Since its onset, Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comic book series has focused on the survival of one man, former police officer Rick Grimes, and the group of people he keeps company with. Starting with Walking Dead #25, Kirkman and illustrator Charlie Adlard expand their focus to another group of survivors in this post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland: namely the town of Woodbury and its leader, the Governor.
Rick, Glenn and Michonne first cross paths with Woodbury’s residents and the Governor after witnessing a helicopter crash near their prison home. While checking for survivors (and to see if the helicopter was a military aircraft), the trio is abducted by the Governor’s men and taken to Woodbury. Initially, Woodbury appears similar to the prison community Rick and his group call home: a safeguarded “garden” existing in a sanctuary amongst the wilderness of the rest of the zombie-infested world. But Kirkman’s characterization of Woodbury’s residents and especially the Governor demonstrate a stark difference in morality from Rick’s group. The trio learns very quickly that, despite its power structure, security and generally communal set-up, Woodbury is no sanctuary. It is a place that is even more horrifying than the wilderness of the zombie wasteland.
The Governor is officially introduced in Walking Dead #27. Despite having abducted Rick, Glenn and Michonne, his first interaction with the prison group is benign enough – he has their weapons confiscated as a security measure to “protect” his residents. He shows them around Woodbury, including a stadium where members of the community are gathering. A number of “biters” (zombies) are tied up around the perimeter of the stadium’s baseball diamond and the prison group is told that a “fight” is taking place between two “live people.” The zombies are used as extra motivation for the combatants but remain docile because they are fed. When Rick inquires what the Governor is feeding them, he responds, “strangers.”
This reveal kicks Walking Dead #28 off on a hostile note. After expressing their outrage, Rick, Michonne and Glenn are threatened by the Governor who tells them he wants to know where they’re keeping camp so they can raid their supplies and weapons. When Rick refuses to talk, the Governor demonstrates just how sadistic he is when chops off Rick’s hand with a machete.
While Rick has experienced a lot of physical/emotional pain and anguish since the Walking Dead saga began, the dismembering is easily the most brutal consequence he has suffered in the series thus far. The fact that this heinous act took place beyond the shelter of his own established sanctuary in the prison and within the confines of someone else’s “organized” community demonstrates just how far removed this new world’s version of morality and order is from the “old” pre-zombie universe. At the end of Walking Dead #24, Rick bemoans to his group that they are all “the walking dead,” but even he couldn’t have possibly considered crossing paths with someone as purely evil as the Governor.
In a comic book series that explores the shades of grey that consume human morality in a universe where there is no established law and order, the Governor is a fairly straightforward black and white character. Kirkman goes through some effort to add some depth to the Governor – characters like Dr. Stevens, who works at Woodbury’s hospital, don’t like the man but respect him for keeping the residents safe and happy. And the Governor also has a young daughter who he keeps in his house despite the fact that she has been turned into a “biter.” But Rick and his two group members suffer fates at the hands of the Governor that are psychologically more damaging at Woodbury than if they had just been ambushed by a herd of zombies while they were walking about in the wilderness. When judged solely on his actions, there are no redeeming qualities to the Governor.
Even after considering Rick’s run-in with the Governor’s machete, arguably no character is more tormented in this arc than Michonne. The samurai sword wielding woman, who is still mostly a stranger to Rick and his crew at this point in the story, gets tied-up by the Governor after she bites his ear off in retaliation for the attack on Rick. The Governor proceeds to brutally (and repetitively) rape and beat Michonne. Later, when one of his fighters is killed by his prospective competition, the Governor sends Michonne out into the stadium as a replacement. After Michonne decapitates all of the perimeter zombies that are a part of the “entertainment,” she is corralled again by the Governor’s henchman and awaits additional torture and probably death.
But Rick, Glenn and Michonne are freed by one of the Governor’s armed guards named Martinez, along with Dr. Stevens and his assistant Alice. Martinez tells Rick that he wants to leave Woodbury and go to the prison with him because he’s tired of the Governor’s violently authoritative rule over the community. The group makes their escape (except for Dr. Stevens, who is killed by zombie), but Michonne breaks away to take care of unfinished business.
Walking Dead #33 opens with Michonne confronting the Governor in his home. Capturing just how psychologically damning her stay in Woodbury was, Michonne is able to overpower the Governor and proceeds to subject him to the same heightened level of violence and torture that he doled out to the three prison survivors. She binds and gags him, nails his penis to the floor, chops off one of his arms and then uses a spoon to both anally rape him and to pull out one of his eyeballs. The carnage Michonne doles out to the Governor leaves her in tears and she quickly comes to the realization of just how vengeful and monstrous she could become when provoked in such an extreme way. A few issues later in the arc, Michonne is seen talking to herself at the prison and she says, “I’ve just never seen that side of you is all – it was unsettling.”
The nightmare experience at Woodbury also brings out another side of brutality in Rick. In earlier issues of the series, we’ve seen just how far Rick will go to protect his family and the rest of the crew, including killing an inmate who threatened his family at the prison (and thus being demoted as the de facto “leader” of the group). After returning to the prison, Rick realizes that his new ally Martinez has disappeared in Walking Dead #35. He quickly concludes that the man is actually working as a spy for the Governor and is probably already on his way back to Woodbury to bring everyone back to the prisoner.
Rick catches up to Martinez in Walking Dead #36 and runs him down with his RV. After seriously injuring Martinez, Rick confronts him about being a spy, and the man tells him he was just planning on bringing some of the Woodbury residents back with him to get away from the Governor. Rick doesn’t believe him and calls his people a “poison.” He asks Martinez if he knows what people are capable of and the man responds, “I think I’m getting the idea” – an implication of how sadistic Rick was acting during the confrontation. Unphased, Rick strangles Martinez to death.
Later in the issue, Rick talks to his wife Lori about his actions earlier in the day. He admits that he would kill in cold blood if it meant saving his family and that, after experiencing so much death in this new world, he has lost all attachment for the rest of the group and “I could kill any one of them at any moment for the right reasons.” He then asks Lori if these thoughts and actions make him “evil” and Lori doesn’t have an answer.
After establishing in earlier arcs that the idea of “sanctuary” in the post-apocalyptic Walking Dead universe would not reflect the morals and structure of how things “used to be,” Walking Dead #25-36 further drives home the point that the idea of an Eden-like garden, free from the innate evils of human nature, is a myth. Other societies in Kirkman’s universe are more corrupt and sinister than Rick’s, and Rick, the central hero, has come to the conclusion that he is willing to kill without remorse in the name of self-preservation. At this rate, both the open, zombie-infested world, and the confines of organized society are both variations of the “wilderness.” It’s just that one is enclosed by walls and shrouded in a veil of “structure.”