and over, almost as if he subsconsciously believes he hasn't quite expressed the idea as fully or with as much impact as he would like. What's amazing about him as a writer is how, even in these circumstances, his stories continue to be compelling and his characters continue to be interesting, flawed and three-dimensional. With Walking Dead, the core concept is so strong that Kirman's ability to entertain never truly disappears, even while it wanes from time to time. Let's hope that Kirkman rediscovers his fearlessness and returns the Walking Dead to the groundbreaking series we all previously loved.