Nearly three years into his run of zombie comics, The Walking Dead‘s writer and co-creator Robert Kirkman (Invincible, Marvel Zombies) would introduce the world to the community of Woodbury and its nefarious leader the Governor with issue #27 of the series. In hindsight, while the Governor would go down in the annals of Walking Dead history as an unrelenting force, the character’s ultimate arc left much to be desired.
While Rick Grimes and his close-knit group of survivors had dealt with their fair share of hostile humans early into the zombie apocalypse, it wasn’t until the introduction of the Governor that a human threat became the principal danger of the series. Lulling Rick and his group into a false sense of security, the Governor quickly cemented himself as the vilest antagonist up to that point – and arguably the nastiest the series ever saw.
Surprisingly quickly, the Governor shows his true colors to Rick and his companions, who stumble upon Woodbury while scouting for other survivors. With his severing of Rick’s right hand, brutal torture of the newly introduced Michonne, and psychological abuse of Glenn, the Governor quickly began to leave his mark on the world. Following his eventual disfigurement and humiliation at the hands of a vengeful Michonne, the Governor became even more infatuated with the series’ protagonists. The Governor’s personal vendetta against Rick’s group led him and his followers to attack the survivors’ nearby prison base, culminating in his own unceremonious death. Woodbury eliminated half of the prison community, including Rick’s wife Lori and their newborn child Judith. Though there was a Governor-centric issue of the series, issue #43, it devoted itself to his manipulation of Woodbury residents for his massive prison attack rather than provide any backstory on how he became so diabolical.
The closest that the original comic series ultimately came to exploring the Governor’s personal life is his disturbing relationship with his zombified daughter Penny, who is restrained and kept locked away in his Woodbury apartment. The Governor is a despicable man and Kirkman obvious intention was to have his readers despise the character from the get-go. However, this does not leave much room for relatability, and made this antagonist too melodramatically immoral in the context of the story as a whole.
Kirkman would bring back the Governor multiple times. In the comics, The Governor Special explored the origin of the fish tanks full of zombie heads seen in his original appearance, showing he installed them to desensitize himself to the cruelty he’d need to rule Woodbury. There was also a trilogy of novels, starting with The Walking Dead: Rise of The Governor, that explored the character’s origins in far more depth. While adding to the Governor, these later stories were still answerable to the melodrama of his original appearances, and act as supplementary reading to accompany the comic rather than an essential part of the story.
Ultimately, thanks to his extreme entrance and speedy death, even revisiting the Governor couldn’t instill him with the humanity and realism of Kirkman’s other villains such as Negan and Alpha – something addressed in the AMC TV adaptation, which took advantage of Kirkman’s later works to humanize the Governor more than the comics. The comic Governor is a sadistic maniac, and while many fans appreciated Kirkman elaborating on his history in another medium, it doesn’t change the experience of reading the series and seeing him pale in comparison to the equally twisted but far more complex villains who followed. The Walking Dead is rightly famous for its depiction of people pushed to the edge, which makes it a surprise to reflect that its first true villain just doesn’t live up to what the series had in store down the line.