Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Walking Dead Comics: Open-Ended Twaddle or Compelling Chaos?

The Walking Dead is an apocalyptic zombie-survival series created by Robert Kirkman, with illustrations provided by Tony Moore and then later Charlie Adlard. Instead of focusing primarily on the zombies, the comic follows the lives of Rick Grimes and his family, alongside a host of other characters, who all seem to have one goal – survival, whatever the cost. The series is a mixture of disturbing and quite graphic horror, spliced with black humour and some fairly tender moments.

Why I hate The Walking Dead - Pete Hindle

Left: You thought the world would never end? You’ve got Egg all over your face now!

Specifically, the reason I hate The Walking Dead is it’s ongoing, open-ended story.

When I first heard of it, I was intrigued. But, as the trade paperbacks kept coming out - roughly twice a year[1] - I lost interest. A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and up until zombies shuffled off our screens and into other media forms, all zombie stories had an end.

I guess it was computer games that started it. Resident Evil’s early games seemed so cool, letting us blast our way through the undead. It was a type of zombie story that went beyond the classic movies, letting us experience the terror of the undead rather than a story with wooden actors and bad make-up. But games are expensive to make, and by the time they had produced number four in the series you knew that the mysteries of the Umbrella Corporation would never be solved.

In a computer game, returning to the same scenario is part of the mechanism of play[2]. In storytelling, the narrative must come to an end. Repeating the scenario is derivative, or dull, because the story becomes worn out. Soap operas struggle to keep their viewers interested as they repeat the same plotlines - secret affairs, petty lies, and addictions happen with depressing regularity to their characters, without a final end ever coming to any of the overlapping stories.

In the television show based on “The Walking Dead”, the end of the first season is marked by the survivors getting secret information from scientists (shortly before a massive explosion signals the end of the season). This is different from the comic plot line, because the people watching the six hour-long episodes would need to know that there was some reason for them to keep watching. That there would be a point to wading through the grim realities of a world destroyed and under siege from zombies.

The comic book has different fans. Those fans pay money to see fictional characters stressed to the limits of their endurance - and beyond, because they want to see themselves reflected in the failings of the characters. Zombies have always been seen as an allegory of mass humanity. Initially, Romero’s movie zombies were symbols of 1960’s conformity[3], so perhaps the failure of The Walking Dead’s characters to survive unscathed reassures the fans when they give up their individuality to consume capitalist goods. Like comic books.

Whats the matter? Too political for you? Hey, zombies are always political. They’re the original silent majority, with their earliest incarnations reflecting a fear of black slaves taking over - making white people their slaves via voodoo[4]. These days, we’re all the slaves of an international conspiracy to enslave us via finance[5].

The reason I hate The Walking Dead is because it’s an unending story of failure, despair, and compromise. It plays with it’s readers emotions by offering hope, but inevitably only rewards them with a darker, less survivable scenario. By refusing to call an end to it’s plot, the comic has become a version of Eastenders with the shambling undead instead of the Mitchells,

Besides, zombies? Haven't they been done to death?

[1] Currently we are up to volume 13, “Too Far Gone”. Other cheery titles include “Made to suffer” and “This Sorrowful Life”.
[2] For more information than you could ever possibly want to know about computer game mechanics, see http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3085/behavioral_game_design.php?page=1
[3] The Village Voice calls this “middle america at war” http://www.villagevoice.com/2003-01-07/film/the-dead-zones/ - so it’s not just me. If you want, you can google it yourself to find an academic text saying something similar.
[4] See the original zombie movie, White Zombie, at http://www.archive.org/details/white_zombie. Also of note is the wikipedia entry for this man, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clairvius_Narcisse who is famous for “being a zombie”.
[5] Just ask anybody from Iceland, Ireland, Greece, or Portugal. 

Ross - Case for the shambling defence.

I understand the criticism levelled at The Walking Dead for its open-ended story. I understand the need for a story to have a beginning, middle and an end. The thing about The Walking Dead is, it’s a different kind of story – it’s a different kind of take on the zombie genre. It’s not something that the creator, Robert Kirkman wants to be like “every other zombie movie/story/event” – he wants it played out in a way that has the reader constantly on edge. He wants the reader to be in an almost constant state of trepidation about what’s over the next page.

To put it bluntly, Kirkman is a complete bastard. He wants the reader to feel the pain, the sorrow, the distress that he’s putting his characters through and the relentless hardships they’re facing. Sure, it makes for a depressing comic – but hello? It’s a zombie comic; it’s not going to be all sunshine, daises and unicorns prancing past outstretched, rotting limbs. There’s been places were Kirkman could have cut the comic and said “I’m done, that’s the end” – the siege at the prison which results in a huge death toll on nearly all the secondary (and a couple of important main) characters. Here, Kirkman could have quite easily snuffed out Rick and Carl Grimes, along with Andrea, Glen, Dale and Michonne; but he chose not to....why? Well, the popularity of the comic for one thing, plus he wasn’t ready to end it there. Unfinished business seems to be a recurring theme of The Walking Dead, it bleeds a wanting resolve for all the adversity the characters are put through and in that sense, it’s hard to not want them to continue, no matter how bad it gets.

In the way that Kirkman has made the series so opposite to other comic series’, he’s also made it the same. What I mean is the argument that the story is too open-ended could be said for almost every superhero comic in the DC and Marvel universe. They’ve not stopped have they? There are umpteen different variations and different universes to contend with; which suddenly make The Walking Dead series seem like a lightweight in comparison.

The argument that it’s nothing more than “a soap opera with zombies” is somewhat flawed as you could say that about any comic series really. “Oh this is like Eastenders, except Batman is in it.” Sure, Kirkman is chucking in new characters at an alarming rate, but he’s not letting it get stale like a soap opera – there’s always a new twist, a new element to encounter. He’s keeping it exciting and tense – having Eugene as a scientist who supposedly knows the cause of the zombie plague, the ultimate but mysterious badass that is Abraham, the real motive of the people in the Alexandria Safe Zone and is the real question: is Davidson still alive? Plus, I reckon Spiderman whined more than Rick Grimes ever did and Spiderman got to bang Mary-Jane, Gwen Stacey and had a right hand.

I think with The Walking Dead, you’re getting a comic that perhaps is stringing out its conclusion, but it’s one where the payoff could go either way, with Kirkman weighing heavily on the “there’s going to be tears” side of things. In some ways, it’s refreshing that this isn’t just another case of “here’s some character build, bad stuff, bad stuff, OH LOOK DEUS EX MECHNICA happy ending tra la la.” This isn’t going to happen; I can’t see Kirkman wanting this to happen – what we have is a lot of fear and as Pete suggested, “failing distilled into false hope”, but this is what makes the comic exciting in that respect – it’s not your typical storyline is it?

The latest installment of The Walking Dead comic book series is out now, as is the dvd of the first series