The Walking Dead

August 16, 2011

This post has been brewing for quite some time. As anyone who knows me in person would know: I love zombies. One of the first films I distinctly remember seeing is George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead on VHS. I must have been only eight years old, so it has basically been a lifelong fascination with zombies. Recently, more and more people are identifying with zombies. In an attempt to explain the popularity of AMC’s The Walking Dead (TWD) TV series, a NY Times article linked zombies to our lifestyle. A zombie is simple in its relentlessly pursuit to eat flesh. Furthermore, it does so for no discernible reason. Today, many of us feel like zombies as we go about our daily grind. Often we don’t quiet know why we are doing what we do. I know I have felt that way when I spend hours upon hours sending out job applications only to never hear back from anywhere. Romero’s films have also linked modern consumerism to zombies insatiable desire to feed, and I feel that this is also valid.

In this post, I do not want to talk about the zombies. Or the post-apocalyptic landscape that is the world of TWD. Rather, I want to talk about the still living characters and the acts they perform in order to survive. TWD draws our attention to the always pressing moral question of what is right.

To clarify, I am talking about the comic book series The Walking Dead (TWD), not the AMC TV series. As you’ve guessed by now, TWD is about a band of survivors trying to persist in a world overrun by the undead. It was created by Robert Kirkman who wanted to show what would happen in the long term to the characters in a zombie film. The series has been running for eight years, and the series covers over a year in the characters’ lives. The core of the group of survivors is Rick Grimes, his wife Lori, and their son Carl. Rick is the leader and makes life-or-death decisions every day. What complicates his decisions is that often he must weigh people’s lives against other people. How can one person decide who should live or die? What is the “right” thing to do in those cases?

For Rick, the right thing to do is protect his family. Around issue #14, he is talking to his wife and says, “I’d kill every single one of the people here if I thought it’d keep you safe.” Rick states how detached he is from everyone else and how he catches himself ranking them. He asks her if this all makes him evil. Neither his wife nor he himself knows the answer. I venture that he is not evil.

Let’s be clear. Rick does horrible things. He kills many people, cuts off a woman’s hand, and mutilates unarmed men to name a few. Rick also does very heroic things. He saves his group countless times, stops a wife and child abuser, and bears the responsibility of leadership. In addition to questioning his moral alignment, Rick questions his very humanity at one point proclaiming that the survivors are the walking dead (issue #24). I believe that we are forced to agree with both the tar baby principle and the entanglement of the great and the terrible. In order to protect his group from killers, Rick must become a killer. In order to be a great leader, Rick must do terrible things.

Thus, even though Rick does horrible things and is only looking out for his family, he is not evil. To return to the overarching point of this blog post, Rick is in fact doing the right thing. His zeal to protect his family leads him to protect the group with almost as much zeal. However, when Rick is forced to chose between his family or others, he does pick his family. In issue #82, with his group split up and cowering, Rick is forced flee. In an effort to convince people to come with him he says, “The thing to keep in mind about other people’s children they’re not our children.” It is clear that Rick hates this move, but he thinks it is the only way out. Later on, Rick realizes that in the long term a community is needed to ensure the protection of all, including his son. He rejects his previous misgivings about large groups and feels terrible for having decided to flee. Thus, we see how Rick’s very selfish motive to protect his family is broadly interpreted by him and leads him righteousness.

One last thing I want to address briefly is the comic book format. People think comics are for kids, and for this reason they may be tempted to call all comics rubbish. They would be mistaken. The comic book format works with the material by showing us the horrors and forcing us to confront them with the characters. A paragraph about a group of zombies feasting on a man can be gruesome, but the picture is stomach-turning. The comic makes the most of its format by showing us people’s faces so we can see their emotions and by using interesting panels to create visually striking stories. Notably, the creators of TWD have caught quite a bit of flack for showing some horrible things, but by showing these things you know they are not pulling any punches. No characters are protected by the author and truly anything can happen. I’m interested to see what will cost Rick his life and where the series will go afterwards.

P.S. The first season of the TV series was disappointing, and in spite of the lauds it received. Robert Kirkman, the comic book writer, is much more heavily involved in the second season. I am thus cautiously optimistic.

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4 Responses to “The Walking Dead”

  1. Katelyn said

    Hmm, this made me think about why I don’t read comic books. I agree they are not just for kids, but personally I have trouble sorting out the art from the story. I tend to evaluate the frames on their aesthetic qualities and if I get into the story I feel like the images are slowing me down.

    With a comic book you have the choice of looking at the drawings artistic value and not reading or reading the story quickly without paying too much attention to the images. Being a really visual person, I find it hard to do the latter, so I just don’t normally read comic books. The flip side of being this visual is that my brain comes up with plenty of graphic imagery for zombie stories on its own :)

    I don’t know how many people have a similar experience to mine, but I enjoy the control I have over imagining the story, rather than having it handed to me like in a comic.

    • logisticalmiasma said

      Huhn. Do you have the same problem when you watch a film? I’m not trying to be snarky, but I think the analogy holds. I know that I pay more attention to the plot of a film than how it is shot, but I don’t ever think of the two elements as competing for my attention. I think of them as complementing each other. For example, if we see two people conversing in a movie, the framing can dramatically influence how we view their relationship. They will seem warm and close to each other if we use close-ups and shot-reverse shot. They will seem cold and distant if we film them with a static camera from a distance. I don’t feel constrained by this view but rather enjoy its subtle affect on our interpretation of the story.

  2. I never thought of it that way, well put!

  3. Noel said

    great thoughts, man. this is the kind of thing i liked about 28 days later — the human psychological aspect of it all. what the situation says about humanity.

    i’ve thumbed through books in this series a few times in stores, but i’ve never actually picked any up. i think i’ll have to look into it now.

    and agreed about comics as a genre. i’m working through the sandman series right now, and lovin it.

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