I picked up The Walking Dead a few weeks ago out of a burning curiosity to know why some find the zombie myth so entertaining. As someone who has little interest in blood and gore (eating shrimp with the eyes still attached literally makes me squirm), I knew this would be out of my comfort zone, but I had to find out. Apart from a visceral (pardon the bad pun) morbid fascination with the idea of the decaying body separated from its soul, I could not understand. It seemed too easy to chalk it up to the ease of entertaining the masses. There needed to be something more than mere macabre to this new national obsession with zombies. I mean, I still remember when zombies were the things you shot at in those awful, cheesy video games.
The Walking Dead (TWD), as does many other popular postmodern serial works (e.g., Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, etc.) dwells on the futility of life and morality. It’s an old theme, really, one that goes back to at least Ecclesiastes. I did not expect an uplifting, inspirational, Pixar movie experience. Neither did I expect it to be entirely devoid of glimpses of humanity, hope, or perhaps even love. Even if this turned out to be the bleakest thing I’ve ever read, something needs to keep the readers coming back issue after issue. My experience with that other popular book-turned-TV serial, Game of Thrones, assured me this would be the case. Even when Martin kills off yet another beloved character, he gives you another one to root for. Sometimes these characters even have happy things happen to them once in a while.
The only glimpses of humanity are always in the characters’ rear view mirrors. What TWD does differently than other zombie myths is to focus not on the terror and gruesomeness of the environment, but on the terror and gruesomeness of human nature.
Relatively early in the series (#15), two young girls are found butchered, their heads severed. The rest of the survivors react by going on a witch hunt, eventually discovering a serial killer among them. All of them want to execute the murderer immediately, but Rick, their group leader, protests vehemently and refuses to allow it. He insists that killing one of their own will lessen their humanity. Yet only nine issues later (#24), Rick takes a calculated shot at an untrustworthy fellow survivor during a clash with the horde, hoping that no one will notice. When his transgression is uncovered, Rick becomes angry with the group. He rationalizes that he had no other choice, and that his earlier decision not to kill was wrong.
No one is coming to save them. The time for hoping for a rescue has passed. They will never again drop their kids off at school, go to the grocery store, grab coffee at Starbucks, or, as Rick puts it, “follow every retarded little rule we ever invented to make us feel like we weren’t animals.” He continues: ” ‘You kill–you die.’ That was probably the most naive thing I’ve ever said. The fact is–in most cases, now, the way things are–you kill–you live.”
Adapt and kill, or stay the same and die. The survivors, by doing what was necessary to survive, have become savage like their environment. Rick goes on:
The second we put a bullet in the head of one of these undead monsters–the moment one of us drove a hammer into one of their faces–or cut a head off. We became what we are! And that’s just it. That’s what this comes down to . You people don’t know what we are. We’re surrounded by the dead. We’re among them–and when we finally give up we become one of them! We’re living on borrowed time here. Every minute of our life is a minute we steal from them! You see them out there. You know that when we die–we become them. You think we hide behind walls to protect us from the walking dead! Don’t you get it?
Rick concludes his speech on a full two-page splash, half his face in light and half in shadow. He proclaims the survivors’ affinity with the undead beings around them. Yet his dark speech is only the beginning in a series of words and deeds that progressively uncover the violence animal hatred inside.
About thirty issues and countless dead bodies later, both human and undead, Rick kills a trio of rapists when they attack his son Carl (#57). The thing is, he does not just kill them–he slices them up into unrecognizable shreds–and he enjoys it. Rick’s companion Abraham, who witnessed the event, observes that “You’re never the same. Not after what you did.” Rick agrees and admits that “this isn’t the first thing to chip away at my soul until I wonder if I’m still human. Probably won’t be the last.”
In the following issue, Abraham and Rick exchange stories about the lives they took in order to protect their loved ones (#58). The conversation is both a mutual confession and a rationalization. If it wasn’t obvious before, Rick’s opinion of himself and motivation for existing make themselves clear:
You and me–our switches flipped. We’re doing whatever it takes–whatever it takes to survive and to help those around us survive. The people without the switch–those who weren’t able to go from law-abiding citizens to stone-cold killers…those are the ones shambling around out there–trying to eat us. We do what we have to do. It doesn’t matter if we can live with ourselves…as long as we live.
The scene ends with Rick and his son both weeping over their lost humanity.
As if rapists weren’t a horrific enough threat, the group encounters a group of cannibals that attempt to pick them off one by one. Rick and the others respond by mutilating them and then killing them, one by one (#66). At the end of the issue, Rick laments his savagery and mourns over another lost piece of his humanity. Thinking that he is speaking to Abraham, he admits that if Carl knew all the violent things he had done, he could not look at him. When he is met with silence, he turns around only to see that Carl has been standing there this whole time. With tears, Carl confesses that he, too, has killed and kept it a secret.
And that’s why I stopped reading at issue #66. The world of The Walking Dead is about as bleak as it gets, but not because of the zombies. Rick Grimes has concluded that humanity and existence are mutually exclusive, and so he chooses existence. Personally, I believe this is a false dilemma. But even if I suspend my personal beliefs and go along with the story, I cannot see how Rick’s choice adds up to anything other than despair and and descent into a near-animal state. If an event does not end in literal blood and guts, it ends in tears. But even the sorrow is a dead end; there is no repentance, no reformation, no resolution–no change at all, really. The characters are just as empty and static as their undead counterparts. That is the point that Kirkman, Moore, and Adlard (the series’ creators and artist, respectively) are trying to make.
I realize there are over 60 issues of TWD that I haven’t read. Perhaps there is some major event that overturns everything in the first 60 issues. Something tells me that isn’t the case, though. For now, I have satisfied my curiosity. I still do not understand what some find so fulfilling in following the lives of fictional people who act as if they are already dead. The only reason I can think of is that for many, Rick’s beliefs mirror their own–namely, that, pushed to extreme limits, people decide that mere existence is more important than any meaning to existence.
Perhaps that is what keeps people coming back. They hear the echoes of a truth they believe, though the truth is a dark one. When there is no center to living, living itself becomes its own center, and inevitably collapses in on itself. For myself, I do not and cannot believe that is the case. So I’m not sorry that I find more enjoyment reading Amazing Spider-Man or Astro City. Some may dismiss such titles as cheesy or unoriginal, but they too ring with truths, and more meaningful ones at that. And that is the reason I always come back to them.