It's likely that the story may be a stand-alone arc: a placeholder that will set the stage for the title's new direction and, conveniently enough, gives Kirkman time without the principal cast of the book featured on the covers so that Diamond Comics Distributor's solicitations to retailers don't spoil the ending, as has happened in comics so many times before.
Nevertheless, the long-teased death of series star Rick Grimes seems more possible than ever in "All-Out War," and with his loss comes questions about the future of the group of survivors he leads: will Carl join Maggie and Sophia at Hilltop while Michonne remains with Ezekiel, effectively breaking up the core of characters fans have been following for years? What other unexpected fallout might come from the loss of the group's leader and, often as not, moral compass?
And, as ever, who is this woman, and the group she's with? The Internet, unsurprisingly, has some compelling theories and we've got one or two of our own. Read on...
From Reddit comes this intriguing and not-entirely-implausible idea: "You know how awesome it would be if 'All Out War' is the finale of Rick's group/story, and 'A New Beginning' is the entirely new spinoff group that AMC is doing with The Walking Dead!"
Okay, so maybe it's pretty implausible that our current group of survivors would completely stop being a focus of the title...but certainly the prospect of bringing in the characters that will be used for the spinoff on TV, and rolling them out first in the comics to get some feel for them, isn't a terrible idea.
Plus, doing so just now gives Kirkman an opportunity that many comics don't get: he gets to tease something big and cool, without either spoiling the current storyline's outcome in the solicitations or making those dull "Classified" solicitations that preserve the secrecy but also give fans and retailers nothing at all to go on.
And it would make this batch of comics worth a bunch of money if the TV spinoff happens, which means that if the news leaked between now and the release of #125 or so, demand could skyrocket and Skybound could see The Walking Dead's already-significant sales go into the stratosphere for a few months, as they did when there was a major, telegraphed death and a bunch of variant covers on The Walking Dead #100.
We've talked about some of the candidates to be the Mystery Woman already, so we won't belabor that too much here...but there are a couple of potential candidates that have enough baggage to make them worth going over again.
If this did turn out to be Lilly Caul, the woman who killed The Governor and then disappeared into the area around the prison, it would be a major shock to the system of the series.
First of all, any role she would play going forward would have to be recast in the TV series, since "Lily" on TV has already been killed, as established in dialogue between Tara and Glenn in "Inmates."
Also, Lilly was never a major part of the series -- she seemed brought in primarily to kill The Governor, and once she served that function, she vanished. Her reappearance as a focus, and the attendant revelation that she survived the chaos around the prison siege, would arguably be a major cultural shift in the title. Generally, any character not explicitly killed when they exit the audience's field of view is implicitly killed (I've always felt that the readers leave you for dead when shifting to another focus in a world this dangerous). Returns have been rare (Morgan and Maggie are the only ones I can think of, and Morgan never really left the audience even if she left the group), and if a minor character were to return as a major character and steal focus, it would make the world feel larger and more integrated.
It would also, at least potentially, give us more stories from The Prison, which up to this point has been the series' most memorable setting. If that remains her home base, or at least she hid out there for a while and the story flashes back, it would give fans another look at the home to what many consider to be the best period in the title's history.
Some have noted that the woman looks a bit like Sherry, Dwight's wife, and that one of the other characters on the cover looks like it could be Dwight.
She's also got the same hairstyle as one of Negan's wives, seen in #105, from the back, and never since, according to commenter Robert Jacobs under the original image.
In either case, it seems that a Savior who betrays Negan would be the working theory, and that the story would be told -- maybe partially in flashback -- to explain just how she got to that point and why (a lesson learned since Lilly's betrayal of The Governor struck some as artificial).
There's a theory out there -- one that I don't hold much stock in -- that this is actually Sophia, and that the story had jumped forward a number of years.
I mention this largely just because so many people have put it forth. The absence of an obvious Carl on the group cover and the sense that the clothing isn't fifteen years old (what are the odds that things would still be as bad -- and thus compelling for the readers -- as they have been if during the time jump society was partially rebuilt to the point where new clothes were commonplace?) detract from this theory, as well as the fact that Kirkman has expressed in the past he's not particularly interested in such a story.
Could there be explanations for all of that? Sure. Could Kirkman have changed his mind on the latter? Of course. But it seems like a lot of "maybe, maybe, maybe."
HOLY CRAP. What if it's the woman who stabbed Eric?
Before Negan, there was a brief storyline where Aaron and Eric found a woman and followed her for a few days. She looked sad and alone, so they attempted to recruit her. She stole their horse, and when they tried to stop her, she stabbed Eric.
She hasn't been mentioned since. Maybe...
This is actually a really solid theory, and one I like. If for no other reason than the fact that the final issue of "All-Out War" (seen above because my copy of The Walking Dead #79, where the stabbing is referenced is loaned out and can't be scanned for art) features what seems to be either a woman or a slender/young man holding Lucille in a menacing manner in front of a kneeling Negan.
Introducing the stab-woman would tie up an old loose end, explain who's on the cover about to kill Negan and give context as to why this new character is important enough to merit taking over the cover (and the title?) for at least two months following the biggest and most brutal story yet for Rick's group.