The Talking Dead

Welcome to the Sense of Right Alliance Halloween Party 2010!  Throughout the month of October, I will be writing (every day, hopefully) about things related to horror, monsters, and other creepy crawly Halloweeny things!  Let’s kick things off as almost anything should be kicked off – with the motherfucking zombie apocalypse!

I recently read through the entire run of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead in one whirlwind marathon session.  I have mixed feelings about it.

I am a huge zombie fan.  I’ve spent at least half my life watching movies with the word “dead” in the title, guiding Jill Valentine through hallways, or reading World War ZThe brilliance of The Walking Dead is that, as far as I know, it is the only zombie story that is told in such a long-form format, and I’ve always thought that is what a good zombie story deserves.  If characters are going to be reacting to an apocalyptic event, I’d ideally like to follow them for years and see what toll it has on their lives.  The Walking Dead tells this type of story, and for that it’s unique and totally awesome.

But now I am going to completely contradict myself.  Maybe it’s just because I read it all at once, but I kind of think The Walking Dead has gone on too long.  Reading it the way I’ve read it, you start to notice a definite pattern that repeats itself over and over.  It goes a little something like this:

-A small band of survivors travels around, searching for someplace safe.
-They meet up with a larger group (which includes a couple of characters they’d previously gotten separated from), and find a place that seems too good to be true.  They argue for a while about whether it’s too good to be true.  Someone will ask, “Are we going to stay here?” and someone else will answer, “I think so… for a little while at least.”  Someone will mention that they could really be happy/safe here.
-Eventually, everyone is comfortable and lets their guard down.
-Everything is not as it seems!!!
-Something goes wrong, there is a conflict of some sort, and a bunch of people die.
-A small band of survivors escapes by the skin of their teeth, and travels around, searching for someplace safe.

Sometimes the book runs through this cycle in just an issue or two, and sometimes it takes a really long time, but eventually it always repeats itself.  If The Walking Dead is going to stick around past issue 100, I really think this has to change.

It’s true that most zombie stories – or at least most good zombie stories – aren’t really about the zombies, but are actually about the living and how they survive and interact with each other in this scary new world.  But most zombie stories don’t last for 78 goddamn issues.  I think maybe it’s time to make this particular story about the zombies.  I got so excited when we met the character Eugene, a scientist who knows what caused the plague and who is heading to Washington DC to confer with government officials on how to stop it.  At the point in the narrative when he showed up, this was the perfect direction for the plot to go in to avoid more of the same old shit.  Of course, Eugene’s story turned out to be totally made-up, and Washington DC turned out to be an abandoned zombie hellhole just like everywhere else, and the pattern just started to repeat itself again.  Lame.  I really hope Kirkman actually does take the story in this sort of direction sooner rather than later, or things will remain in constant danger of getting really fucking stale.

That’s far from the book’s only flaw, unfortunately.  A long-standing complaint I’ve had about male comic book writers – especially when it comes to more “mature” non-superhero stuff – is that they have a lot of trouble writing for female characters.  I can certainly understand that.  As a male myself, I’d never be entirely comfortable trying to speak through a woman’s voice, so I commend writers for even making the attempt.  But Kirkman goes a step beyond this and often makes himself seem, well, brutally fucking sexist.

The way women are portrayed in this comic book is just plain weird.  Basically, when they’re not throwing themselves at the men sexually or attempting to commit suicide, they’re either whining (and being told to shut up) or willingly putting themselves in submissive positions relative to the men.  For example, it is established that the character Andrea is by far the most proficient in the group when it comes to firearms.  However, when it comes time for the men to go on zombie patrol and she is turned away, she shrugs it off and just sews a bunch of clothes for everybody instead.  Ridiculous.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this comes when the group of survivors decides to form a committee to make decisions.  The committee, of course, is composed of four men.  When the main character, Rick, wonders why there are no women representatives, here is the explanation he receives:


Holy shit.  Well at least they got that uppity bitch Patricia to shut up and learn her place, right?  And nice try with the Glenn thing, Robert Kirkman.  “Look you guys, it’s not just the girls, this one dude is also a weakling!”

Part of the problem is that Robert Kirkman doesn’t seem to be able to sculpt a voice for anybody who isn’t Robert Kirkman.  Young or old, educated or not, male or female, weak or strong, everybody just speaks like the one shitty character Robert Kirkman is able to write.  And most of the time, that character is named “Exposition Machine.”  When the hardened biker convict and the suburban housewife start making long-winded speeches that are almost identical, there’s something really wrong.  This can really take you out of the story, but never more so than when the character in question is Carl.  Carl is the protagonist’s seven-year-old son, and here is an example of his dialogue:

I have a couple of nephews around this age, and unless they’re talking about Pokemon, they rarely string together more than two or three word balloons at a time.  Do you know why?  Because they’re little fucking kids.  Look, I get that Carl is supposed to be a world-weary survivor who has seen and done things no child should have to and bla bla bla.  I don’t take issue with the fact that he’s having these complex thoughts and emotions, but I do have a pretty serious problem with how he articulates them.  I’m sure it’s tough to find the voice of a little kid, but this shit is just so embarrassingly off-base that it’s almost impossible to take the character seriously.

With all my bitching and moaning, you probably assume that I totally fucking hate The Walking Dead.  I don’t… in fact, I actually really like it.  It’s just usually way more fun to complain about shitty things than it is to gush over awesome things.  But to balance this out a little bit, I will now do some brief gushing. 

Earlier I said I’d always wanted to see long-form zombie fiction that explores the lives of its characters over the course of months or years (as opposed to the comparatively short periods of time usually covered by movies).  In that sense, The Walking Dead succeeds wildly.  Aside from the problems I whined about above, the book is consistently exciting, emotional, scary, and thought-provoking.  It’s fascinating seeing the way that the characters’ moral compasses and ideas about right and wrong slowly evolve (or devolve, depending on how you look at it) as they adjust to a world they have absolutely no previous context for.  And I love the way Kirkman handles death.  In this story, no one is safe.  Major characters can be killed instantly in the background of a panel, and no one will even notice until pages later.  That’s what most movies and comic books get wrong; every death needs to be a dramatic moment with lots of build-up.  Kirkman understands that in this type of scenario, death itself is quick and uneventful and incidental, but its impact on those left behind can last a lifetime.  Someone getting shot or ripped apart by a zombie isn’t necessarily dramatic.  Guilt and loss and regret, however, are.  I think most writers, especially horror writers, understand that – but few have the balls to actually bring that attitude into their writing.  Kirkman doesn’t give a shit about giving a fan-favorite character a grand or heroic send-off, because that character will live on through the hearts, actions, and endless word balloons of everyone else for hundreds of issues.  And dealing with that, learning from that, is what it really means to be a survivor.

So yeah, in spite of its many flaws, The Walking Dead is awesome and definitely worth reading for any fan of zombie bullshit.  And I can’t wait for the TV show!  Happy October, you guys!  Here are some parting words from Carl:

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