Rick Grimes at the beginning of The Walking Dead #1 (October 2003) © Image Comics.
Today in North America, The Walking Dead season 3 premieres on AMC. You can see the season 3 trailer here. The show is immensely popular; the season 2 finale drew 9 million viewers earlier this year, and it ranks as the "top-rated show in cable history among the adult demo." It is also critically acclaimed. The television show is based on a ground-breaking black and white comic of the same name, created by Gen Xers Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard. Having read the comics on which season 3 is based, I am sure that TV viewers unfamiliar with the source material will be shocked by what is coming.
The Walking Dead comic books are the only pulp issues I have ever read that have made my jaw drop - repeatedly. The story is a simple one. Humankind has been afflicted with a monstrous illness that transforms most people into zombies. The story begins just after the government has fallen and evidently disappeared. The action focuses on an American sheriff and the ragged band of citizens who struggle to survive with him.
Normally, this setting would head straight for forgettable clichés. Instead, The Walking Dead creators appear to be reaching epic levels of story-telling by pushing their characters to ever greater extremes. I have never seen a writer and artist relentlessly and powerfully ramp up horror and tension, level upon level upon level. Most horror stories hinge on catharsis and a return to normality. The Walking Dead never does that - even death does not give the audience or readership a way out.
Yet for all its gore and death, the series never becomes dismissible on that basis. And unending trauma does not mean the story does not see change and progress. The constant pressure of the zombies wandering around is only a catalyst which progressively strips away all the structures of society and continually raises the bar against any hope of regeneration. The story sees more sophisticated survivors' enclaves built up, walled suburbs transformed into medieval-like bastions of safety. Like other apocalpytic dramas (Mad Max or Waterworld come to mind), some of these enclaves are violent, dictatorial and sick; others (like the encampment established by Rick which will be depicted this television season) are based on colonial-style cooperation and rebuilding. But for each new sophisticated survivors' community, there is a more frightening psychopathic marauder who seeks to plunder its resources or take it over. The Walking Dead works because these villains are recognizable. The creators take little flashes of violence and chaos that we witness in our everyday lives and they embroider on those glimpses until they present us with fully-fledged hellish antagonists.
Rick encounters a lone zombie at the beginning of The Walking Dead #1 (October 2003) © Image Comics.
The comics series begins by establishing its sheriff protagonist, Rick Grimes, as a decent, brave and good-hearted man (I was reminded of Rick when I found a picture of the Chief of Police who patrolled Seattle during the crime waves of the Great Depression, here). Rick awakes from a coma in a hospital in Kentucky (similar to the beginnings of Day of the Triffids and 28 Days Later), only to find the world overrun by zombies, while his family and deputy have fled to Atlanta.
The hero at the beginning of The Walking Dead #1 (October 2003) © Image Comics.
Kirkman reveals his hero's personality by showing that Rick pities the monsters. The story rams Rick through test after test, forcing him to face greater and greater levels of brutal depravity as the society around him shudders through collapse, then post-collapse, then total chaos, and then moves beyond total chaos into something nameless and ever darker. Kirkman has hinted that he may take the comics series past Rick's death.
Rick confronts a new arch-villain, Negan, The Walking Dead #100 (July 2012) © Image Comics.
The Walking Dead works because the characters are so well imagined, and this includes the increasingly dangerous and frightening antagonists. At first the zombies are the main concern. But as the characters become more and more adept at managing the zombies, their real worry becomes other heavily-armed and more desperate survivors. In Walking Dead #100, a new villain, more terrible than all the others, made his entrance. With Negan, Kirkman left comics fans reeling. Readers are asking questions that would come up in situations akin to the Holocaust and other genocides: when confronted with absolute, insurmountable force, what moral choices are there around basic survival? How can Rick deliver retribution for what Negan does to his group? And should Rick fight back at all, if it means sacrificing many of the people who look to him for leadership? In Walking Dead #100, Negan, a post-apocalyptic psychopath who kills without a second throught and with a snotty sense of humour, stands as the leader of a new world order. The question is whether Rick can devise any alternative that can survive in the face of this kind of threat.
America's pastime perverted: Negan decides which of Rick's band he will bludgeon to death with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. The Walking Dead #100 (July 2012) © Image Comics.
Thus far, the story has focussed on moral riddles in a collapsed society (it is a kind of Lord of the Flies for adults, set in ruined America). How depraved must Rick and his followers become to preserve the last spark of civilization? The story has not yet examined the cause of zombification. It is almost as if that level of thought and study is impossible when the characters are just trying to stay alive, and by extension, determining what collection of values will best help them to do that. In an earlier post, I commented that for readers and audiences, flirting with the end of the world in apocalyptic fiction helps people to get a grip on their values in a time of economic distress, technological upheaval and cultural shift; fearing the end of the world allows people to combat Millennial anomie and aporia.
See all my posts on Horror themes.
The Walking Dead television series is © AMC The Walking Dead comics series by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard is © Image Comics; panels are reproduced here solely for the purpose of not-for-profit review and discussion.
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