While The Waking Dead features a roster of fan-favorite heroic and villainous survivors, the heart and soul of the zombie apocalypse comic book is Sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes. Rick may have made some questionable actions throughout the series, but no one else could have led humanity through the chaos and death and into a new tomorrow.
The first arc of The Walking Dead features Rick awakening alone from a coma in a hospital, following a near-fatal gunshot injury. Finding himself in an unfamiliar world infested with zombies, Rick must quickly learn to navigate his new surroundings and ventures to the city of Atlanta, where he reunites with not only his wife Lori and son Carl but his former partner Shane. Shane kept Rick’s family protected while Grimes was in his coma and became romantically involved with Lori for an extended period. Unfortunately, Rick’s surprise return heralds the end of any long-term romance with Lori, sending Shane into a spiral that culminates in him turning his own gun on Grimes. It’s the intervention of Carl, armed with a pistol, that ultimately saves Rick’s life and seemingly puts an end to Shane.
However, Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s The Walking Dead #15 sends Rick back to Shane’s grave, having discovered that human beings will reanimate as zombies upon their deaths no matter how they died. Digging up Shane’s grave with relative ease, Rick casually waits for a zombified Shane to rise. Shane’s return confirms Grimes’ suspicions that any remaining humans will return as zombies following their initial deaths, save for a shot or stab wound to the brain. Before shooting his former best friend once again, Rick explains that he couldn’t bear the possibility of him being trapped underground, and wonders if he would have offered him the same release if their positions were flipped. Rick gives his friend the mercy of a final death but makes it clear, « I ain’t gonna bury you again you son of a *****, » showing that his sense of responsibility to his former friend only goes so far.
Rick’s return to put down the zombified version of his own would-be murderer tells readers exactly what makes Rick Grimes an ideal leader. Even with a set of potentially harmful prisoners within Grimes and his survivors’ new base, the Meriwether Correctional Facility, Rick does not feel that his moral obligation to Shane can wait. Shane may have wanted to kill Rick, but he also protected his family when it mattered. However, Rick is under no illusions that Shane is still the man he knew before civilization fell – he’s not expressing affection, but honoring his own humanity.
Rick observes a sense of responsibility without romanticizing futile gestures, turning him into the ideal leader to see humanity through the zombie apocalypse. Rick’s humanity stops him becoming a tyrant like Negan or the Governor, and creates strong bonds with his group and true trust in his leadership. However, he’s also cynical and practical enough to resist being led into danger by pure idealism. Rick goes through dark times and does terrible things to survive, but ultimately his temperament acts as the blueprint for humanity going forward, and he becomes a legendary figure after liberating the Commonwealth from its fascistic government.
Other people could have merely survived the zombie apocalypse, but few could have been ruthless and cautious enough to keep their people alive while also having the principles and humanity to then shape a society worth living in. Rick’s final words to Shane – acknowledging what he owes him, but never forgetting his sins – shows exactly why he’s the only leader who could truly save humanity in every sense in The Walking Dead.